Young talent keeps Braves on even keel

Andrelton Simmons, 24, is one of the Braves' top young players. YONG KIM / Staff
Andrelton Simmons, 24, is one of the Braves' top young players. YONG KIM / Staff
Posted: July 01, 2014

The Atlanta Braves are a team that rarely rebuilds, with the ability to incorporate young players and veterans and keep moving on the competitive path.

The Phillies, meanwhile, appear to be stuck between a fading past and a not-so-bright future. After the Braves swept four games from them with Sunday's 3-2 win at Citizens Bank Park, the distance between the teams is growing.

And it's not just in the standings, where the Braves lead Washington by a half-game and the Phillies by eight in the National League East.

The Phillies (36-46) were criticized for being too old even before the season began.

At 35, Chase Utley is enjoying an all-star season, but he has shown signs of fatigue. Utley is batting .293 with six home runs and 37 RBIs, but in June he batted .240 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.

A major question is whether the older Phillies can hold up in the second half of the season. And it has been well documented that some of the young players haven't carried their weight, either.

Conversely, some of the Braves' top position players include 24-year-old first baseman Freddie Freeman; leftfielder Justin Upton, 26; rightfielder Jason Heyward, 24; shortstop Andrelton Simmons, 24; and catcher Evan Gattis, 27.

"What they have done in our organization is pretty special," said Freeman, who extended his on-base streak to 18 games with a first-inning single. "They have great development people, and it seems like when a guy is ready, they don't let him sit there and they give him at-bats - and that is what they did with me."

Probably the most difficult thing in sports is to cut ties with athletes, especially those who helped produce championship teams. The Braves haven't shown much sentimentality, and it has paid off.

"When somebody's time is up, they move quickly here," Heyward said. "They are very proactive with things."

Since 1991, the Braves have had two losing seasons, the most recent in 2008, the year the Phillies won the World Series.

From 1991 through 2005, the Braves went to the playoffs every year, with the exception of 1994 when there was no postseason because of a players' strike.

After 2005, the Braves missed the postseason in four consecutive years, but they have qualified for the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. And since 1991, the Braves have never had consecutive losing seasons.

"For more than 20 years, we never seem to get too old," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

Then again, the Braves, who are 6-4 this season against the Phillies, aren't without their blemishes.

The starting pitching isn't dominating. Offensively, the Braves are second to last in the National League with 298 runs.

But when Gattis hurt his back Friday, the Braves were able to bring up a highly touted catching prospect in Christian Bethancourt.

When Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was placed on the disabled list because of a concussion on Friday, journeyman Koyie Hill joined the team.

No matter whom the Braves call up, that player is expected to contribute, even if he lacks major-league experience.

"Usually when a player is called to the big leagues in our organization, it seems like they are already big-league ready," Freeman said.

An example is rookie reliever Shae Simmons, a righthander who was recalled from double-A Mississippi on May 31 and has a 1.38 ERA in 13 innings after pitching a scoreless eighth against the Phillies on Sunday.

He's another example of the Braves' being well positioned for the present and the future. The Phillies' outlook remains much murkier.


mnarducci@phillynews.com

@sjnard

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