How the Braves GM made his outfield makeover work

Braves Jorge Soler celebrates in the dugout after his home run in Thursday's Braves-Phillies game at Truist Park that clinched the NL East. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)
Caption
Braves Jorge Soler celebrates in the dugout after his home run in Thursday's Braves-Phillies game at Truist Park that clinched the NL East. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

The human puzzle that is a baseball clubhouse is the most complicated kind. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces change shape day to day according to mood or fortune. How do you ever put together anything that produces a pleasing, or even coherent, picture? Let alone rebuild it after some of the pieces get lost in the green shag carpet.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos tries to simplify the puzzle by reducing the pieces. Take the pool of players who possess the requisite talent and shrink it to more manageable size, he said, to include “those players who fit what you’re trying to do.”

And when you do that right, then just maybe it is possible to rebuild an outfield on the fly and turn a season that seemed doomed into the fourth in a series of National League East championships.

The oft-told wonder of this Braves division title was how they replaced an entire outfield late, touching off an almost instant chemical reaction that changed everything.

Your Braves outfield July 16, the first game back from the All-Star break, the team 4 ½ games out of first: Abraham Almonte in right; Guillermo Heredia in center; Orlando Arcia in left. Star outfielder Ronald Acuna had been lost to a knee injury and 2020′s Silver Slugger Award winner as a DH, Marcell Ozuna, was entangled in a domestic-violence issue.

The outfield for your division champion Braves on clinch day, Sept. 30: Jorge Soler in right; Adam Duvall in center; Eddie Rosario in left. All three acquired at the trade deadline, July 30. All three credited with helping ignite a nine-game road win streak and a 42-27 second half (and as of Friday, the Braves had won 10 of their past 11). All three representing some of Anthopoulos’ finest work.

“The guts of this lineup came the first of August,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It made a huge difference. It made a huge difference in our lineup, made a huge difference in the makeup of our team and how our team felt about itself.

“We had a lot of injuries. We needed players and (Anthopoulos) went out and got four major league outfielders (including Joc Pederson in mid-July). And every one of them came in and made an immediate impact which was awesome.”

Or, as second baseman Ozzie Albies put it, “We needed big bats at big moments and they showed up.”

Anthopoulos was trying anything to kickstart a team that spent its first 110 games never seeing the sunny side of .500. At Freeman’s urgings and against his own fears of fostering a fatter roster, he had a soft-serve ice cream installed in the clubhouse. And then told Freeman that if the Braves won the NL East, he’d have one delivered to his home. Freeman hasn’t pushed that point yet. “I owe him. If he ever wants to call me on it, it will be money well spent,” Anthopoulos said.

More substantive were the moves made to plug the holes in the Braves outfield dike.

It’s not like Anthopoulos picked up a used Yugo and won the Daytona 500 or took best-in-show at Westminster with a rescue mutt. He was trading in more known quantities than that, in players who were accomplished but in many cases were underproducing or hurt or both. (That, in turn, made them more affordable). Still, what the Braves GM did this season with his trade deadline maneuverings – turning low-cost acquisitions into treasure – has smacked of the unbelievable.

Besides adding a bit of payroll burden to a corporation that can take it, Anthopoulos acquired these difference-making players without giving up a top-15 prospect. The Braves were desperate, yet none of the deals emitted the burnt-hair aroma of desperation.

There is no guarantee, of course, that such mid-season transplants won’t be rejected. Yet what marked the Braves trades was how all four outfielders quickly integrated into their new surroundings and flourished. Some dramatically so. Soler, who hit 48 homers in Kansas City in 2019, was hitting just .192 and slugging just .370 in 94 games with the Royals this season. As a Brave, he’s hitting .268 with 13 home runs and is slugging .512.

Here’s where Anthopoulos’ beliefs in scouting personality as well as performance paid off. Into a clubhouse already designed around certain high expectations came another group of players pre-wired to work on the same current.

They all have had their moments. Pederson’s walk-off single in the 10th inning to beat Washington and his game-saving catch at the wall against San Francisco. Rosario, after recovering from a strained abdomen, hitting for the cycle on only five pitches against the Giants. Duvall building a league-lead in RBI (44 of them in 54 games with the Braves). Soler’s homer in the division-clinching game Thursday night as well as a 4 RBI-game against San Diego.

“Alex looks for good people first. That’s huge in a clubhouse,” said Duvall, on his second go-round with the Braves. “When you can get all the guys gelling and meshing and playing together it’s different than a bunch of guys playing for themselves. That’s what he looks for and that’s what he brings in. That’s big for a team in a spot we were in earlier, we needed to make up some ground. Then, you can’t bring in guys who aren’t going to fit in right away.”

Soler is a study in how organizationally the Braves can make a new piece fit. His manager had faith in him – sensing Soler was ready to break out, Brian Snitker plugged him into the lineup one day earlier than originally planned. His outfield coach had faith in him – Eric Young assured all that Soler, who was DHing the bulk of the time in K.C., would be a more than competent outfielder. And his teammates were eager to bring out his best.

“I consider myself a pretty timid person,” Soler said through an interpreter. “When I first got here, I was very quiet, not really talking to anyone. Thank God, I had (Heredia) here with me, another Cuban. He was able to introduce me to the guys and make me feel welcome. Once that started getting going, I was able to make friends with everybody.”

“Some places you can put too many mismatched parts together and it’s not easy. The core group here and the makeup of this club makes its such that it’s an easy environment to come in and feel you want to be a part of it,” Snitker said.

Then, of course, if you can’t get cranked up leaving a non-contender for a team in the grips of a division race, Anthopoulos probably wouldn’t be pursuing you. The teams the four outfielders came from – the Cubs, Cleveland, Miami and Kansas City – were at the start of Friday a combined 75.5 games out of first.

“It’s a very special moment for me and my family. I didn’t start the season very well, but I had the blessing to come to this team and here we are,” Soler said during the clinching celebration Thursday night.

The story of this division championship, as much as the MVP-caliber rise of Austin Riley and the performance of two front-line starters – Charlie Morton and Max Fried – has been the rescue effort of Anthopoulos in the face of potentially crippling losses and the work of an emergency outfield.

“I’ll be the first to say you have your doubts,” Freeman said, “but then they come in and you start winning.”

The story pauses for a weekend while one exhausted - and maybe a little bit lucky - general manager catches his breath. Who knew puzzle-solving could be so taxing?

“I don’t want to do this again. I never want to experience something like this again. Definitely, the most challenging year, for sure,” Anthopoulos said.

Hand-in-hand with that, he added, “Under the circumstances of all we went through I’d say it is the most rewarding year of my career.”

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