As if the stupefying Game 5 loss weren’t enough, another Game 5 – this one played three time zones away, this one ending after midnight EDT – delivered the aftershock. Had the Braves managed to beat St. Louis on Wednesday, the National League Championship Series would have started Friday in Cobb County. There’d have been no flight to LAX, no Dodgers awaiting. Instead there’d have been the Nationals, a familiar foe the Braves beat five times in seven tries last month.
Ah, well. Such is life, especially life in the A-T-L. As difficult as this failed postseason will be to digest, there figure to be more postseasons for these Braves – right? The answer is almost certainly yes, but the answer bears an asterisk. We think of the Braves as a young team, and in many ways they are. But’s let check the ages of the men who started Game 1 of this NL Division Series.
Dallas Keuchel, 31. Brian McCann, 35. Freddie Freeman, 30. Ozzie Albies, 22. Dansby Swanson, 25. Josh Donaldson, 33. Nick Markakis, 35. Ronald Acuna, 21. Matt Joyce, 35.
Six of the nine over 30. That’s not such a young team, and not one that will remain intact for opening day 2020. McCann announced his retirement after Game 5. Donaldson, Joyce and Keuchel can become free agents. The Braves could buy out Markakis for $2 million or keep him for $6 mil. Even if we consider Ender Inciarte a starting outfielder, he’ll turn 29 this month and be coming off a season strewn with injuries and underperformance.
There are youthful staples here, to be sure. Acuna will soon be an MVP; Albies has already been an All-Star. Swanson’s postseason reminded us that he’s still a major talent. Three-fifths of the rotation will consist of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz, the oldest of whom will be 28 when pitchers and catchers report. Julio Teheran – who for the second consecutive October recorded the final outs of an elimination game already lost – will be 29. The Braves can keep him for $12 million, or they can dump him for $1 million.
That’s a nucleus. It is not, however, enough to constitute a team. The Braves end this season with more holes than they had a year ago, which sounds funny, but is nonetheless true. They can and almost certainly will live without Keuchel. The organization that stockpiled young pitching hasn’t yet seen what Ian Anderson and Kyle Muller can do; the books on Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson are nowhere near written.
“From a front-office standpoint, we need to get back to work,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Thursday. “We want to get back (to the playoffs) again next year.”
Then: “Stating the obvious: We need to get better.”
The Braves figure to need at least one corner outfielder. They played Markakis more than they intended this year, and he didn’t produce much. The guess is that prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters won’t make the big-league club out of spring training. Austin Riley could be an answer, but maybe not yet.
They absolutely need a catcher. Tyler Flowers received only 34 at-bats in September; he had but one in the NLDS. Shea Langeliers, their Round 1 pick in June, won’t be ready for a while. It will be a shock if the Braves don’t push for Yasmani Grandal, the ex-Dodger who signed a one-year deal with Milwaukee. As for third base …
The Braves want to keep Donaldson, even though he had a soft September and was a non-factor in the Division Series. (Over 162 games, he led a 97-win team in WAR.) They know he’ll decline their qualifying offer because he wants to kick every tire. He took the Braves’ $23 million in the attempt to re-prove himself to the baseball world. He did. There’ll be no more one-year deals for him. He’ll want at least three years at $75 (or so) million. The Braves will try to make a competitive offer, and they could decide he’s worth it, even if it means paying him $25 mil at age 36.
That’s the kind of contract the post-Wren Braves have avoided, but the post-Wren Braves weren’t serial division winners until now. With success comes – or should come – a corporate obligation to keep this rolling. If Donaldson leaves, third base will become a tryout between Riley and Johan Camargo. (Forget signing Anthony Rendon. He’ll cost way more than Donaldson.) Riley caught a flying start that didn’t hold. Camargo didn’t warm to his super-utility role and suffered through a lost season. Neither is untalented. Neither is as good as Donaldson, either.
With his November buys of Donaldson and McCann, his January re-up of Markakis, his June purchase of Keuchel and the bullpen renovation at the trade deadline, Anthopoulos proved willing and able to address the needs of a team coming off a division title. The result was another division title. Most of the fixes, though, were of the short-term ilk. McCann is gone. Keuchel is going. Donaldson could be outbound. If Markakis stays, it will be because he’s cheap to keep.
There’s no reason to believe the 13-1 loss will send the Braves plunging to mediocrity. For the thousandth time: The regular season and October are different animals. Anthopoulos is good at his job. Brian Snitker is, too. At issue is whether the Braves will be allowed to do the one thing they haven’t done lately – and no, we don’t mean winning a playoff series, though that’d be nice. We mean spending what it takes to augment a young core with the proven talent that fuels playoff teams.
The Braves can’t just say, “We’ve got Acuna and Albies and Freeman and Soroka. We’re set.” There’s never a way to guarantee a World Series title; all an organization can do is to keep putting itself in position to play in October. The rebuilt Braves have made it twice. They were four outs from winning the series in Game 4; if they had, they’d be playing for the pennant with Games 1 and 2 at SunTrust Park.
Regarding the vagaries of postseason, Anthopoulos said: “We evaluate our evaluation. Do we need certain kind of players for postseason? ... Generally speaking, you need to get there first.”
They’re not far away, but there’s work to do. There’s always work to do.
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