I never doubted that third baseman Josh Donaldson, if healthy, would make the Braves a more talented baseball team. But when the Braves introduced Donaldson in November I wondered how a free-spirited and, shall we say, self-confident player would fit in with a buttoned-down organization.
“Check my numbers against the NL,” Donaldson said that day, in response to a question about switching leagues. “I think I’ll do just fine with that.”
“You haven’t changed a bit,” quipped Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who had traded for Donaldson as Blue Jays GM.
Spring training brought more of the same from Donaldson. Asked what he would bring to the Braves, Donaldson responded: “I don't know. Have you ever looked at the back of my baseball card?”
Donaldson smiled after he said it, but he meant what he said. When Donaldson had a lackluster start to the season his detractors — I was never among them — tried to hang that quote around his neck. The new third baseman came in talking big and wasn't backing it up.
Eventually, Donaldson did start hitting. Any questions about how Donaldson fits with the Braves are answered each time he homers and his teammates join in his elaborate “bringer of rain” celebration (their idea, Donaldson said). During a recent Fox national broadcast, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said Donaldson gives the Braves a certain brashness that they haven’t had in a while.
Donaldson is the best example of how Anthopoulos, a numbers guy, also pays attention to the human side of the game. He’s added good players without sacrificing major prospects, but that’s only part of the formula. He’s gotten the other part of it right by bringing in guys who get what the Braves are about.
“Everyone is pulling on the same rope in this organization,” Freeman said at SunTrust Park on Tuesday before the Braves opened a series against the Phillies.
I can be cynical about that kind of thing because I favor the tangible over the intangible. But it’s clear that the Braves have certain team spirit that has made them resilient during a trying season. From the front office to the last guy on the bench, every person has done their part.
The Braves are having a blast on their way to another National League East title. That’s always easier to do for a team that’s winning, but maybe the Braves wouldn’t be winning if all their pieces didn’t fit so well. A couple of recent developments reinforced the view that they have a cohesive group.
After Charlie Culberson was hit in the face with a pitch Saturday, Braves manager Brian Snitker got emotional while talking about the player. Culberson suffered multiple face fractures and is out for the season. Snitker still was lamenting Culberson’s injury Tuesday, and not just because it hurt the team’s depth.
“He means so much to this team, with the person he is,” Snitker said.
Nick Markakis’ seamless return to the lineup over the weekend is another sign of how well the Braves mesh as a team. Markakis plays right field, where Matt Joyce had been capably filling in amid the team’s dwindling outfield depth.
“I was going to go into the office and tell them that I’ve played left before, and it’s not a crazy adjustment,” Joyce said.
Instead, Snitker asked Markakis if he’d be willing to play left. He agreed.
“His humbleness to move from right field, which he played his whole career, to left field just because a guy like me is a little more comfortable in right -- it’s a huge statement to his character and the team guy that he is,” Joyce said.
The Braves seem to have a lot of guys like that. On its own that wouldn’t be enough to make series postseason contenders. That element along with lots of good hitters and just enough pitching might be what gives the Braves an edge in the postseason.
The Dodgers are the best team in the NL by almost every single measure. That’s why they are getting 4-to-7 odds to win the pennant, compared with 7-to-2 for the Braves. The Dodgers are also favored to win the World Series. Can’t argue with that.
Yet, from afar at least, it seems as if the Dodgers have been a machine executing a program all season. The Braves also have been on what’s seemed like an inevitable run to the division title. Unlike the Dodgers, they’ve had to patch things together to stay afloat. There’s been real emotion with their journey.
The story of the Braves’ season includes important moments for Rafael Ortega, Adam Duvall and Billy Hamilton. Free-agent catcher Francisco Cervelli immediately helped the Braves win a game after his career seemed over because of concussions. The Braves were Joyce’s third team during spring training.
Those kinds of moves were important for Anthopoulos to get right. The Braves already had good players when he got the job. He’s done a fine job building depth around the edges while also taking care of major roster needs.
Donaldson was the GM’s biggest signing. He’s having a very good year on the field while adding his own unique twist to the team’s good chemistry. That’s just one indication that the Braves have something special going on.