The “A” on their caps could stand for “angst.” By rights, the Braves should be in something approaching their sweet spot: They still have one of baseball’s deepest farm systems, and they’re coming off a 90-win season that saw them take the National League East by eight fat games. They have at least two players who could contend for MVP honors – more about this in a bit – and they have more young arms than Amazon has cardboard boxes.
And their fans are … displeased.
We can’t know if this displeasure is indeed a majority view. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, especially in a world where social media offers everyone – apologies for mixing metaphors – a megaphone. But if you pay attention to social media, which in the interest of leading a fuller life you probably shouldn’t, you’ll get the distinct impression that a team that only months ago was deemed way ahead of schedule has backslid into the mire of mediocrity.
But it’s not just Snapface, to borrow from the pithy Belichick, that has taken a dim view of the 2019 Braves. Vegas has set the over/under at 84-1/2 wins, which is the fourth-lowest total in a five-team division. (Thank heaven for those Marlins!) And it’s true that the Braves did less, personnel-wise, over the winter than the Nationals/Phillies/Mets. We note, not for the first time, that those teams needed to do more: Only the Nats finished above .500 last year, and then only just.
The 2018 Braves had the best everyday eight in the NL East and one of the best in baseball. With the exception of sometime catcher Kurt Suzuki, that unit returns intact, with the potentially immense addition of 2015 American League MVP Josh Donaldson. Forget Bryce Harper moving up I-95 to Philly. Forget Robinson Cano alighting in Queens. The most important non-pitcher in this division is Donaldson, who hasn’t been healthy the past two years, but not long ago ranked among the sport’s half-dozen best players. If he returns to something approaching form, the Braves will have three franchise-type players among their starting eight
The narrative that the Braves pinched pennies this offseason overlooks two essential truths. First, they spent $23 million for one year of Donaldson. (The average annual value of Harper’s deal with the Phillies is $25.4 million.) Second, the Braves will soon need to spend a king’s ransom to retain the services of the young prince who was the best player in the National League over last season’s final two months. There’s no way the Braves will allow Ronald Acuna to play much longer without locking him up long-term, and the same could hold for Ozzie Albies and whichever young pitcher(s) break upward.
The hue and cry directed toward Liberty Media – “Faceless ownership doesn’t care about winning!” – neglects another important factoid. Over the 2013-into-2014 offseason, the same money-grubbing conglomerate allowed then-GM Frank Wren to secure the services of Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel. (Only Kimbrel’s contract has lapsed.) Why throw $330 million at the 26-year-old Harper when the Braves could invest it in Acuna, who’s five years younger and who could, dare we say, be better than Harper?
The characterization of Alex Anthopoulos as a do-nothing general manager would be hilarious if it weren’t so egregiously wrong. (Ask the folks in Toronto if A.A. meant “afraid to act.”) In the age of analytics, a GM’s job is more about asset allocation than anything else. A dollar spent on a free agent is a dollar that can’t be spent on a sweetened contract for an incumbent, and the Braves have as many good young incumbents as any club. What has been impressive about Anthopoulos is his disinclination to remake the club he inherited in his image. He fell into a heap of young talent, and he has managed it expertly.
We refer again to the lesson Anthopoulos said he learned with the Blue Jays, even when the local populace was irate that he hadn’t done more to spruce up the opening-day roster: Always save some money for the trade deadline because you’re never sure what you’ll need. That course of watchful waiting would seem especially prudent for an organization brimming with talent at every level, not just in the bigs. In a time of need – and the Braves have found themselves in need of arms – why not see if those already under contract are up to the task?
Apologies if I’m coming across as a scold, but my view of this franchise isn’t one of outrage. It’s of a club that’s sitting pretty. There was no need for a club with such in-house resources to win the offseason. Just by osmosis, the Braves should get only better. The belief here is that they’ll win 93 games and take the East again, Bryce Harper or no Bryce Harper.
But don’t just take my word for it. I know I mention the baseball writer Joe Sheehan to excess, but I do it because he’s such an astute analyst. Just FYI, Sheehan picks the team that signed Bryce Harper to finish fourth in the division. He picks the team with Ronald Acuna – his choice for MVP – to finish first.