Braves celebrate their NL East championship.
Photo: AP/John Bazemore
Photo: AP/John Bazemore

How the NL East champion Braves were built

The Braves’ return to the top of the National League East often is viewed strictly as the hard-earned result of the franchise’s painful teardown and rebuild of the past three years. 

That is a significant part of the explanation, to be sure, but it is an oversimplification of how the 2018 Braves were built. 

The roster responsible for the Braves’ first division championship since 2013, just their second since 2005, reflects moves made under the regimes of five general managers, including key acquisitions before, during and after the rebuild. 

There was the fortuitous selection under then-GM John Schuerholz of a California kid by the name of Freddie Freeman in the 2007 amateur draft after the Braves took three other players ahead of him, at least one of whom you’ve likely never heard of. There was the thrifty spending under then-GM Frank Wren of $492,000, a measly amount in the modern baseball economy, to sign three 16-year-old under-the-radar international prospects: Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo. 

There was the barrage of tear-it-down-to-rebuild-it moves under the John Hart/John Coppolella administration, whose most significant acquisitions in terms of impact on this division championship team include Mike Foltynewicz, Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte. And there are the players added this year by current general manager Alex Anthopoulos, including two key starting pitchers. 

The plan was for the pitching prospects procured during the Hart/Coppolella rebuild to lead the Braves back to the top of the division. But that isn’t entirely how it happened, with Foltynewicz the only one of those prospects firmly established near the top of the rotation at this point. 

Veterans Kevin Gausman and Anibal Sanchez, both acquired this year by Anthopoulos, were the team’s next most reliable starting pitchers down the stretch. Julio Teheran, originally signed near the end of the Schuerholz era, and Sean Newcomb, acquired by Hart/Coppolella at the extreme cost of Andrelton Simmons, appeared in the past week to be vying for the last spot in the postseason rotation. 

Various vaunted pitching prospects brought into the organization during the rebuild – the likes of Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard, Max Fried, Bryse Wilson, Luiz Gohara, Ian Anderson and others – may well become stars on future Braves teams. Toussaint might even figure prominently into this postseason. But the Braves won a division championship a year or so ahead of schedule, by most estimations.

“This whole thing has been an entire organizational feat, I think,” manager Brian Snitker said as he relaxed in the SunTrust Park dugout on the morning after the Braves clinched the NL East. “It has taken an entire organization to make this happen.” 

The first major piece of this team, Freeman, was acquired in 2007, Schuerholz’s last season as general manager. The Braves had four of the first 78 picks in the amateur draft that year. 

With their first three picks, the Braves selected outfielder Jason Heyward at No. 14 overall, third baseman Jon Gilmore (whose career ended at the Double-A level in 2012) at No. 33 and relief pitcher Josh Fields (who didn’t sign with Atlanta) at No. 69. And then with their fourth pick, No. 78 overall, still in the second round, the Braves drafted a high school first baseman whom many other teams’ scouts liked better as a pitcher than as a hitter at the time. 

Freeman was overshadowed a bit by Heyward as they rose through the farm system to Atlanta. But in February 2014, under Wren, the Braves made a significant choice: They signed Freeman to an eight-year, $135-million contract extension, effectively making him, not Heyward, the franchise cornerstone. 

Surprisingly, of the players who have been with the Braves’ big-league team for all of this season, Freeman is one of only three who were drafted by the organization. The others are relief pitcher A.J. Minter and catcher Tyler Flowers, although Flowers, a 33rd-round pick in 2005, was traded to the White Sox as a minor leaguer and didn’t play for Atlanta until 2016. 

Three of the Braves’ most dynamic players, however, signed originally with the organization as international amateurs. Camargo signed for a $42,000 bonus in July 2010, Albies for $350,000 in July 2013 and Acuna for $100,000 in July 2014, all under the Wren regime.

All three have proved to be colossal bargains. Left fielder Acuna’s historic season likely will lead to the National League rookie-of-the-year award. Albies made the All-Star team. Camargo has been a big contributor, too.

Wren was fired in September 2014. The next administration, Hart and Coppolella, engineered and executed the teardown/rebuild, trading away Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Craig Kimbrel,  Alex Wood, Andrelton Simmons and others within about a year’s time. 

While the Braves’ 2018 roster has little to show for some of those trades, others loom large.

The Heyward trade indirectly produced two regulars on this team. Heyward and relief pitcher Jordan Walden were dealt to St. Louis for pitcher Shelby Miller and a minor leaguer in November 2014. The Braves flipped Miller to Arizona 13 months later in a heist that landed shortstop Swanson and center fielder Inciarte. 

Another Hart/Coppolella trade with a large impact on this season sent Gattis to the Astros in January 2015 for three prospects. One of them, Foltynewicz, made the All-Star team this year and is expected to be the Braves’ Game 1 starter in the Division Series.

Anthopoulos became the Braves’ general manager in November 2017 after an ugly scandal involving considerable rule-breaking in the international player market led to the departures of Hart and Coppolella (and the banning of Coppolella from baseball for life). Anthopoulos took a cautious approach, respecting the young talent but admitting he didn’t know at the start of this season how good the team might be -- or how soon.

Anthopoulos’ highest-profile move last winter was the subtraction of left fielder Matt Kemp to improve the defense and make room for Acuna. But his additions -- especially getting valuable utilityman Charlie Culberson from the Dodgers in the Kemp deal, signing Sanchez after he was released by the Twins in March and acquiring Gausman from the Orioles on July 31 -- helped fortify the Braves’ roster for what turned out to be a division championship. 

Beyond trades, a move that would help shape this team came at the nadir of the rebuild on May 17, 2016. The Braves were 9-28 when they fired manager Fredi Gonzalez and named Snitker, then in his 40th season in the organization, interim manager. 

“When they called and offered me the position, it was such a shock,” Snitker recalled. “I thought I heard them say ‘bench coach.’ They said, ‘No, manager.’” 

Snitker, now a leading candidate for NL manager of the year, had been demoted -- “recycled,” he calls it -- from Braves third-base coach to Triple-A Gwinnett manager after the 2013 season. 

“While I thought (any major-league managerial aspirations) were probably over and done with after I was recycled in 2013, it probably ended up being a pretty good thing that it happened to me when it did,” Snitker, 62, said.

If baseball fans are amazed by the turn of events with the 2018 Braves, consider the perspective of Gausman, who was on a team 42 games out of first place just two months ago.

“Coming from Baltimore, with the season we were having there, the playoffs were a far-fetched dream,” Gausman said last week.

And not so long ago, in the depths of three consecutive 90-loss seasons, the same could have been said here.

HOW THE NL EAST CHAMPS WERE BUILT 

Position players

Who | How and when acquired | GM at the time 

Freddie Freeman, 1B | Drafted, June 2007 | Schuerholz 

Ozzie Albies, 2B | International amateur signing, July 2013 | Wren 

Dansby Swanson, SS | Trade with Arizona, December 2015 | Hart/Coppolella 

Johan Camargo, 3B | International amateur signing, July 2010 | Wren 

Ronald Acuna, LF | International amateur signing, July 2014 | Wren 

Ender Inciarte, CF | Trade with Arizona, December 2015 | Hart/Coppolella 

Nick Markakis, RF | Signed as free agent, December 2014 | Hart/Coppolella 

Kurt Suzuki, C | Signed as free agent, January 2017 | Hart/Coppolella 

Tyler Flowers, C | Signed as free agent, December 2015 | Hart/Coppolella 

Charlie Culberson, IF-OF | Trade with Dodgers, December 2017 | Anthopoulos 

Lucas Duda, 1B | Trade with Kansas City, August 2018 | Anthopoulos

Lane Adams, OF | Signed as free agent, July 2018* | Anthopoulos* 

Adam Duvall, OF | Trade with Cincinnati, July 2018 | Anthopoulos 

Ryan Flaherty, IF / Signed as free agent, March 2018 / Anthopoulos 

Rene Rivera, C | Claimed on waivers from Angels, August 2018 | Anthopoulos 

*- Adams originally signed with Braves in December 2016, became a free agent in April 2018, signed with Cubs in May, was released by Cubs in June and re-signed with Braves in July. 

Pitchers

Who | How and when  acquired | GM at the time 

Mike Foltynewicz | Trade with Houston, January 2015 | Hart/Coppolella 

Kevin Gausman | Trade with Baltimore, July 2018 | Anthopoulos 

Anibal Sanchez | Signed as free agent, March 2018 | Anthopoulos 

Julio Teheran | International amateur signing, July 2007 | Schuerholz 

Sean Newcomb | Trade with Angels, November 2015 | Hart/Coppolella 

Touki Toussaint | Trade with Arizona, June 2015 | Hart/Coppolella 

Arodys Vizcaino | Trade with Cubs, November 2014 | Hart/Coppolella 

A.J. Minter | Drafted, June 2015 | Hart/Coppolella 

Chad Sobotka | Drafted, June 2014 | Wren 

Brad Brach | Trade with Baltimore, July 2018 | Anthopoulos

Jonny Venters | Trade with Tampa Bay, July 2018 | Anthopoulos 

Jesse Biddle | Claimed on waivers from Pittsburgh, March 2016 | Hart/Coppolella 

Sam Freeman | Signed as free agent, October 2016 | Hart/Coppolella 

Dan Winkler | Rule 5 draft, December 2014 | Hart/Coppolella 

Max Fried | Trade with San Diego, December 2014 | Hart/Coppolella

Shane Carle | Trade with Pittsburgh, January 2018 | Anthopoulos 

Luke Jackson | Trade with Texas, December 2016 | Hart/Coppolella 

(Note: Some September call-ups are not listed. Players on disabled list for rest of season are not listed.)

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