Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies stood over the dugout railing at the conclusion of Game 4, watching the Dodgers celebrate on the SunTrust Park infield.
The Braves had a front-row view of the franchise they want to become. The Dodgers were deep, star-studded, stupendously managed top to bottom and blessed with intangibles out the wazoo.
As such, the Braves’ season ended in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
“You look over there and think, ‘Man, that’s what it looks like,’” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “(The Dodgers are) four wins away from the World Series again.”
General manager Alex Anthopoulos worked in the Dodgers’ front office for two seasons before taking over the Braves. The parallels are already evident, with a renewed emphasis on defense and desire for players in the Charlie Culberson multi-purpose mold.
Now the Braves supposedly have the financial power to compete with baseball’s upper class. But until an A-grade free agent is in hand, skeptics will understandably persist.
The Dodgers didn’t get where they are by throwing money around, despite carrying MLB’s highest payroll. They were built on shrewd decisions, often using their financial leeway as a buffer unavailable to most of the majors.
There’s a happy medium the Braves must discover. They won’t be handing out multiple $100 million deals, but they needn’t allow their payroll to plateau either. They know they aren’t the Dodgers, Red Sox or Astros. They have the means to reach that status as quickly as 2019.
“We’ve got to get stronger, and I think that’s just our whole team,” Snitker said. “We’ve just got to kind of get stronger to compete in that situation. Because (the Dodgers are) really strong and deep. And we’re not there yet. We will be. We’ll get there.”
Free agency and/or the trade market can accelerate that process. The Braves need a catcher even with Tyler Flowers re-signed. They just saw the soon-to-be available Yasmani Grandal with the Dodgers, and he’s obviously a player with whom Anthopoulos is familiar.
Miami may decide to ignite a bidding war for J.T. Realmuto. Wilson Ramos could be a cheaper alternative to both, while bringing back Kurt Suzuki certainly wouldn’t be a bad outcome.
Much will be made of right field, where Nick Markakis declined as the season went on and now hits the market. Markakis embodied a clubhouse leader in every way, and his effect on the team shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Braves may enter the Bryce Harper bidding, though it would surprise, well, everyone if they were even a finalist. A.J. Pollack presents a younger option than Markakis, while the trade market often offers plentiful outfield options.
As with Suzuki, the Braves wouldn’t be bad off if they retained Markakis. Still, it’s easy to envision them shopping at a more expensive outlet before bringing him back on what’d have to be a one-or-two year deal.
Right field and catcher will be the sexy focuses, but improving the bullpen and bench is vital. Both appeared glaring weaknesses in the postseason, especially when compared with the class of the NL.
More bullpen depth should help the Braves through the regular season as well, perhaps keeping the Dan Winklers and Jesse Biddles of the world fresher so they won’t be cross-offs come postseason.
Craig Kimbrel is the fans’ favorite, but that would go against Anthopoulos’ philosophy and, given the likely price, could prove foolish. The Braves don’t have the luxury of issuing a “bad” contract for the sake of now.
Relievers were the lone beneficiaries of last winter’s market, meaning the Braves probably will have to spend, if not overpay, to add reliability to their bullpen.
The best path to improvement here could be the trade market. The Braves shouldn’t award a steep deal to Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton or the like unless they’re getting a team-friendly deal.
“We’ve just got to continue to work to get stronger, your bullpen depth and the bench and things like that,” Snitker said. “We’re not a finished product by any stretch. There’s a lot of young players on our whole team, pitching and position players that are going to take steps to get there too.”
The bench is an easier case. Adam Duvall was a worthy flier that busted. Lucas Duda could be worth retaining, depending upon his price. Hey, Matt Adams is a free agent again, and the Braves lost a waiver claim on him a couple of months ago.
Whatever the name, they’ll need another homer-threatening bat. They’d love another Culberson, Martin Prado-type (though not the 2019 edition) player. Those aren’t easy to find. Bench power can be, depending on how the player could fit defensively.
The Braves could opt for another starter, ignoring their wealth there and recognizing the importance of a top-flight arm. The Mets didn’t receive any worthy offers for Jacob deGrom at the deadline, but of course the Braves would be interested. Put the odds on that one at around 1 percent.
Lefty Patrick Corbin is free agency’s big prize, yet many have the New York native ticketed for the Yankees. There will be cheaper alternatives, even one Anibal Sanchez, who made it clear he would like to return to the Braves.
It would be unwise for the franchise to roll with just young arms. They’ll again try to trade Julio Teheran, as everyone learned from his bottom-of-the-totum-pole status in the NLDS. Kevin Gausman is a nice veteran to have in the middle of the rotation as a replacement.
Sanchez wouldn’t have to return as a starter. They could sell him on a swing role – injuries are inevitable – as he continues his fine work with the younger guys.
Mike Soroka, if healthy, will fit into the equation. Max Fried and Touki Toussaint will make cases. Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Kolby Allard cracked the majors.
Some of the pitchers will be dealt, which is when no one envies Anthopoulos, who must decide between core piece or trade chip. The Braves are best positioned to cash in some of their pitching depth for help this winter. Waiting will only lead to some deteriorating value, such as Luiz Gohara this past season.
This is the Braves’ best shot to make a leap, the winter they’ve anticipated for several years has arrived on the heels of a 90-win campaign.
And with the Nationals and Phillies likely to take drastic measures for improvement, along with the Dodgers, Brewers and Cubs keeping their cores intact, the Braves can’t afford the status quo.
“We’re not a finished product yet,” Snitker said. “We’re going to have to continue to work and get better individually and as a team.”
No team is a finished product. But this winter offers the Braves an opportunity to complement their core with difference makers, drawing ever closer to MLB’s elite.
“A lot of people did a lot of great things here,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said of the 2018 season. “I think you’re going to see the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs for a lot of years.”
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