When you go from 72-90 to 90-72, you’ve broken upward. When you win your division by eight games – in all of baseball, only Houston won by more – you’ve stamped yourself as the team to catch. But there is a question every winning professional team must ask: Is it us, or was it them?
As good as the Braves were in 2018 – and they were very good – those 90 wins marked the fewest among the 10 playoff qualifiers. With the youth of its roster, there’s every chance they’ll be better, and maybe much better, in 2019 and beyond. But the Braves won the National League East because they were 49-27 against their division. Against teams from elsewhere, they were 41-45.
The NL East already has changed. The Mets hired a new general manager – Brodie Van Wagenen, formerly Jacob deGrom’s agent – and traded for the estimable Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz. The Phillies signed former MVP Andrew McCutchen and, in the attempt to bolster a woeful defense, imported shortstop Jean Segura. The Nationals signed pitchers Patrick Corbin and Trevor Rosenthal and landed catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, the latter having last been seen in a Braves uniform.
The Braves have changed, too. They’ve signed Josh Donaldson, once an MVP himself. To help offset the loss of Suzuki, they’ve re-acquired Brian McCann. What was, apart from the Braves, a terrible division last season appears to have gotten better all the way around. (Except the Marlins, who remain busy being the Marlins.) And there’s a chance that bigger news could be coming, perhaps before the Winter Meetings adjourn in Las Vegas on Thursday.
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The Phillies, who ran neck-and-neck with the Braves until mid-August, are believed to be key bidders for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado or both. Owner John Middleton said last month that his club was ready to spend “and maybe be stupid about it.” The Mets are believed to have wanted Diaz to block the Phillies. The buzziest Vegas rumor has been of a three-way deal involving two NL Easters: The Marlins would send long-buzzed-about catcher J.T. Realmuto to the Mets, who would ship Noah Syndergaard to the Yankees, who would bestow something or other on the Fish.
As for the Braves: Whispers have held that they might be willing to trade Dansby Swanson and/or Ender Inciarte. I can’t imagine any such deal will happen during these meetings; I can envision a scenario in which Alex Anthopoulos parts with one or both, and not just because he feels obliged to deconstruct the best trade John Coppolella, his predecessor as general manager, ever made.
Inciarte is a great defender who hits enough. Swanson is a good defender who might never hit as much as anticipated. Ronald Acuna could shift to center field soonish, but the Braves as constituted lack the outfielders to make that work. (As good as Acuna is, he can’t quite roam foul-line-to-foul-line.) Any deal involving Inciarte/Swanson surely would have to bring a corner outfielder in return, and corner outfielders don’t come cheap.
Donaldson’s arrival leaves Johan Camargo without a position – unless you count “super-utility” as such. If we go by Baseball-Reference WAR, he was the fourth-best Brave last season. The first three were Freddie Freeman, Acuna and Ozzie Albies; the difference between Albies and Camargo was 0.1. There’s no reason Camargo, who switched from shortstop to third base because of Swanson, can’t move back. If the Braves could wangle a starting outfielder for what they might see as a surplus infielder, they’d do it.
Process of elimination: Anthopoulos isn’t trading Freeman, Acuna or Albies. The Braves aren’t sure how many of their young pitchers are keepers. (Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka, definitely. Kyle Wright and Sean Newcomb, possibly. Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara, maybe not.) The expendable Braves are Inciarte, who has three Gold Gloves, and Swanson, who mans the most important non-pitching position. Both are under club control through 2022. Each could fetch a handsome return.
That said, how aggressive does a young team that just got good need to be? There’s a compelling argument for letting nature take its course. Signing Donaldson and McCann cost nothing but money. If the Phillies land Harper and/or Machado, that wouldn’t necessarily lift them above the Braves. (Neither is a pitcher.) The Nationals have augmented a rotation that included Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, but that $140 million outlay for Corbin surely means they’re out of the Harper bidding.
The NL East will be better in 2019, but there’s no reason to believe the Braves will be worse. If the Donaldson move works, they’ll have three of baseball’s 20 best everyday players. What other team can better that? It would be nice if they’d rustle up another starter, and relievers are always essential, but there’s no rush.
If the Braves do nothing else, they’ll still be the best-looking team in their division. The guess is that they’ll do something else. The guess is also that they won’t do it as a reaction to what anybody else does. Anthopoulos is too clever to dive down that rabbit hole. He’s got Freeman and Acuna and a slew of young pitchers and now Donaldson. An awful lot would have to go wrong for this not to keep working.