The Braves know the NL East won’t be easy, but they’re ready for the challenge

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

SAN DIEGO – Days ago, the Mets lost Jacob deGrom, leaving a massive hole in New York’s rotation and equally large questions because of it. The other teams in the National League East breathed sighs of relief.

The Mets signed Justin Verlander a few days later, signaling their intentions of continuing to contend in 2023. New York swapped ace for ace.

“It just keeps getting easier, doesn’t it?” Braves manager Brian Snitker, flashing a smirk, joked on Tuesday at the annual winter meetings at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego.

ExploreCunningham: Mets, Phillies spend big. Will Braves do same for Dansby Swanson?

Hours after the Verlander news dropped, the Phillies and Trea Turner agreed to a deal. The reigning NL champions now boast one of baseball’s best shortstops.

The NL East might be baseball’s toughest gauntlet next season.

But this isn’t a surprise to Snitker and the Braves. They expected it. This is the way it’s been in their division.

“We talked about that last year,” Snitker said. “Those teams are going to continue to push and get better, and they have resources. That’s the way it is, a really good division. We’re in the same boat that we were in a year ago. But we gotta play the games. That’s why we play the games.

“We knew going in last year that these teams were going to get better, that they were going to continue to get better. I feel like we are, too. We’re going to be another year older, another year more experienced with some really talented young players. I think we’re all real excited to get to work again.”

The Braves have won five consecutive NL East titles. Their string of division crowns is baseball’s longest active run. They have not finished anywhere but first in their division since president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos joined the organization and began steering it toward success.

A sixth division title will not come easy.

The Phillies, who already had Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto and Kyle Schwarber and more, added Turner. The Mets signed Verlander, and might not be done spending because their owner, Steve Cohen, has dedicated resources to winning. The NL East could once again send three teams to October.

“Teams have or are getting better, they’re using their resources to make their club better,” Snitker said. “And they’re big games. It’s fun games. When you think about it, you go into a big series with a really good team, you get jacked up and you like it. It’s why we do this. It’s fun to do that.”

This fall, the Phillies made a surprise run to the World Series. They stunned the Braves, then rolled over the Padres.

They had fired their manager early in the season.

Their star player missed a lot of time.

Their bullpen and defense didn’t look great for most of the season.

But they ended up making the World Series. The Phillies provided yet another example of what everyone in baseball says: Just give yourself a chance in October, and anything can happen.

“I told the guys, ‘You fight to get in the playoffs because you never know what can happen,’” Snitker said. “And we got in. In a couple of months, we’re going to go back to spring training and get ready to do it again, and try and win the division again, try and get in the playoffs because you never know what can happen. Until you get in, nothing special can happen.”

The Braves, who experienced a magical World Series run in 2021, know this as well as anyone. Their focus for 2023 is simply returning to the postseason.

“That’s where it’s at is getting there, because, like I say, until you get there, you don’t have a chance,” Snitker said. “I tell (the players) from the first meeting in spring training: Our goal, No. 1, is to win the division – not to win the World Series, but to win the division because until we get in the door, we don’t have a chance to do the other. We’ll go there and put our energy into everything we can do to try and win the division, and if not that, get into the playoff scenario.”

Snitker on Swanson: ‘It’s tough because you do get attached to those guys’

A year ago, Snitker went through this same situation, these same feelings with Freddie Freeman.

Now it’s with Dansby Swanson, who remains unsigned.

“It’s tough because you do get attached to those guys,” Snitker said. “My God, we spend a lot of time together, they’re quality individuals. I love him to death. But that’s part of the business. We all know that when we get in here and it is part of it. Time will tell which way we go but I’ll always root for that kid.”

It’s a waiting game. Swanson’s price might be above the Braves’ comfort level.

But the shortstop certainly has other suitors. The Cubs might be a fit. The Dodgers, who lost Turner to the Phillies, could be a potential landing spot.

The Braves re-signing Swanson seems like it makes sense for both sides. But he’s earned the right to test the open market and the payday that comes with it. He might end up earning more than the Braves want to offer him.

Vaughn Grissom is working with infield guru Ron Washington, the Braves’ third base coach, a few times this winter. Grissom’s workouts with Washington are said to have gone well thus far. Grissom will spend more time with Washington starting in a few days.

Washington believes Grissom can be a quality everyday shortstop defensively. The Braves believe in his bat.

One reporter asked Snitker about Grissom potentially starting at shortstop if Swanson were to depart. Snitker said he doesn’t remember seeing Grissom at shortstop in spring training. (Snitker’s focus was elsewhere considering the Braves never expected Grissom to debut in 2022. When he did, he played second base, not shortstop).

“We’ll go to spring training. We have Arcia, we got Grissom, and we’ll let them play, we’ll see where it goes,” Snitker said of plans if Swanson doesn’t return. “We’ve got 30-some games to decide which way we want to go. We’ll see. … It’s just going to be one of those things – for me, I’m going to have to put my eyes on the situation before I make any determination.”

A lot of options, talent for fifth starter

As we’ve discussed before in this space, the Braves have an open competition for their fifth-starter job. The interesting part of Atlanta’s situation: There’s a lot of talent in this group.

Mike Soroka was one of the NL’s top starting pitchers in 2019. Ian Anderson has had a lot of success, even with his rough 2022 season. Kyle Muller could take the next step. Bryce Elder helped the Braves win a division title last season. Kolby Allard has upside.

In particular, Soroka and Anderson have proven they have the talent to be toward the front of a rotation when they’re at their best.

“You can never have too much pitching depth,” Snitker said. “When you look at the group of guys that we have that are going to be competing for that job, a guy like Ian and Mike, those guys have been in rookie of the year conversations, they’ve pitched big games, in World Series (games), (NLCS) games. So it’s good.

“You never know what the injury bug is going to do. You just can’t have too many of those guys. And they’ve all got experience, too. That’s the thing – they’ve all made starts and have shown improvement.”

The Snitkers win rings in back-to-back seasons

In 2021, Brian Snitker managed versus the Astros and his son, Troy, in the World Series. Someone had to lose, and that was Troy, who is Houston’s hitting coach.

Well, Troy’s Astros won a World Series in 2022.

“It was awesome,” Brian said. “I told (Troy) I was more nervous watching his games than I was when I was managing against them in the World Series last year. Just pulling for him so hard, and it was really cool.”

Brian became ill and couldn’t attend the games. A couple times, he went to bed early and would immediately check the scores when he woke up the next morning.

“I’m very proud of what he did last year, even,” Brian said. “I don’t know there’s many households that have back-to-back World Series champions living in them, either.”

Quick notes

Snitker said a normal offseason could help Ronald Acuña have a terrific 2023 season. The manager added this: “I’d just be real surprised if he just doesn’t have a real big year.” Last winter, Acuña rehabbed after tearing his ACL during the season.

Snitker recently saw Ozzie Albies, whose 2022 season was ruined by a fractured foot and a fractured pinkie.

“He was fired up,” Snitker said. “Had a good look about him and is doing great.”

Tyler Matzek, who underwent Tommy John surgery this fall and will miss all of 2023, is also doing well.