It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the Braves have blown the dust off of an old tradition: a pennant race.
They began Saturday in first place for the 24th consecutive day, when just having a winning record for the first time in four years at this point of a holiday weekend would’ve been considered an accomplishment. The Braves’ 29-21 record is their best 50-game mark since starting 30-20 in 2013.
So for the first time in a while, fans will be able to flip a page on the calendar to June, not wishing it was the merciful finish line at the end of September.
Feel good? Enjoy it.
Now look away from your Ozzie Albies shrine in the corner of your bedroom for a minute and take a breath.
There has been a lot of chatter of late as to whether general manager Alex Anthopoulos will, or even should, spin a major trade to strengthen the team’s playoff hopes, options that could include trading major assets for a rental player (dumb) and taking on a ton of salary in the process (Liberty Media on line two).
If Anthopoulos ships a bunch of touted prospects for an impending free agent, all in hopes of making it to the postseason, I would be stunned. It would go against everything he has said and done to this point, and carries the risk of an extreme backfire.
Playoffs are cool. Playoffs get people excited. Playoffs to some degree would instill a new level of confidence in some fans with regard to this rebuilding effort.
But this year is different. It involves a new general manager with a new set of eyes looking at the roster and the player-development system. Prior analysis means bupkis.
If convicted baseball felons John Coppolella and John Hart were still here and in their fourth year of running things, going all out for an Atlanta October would make sense, because the people making moves would have a base of knowledge of the team’s assets and needs.
Anthopoulos isn’t there yet. Everything he has done to this point is about setting things up for 2019.
It would be overstatement to suggest Anthopoulos doesn’t care about 2018. But it’s not overstatement to suggest this year isn’t his highest priority.
The Braves have already gone though a bit of a settling effect: They went 19-11 in the first 30 games, but are 10-10 in the past 20.
It’s also worth noting that while they started Saturday in first place, there were four teams (Braves, Phillies, Nationals, Mets) within three games of each other in the National League East. Also, Washington, the consensus favorite, was catching fire (16-6) after a miserable start (11-16).
Anthopoulos is thrilled with the Braves’ start, but he hasn’t lost perspective on what it means, like perhaps some others in town.
Consider some of his comments on a recent episode of the “We Never Played The Game” podcast. He noted that while this was his second general manager’s job, his first job with Toronto was “easy,” by comparison.
“Because I knew the whole place,” he said, having been with the Blue Jays for seven years.
His knowledge of the Braves’ organization, scouts and player-development system was somewhat a mile wide and an inch deep. So he has chosen to move slow, knowing rash decisions could backfire.
“When I came to Atlanta, I remember talking to three GMs who had gone into new jobs, new organizations, and they all said the same thing: ‘You know what, I moved too fast on some stuff. If I waited a little bit and not been so eager, I wouldn’t have made those deals,’” Anthopoulos recalled. “One told me even in July of that year, I didn’t completely know the scouts and didn’t know (the reliability of) the data.”
And then: “Albies has been great. But let’s see what he does over six months.”
Even if we consider Albies a safe bet, the Braves’ roster remains short of many others.
Anthopoulos would love to make the playoffs this season. But where’s the logic in trading a bunch of prospects for a rental player, unless there’s some certainty that player is going to be re-signed? (Those guarantees seldom come.)
This is an organization set up for the future. The Braves are not at the win now-or-never place on the timeline. Next winter is a more likely time for major moves.
Think about Anthopoulos’s one major trade to this point: He unloaded Matt Kemp to Los Angeles for four players and some cash. The trade actually increased the Braves’ projected 2018 payroll by $30 million and ultimately meant they would have $37.5 million in “dead” money. They immediately released Adrian Gonzalez ($21.5 million), and Scott Kazmir ($16 million) didn’t make it through spring training.
That pretty much killed the 2018 budget, but it was by design. That deal was about 2019, as Anthopoulos has said many times. It moved Kemp, who had two years and $36 million left on his contract, off the books for next season. So four major contracts go away after 2018: Gonzalez, Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy ($11.5 million) and Nick Markakis ($11 million).
That’s $59 million for four players. A comparison: The Braves’ opening day payroll for 25 players (not including Gonzalez and Kazmir) was less than $80 million.
Nobody should take this as a guarantee the Braves will blow it open in free agency. Liberty Media is probably more concerned about paying down debt from construction loans and operating costs. But there’s payroll flexibility there the Braves haven’t had in years.
The Braves have given us a reason to watch this season. Baseball will mean something after Memorial Day. But in the big picture, the 2019 season means more than this one.
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