When he declined to meet Josh Donaldson’s asking price, Alex Anthopoulos knew the third baseman was gone. At that moment, the Braves general manager didn’t know which team had agreed to pay Donaldson $92 million over four seasons. When Anthopoulos later learned it was Minnesota, as opposed to Washington, he sighed a sigh of semi-consolation.
Said Anthopoulos in January: “I never want to see teams in our division get better. Josh Donaldson makes everybody better. From a selfish standpoint because I know how great a player he is, I’d rather he’s in the American League than the NL.”
That was then. Now could be different. Owing to COVID-19, the 2020 baseball season — assuming there is one — figures to look different from what anyone could have imagined. As reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today, MLB is considering breaking its 30 clubs into three 10-team divisions based on geography, thereby reducing travel. Usual league affiliations will not apply.
It’s believed the Braves would land in an ad hoc Central Division. As would, ahem, the bringer of rain.
The MLB Central is projected to include four teams from the National League Central — Brewers, Cubs, Reds and Cardinals — and the entire AL Central. The MLB West would be populated by all 10 teams from the NL and AL West. The five AL East entries would fold in the MLB East, along with four teams from the current NL East. The Pirates would move from the NL Central to the MLB East. The Braves would shift from the NL East to the MLB Central.
It’s the Braves’ geographic lot to be based in a state bordering only one other that holds a baseball franchise. That’s Florida, and the Tampa Bay Rays, who play in St. Petersburg, aren’t quite as close to Cobb County as the Cincinnati Reds. Mileage-wise, Atlanta is nearer St. Louis than Miami. Six of the 10 MLB Central members are on Central time.
Of the 10 teams to qualify for the 2019 playoffs, four would be in the MLB Central — Braves, Brewers, Cardinals and Twins. Two more — Indians and Cubs — finished above .500. If we go FanGraphs’ calculations, eight of the 10 Central teams were projected to finish with winning records.
Given that schedules surely will be reset to feature interdivisional games, there’s not much chance eight MLB Central clubs will finish as winners. (The Tigers and Royals would each have to go, say, 10-70.) Also of note: The four teams FanGraphs projected to win 90-plus games — Dodgers, Astros, Yankees and Rays — would be elsewhere. The Central wouldn’t be as top-heavy as the East or West; it would, however, appear to be more competitive.
It wasn’t so long ago — 2016, to be precise — that the Twins and Braves were chasing baseball’s worst record. After Minnesota won here that Aug. 17, the Braves were 44-79, giving them a five-game cushion in the hunt for the No. 1 draft pick. Apparently coming to their senses, the Twins lost their next 12. By Aug. 31, they were ensconced in the basement, en route to 103 losses. The Braves went 18-10 in September/October, saving interim manager Brian Snitker’s job while forgetting they were supposed to be tanking. By beating Detroit and Justin Verlander 1-0 in the final game at Turner Field, the Braves went from picking No. 2 in 2017 to No. 5.
The Twins made the playoffs as a wild card the next year. The Braves won the NL East in 2018. Both were division winners last season; the Twins won 101 games before they were swept by the Yankees in October; the Braves won 97 before holding the Cardinals to 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5 of their NL Division Series. (Long story short: Tanking can work.)
In 2019, when more homers were hit than ever, the Twins hit the most — 307, one more than the Yankees. Donaldson hit 37 in his one season as a Brave. He was the biggest buy of a busy Minnesota winter. They added starting pitchers Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. The latter is 40 and won’t be available until June or July. Michael Pineda, another Minnesota starter, still must serve 39 games of a PED suspension.
The Braves have added once-great starters Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, outfielder Marcell Ozuna, catcher Travis d’Arnaud and reliever Will Smith. Their obvious hole was left by Donaldson, who’ll be playing third base for a team that won four more games than the Braves did a year ago. With the Nationals losing Anthony Rendon and the Mets being without Noah Syndergaard, the Twins look more imposing than any of the teams the Braves, two seasons running, handled in the NL East.
We can’t dismiss the Cubs, under new manager (and ex-Brave) David Ross after finishing third in the NL Central. Cleveland was the only 90-win team to miss the playoffs last year. The rebuilding White Sox added catcher Yasmani Grandal, outfielder Nomar Mazara and pitcher Dallas Keuchel (also an ex-Brave). After four consecutive 90-loss seasons, the Reds went 75-87 last season and have more pitching than at any time this century. The Brewers are MLB’s serial overachievers, and the Cardinals … well, enough about them.
A half-season (or whatever) in such company would be odd. No #natitude to make us wince. No Bryce Harper to boo/plunk. No Mets to giggle about. No Marlins to beat 15 times. And we’ve seen enough over the past two years to have reason to believe the Braves can hang in against anybody, even their old pal Josh.
There’s no guarantee that the above scenario will become reality, and there’s a good chance fans won’t be allowed in any ballpark if it does. That said, temporary residence in the MLB Central would be intriguing.
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