Farm systems are the lifeblood of MLB organizations. Analyzing teams’ minor league rosters can help forecast potential growing rivalries; or resurrected ones. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves conclude their regular season meetings June 3-5, and there won’t be a postseason battle between the two this October, but that clash may not be as far away as one would think.
While the competition has simmered in recent years, the Dodgers and Braves share an unbreakable bond as founding members of the National League West. Atlanta was never an ideal fit geographically, but it matched up well on the field with Los Angeles from 1969-1993. The Dodgers won seven division crowns in that span, while the Braves took five. Upon leaving the West, Atlanta controlled the East division (and National League) with 14 straight division titles. Los Angeles made the playoffs three times during that run, including being swept by the Braves in 1996. The fire of any rivalry was extinguished.
The tables have turned since 2006. L.A. has six playoff appearances with three straight division titles. Atlanta has played postseason baseball just three times in the decade. Both have suffered from the inability to advance to the Fall Classic. The teams met in the 2013 Division Series, with the Dodgers moving on after four games. That was Atlanta’s last playoff appearance.
A quick look at the standings would suggest the current trend continues, but a deeper examination of organizational depth provides hope for a renewed rivalry between the coast-to-coast foes.
In MLB.com’s annual farm system rankings, the Dodgers come out on top with the Braves at No. 2. MinorLeagueBall.com concurs with the league’s official site. ESPN’s Keith Law rates Atlanta’s farm system as the MLB’s premier, while L.A. is second (insider required).
Safe to say, Atlanta and Los Angeles have collected an attention-grabbing group of prospects. But both took two completely different routes to building.
The Dodgers have exhausted their resources to gain an upper-hand. The team’s presence internationally is the best in baseball, and the organization should be credited for a superb job with internal development. The team hasn’t picked at the top of each round, but has still obtained upside. Its scouting department has Los Angeles positioned to be (at least) solid for a long time.
Atlanta is planning to attack the international market itself, though it will be limited in ways L.A. won’t be. The Braves have followed the Cubs and Astros model of rebuilding: by selling off most of their MLB talent for raw prospects. The once annual-contending franchise traded Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Shelby Miller and others in a two-year span for a treasure chest of wildcards.
“The moves we have made have been for the future,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said recently on the Jonah Keri Podcast. “We’re betting on a big future to create an environment … where when you get to spring training, and you look around, you can say ‘hey, we have a chance to go to the World Series this year.’ I got a job here in October 2006 and I never felt, as we went to spring training, that we were a World Series team.”
“We didn’t have the talent. But I think we’re getting that talent now.”
Despite owning the worst record in the MLB, the youth movement is paying dividends. Mallex Smith has shown flashes of being Atlanta’s franchise centerfielder. Standing out in a massive assortment of arms, Matt Wisler has progressed well with a 3.16 ERA. Once thought to be declining, mainstay ace Julio Teheran has rebounded with a 2.77 ERA and is still 25 years young. Aaron Blair and Mike Foltynewicz have reached the majors but, while they’ve shown flashes, their impact has been less notable.
With excess pitching (if such exists), the Braves sent Alex Wood to the Dodgers for the 31-year-old Hector Olivera before last season’s trade deadline. Atlanta had concerns regarding Wood’s long-term health, but he was recently improving on the mound for L.A. before hitting the disabled list. Olivera hit .211 in six games and is now serving an 82-game suspension for domestic abuse. In retrospect, Atlanta probably asks for a mulligan.
The Dodgers have stayed competitive while accumulating a similar talent base. The approach has been criticized, given a contingent of fans feel Andrew Friedman’s “shrewd” moves, which built the Rays into a sustainable contender, have been anything but for the Dodgers. As frustrating as it was at the time, his reluctance to trade youth is beginning to pay dividends.
In February, Friedman told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times that he doesn’t want market-size to play a role in decision making.
“I think large-revenue teams can sometimes fall into a trap of focusing too much on the current, and that is something that we have tried to be extremely mindful of,” Friedman said. “We certainly understand and respect the fans’ passion.”
“I think all of us are perfectly aligned in the sense of doing all that we can to bring a World Series back to Los Angeles. With that comes doing everything we can to not only put ourselves in a position to do that, but to be able to have a chance of doing it multiple times in future years.”
Spearheading L.A.’s rebuild is Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ leading home run hitter. Julio Urias made his second big league start Thursday and may see a few more in the coming weeks. Trayce Thompson and Joc Pederson are considered important parts of the franchise’s future. Over the next year, much of L.A.’s youth is expected to blossom.
The question of whether big market teams should exhibit more patience is for another day. The thought proposed today is simple:
Which franchise has assembled the most impressive minor league system, Los Angeles or Atlanta?
For reference, here are each teams’ top 10 prospects, according to the aforementioned MLB.com rankings (those who have already played in MLB marked with asterisk). Also listed are the top 100 picks owned by each team in the draft on June 9:
1) Julio Urias, LHP*
2) Jose De Leon, RHP
3) Grant Holmes, RHP
4) Frankie Montas, RHP*
5) Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF
6) Alex Verdugo, OF
7) Walker Buehler, RHP
8) Jharel Cotton, RHP
9) Yadier Alvarez, RHP
10) Yusniel Diaz, RHP
Draft picks: 20, 32 (for Zack Greinke), 36 (for failure to sign Kyle Funkhouser), 65
1) Dansby Swanson, SS
2) Sean Newcomb, LHP
3) Ozzie Albies, SS
4) Aaron Blair, RHP*
5) Kolby Allard, LHP
6) Touki Toussaint, RHP
7) Austin Riley, 3B
8) Tyrell Jenkins, RHP
9) Manny Banuelos, LHP*
10) Max Fried, LHP
Draft picks: 3, 40 (via Miami), 44, 76 (via Baltimore), 80
The first aspect that jumps out is pitching. Eight of L.A.’s top 10 are pitchers, while Atlanta has seven highly regarded arms in its top 10. The Braves boast better balance with four left-handers to the Dodgers’ one (granted, he is far and away the best prospect of the entire group).
Pitching is baseball’s capital. Both teams have the option to dip into the system for a league-altering trade without severely hurting depth, though L.A. is far more likely to pull the trigger at this stage. Both are also positioned to add premium talent in the 2016 draft. Given how they operate, expect additions to the pitching surpluses.
The Senior Circuit mainstays are similar in more ways than pitching. The future face of the Dodgers franchise is Seager, a shortstop. Atlanta’s answer is Swanson, a shortstop.
After starring at Vanderbilt, Arizona selected Swanson first overall in the 2015 draft. Six months later, the Diamondbacks made a heavily criticized move in dealing Swanson, Blair and Ender Inciarte to Atlanta for Miller.
Since the deal, the Braves have pegged Swanson as the face of the rebuild. He’s currently in Double-A, but could make his MLB debut this season. It’s worth acknowledgment that Swanson is two months older than Seager.
The Seager-Urias pairing might separate the Dodgers’ system. Most pundits consider Atlanta’s rebuild nothing short of tremendous, but one downside is the lack of an elite talent. Swanson and Albies (who has struggled in Triple-A) present the best chance of a “star,” though neither has the upside of L.A.’s duo.
The Braves youth movement also features a fair amount of risk. Allard, Fried, Banuelos, Jenkins and Arodys Vizcaino, among others, have previously had arm surgery. Los Angeles is also taking risks in such high investments on less-familiar foreign prospects, but that’s a completely different story from health; not to mention the Dodgers financial capabilities to overcome a mistake.
As for which system has more upside overall, that’s subjective. Seager has established himself as an upper-tier major leaguer already, while most of Atlanta’s future has yet to put on the uniform. Even without counting Seager, the consensus seems to lean towards Los Angeles. The depth of the franchises is comparable, but Urias stands alone at the top. If you now count Urias as a major leaguer, that answer may change.
So, is it the “Braves Way” (per Coppolella on the podcast) or the “Dodger Doctrine,” as coined by our own Jeremy Evans?
Top-to-bottom, L.A. and Atlanta are close. There isn’t one road to producing sustainable success, and comparing the dynamics of Atlanta’s rebuild to Los Angeles’ retool will be fascinating. Both teams are building a smart way. While this weekend’s series has little postseason implications, expect the two to face each other in meaningful games again in the not-so-distant future.
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