Bradley’s Buzz: The new Braves Way - buy bats and buy young

Atlanta Braves' Matt Olson reacts after hitting a three-run double against Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Connor Brogdon during the eighth inning of an opening-day baseball game, Friday, March 29, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves' Matt Olson reacts after hitting a three-run double against Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Connor Brogdon during the eighth inning of an opening-day baseball game, Friday, March 29, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

We’ve mentioned this a time or two, but much about baseball defies prediction. This doesn’t mean teams can’t and don’t try, as best as is possible, to project. This much is known: Hitters project better than pitchers, who exist at the mercy of overtaxed ligaments. This much is, too: A position player tends to peak in his late 20s.

Of the Braves’ everyday eight, the oldest is Matt Olson, who turned 30 on Friday, the day he hit two eighth-inning doubles off the Phillies’ vaunted bullpen. The second-youngest is Jarred Kelenic, who’ll be 25 in July. Each of the eight is under club control through 2026. Michael Harris, the youngest, is under club control through 2032.

In baseball as in life, nothing is guaranteed. Over the fullness of time, some of these eight will disappoint. That said, Alex Anthopoulos wasn’t throwing darts when he assembled his octet. He placed eight bets on players of a type (non-pitchers) and an age (30 or younger). He placed bets on talent, all eight having been ranked among MLB’s top 100 prospects.

Given that no team has ever hit more than 307 homers or slugged above .501 in a season, these Braves don’t figure to surpass what they did in 2023. They don’t figure to stop hitting, either. Somebody will get hurt – Sean Murphy already has – but with these bats they shouldn’t need to win many games 2-1, though winning 2-1 is never a bad thing.

We contrast what the Braves have become with what, back in 2014, the Braves aspired to be. Displeased with the franchise arc – this after the club made the playoffs in 2010, 2012 and 2013 and missed in 2011 only after a September flop – John Schuerholz fired general manager Frank Wren and charged John Hart and especially John Coppolella with rebuilding in the grand Braves Way, meaning with young pitching.

As has been noted, it kind of worked – come 2018, the Braves were again division champs – though it really didn’t. Of the many starting pitchers acquired during the great reset, only Max Fried was on this Opening Day roster, and his season opener saw him retire two Phillies.

(You ask: Am I concerned about Fried? No. He should be fine. He was a miscalled strike from being out of the first inning Saturday, though nothing prevented him from striking out the next guy, which he didn’t. But there is this: Navigating a season where a nine-figure reward is at stake brings next-level stress.)

Wrangling pitchers is tough. The Mets reached the 2015 World Series behind Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard – and Zack Wheeler had Tommy John surgery that spring. With those young arms, what could go wrong? Only everything. The Mets haven’t won a playoff series since. Wheeler and deGrom left as pricey free agents. Syndergaard, who’s 31, isn’t on any team’s roster. Harvey retired at 34.

Under Anthopoulos, the Braves’ payroll has almost doubled in size – from $117 million in 2018 to $229M today. He has, however, drawn distinct lines. Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson exited to sign longish contracts elsewhere. With all three, age was a consideration.

Donaldson was 34 when he signed a four-year deal with Minnesota. He retired at 38. Freeman was 32 when signed for six years with the Dodgers. Knowing him, he might be hitting .300 when he’s 50. Swanson was 28 when he signed a seven-year deal with the Cubs. He should stay good for a while, but how many great 35-year-old shortstops have there been?

The Braves replaced Donaldson’s bat with Marcell Ozuna, who arrived on a one-year deal and re-upped for four more at age 30. They handed third base to Austin Riley, now an All-Star. Olson arrived as Freeman’s successor. He finished fourth in 2023 MVP voting, one spot behind Freeman. Swanson made the All-Star team in his first season as a Cub. So did Orlando Arcia, the Braves’ new shortstop.

That’s the final part of the AA method – do nothing, contract-wise, that figures to involve overpaying a player past his prime. (Freeman might never be; if so, he’ll be the exception that proves the rule.) The Braves have won six division titles in succession and should win more. Good young hitters don’t stop hitting, at least not for a while, and seldom all at once.

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