Of the 10 teams that reached the baseball playoffs this season, the Atlanta Braves were the biggest surprise.
They not only had the fewest wins but were the first club since 1991 to win 90 games immediately after losing at least that many three years in a row. The last team to do that?
Of course: the 1991 Braves, the first worst-to-first team in National League history.
For Braves fans, just reaching the playoffs seemed to be some sort of pyrrhic victory. Most of the other teams in the majors went home after completing their 162-game schedules.
Although the Braves were the first NL team to clinch, they won because they dominated a division where the preseason favorites folded early and the biggest challenger folded late. Neither the Washington Nationals, seeking their third straight division crown, nor the New York Mets, off to a hot start under a rookie manager, were more than pretenders in 2018, while the Philadelphia Phillies frittered away an August lead with a sad-sack September.
That left the youth-oriented Braves, the only team in the majors to use a 20-year-old pitcher during the season. Atlanta actually tried three – and got wins from each in their first major-league starts.
Four Braves, including steady Freddie Freeman and rejuvenated fellow veteran Nick Markakis, made the All-Star team and a pair of kids, Ozzie Albies during the first half and Ronald Acuna, Jr. during the second half, helped the Braves mount an offense that produced runs without too many home runs.
But the pitching, both in the rotation and the relief corps, faltered too often. The bullpen blew 20 saves and was largely responsible for a staff that served up the second-most walks in the majors. Too many opposing players turned those free gifts into runs.
No match for the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series, the Braves were lucky to win one game, which is exactly what they did – repeating their NLDS failure against the same team five years earlier.
In fact, the Braves have not won a pennant since 1999 and have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2001. That 17-year drought is three years longer than the 14-year string of division titles – a major league record – it produced from 1991-2005.
Now that they’re defending division champions, will the Braves spend this winter? Or will they claim they’re still in a state of rebuilding that almost seems perpetual?
Liberty Media chairman John Malone is worth $7 billion, making him the richest team owner in the majors, but te purse-strings seem to be knotted when it comes to the Braves.
Gone are the days when then-owner Ted Turner made it a personal mission to convince free agents to come to Atlanta – even in the lean years between division titles in 1982 and 1991. Things improved only when Turner turned over personnel decisions to Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz, both Hall of Famers today because of their work then.
Both remain influential in front-office decisions but the main man is 41-year-old Alex Anthopoulos, whose official title is executive vice president and general manager. He’s a Montreal native who speaks four languages and has a reputation as a riverboat gambler.
Now that he’s been on the job for a year and watched his injection of analytics turn a likely .500 club into a playoff team, he has an intriguing winter ahead.
The Braves need pitching, catching, a corner outfielder, righthanded power, and a better bench. Versatility, and the ability to keep bench players fresh, was the biggest hallmark of the Dodgers after power and pitching.
There are plenty of free-agent pitchers available, including former Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, but Anthopoulos almost has a wait-and-see attitude.
“If there’s a deal that makes sense for us, and it’s a good asset to have, we’ll do it,” Anthopoulos told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday. “I think the one where you scratch and really push, and you want to call it overpay in years or dollars, you feel like that’s the one final piece. Everything else is in place. That could be a trade in July. You step up a little bit. Your 24 is that good and your 25th piece is going to carry the 24, that’s where you stretch a little bit.
“I don’t think we’re there yet right now. So I do think, especially with our payroll and so on, we have to make smart deals.”
In this era of nine-figure contracts, how long are the Braves going to keep pinching pennies? The team ranked 18th in the majors with a $130 million payroll in 2018 and couldn’t compete with the Dodgers, who paid their players $70 million more. For years, team offcials have been telling fans that the 2017 opening of Sun Trust Park, their new Cobb County stadium, would bring in revenues that would be spent on the team. One question remains: when?
With a flourishing farm system, Atlanta could trade pitching prospects for established veterans like Madison Bumgarner, the star southpaw of the San Francisco Giants, and maybe even land Buster Posey, a hard-hitting All-Star catcher when healthy, in the same swap.
But salaries remain a consideration, even though the Braves will likely shed those of Markakis Kurt Suzuki, and Lucas Duda, free agents of their own. Disappointing starter pitcher Julio Teheran, who is arbitration eligible, also might not return.
Atlanta also could have interest in Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler, both with the rivals Mets; Robbie Ray of the Diamondbacks, Danny Duffy of the Royals, Ivan Nova of the Pirates, and the enigmatic Sonny Gray of the Yankees.
Possible free agent signees are veteran lefthanded starters Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, and Patrick Corbin, with Nathan Eovaldi and Matt Harvey from the righthanded side.
The Braves showed passing interest in Gray before, along with Chris Archer and Chris Sale, but always backed out because they didn’t consider any of them the missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle required to chase a world championship.
That’s why the Bumgarner-Posey idea sounds so logical: filling three major needs with one swell foop. Posey had hip surgery in August and might be out until May but the 31-year-old catcher would not only fill the void behind the plate but provide the righthanded bat needed behind Freeman, Atlanta’s No. 3 hitter.
Given the team’s current salary restrictions, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are completely out of consideration. Both prized free agents should land deals that pay them a combined annual salary equal to half of Atlanta’s projected 2019 payroll.
The Braves may move up a few notches on Spotrac’s payroll monitor but whether they can compete with the big boys next summer depends upon whether they can sign and trade creatively
That is the challenge for the riverboat gambler.