Braves now try to replicate Nationals’ woes-to-champs path

Here’s a quick look at some of the key players for the Braves during their run to their second straight NL East title.

The Nationals – who the Braves were better than through the entirety of the regular season – are world champions. This came as a surprise to many, including yours truly, who picked them fourth place before the season and predicted a Dodgers sweep in the National League Division Series. *shrug*

Braves fans are surely disgusted (as they should be), but Washington’s run was among the best we’ve seen. They trailed in five potential elimination games. They easily could’ve been ousted in the wild-card game. The only team that didn’t give them a challenge was, of course, the very Cardinals team that beat the Braves in the NLDS.

What I loved most about watching the Nationals was their best players performing to expectations. Not a single player shied from the moment. Anthony Rendon deserves every dime he’s about to receive in free agency. Juan Soto is a superstar at age 21. Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Kurt Suzuki; the veterans had their day. Washington’s pitching was exceptional, as it was supposed to be.

The Astros had been there before. They were the heavy favorites. Yet despite every road team winning each game in the series, it felt like the Nationals were the more experienced teams. There was no wilting under pressure. There was no drama off the field. A franchise so un-clutch throughout its existence became the even-year Giants when the calendar turned October.

That takes us to the Braves, who were the anti-Nationals. Their best players were non-factors in the postseason. Their pitching was pedestrian overall, with Mike Soroka’s Game 3 start a bright spot (Mike Foltynewicz’s Game 2 outing was undone by the Game 5 atrocity).

They won 97 games, which is wonderful, but when it mattered most, the timely hitting of the regular season evaporated. One base hit in Game 4 could’ve prevented Game 5, which remains an abomination beyond words.

Braves fans can extract some positive vibes from the Nationals winning, only because it demonstrated a team overcoming its demons to finally come away with the title. The Braves aren’t far away (really, they’re not!). They’re going to need more than organic growth.

Last winter angered you. Watching the Nationals and Astros duel with their well-priced aces probably angered a lot of you off. Yet you know the Braves aren’t going to spend with the Nationals. They don’t need to. But another quiet winter isn’t going to get them anywhere. It’s not about winning the offseason. The moves won’t need to be flashy. There are more holes than a year ago and merely holding the status quo clearly isn’t enough.

This isn’t like last time around when their postseason berth was a pleasant surprise. The Braves are coming off a disappointing season. One that should’ve at least resulted in a postseason series win. Lord knows we’re all tired of reading that stat.

Brian McCann retired. Josh Donaldson is a free agent, and his departure – even if justified – would make the team substantially worse. Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers and Julio Teheran have club options that’ll be decided in the coming days. The bullpen outside Mark Melancon is a question mark again. The rotation likely bids farewell to Dallas Keuchel and possibly Teheran.

Notably, the farm system is still good, though it isn’t where it was. The Braves don’t have as valuable expendable pitching assets they had a year ago. Many of those players have lost value – one reason many championed the Braves to use their pitching wealth to upgrade the current roster last December.

Nothing about how this team has operated should make you think they have a shot at Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon or the like. Fine. A Yasmani Grandal at catcher, Madison Bumgarner or Zack Wheeler in the rotation? That’d be a nice start.

I don’t have an easy answer to the Donaldson conundrum. I campaigned earlier in the season to bring him back, even if it’s a slight overpay. Like everyone else, I’m more concerned about the years than the dollars. If a rival offers four years, I’d let him go. Three is more interesting. Two is a no-brainer to re-sign.

If he leaves, there isn’t a clear plan B. This team can’t claim World Series aspirations while handing Austin Riley the third-base job. We’re all intrigued by Riley, but nothing he did after May should make anyone comfortable with him getting four or five at-bats every day for a contender. If Donaldson stays perhaps Riley becomes trade bait (I say that speculatively).

One alternative should Donaldson depart: load up on the rotation. Can you sign Wheeler AND Bumgarner? Soroka, Foltynewicz, Max Fried and that pair looks pretty good. Though you’re spending on external pitching when your entire rebuild was supposed to be centered on pitching. And while that makes your rotation significantly better, your offense still took a hit.

I like the idea of Wheeler or Bumgarner. Both fit this club perfectly, especially if Teheran is let go. Bumgarner, a North Carolina native, is still a solid starter with an unmatchable postseason resume. He’s been intrigued with a return to the South. Wheeler, a metro Atlanta native, has pitched well in the NL East when healthy. Either or both could attract a bigger offer than the Braves are willing to pay.

Catcher is a hole, which leads you to assume the Braves will pick up Flowers’ option. GM Alex Anthopoulos and Grandal have ties from their Dodgers days, though I’m skeptical the Braves would outbid others for the veteran backstop. He sits alone atop the catcher market and should have plenty of suitors. The Braves also have 2019 first-round pick Shane Langeliers (and William Contreras), which might motivate them to opt for a stopgap.

We haven’t even mentioned the outfield. Prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are lurking, so I doubt the Braves go big here (unless Donaldson leaves, which might prompt a new direction). Starling Marte has been speculated the past couple of years – I love it, but I doubt it. They won’t anticipate Pache or Waters opening the year with the club so I’m guessing we see something not-so-different from the past two years.

It’s hard to evaluate the Braves’ offseason without knowing Donaldson’s future. If he’s retained, obviously there’s less money available to spend on pitching. If he leaves, you either talk yourself into Riley or flip pitching for another third baseman.

It’s admirable how the Braves resist dishing out a “bad” contract or overpaying in trade. The franchise is set up for long-term success because of it.

But it’s time to stray from more conservative thinking and attack the roster’s holes. As the Nationals just showed us, past pains aren’t permanent; they might be just a means of growth.

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