In Cobb County, Georgia, just 20 miles to the north of Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves' new ballpark is beginning to rise out of the dust.
But it's already clear that it isn't only the ballpark that's under construction.
It's been four days since the Braves traded away Jason Heyward. They have "FOR SALE" signs slapped on Justin Upton and his underachieving big brother, B.J. They don't just have a million balls in the air. They could be ready to fly the biggest air show in Georgia.
"Believe me," said their esteemed new president of baseball operations, John Hart. "It boggles the mind how many different directions we could go."
But it isn't only Opening Day 2015 the Braves are thinking about. It's also Opening Day 2017, when the gates of SunTrust Park open, surrounded (theoretically) by an array of shops, restaurants, hotels and businesses that will make it "not just a new ballpark," Hart said, but "an entire destination spot."
It's the baseball team, though, that needs to be the marquee attraction. And that invigorating assignment has been dropped into the lap of Hart, who is now back in the team-building biz after nearly a decade of living what he laughingly calls "the perfect life" as a consultant, special advisor, broadcaster and part-time golf-ball masher.
But before we start building a romantic story line paralleling this gig with Hart's role as chief architect of the Indians juggernaut that roared to life with the opening of Jacobs Field in 1994, uhhhhh, hold on one minute for this important message:
This, said John Hart, ain't Cleveland.
"This isn't like when we moved into Jacobs Field and we were ready to go in Cleveland," Hart announced. "It's totally different."
That Indians team had a young Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Charles Nagy, ascending from the farm system toward stardom. And it surrounded them with the likes of Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar Jr. -- all traded for by Hart over the previous couple of years during a complete roster implosion.
To sculpt that masterpiece, though, the Indians were willing to absorb three straight grim seasons, featuring 105, 86 and 86 losses respectively, seasons that led them to finishes a combined 73 games out of first place.
"But it was Cleveland," Hart said. "And everyone expected it."
And this, Hart reminded us again, ain't Cleveland.
"We're not going to do that here," he said. "There's just too much at stake -- and no guarantee that if we did that, it would be a slam dunk [to have a championship team] going into the new park."
So the Braves have set out this winter, after a painful 27-40 second-half collapse, trying to walk the baseball tightrope. They're doing a tenuous "balancing act," Hart said, between the kind of gut-it-to-the-floor rebuilding he did in Cleveland and the retool-but-still-compete option that appears to be his bosses' preferred route to Cobb County.
"I didn't come in with the idea to take this thing down to the bare bones," said Hart, seven weeks after assuming the reins following the firing of general manager Frank Wren. "That's not one of the plans. But we're evaluating every possibility."
So what's next? Even the Braves' front office isn't totally sure. But exploring potential deals for Justin Upton, a 29-homer attraction who, like Heyward, is now a year from testing free agency, appears to be Item A on the agenda.
Clubs that have spoken with the Braves say that while Atlanta dangled both Heyward and Upton at the GM meetings earlier this month, it appeared more motivated to deal Heyward.
"This isn't like when we moved into Jacobs Field and we were ready to go in Cleveland. It's totally different."John Hart, Braves president of baseball operations
One strong possibility is that, internally, the Braves ranked their three most marketable position players -- Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis -- in order of easiness to move (and replace) and eventually elevated Heyward to the top of that list.
So when a deal with St. Louis presented itself that brought back Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, two high-ceiling pitchers who came with the bonus of 10 years of team control (and nearly $11 million in freed-up payroll), they jumped all over it before it disappeared.
Publicly, the Braves have said all the right things about how much they loved Heyward and hated to move him. And Heyward has done the same about how tough it is to leave Atlanta. But in truth, the Braves saw a guy who was ready to move on, had never established what he was offensively and wasn't a $100 million player in their eyes. So now they have to try to answer the same questions about Upton.
It's hard to imagine the Braves think they can afford to keep him, either -- especially, Hart admitted, "based on the Giancarlo [Stanton] contract." So, logically, if they're in any sort of rebuilding mode, with 2017 as The Year It All Needs To Come Together, they should be highly motivated to move Upton, too. Right?
Um, don't jump to that conclusion too fast, Hart said.
"Moving one doesn't automatically mean you move two," he said. "They're just not attached at the hip. We still have the challenge of putting a competitive club on the field. Now, that doesn't precluding us from doing something else. If something comes along that's enticing, we've got to look at it. But we're not at the point we were at going into the GM meetings, where we knew we needed a starting pitcher."
Nevertheless, the vibe from teams they've spoken with is that it still feels more likely that they will move Upton than that they won't.
They have interest from the Padres, Mariners and Reds, among others. And outside of Nelson Cruz, who is more a DH than a leatherworker, there isn't a single free-agent outfielder who even hit 20 homers this year. So while one source who talked with Hart said he'd need a deal that would "knock his socks off," Upton remains one of this winter's most intriguing Human Trade Rumors.
The Braves would much rather trade his brother, of course. And gee, we wonder why. Oh, that's right. B.J. Upton has a scary $46.35 million left in guaranteed money over the next three years -- and just spent the past two seasons becoming the first outfielder in history to compile back-to-back seasons of 400-plus plate appearances and a slash line worse than .210/.299/.329.
The Braves were so desperate to get B.J. Upton off the books, in fact, that other teams say the team told Justin Upton suitors that to get Justin, they'd have to take both brothers in the same trade. But good luck on that, too.
So the Braves will keep listening -- much more intently, it's clear, on Justin Upton than on Gattis. But after freeing up money in the Heyward deal, they also could look to do as much adding as subtracting.
They have to figure out second base and their catcher spot, now that Gattis is ticketed for a trip back out to left field. But they also need one more starting pitcher, to complement the young, controllable quartet of Miller, Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Mike Minor. And that search could take them in many different directions -- including (if they can free up more cash) hot-shot free agent (and Georgia resident) Jon Lester, whom they met with Thursday.
"Is it a long shot? Yeah, it's a long shot," Hart said of Lester. "But we've got our eyes open. We'll have to see where the market goes. We're not equipped, as we speak, to go after the big, big ones. But that's why we're keeping all the doors open."
Which means, for now, Hart and his industrious assistant, John Coppolella, will stay flexible and consider almost anything. They have "a lot of desirable players," Hart said. So they could sell. Or they could buy. Or they could do both. But one thing you can be sure of, he said, is that they won't be reenacting the Cleveland blow-it-up-and-rebuild model because "that's not an option here."
"So don't be surprised," said Hart, "if we [sign] a starting pitcher, do a couple of things and go play. That's a very real possibility."