Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said he owes it to everyone to make the Braves better. But that shouldn’t disrupt a long-term commitment.
Even with the Braves losing eight of their past 11, they’re a half-game within the National League East’s first place. It’s a virtual tie with the Phillies who, like the Braves, are prone to highs and lows with a young team ahead of schedule.
The rest of the division leaves much to be desired at the all-star break.
Hosting the All-Star game might be the most positive thing to happen for the Nationals this season. They’re perfectly mediocre (48-48) in Bryce Harper’s walk year. Speaking of Harper, he’s hitting .214 with a .365 on-base percentage.
The Mets, after an 11-1 start, were battered by injuries and closed shop. They’re 39-55, shrouded in trade rumors involving aces Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. The Marlins are equally dreadful, as expected when they sold several stars last winter.
The once-favored Nationals, still within 5-1/2 games despite their misfortunes, could go on a run and crawl back into it. But at best, they’ll have more formidable competition than the past two seasons.
The Braves and Phillies are going to hang around, and if the Phillies add Orioles slugger Manny Machado – an increasingly believable proposition – it probably makes them the favorites.
Still, Anthopoulos shouldn’t be criticized for a conservative approach. Yes, we all know the echoed thought: You have to make the most of each season. If you have a good team, don’t squander it by standing pat because you don’t know when you’ll be back.
Remember the Astros a year ago, when they played it safe at the deadline, were hit with drastic backlash and got a deal done for Justin Verlander at the late-August buzzer? It got them a World Series.
But these Braves scatter more question marks than those Astros. Houston knew it had a World Series-caliber team. Whereas the Braves, while exciting and perhaps baseball’s most pleasant surprise, can afford to play the long game.
Youth development isn’t linear, but the expectation is players such as Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna will continue to improve. Mike Soroka, Luiz Gohara, Max Fried – plus the promise of minor-league arms such as Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright – could make leaps similar to Mike Foltynewicz’s and Sean Newcomb’s.
The Braves will organically get better, and if they don’t, that’s a bigger concern than a quiet deadline. As Anthopoulos told our Mark Bradley last week, you can’t undo years of work for one season.
“We would prefer not to go after rentals unless the acquisition cost just makes so much sense for us,” Anthopoulos said. “There’s a lot of pain that has gone into putting together this young talent. We’re not ready to throw that all away just because of one season. That said, I do think we owe it to the players and the fan base and the organization to make this team better, one way or another.”
For reasons he outlined, it’d be surprising if the Braves persisted in the Machado derby. The same can be said for Mike Moustakas, whom the team declined to sign in winter and should have little motivation to invest assets in given his expiring contract and up-and-down production.
As Anthopoulos said, he owes it to this group to make improvements. It’s not as though bettering the 2018 Braves and harming the 2020 Braves are necessarily intertwined.
But third base shouldn’t be his chief concern. Johan Camargo has done enough in the starting role to warrant attention elsewhere.
The Braves need to upgrade their bullpen. Fortunately, that conceivably can be done without a prime cost. Unfortunately, they won’t be the only NL contender needing such assistance.
The Cubs could add bullpen depth as they duel the Brewers, though they might prioritize starters. The Dodgers have flirted with Machado, and might even be the favorites, but like the Braves, they need to add to their relief group for October. Regardless of Machado, the Phillies could use another arm.
First baseman Freddie Freeman, the team’s franchise player and arguably the MVP front-runner, feels they’ve done their part on the field. He likes the current crop of teammates, but if Anthopoulos sees a chance to improve, Freeman would sign off.
“I think as a group in the clubhouse, all you can do is put yourself in position for the front office to help you out,” Freeman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Washington for the All-Star game. “I think a half-game back with a couple weeks to go until the trade deadline, that’s all you can really do is put pressure on them. And they’ve said to us, in team meetings, ‘You guys are doing a great job. Our goal is for you to try to make us do something.’ And I feel like we have. Our job is to try to win ballgames. Their job is to see if they can help us get better, so we’ll see what happens in the upcoming weeks.”
There’s undoubtedly an opportunity for the Braves to win the East. But they used last offseason as a means to set up 2019. Their encouraging first half shouldn’t alter a bigger-picture commitment, and with Anthopoulos making the calls, it won’t.
The question lies in how Anthopoulos will balance his present and future responsibilities. Last winter was a feeling-out process. This July is his first true test as the team’s decision maker.
It’s come earlier than even he could’ve expected.
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