Thursday, April 16, 2015

An open letter to Braves fans

Dear Braves fans,

First off, let's get this out of the way. I fully recognize the absurdity of a Cubs fan offering advice to you, a fan of one of the most consistently excellent teams of the past 20+ years. From 1991 to 2014, the Braves had three losing records, won a World Series and won, by my unofficial count, 48 division titles in a row over that time. The Cubs, meanwhile, have had only eight winning seasons over that time, winning one playoff series and finishing an average of eight games under .500 over that time. The Braves won more than 100 games six times during that span while the Cubs best year was a 97 win team that was swept in the first round of the playoffs.

So you know all about winning and have been a model franchise. I know all about below average teams and hope. And that's where my experience following and loving a losing team comes in. You see, when the Braves traded Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Jason Hayward and Craig Kimbrell before the season, they pretty much were telling everyone they were in a rebuilding mode.

Rebuilding, for you Braves fans who are unfamiliar with the concept, is when teams trade away players on their current team for younger, cheaper players who they hope will develop into the stars of the future. Allow me to provide an example from my team. Last year in July, the Cubs traded All-Star pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the Oakland Athletics for a minor league shortstop named Addison Russell. This made the Cubs worse in the short term. However, the front office of the Cubs already knew the 2014 team wasn't going to contend for a title and keeping a star pitcher who could be a free agent soon wouldn't help the Cubs in the long run, so they were able to acquire Russell who is, according to most experts, one of the top five prospects in all of minor league baseball. When the Cubs are ready to contend (hopefully next year), the Cubs are hoping Russell can be a part of that team.

What this means, and as you've seen, is that players you like are likely to be traded away for some player who will hopefully help in the future. The Cubs made a habit of signing guys in the offseason, getting a good first half out of them, and then trading them for prospects. I was a fan of Ryan Dempster. He got traded. I was a fan of Matt Garza. He got traded. I liked watching Samardzija pitch. He got traded. My son was a fan of Alfonso Soriano. He got traded. It happened often.

But I didn't get upset. Even as the losses mounted (and they did, losing 89 or more games each of the last four years), I didn't mind. Because I knew there was a plan. Not only was there a plan, I could see the plan coming together. While the major league team was losing, there were players in the minor leagues who were catching the eyes of talent evaluators. Coming in to this offseason, the Cubs had the top ranked minor league system in baseball. Some projections had them with four of the top 21 prospects.

You see, one of the benefits of losing is you get a higher draft pick. And higher draft picks mean a greater likelihood of being able to draft the next star player. And while every prospect isn't going to pan out, I'll take my chances betting on superior young talent than older players who comprise a team that won't contend. (Braves fans may remember Andy Marte who was in the Braves system before being traded away. He was a can't miss prospect who missed.)

While we can't predict the future, baseball has come a long way with their projection methods and usually have a pretty good idea where teams will finish. There's a lot of math that, frankly, I just don't understand, that goes in to these projections, but essentially they look at how many runs a team will score, how many their pitchers are projected to give up, run a quick calculation and come up with a projected record. While it's not exact and anything can happen, based on their talent level, the Braves are projected to finish 75-87 this year, ahead of only the Diamondbacks and Phillies in the National League.

On the bright side, you have at least recognized the need to rebuild. Philadelphia is still clinging to some misguided hope of returning to what they had when they won five straight division titles.

So here's my advice. Watch the team, but don't get too upset when they lose. They're going to lose more than they win. And come July, if there's an older player or two that doesn't fit in the teams plans for two or three years from now, don't be surprised when they get traded. In fact, you should hope for this. Again, it won't help your team this year, but teams aren't always about this year. Hope for trades, and then find out about the prospects you get back in return. Get excited about them.

Also, find a player on this current team likely not to get traded and enjoy watching him play. I might suggest Andrelton Simmons. He may be the best defensive shortstop ever to play in the major leagues. Don't take for granted the beauty and grace with which he plays the position. Marvel at his brilliance, even if it doesn't always translate in to wins. I wasn't lucky enough to have someone like Simmons to watch. I found myself enjoying players like Luis Valbuena (since traded, of course) or getting excited about Chris Coghlan having a breakout year four years after winning Rookie of the Year. Neither of them are as exciting to watch as Simmons.

Finally, know it's going to be a long year. But baseball is like pizza. Even bad baseball is still baseball, just like even bad pizza is still pretty good. You get to watch your team play for 153 more times this year. Enjoy watching and find the little things to enjoy as you grow numb to the losing.

Also, it wouldn't hurt to learn the phrase "wait 'til next year."


Your friendly Cubs fan

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