Coming off a division title, the 2019 Atlanta Braves were picked to finish fourth in the National League East. They won it again with room to spare. Their over/under on wins was 84.5. They won 97 games, an improvement of seven over 2018. Last week general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who could well be voted MLB’s executive of the year, offered his thoughts on what just happened — and what could happen in October.
Q: I guess when you do it twice in a row, nobody can say it’s a fluke.
A: No doubt. I’d be lying if I didn’t say those things don’t cross your mind. It definitely validates more the year prior, especially because I don’t know that too many people expected us to even make the playoffs. It’s rewarding that way, but we know we’re expected as a front office to be a contending team year-in and year-out. ... We knew it was going to be a very challenging year. I couldn’t have told you ahead of time the things that occurred with our roster, but I feel like we’ve got a better club and a deeper club. It’s more gratifying this year than last because I think we had more challenges and the competition was a lot better.
Q: In the spring, did you think you’d win the division?
A: Thought we had a chance to win the division. I’ve had enough failure in my career. I’ve been humbled enough. I don’t expect anything — other than I thought we had a good team and we certainly had a chance to win. We don’t go out and sign Brian McCann and Josh Donaldson, especially Donaldson at that number and those dollars, to one-year deals with the thought that we don’t have a chance to win. But I felt like it was going to be very competitive. I felt the same way I do today. Any one of us – the Marlins are openly rebuilding – but any one of the four of us could have won the division. I’m glad that it ended up being us, but I also know that things need to go right. As much as on one level as things didn’t go right, we had a lot of things go right.
Q: As a general manager, you’re graded on moves. Josh Donaldson obviously worked out. You got good mileage out of Anthony Swarzak. The three bullpen guys acquired at the deadline are key guys and will be key guys in the postseason. Do you feel you had a good year personally in what you did for the team?
A: I guess. I’ve never been one to comment on my own performance. I can tell you that I dwell on potential opportunities that we may have missed, things we could’ve done better, whether that’s offseason, in-season, signings, trades. Whatever we’ve had success in doing, big or small, I don’t think you spend any time on that. I don’t think we dwell on it. I don’t think we analyze it. I just think we think, ‘OK, that one worked out,’ or our process was good. We spend a lot of our time and our energy on, ‘OK, where did we miss here? What did we not weigh enough? Where do we need to tweak our process?’ There’s a lot of failure in this game. I’ve experienced a ton of it. I’ve been humbled a ton. I think GMs generally need to spend more time worrying and less time just sitting back and enjoying whatever’s gone right. Maybe when your career’s over, you can sit back and look at the things that went right.
Q: Is this team set up better for October than last year’s?
A: No doubt. That’s not to take anything away from the team a year ago. We had a fantastic year, won the division, great group of guys. But our bench wasn’t nearly as deep. Our bullpen is more experienced. Our rotation is more experienced and deeper as well. Our offense is better. I think we’re a better club. That makes us feel much better (headed to October). Now there’s a certain randomness that comes into play come the playoffs — short series, everyone you’re facing is a good team. I remember Seattle the year they won 116 games (and lost to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS), or Chris Carpenter/Roy Halladay (the matchup for Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS) when the Phillies were an unbelievable team — they lost that game. There are so many examples. Your job is to do your best to put your club in a position to get to the playoffs, and from that point you do your best to prepare. But there’s an element of randomness, luck, all those kinds of things.
Q: That’s the Billy Beane line from “Moneyball:” A GM’s stuff doesn’t work in the postseason.
A: To me, the Braves are one of the most successful organizations in sports. People can talk about the one World Series (win), but I think everyone would agree that, of those 14 division titles in a row, all 14 were capable of winning the World Series. If you asked Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz and everybody else around the team, the one world championship, the 1995 team, was that actually the most talented roster? I bet you — without knowing — there’s another year people thought they were more talented and it just didn’t work out for whatever reason — somebody made an error, a ball fell in. That happens. That’s part of a short series. That’s not an excuse. We want to be the last team standing. We want to keep moving and go through the playoffs. But the same way we don’t take anything for granted in spring training, knowing how hard it is for six months to stay healthy and perform to win the division, we know all these teams earned their way here. Everyone’s got a chance to win. We’ve seen wild cards win the World Series.
Q: Actually, Cox told me once that the Braves played better in three of the World Series they lost than in the one they won.
A: Great example.
Q: With the Cubs and the Red Sox, we’ve just seen how mighty teams can fall precipitously. Your team is a little different. Yours is a lot younger. But do you still go into the offseason thinking, “We’ve got work to do to maintain this?”
A: Absolutely. That’s probably what I spend most of my time worrying about, trying to sustain things. Obviously we’re still focused on the now, trying to prepare and do everything we need to do as an organization, but in this chair you’re constantly thinking about how do you maintain it. You can’t lose sight of the fact that you have an opportunity right in front of you. That’s the same issue you have when you’re sitting there at the trade deadline. I look back to our 2015 team in Toronto. We walked away from a Ben Zobrist deal: We had a player on the table and we had to act. We were thinking long-term. Now if the Royals don’t have Ben Zobrist and we do and we face each other in the LCS, do we get to the World Series and win a World Series? You’re balancing short-term and long-term all the time. As much as we have an opportunity in 2019 and guys are healthy and having good years and you want to give this group every opportunity, you’re always weighing it against wanting to have that opportunity every year going forward, which is easier said than done. That’s the hardest part of the job, balancing short- and long-term and trying to find a way to sustain being competitive year-in and year-out.
Q: What do you do with Josh Donaldson going forward?
A: I’m thrilled we’re having this discussion. If you’d told me in the offseason that things would work out so well that the narrative would be, “Are you going to keep him? Can you keep him? Does he want to stay?” – that would have meant he’s had a great year, the fan base has fallen in love with him, he’s fit in with our players, he’s helped the team win. We’ve achieved everything we wanted on that end now, so I’m glad we’re in this position where we can have a discussion about it. He’s obviously been a massive part of our team, a huge part of our success. We absolutely have interest in him being back. That said, it was a clear understanding that this was a one-year deal. He was going to come to a good place to rebuild his value — a good team, a good ballpark, a good organization — and put himself in position to get the contract that he deserved before he was injured in Toronto. It’s worked out for both sides. And we would have the added advantage that he’s now familiar with us and knows exactly what he has here. Like anything in free agency, you’re going to need to be competitive from a contractual standpoint. There’ll be a time when we have those talks. It goes without saying that he’s a big part of our team and we want him to continue to be.
Q: When I mentioned your acquisitions, I failed to include Dallas Keuchel. When you signed him, were you looking for a guy who could not only win games and stabilize the rotation but win games in the postseason, too?
A: We were looking at ways to make the team better. Obviously Craig Kimbrel was out there and Dallas was out there, and we felt like both would be fantastic adds. With the way we projected the trade market and our internal options, we felt it would be much more challenging to add an impactful starter. We viewed Dallas as someone who could start a playoff game. From that standpoint, he’s delivered everything we hoped for and beyond. He’s been on an unbelievable stretch. His last two (starts) haven’t been that strong, but really in those key games, a six-start stretch, he just really got hot. He went deep and saved our bullpen. He’s been a huge part of our team as well. That’s the thing. With all these guys, if you remove any one of them, I don’t know that we’re sitting here having won the division.
Q: Does this season feel different for you personally? Last year you were guiding a team you’d inherited. Is this more your team?
A: I’ve heard GMs talk that way — “my team”, “my roster.” I just don’t subscribe to that. If I’d been here for 20 years, I wouldn’t subscribe to that. You’re doing it as a group, collectively. Rarely will you be on an island making a decision. Most times it’s your coaching staff, your manager, your front-office staff. The biggest difference from Year 1 to Year 2 is familiarity, and (also) expectations. My first year there weren’t any expectations. The first thing we did was kick away (salary) when we traded (Matt) Kemp. We added Anibal Sanchez in spring training, but we weren’t necessarily active in the free-agent market. After Year 1, we’ve won the division, now there are expectations. We jumped out and signed Donaldson and McCann, but there was obviously a lot of angst about maybe not being more active, having more transactions, more volume. I guess there were expectations maybe fueled by two signings early, and a big gap in terms of transactional activity, and then maybe the expectations kind of went away. I guess I would say it’s a different year because, when I look back, there was such a spotlight and a scrutiny on the offseason, and rightfully so. Fan base and media members, that’s part of what everyone does. The year before, we didn’t have that. There was more of a focus on our winter going into the year, whereas the year before it was, “We’re going to let the kids play.”
Q: On the day you clinched last year, you said you first started to think you could win the division when you called up Mike Soroka.
A: Yep. May 1st. A day or two before, I remember talking to Snit (manager Brian Snitker) and (then-pitching coach) Chuck Hernandez on the phone. We needed a starter for the Mets series — the Mets were in first place, and we were going into a big series. And I said, “This might be a little premature, but what about Soroka? Guys, I think we might have a chance to get to the playoffs.” We had played so well the first month, and there were a lot of good signs. We went into this offseason with a clear-cut goal of getting back to the playoffs. Once you’ve done it once, you want to continue doing it, especially with the core we have.
Q: So how far can you go?
A: We have the talent to go all the way. No doubt about that. All 10 clubs will tell you the same thing. You get to this point, you have the talent to do it. You need to play good baseball and not make mistakes, and things need to break right for you. We always can remember moments in playoff series. Like I said, an error, big hit, a call doesn’t go your way. That’s part of short series. It’s fun for the fans. From an executive standpoint, I can’t tell you I enjoy having to watch it. I agonize over every pitch. But I’m glad we’re in this position.
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