Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos: Goal is to get back to postseason

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The Braves have won three straight National League East division titles, a number they hope to extend to four in 2021.

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The Braves are coming off their deepest postseason run in two decades entering 2021. They pushed the eventual champion Dodgers to seven games in the National League Championship Series, putting them on the cusp of their first World Series berth since 1999.

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They spent the winter trying to make additions that would push them over the hump. That wasn’t an easy process, given the pandemic led the team to trim its payroll, limiting general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ options for improving the team.

Nonetheless, Anthopoulos moved quickly to upgrade the rotation — which was a mess last season — with veterans Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton. He later re-signed slugger Marcell Ozuna, who was a crucial part of one of the best offenses in Braves history.

Anthopoulos, beginning his fourth season leading the Braves, spoke with The Atlanta Journal Constitution on March 19 about his team’s offseason and the upcoming campaign. The Braves open the regular season April 1 in Philadelphia.

Below is our conversation with Anthopoulos: (Note: His expanded thoughts on the bullpen and bench can be found here and here)

Now that the dust has settled and you’ve had this team in camp for over a month, do you feel like you accomplished every major item on your winter do-to list?

The major items, yes, because going into the offseason we had a clear plan of right-handed middle-of-the-order bat and two starters for the rotation. That’s where we felt the heavy lifting needed to come in. Once we accomplished those - we didn’t know what those contracts would look like - then we’d see what we were left with and where to go from there. But those were the key things. That’s why we were aggressive with the starters. Ozuna was clearly the priority when it came to the right-handed bat because of how well he fit our club. That one just needed to take time, the market to develop. There was no scenario, in our minds, that we could get a contract that would make sense for us at the beginning of the offseason like we did with Morton and Smyly.

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As the free agent and Braves general manager discuss new four-year deal, the outfielder asks why the team waited so long to sign him.

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How did the (free-agency) process with Ozuna compare to Josh Donaldson’s last winter? (Note: The Braves decided not to match the Twins’ offer to Donaldson after he had a productive season with the team, which led them to pivot to Ozuna on a one-year deal)

Very similar. They came into the organization the same way where they were much better than they had played the prior year. They certainly deserved significant long-term contracts. Things just didn’t materialize that way for them. Marcell had long-term offers and Josh could’ve easily gotten some even coming off his 2018, because of how good a player he is, but they knew they were worth more and capable of more, and they decided to bet on themselves. So when we signed those guys to one-year deals at the outset, the thought was, ‘Come here, rebuild your value and help us win. And hopefully you don’t price yourself out of our plans, but if you do, that’s a great outcome for both sides. That means you played exceptionally well and it’s a win-win.’ With Josh, it was the same thing. We needed to let that process play out. He had a monster, MVP-caliber year and you need to let the market develop to find out what you’re worth. At the end of the day, as we expected with Marcell, Josh was going to give us every opportunity to keep him, which he did. It just got to the point financially for us that it was going to be tough to continue to build a competitive team around him. In the same way with Marcell, we needed to let the process play out and this was one of those things where we were able to line up on a contract at the end.

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How much did the 2020 postseason run loom over your offseason? Was there added pressure or a sense of urgency after getting so close?

I’ve heard that a lot in the past, pressure and things like that. We all want to win. I just don’t view things that way. From May 2018 when we called (Mike) Soroka up, that’s when I got here and I didn’t know what we had. We were taking a wait-and-see approach, being new to the organization. But from May 2018, when we called Soroka up earlier than ideally developmentally we preferred to, but we had a chance to win, we viewed ourselves as a contending team. Everything we’ve done has been built on being a contending team. I just don’t view things as, ‘Hey, it’s a one-year window.’ Or you’re all-in. I view it as, the goal, in my mind, the best way to win the World Series is to get into the postseason every year. That gives you the most chances to win the World Series. You ask a lot of people who were part of all those great Braves runs, from John Schuerholz to Bobby Cox and so on, they’ll tell you that they don’t necessarily believe the best team they ever put together was the 1995 club. That just happens to be the team that won it all. So there’s an element of luck, randomness when you get to the postseason. You don’t know how things will break. I look at 2019 against the Cardinals (in the National League Division Series). Things could’ve broke the other way for us in some of those games and things that went on. Likewise, a year ago, that Reds (postseason) series could’ve gone the other way for us. To sit there and put all your eggs in ‘this is the year, this is the offseason, this is the trade deadline,’ you don’t know if guys get cold and have a bad series, someone makes an error or a player you don’t expect gets hot and suddenly you’re not contending the other years. My view is you want to be a playoff team every year and that gives us the best chance to win the World Series. I don’t look at, whether it’s 2018, 2019, 2020 — we made the postseason in 2018 and from there we signed Donaldson and (Brian) McCann and made some trades at the deadline to add relievers, then we signed Ozuna last offseason, and (Travis) d’Arnaud, (Chris) Martin, (Will) Smith. There was never that thought of, OK, 2020 is the year, 2021 is the year. Hopefully every year is the year we’re contending. The expectations I put on myself, our goal is to build a team that gets back to the postseason. Once you get in, anything can happen.

I know you’re never totally comfortable with your roster.

Absolutely not. Never.

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But do you feel like this is the best team you’ve had here, on paper?

I don’t view it that way. I’ve seen Snit (manager Brian Snitker) say that at times, whether that was the 2019 club or 2020 club. That doesn’t mean it isn’t right or maybe it is. Honestly, I never look back. The one time I looked back, we were having the conversation, just looking back at the 2019 opening-day bullpen, I looked back at that one and obviously it’s come a long way. I don’t look back because players change, performances change and guys emerge. We don’t know, what if Austin Riley emerges into an MVP candidate in the upcoming year? Or a super established player takes a step back? I’ve seen too many times where players change so much, performance and health. Mike Foltynewicz is a great example. In 2018, he’s an All-Star averaging well over a strikeout an inning, 220 strikeouts in 180 innings, unbelievable, ERA in the 2.00s. Then the next year it changed. I think it’s one of those things where I live in the moment when it comes to evaluating the roster. You know guys will have good years. You look at a year ago, I wish I could’ve told you we’d have four Silver Sluggers. For all the winning the Braves have done, it’s the first time the Braves have had four. You think back to all these Hall of Famers like Andruw Jones — obviously he’s not a Hall of Famer yet but he’s on his way — Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, David Justice. I couldn’t have told you before the season d’Arnaud, Ozuna would be silver sluggers. Certainly Freeman and Acuna, you’ve come to expect that and you get spoiled by those guys. But Max Fried putting up a 2.25 ERA. The bullpen being as strong as it was. It’s too hard. There’s a human element to all this that you just try to have as much depth as you can, as much flexibility as you can. Generally speaking, we have a talented club. But the NL East gets better every single year. I worry every year. I worry every day. I never feel like our work is done. I never feel like our roster is complete. I think that’s normal as a GM. You’re always looking at what you don’t have or where you’re not as strong as you want to be. We could’ve won the World Series a year ago and there were still areas of the team I wish we had a little bit more. You just realize that’s not going to happen.

One thing this team has done well over the past three seasons is identifying and extracting the most from smaller role guys. Matt Joyce, Charlie Culberson, (Adeiny) Hechavarria, Billy Hamilton, even Anthony Swarzak. What has helped you find and get the most out of those types of players?

Luck. If (just identification) was the case, we’d be getting these guys ahead of time. Signing Anibal Sanchez after being released, even Billy Hamilton came in and helped us win some games. Ryan Flaherty was leading the league in hitting the first month. Preston Tucker that first month led the NL in RBIs. It’s like you said, we’ve had various people — Anthony Swarzak saved us for a good two-month period — where guys really (helped out). Luke Jackson, he was up and down so many times in 2018, in 2019 he just made the team. He didn’t have a very strong spring. When (A.J.) Minter and (Arodys) Vizcaino got hurt, he stepped up that first half and saved a ton of games for us and did a really good job. Josh Tomlin gets released from the Brewers in the middle of spring training and we add him. I give credit to the players, they’re the ones going out and doing it. And I also think it’s a credit to our coaches and our environment. I do think we have a really good support staff organizationally. There’s a lot of good people in this organization that make it a comfortable place to play. I think our clubhouse is strong. What percentage is that worth in terms of performance? I do think being happy, comfortable in a great environment helps. We’ve had a nice run with some of these guys who’ve come up and helped us. Hopefully it can continue into ’21.

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Braves slugger Freddie Freeman comments on how re-signing Marcell Ozuna helps team and his possible spot on the batting order without the DH.

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Every interview you’ve done since the beginning of the winter, you’ve been asked about extending Freddie Freeman (who’s a free agent following the season). I’m not going to ask about that (Note: Anthopoulos has answered multiple times that the Braves will keep those discussion in house), but how much does it help projecting your future payroll and roster when you have concrete numbers on the books for Acuna, Albies and Ozuna?

I don’t know that I’d say it helps. You’re always looking — I don’t believe in five-year plans and things like that, I just think too much changes in too short a period of time to try to look out that far. If you had told me two years ago Ozuna would be a long-term Brave, you just wouldn’t know. You look at someone like Dansby Swanson, where he was three years ago to where he is now, how much he’s improved. The one thing from a planning standpoint, and this is what happens when you have competitive teams and good young players as they are starting to mature, through arbitration and so on, the payroll continues to grow. This year is obviously unique because of the pandemic, but last year we had the highest payroll in the history of the organization. It probably doesn’t get talked about enough. I know everybody always wants more. But there’s no doubt our ownership has made that commitment to put resources behind this team. We’re always going to have to try to build the best team — you can afford any individual player you want. It just comes down to what else can you put around that player. That’s one thing we’re mindful of and that’s why you saw in the current offseason, we lost some players we really liked. We liked them as human beings, in the clubhouse, the performance, but you’re trying to build the most complete team you can and make it all fit. We have cost certainty, but Acuna is going to get up to $15 million a year from now. He’s going up $10 million dollars. Ozuna is backloaded. Ozzie’s will climb. Hopefully arbitration-eligible players continue to perform well, that’s certainly going to have an impact. You want them to perform well and that means we’re going to win games. So those are all things we’ll have to balance and juggle. I am optimistic and encouraged with the way things look right now with vaccines and so on, the All-Star Game, I’m very optimistic as we continue throughout the season that the outlook for the world looks a lot better.

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You obviously inherited a strong farm system when you arrived (in November 2017). There have been a lot of graduations since, which has pushed the system down the rankings. But Michael Harris has been the talk of spring. Drew Waters, Kyle Muller, Braden Shewmake; are you happy with where the system stands, especially considering the limitations you’ve had on the international market (due to MLB punishment for his predecessors’ infractions)?

It was to be expected. It made sense in terms of the farm system, you had Acuna, Albies-type talent and high draft picks, Ian Anderson. Once those guys graduate, you’re not going to replace finding Acunas. Even when you look at when Acuna was signed, he wasn’t a top prospect. He wasn’t one of these multi-million dollar signing bonus players that everyone predicted stardom for when he was 16. He became that player. As guys graduate - and look, instead of picking high in the draft, like getting an Ian Anderson third (overall) when you’re rebuilding, hopefully we pick as late as we can. Hopefully we pick in that 26 to 30 range each year because we have a really good big-league club. Then you factor in the tough part about, well, you lose draft picks when you’re signing certain free agents. Then you have no international on top of it, that we’re finally getting back into next year for the first time. If that’s the first time you’re getting back into it in ’22, and these players are 16, you’re looking at, the first time you’re back in, you have to figure even if you hit, you get a 20-year-old phenom who’s four years away, you’re looking at 2026. That’s certainly a challenge. But like you said, we still have a lot of really good young players. All the work that’s been done before I got here, there’s still a tremendous amount of scouting departments, player development departments, the work that they’ve done, there are still a lot of good young players. Guys like Harris, he’s still young and we’ll see how he does, but everybody is pretty excited about him. As a two-way player, I know (vice president of scouting) Dana (Brown) was really — that was the guy he had to have in the draft. He was excited about him. It’s nice what these guys have done in spring training. The one thing is we didn’t lose any draft picks now in free agency this offseason. So we have a full allotment there. It’s more challenging when you pick late, but you can still continue to get good young players. And I’m excited about being back fully in the international market in 2022 as well. I’m encouraged here in the next four or five years that hopefully we’re going to continue to add to it.

Who is one player on this team you think is primed to take a step forward?

I think there’s no surprises on this team, right? The guy who’s probably so far flashed the most growth has been (Huascar) Ynoa, and he still has his moments, but everything seems to be a little better. He’s always had a good arm and good stuff. He seems to be improving and getting better. You look at everyone else — I’ve said this before, I view Riley as a similar career path to Dansby. Good, talented players that certainly have upside. Dansby had a few years and every year it kept getting better. Hopefully Austin continues on that path. Beyond that, obviously Cristian Pache is a highly touted prospect. We don’t know, as a young player, what you’re going to get over time. But in terms of 2021 specifically, I don’t know that there’s anyone who really jumps out. The only one, if I had to pick one, it just looks like there’s a little bit more growth than the others so far has been Ynoa.

Given all that’s changing from last season – back to a full schedule, the DH (designated hitter), handling pitchers, the virus what’s your biggest concern with this season?

I don’t have a season concern. My biggest concern is our depth. I just know we’ve had a lot of things — as nice as it is to say we’ve won the division three years in a row — I look at the things we’ve overcome in those three years. When you really look at it, there’s no doubt that 2018 of the three was not as strong as 2019 and 2020. But for the most part, things were pretty smooth in 2018. We didn’t have a whole lot go wrong. But we had more talent on those other clubs. We had a lot more things go wrong, whether it’s rotation, injuries, bullpen, and we were able to overcome them. We had depth to overcome those things. Again, having to make some tough calls, tough decisions, we felt we had to do the heavy lifting first. You worry about our depth and the quality of our depth. That’s normal for any club. Health, like anything else. It’s a competitive advantage to stay healthy, both from a COVID standpoint and just a playing standpoint. That’s my No. 1 thing. What are the innings pitched and games played column, can we keep those high? That will give us the best chance to get back to the playoffs.

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Since opening day is around the corner, do you have a favorite opening-day memory?

I thought about all opening days just right now. First thing that came to mind was my first year here in Atlanta, Nick Markakis (walk-off homer) off of (Hector) Neris. A splitter. That’s the first thing that came to mind. I’ve obviously seen a lot of opening days but if you’re putting me on the spot, that’s the first one that comes to mind. Maybe because I’d just got here, didn’t know what to expect, didn’t necessarily know what we had with the roster. We were going to make some changes defensively from a positioning standpoint, from a data standpoint. I felt like we were going to improve there. But that was a great opening day. It feels like it set the tone for the entire year.