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Braves' 2016 to-do list

Matt Wisler and Dansby Swanson are two players the Braves will be counting on in 2017 and beyond. Getty Images

Now that Fredi Gonzalez is free to move on with his life, Erick Aybar has had that chicken bone dislodged from his throat and the Atlanta Braves have rediscovered the joys of an occasional home run trot, the organization has reason to believe that rock bottom is in the past and things are destined to get better.

Feel free to question Gonzalez's culpability for the team's 9-28 start or some of the front office's decisions in assembling the 2016 roster. The overall strategy of going young rather than muddling along with 75 to 78 wins is sound, in the same way it was sound for the Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and other teams that endured some hard times in order to enjoy long-term sustainability.

"As a player, you never want to go through this,'' said first baseman Freddie Freeman, Atlanta's best player. "You'd rather be Derek Jeter and be in the playoffs every year. But sometimes, you have to do this to get back to being a playoff team. The Phillies lost 99 games last year, and look at them now. So there's hope. The front office believed this was the right way, and I'm 100 percent on board with that.''

The Braves have hit nine home runs in their past seven games after going deep nine times in their first 36, and they're fresh off a series victory in Philadelphia over the weekend. While they're still on pace to lose 117 games, that doesn't mean the next four months will be uneventful.

What do Atlanta fans have to look forward to from June through September? Here are six questions, mandates and other developments on the horizon for a downtrodden franchise trying to claw its way back to respectability.

Developing the pitching

This is the pivotal item on the organizational priority list: Do Atlanta's young starters have the stuff to succeed in the majors and the fortitude to persevere when good performances aren't translating into victories? If the kids need any pointers, they can always feel free to seek out Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who took their lumps with those atrocious Atlanta teams of the late 1980s.

"There's going to be a learning curve, but these are confident young men and they trust their abilities,'' said Brian Snitker, Atlanta's interim manager. "It will be good for them down the road to have experienced this and gotten through it. I still think there's a lot of good on the back end of this.''

On the big league roster, Matt Wisler has impressed a lot of people with his athleticism and feel for the craft. Julio Teheran is only 25, and he is signed to a reasonable six-year, $32.4 million extension that takes him through 2019. And the Braves have seen enough flashes from Mike Foltynewicz to give him more time to prove he's a starter rather than a back-of-the-bullpen guy.

Atlanta's other prospects still have to navigate their way to the majors. Aaron Blair is back with Triple-A Gwinnett for a refresher course. Lucas Sims is 0-3 with a 5.46 ERA in Gwinnett after dominating Double-A ball. Chris Ellis and Tyrell Jenkins have pitched well this season, but their strikeout numbers don't exactly scream "dominant.'' Sean Newcomb has great stuff, but he has walked 111 batters in 196.1 professional innings. Further down the chain, Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Touki Toussaint still have to get past injuries, control problems or garden-variety growing pains.

"We're very happy with the progress we've made,'' said general manager John Coppolella. "We feel like we have a number of high-upside prospects, and we don't know which will hit or miss. Nobody does. But we feel we're in a spot, where we have flexibility, options and the hope to build a very good team for the future.''

The industry consensus is that Atlanta's system lacks a bona fide ace. While a staff of middle-of-the-rotation Chris Tillman types can be competitive, is it enough for Atlanta to win a division that includes Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez, Jacob deGrom, Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey, not to mention Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff showing so much promise in Philly?

"You need that horse at the end,'' said a scout. "Who's that Nyquist to finish the season and get you through the playoffs? Two years from now, when they're playing the Mets in the final series to get to the playoffs, who's going to go up against Syndergaard, and deGrom, and Harvey and [Steven] Matz?''

The manager search

The Braves threw an organizational changeup when they replaced Gonzalez with Snitker, who had been with the franchise in numerous capacities since 1977. In hindsight, the move made sense. If coaches Terry Pendleton, Eddie Perez and Bo Porter are going to receive equal consideration for the job in the fall, it would have been tough for the Braves to have picked one over the others. Snitker is 60 years old and has no career agenda; and he has a lot of credibility with Atlanta players who came up under his watch in the minors.

While it's easy to pigeonhole Snitker as a one-year caretaker, that might be a mistake. Who's to say his selfless, low-key approach won't resonate with the team? Who's to say he won't make a case for himself in the same way Pete Mackanin did in Philadelphia?

The other names making the rounds in early speculation range from established managers (Bud Black and Ron Gardenhire) to intriguing outside-the-box candidates (Mark DeRosa). Chances are someone will emerge from the Sandy Alomar Jr.-Torey Lovullo-Dave Martinez-Alex Cora fraternity of highly regarded coaching-media candidates.

While Chipper Jones has publicly refused to rule out his interest in the job, you won't find many people around the Braves who think he's willing to take the plunge and subject himself to the time commitment and second-guessing of managing. As one rival executive half-jokingly observes, "The first thing they would have to do is take Chipper's Twitter account away from him.''

Early in the process, Coppolella maintains the Braves are at "ground zero'' in their search for the "next Bobby Cox.''

"When you meet the right person, you'll know,'' Coppolella said. "There isn't any set formula. It doesn't have to be somebody that's into analytics or development. It's just got to be the right person. It may be a first-time manager or somebody with experience. There are no hard and fast rules.''

The Swanson-Albies watch

Prospect Dansby Swanson, acquired from Arizona in the Shelby Miller trade, is hitting .307 with an .890 OPS as starting shortstop for Double-A Mississippi. The dynamic Ozzie Albies, a Curacao native, tore it up in Double-A ball; he is currently starting at short for Triple-A Gwinnett at age 19.

It's reasonable to expect one or both prospects to reach the majors this season. The Braves say the decision will be based on what's best for their long-term development, rather than any service time or financial concerns. Another thing to consider: With the team in losing mode, how will they handle the burden of being regarded as "saviors?"

"You can see what all the hype is about,'' Freeman said. "Dansby is a very polished hitter. He makes a lot of contact. He's gap-to-gap. He's not going to wow you with the home run. But he's going to hit you a lot of doubles, get on base, create havoc and make all the plays at short. Ozzie is more wiry. He's all over the place. He's got a lot of energy."

The big debate revolves around which player will remain at shortstop in Atlanta and which will be required to shift to second base. There are worse problems for a franchise to have.

"If you ask 100 guys, probably 50 would say one should be at short, and the other 50 would take the other guy,'' said an American League scout. "If you're asking me today, I'd probably pick Swanson. He's a little smoother, and I think he's going to be the poster boy for that franchise. But they're both big leaguers.''

The draft

The Braves have the third overall pick in the June 9 first-year player draft, along with selections No. 40, 44 and 80. Given the surplus of pitching in the system and the shortage of impact bats at the upper level, they'll strongly consider the best college bat available.

ESPN's Keith Law speculates that the Braves will take New Jersey high school pitcher Jason Groome with the third choice, but he adds that they could opt for Louisville outfielder Corey Ray. Jim Callis of MLB.com predicts Atlanta will select Mercer College outfielder Kyle Lewis.

Over the past 15 years, the No. 3 pick has yielded some notable hits (Evan Longoria, Eric Hosmer, Manny Machado) and significant misses (Kyle Sleeth, Jeff Clement, Josh Vitters and Donavan Tate). It goes without saying the Braves can't afford to whiff.

Olivera's situation

Coppolella declined comment on Hector Olivera, who was placed on administrative leave by MLB after allegedly assaulting a woman at the Braves' team hotel in April. Against that backdrop, it was no surprise when reports surfaced that the Braves have been trying to trade Olivera -- and eliciting very little interest. He's 31 years old and owed more than $30 million through the 2020 season.

"I wasn't on board even before the incident,'' said one scout. "I saw him when he first came over. I didn't see any power, and it looked like he was on cruise control. I know he was 30 and he played a lot of years in Cuba. But you still have to show up hungry. If you don't and you don't have the tools, then what are you? You're a bust.''

The trade deadline

Some losing MLB clubs acquired short-term veteran chips that they can try to flip for prospects at the deadline. Oakland's Rich Hill and Philadelphia's Jeremy Hellickson are among the veterans whose names could be on the way to a trade-rumor blog near you in July.

The Braves? Not so much. A.J. Pierzynski is 39 years old, and his production has nosedived this year. Nick Markakis has slugged .370 in Atlanta and has about $30 million left on his contract. Closer Arodys Vizcaino might be intriguing to a team in search of a bullpen upgrade. But what kind of return can the Braves get for Aybar, Jeff Francoeur, Gordon Beckham, Kelly Johnson, Jason Grilli, Alexi Ogando or Eric O'Flaherty?

"Some teams have valuable pieces you can trade in July,'' said a rival AL executive. "They didn't sign guys who have value.''

As May approaches June, the trade deadline is still far enough away that it ranks down Coppolella's list of watershed events this season.

"I hope we'll be able to turn it around to where there's less incentive for us to sell,'' he said.

The weekend series in Philadelphia was a step forward, but the stress level remains day-to-day in Atlanta, where each day in the rearview mirror brings the Braves another step closer to where they really want to be.