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The Braves are going to the postseason, but not long ago, they hit rock bottom

The (very good) Braves have a young star and looked ready to make a postseason run. Let’s remember when they were very bad.

The 2015 Atlanta Braves were bad. Putrid. Unwatchable. They were the Barves, a stumbling, bumbling baseball team with no direction. Their farm system was middling, at best, and would go on to finish with their worst season since 1990.

The 2018 Atlanta Braves are good. They are eminently watchable. They have the purest representation of young, raw talent in the modern game in Ronald Acuña, Jr., and they also have the purest representation of fun in 21-year-old second baseman, Ozzie Albies. They have prospect after prospect, a steady stream that just keeps coming, to the point where it’s obvious that if even 15 percent of them pan out, the Braves will be good for the next six, seven, or eight years, easy.

You might think it’s cruel to look back and dump on the ‘15 Barves now that team has turned itself around. That is, unless you think it’s the perfect way to appreciate this year’s team. Which it is.

In order to appreciate a fun team properly, you first have to travel back to the point when they hit rock bottom. Think of it like a speech you would hear at a wedding. Something like, “I knew (Groom) when he was turning his underwear inside-out to get that extra day before having to do laundry,” as the crowd chuckles. Three years ago, the Braves were wearing their underwear inside out. And would you look at them now.

The Braves were bad. Now they’re good. When did they reach their absolute lowest point? When did they start trudging back up that hill? Can you pinpoint an exact moment in time when they were at their utter nadir?

I have a candidate.

On Sept. 13, 2015, the Atlanta Braves were playing the New York Mets, a team that would end up in the World Series. Just that sentence alone would be enough to make a Braves fan sigh. There are no good Braves seasons that include the words, “the New York Mets, a team that would end up in the World Series.” That clause alone suggests an instant stinker of a season.

The 2015 season was more than a run-of-the-mill stinker, though. In 2013, the Braves planned on having one of history’s greatest young outfields for the next decade and to build around it. Two years later, that outfield — Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr., and Jayson Heyward — was gone. The 2014 Braves finished under .500, despite having postseason aspirations, but the ‘15 Braves proved that the dream was dead, and it would be dead for years. They were lucky to avoid 100 losses.

With two outs, two strikes, and a three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning against the Mets, Braves reliever Peter Moylan allowed a bases-empty double to Juan Lagares. Manager Fredi Gonzalez brought Ryan Kelly and his career 6.08 ERA in for the save. It was the 15th major league appearance of his career, and as of this writing, it was also the third-from-last appearance of his career.

After Kelly allowed an inexcusable walk to bring the tying run to the plate, it was time.

On Sept. 13, 2015, at 5:13 p.m. ET, 40.7571° N, 73.8458° W, it happened.

The bottom.

Gaze upon it:

As the ball sailed over the fence, the Mets moved even closer to the World Series. The Braves fans who stuck around mustered a groan, but it was sung in the key of indifference. The Braves were too bad to really care about. And besides, things only seemed to be getting worse.

Fortunately for Braves fans, that was it. Low moments such as these can seem like nothing but a waypoint on a journey into an abyss that will take years, if not decades to climb back from. You need the benefit of hindsight to distinguish when what seems like an eternal descent actually reaches the bottom.

Listen closely to the play above, and you’ll hear a gasp of horror that’s mixed with the collective cheer of a Turner Field amply stocked with Mets fans. It was a classic example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, a sucker punch and a middle finger to the Braves fans who spent time and money to watch a bad baseball team. The worst teams specialize in those kinds of losses, over and over again.

But to appreciate this kind of single-game collapse, you also had to appreciate the context of the 2015 Barves, which, again, were a very bad baseball team. It’s not just that this was the team of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, although that can’t not factor into the disappointment. It’s that, for a variety of reasons, the Braves were on the slippery slope to a thorny, miserable existence that they weren’t expecting. Consider everything surrounding this meaningless September loss. Consider ...

The promise that was

When the Braves won the 2013 NL East by 10 games, they did so with a rotation that was led by three pitchers who were 27 or younger. Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, and Julio Teheran all finished with more than 185 innings pitched and an ERA between 3.11 and 3.21, and they were the heralds of a new era.

What would you have said if you knew that just two years later, the Braves would have two different 24-year-old pitchers — Shelby Miller and Alex Wood — who were also capable of pitching much, much better than the league-average pitcher?

The Minor/Beachy/Teheran/Miller/Wood rotation could have been a juggernaut. Should have been a juggernaut.

Each of them were a testament to what the Braves did best. Teheran was there because the Braves scouted better than other teams. Minor, Wood, and Medlen were there because the Braves drafted better than other teams. Beachy was there because the Braves beat the bushes better with a stick better than other teams, getting him after he went undrafted.

More than anything, though, the Braves developed pitchers better than anyone else. They could take a lump of pitcher clay and make it into a fully formed pitcher vase better than anyone else.

And then they stopped developing pitchers better than anyone else.

Minor got hurt.

Beachy had been hurt, discarded, and punted to the Dodgers by the time Murphy hit his home run.

That makes Teheran the only holdover from 2013 who is still playing the current contending team. The Braves had loads of promise in 2013, yet they still spent the next couple years losing 90-plus games with ease.

Here were some of the hiccups.

Julio Teheran was a baffling enigma

And he, uh, still is! But after the decline and fall of Minor and Beachy, a down season from a prized young arm like Teheran wasn’t just One Of Those Things. It was a sign of institutional rot. The Braves were obviously doing something to turn their gold pitchers into lead. Teheran was a burgeoning Cy Young candidate one second, and then he was just another lost soul the next.

It’s foolish to take the development of a single major leaguer and make a concrete conclusion from it. The Astros ruined Brady Aiken, until they also developed a gaggle of young superstars. One doesn’t necessarily have to follow the other. So maybe Teheran was just finding his own way, as ridiculously talented pitchers sometimes do.

But at the time, it felt like he was broken because of something the New Braves were doing to him.

That wasn’t really what was going on, but it was on the minds of everyone who watched that Daniel Murphy home run in 2015. The Braves were bad, and Teheran was bad, and, really, every pitcher on the team was bad.

Actually, let’s talk about that ...

Every pitcher on the team was bad* (*with some exceptions)

Mike Foltynewicz was rough and unpolished, but he’s still with the Braves and now he’s thriving. Dan Winkler made two appearances for the ‘15 Braves, and now he’s a contributor. Arodys Vizcaino took a trip through hell and back to get back to the Braves, and he’s glad he did. The Braves did have pitchers with a future on that roster.

They also had a lot of pitchers without a future. Of the 38 pitchers used by the Braves in 2015, only 16 of them appeared in a major league game after 2016. Fewer than that are having a remotely productive season in 2018, most of them for other teams.

For the most part, the 2015 Braves were a collection of pitchers who were just passing through on their way to Not The Major Leagues, and you absolutely felt it with every inning.

The 2015 Braves were a port in the middle of the River Styx, and the fans who were used to Millwood and Neagle, much less Maddux and Glavine, couldn’t believe the incompetence. Fredi Gonzalez brought Kelly in for the save because, hell, why not? It’s not like Craig Kimbrel was coming out of that bullpen again.

But at least the starters were solid.

Were solid.

Aw, hell ...

The Alex Wood trade

Murphy’s game-winning home run came in the shadow of the Alex Wood trade just a few weeks before, one of the stranger decisions by any organization in recent history. Wood was in his third season in the majors, and he was a steady, valuable pitcher almost immediately. In 86 games for the Braves (55 starts), he had a 3.10 ERA and 119 ERA+. He was just 24, and he was under contract for four more seasons.

He was traded for a 30-year-old third baseman with UCL damage who hadn’t played in the field in years.

That’s laying it on a bit thick, considering the Dodgers liked Hector Olivera enough to throw tens of millions at him. People did consider Olivera to be talented. But the Braves, who were bottoming out, didn’t need a 30-year-old question mark to turn things around. They needed more Alex Woods.

Olivera would take 108 at-bats before he was arrested for domestic abuse, sentenced to 10 days in jail, traded away, and eventually released by the Padres, never to play in the majors again.

Wood, meanwhile, is still helping the Dodgers win baseball games.

It was just a few years ago, man. Wood ... Beachy ... Minor ... Teheran ... the Braves were going to be set up for years. Instead, they would have to try to find new versions through the farm, and that farm system wasn’t world class yet.

Opinions varied, but John Sickels had the Braves as the 12th-best farm system and Baseball Prospectus had them at 19th. Keith Law had them at sixth, citing offseason trades (like the one that sent Kimbrel to the Padres), but Baseball America gave them just one prospect in the top 100: Jose Peraza.

It was just a farm system. No more, no less. It wasn’t a cavalry of supersoldiers yet, which meant that as the Mets and their fans celebrated at Turner Field, there was no a sense of “Oh, just you wait.” The feeling was more like, “I hope the Braves can find a pitcher as good as Alex Wood again. This sucks.”

It looked like it could be a decade before the Braves won another NL East title.

On Sept. 13, 2015, Ronald Acuña, Jr. wasn’t playing. His season was over, and the 17-year-old was back home. The Braves stayed committed to the rebuild in the offseason, getting Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson for Shelby Miller, and dealing Andrelton Simmons for Sean Newcomb and others. Suddenly, the farm system did have that oh-wow feel to it. Ozzie Albies was rising, as was a bevy of young arms.

The Braves weren’t good the next year, no. But you could squint and see a brighter future. The path back up the hill had started. After the season, the future got brighter. Then brighter ... brighter still ... brighter still ...

Right now, the reward isn’t just a solid baseball team for 2018. It’s an absurdly fun, electric, bandwagon creator, and that last part is not meant to be pejorative. This is a team filled with future superstars that’s going to keep drawing in the uninitiated and half-curious for years and years. Everyone wants to be Atlanta, just like everyone wants to be Houston. And because the youngest, best players in baseball happen to be the most underpaid players, this team should be sustainably fun. The 2018 Braves might as well have a marketing slogan of, “Welcome to the next 10 years.”

But it had to bottom out somewhere. When Murphy hit that home run, they didn’t have good players. They couldn’t guarantee future stars. The Mets were a powerhouse of young aces, and they were going to dominate for the next several seasons. The Braves thought they were going to be a team like that, but then everyone got hurt or became ineffective, and, welp, now they were going to have to start all over, piece by piece, as if they were picking up so many thimbles.

And in front of a small, disgruntled crowd, Murphy and the Mets celebrated and laughed on their way to the World Series. This can’t get any worse, a Braves fan probably thought. This is absolutely rock bottom.

Turns out, it absolutely was. Things got better. They usually do, even if it’s hard to tell at the time.