The 2020 Braves came close. This team is better

Atlanta Braves Marcell Ozuna (from left), Freddie Freeman, and Travis d'Arnaud watch the final outs of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Atlanta Braves Marcell Ozuna (from left), Freddie Freeman, and Travis d'Arnaud watch the final outs of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Spring training is at hand, which means the tactical part of the offseason — the buying and selling of players — is mostly over. We say “mostly” because we recall Anibal Sanchez, cut by Minnesota on March 11, 2018, and signed by the Braves five days later. He started 24 regular-season games and compiled a 2.83 ERA that season; he also started Game 2 of the National League Division Series against Clayton Kershaw. Without Sanchez in 2018, the Braves wouldn’t have won their division.

From now until the trade deadline — which is, we note, a ways away — general managers awake at 3 a.m. with the same thought: “What else can I do?” Once the playing starts, the manager runs the team. Still, the GM is charged with supplying players for the manager, and no matter how sagacious an offseason a GM might have had, the fear never subsides. What happens when something goes wrong?

Explore3 knowns, 3 unknowns ahead of 2021 spring training

Note the wordage – “when,” as opposed to “if.” Because something almost always goes wrong. On April 17, 2019, the Braves learned that their closer, Arodys Vizcaino, was lost for the duration with a bad shoulder. Ten days into the shortened 2020 season, they saw Mike Soroka, their best pitcher, tear his Achilles. In each of the past two seasons, the Braves were moved to demote Mike Foltynewicz, a 2018 All-Star. He’s now with Texas.

The standard baseball season lasts six months, which is long enough for everything imaginable — and some things beyond imagination — to happen. The Braves figured their rotation over last year’s 60 games would include Soroka, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, Cole Hamels and maybe Felix Hernandez. Fried started 11 games. The other four started a total of six. And yet …

The Braves won the National League for the third time running, went 7-0 to start the playoffs and fell one win short of the World Series. They found the ways and means. If we know anything about Alex Anthopoulos after three years and three months on the job, it’s that he’s good at finding ways and means.

It’s selfie time led by Marcell Ozuna (right) with Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies as the Atlanta Braves celebrate advancing to the NL Championship Series by defeating the Marlins 7-0 in Game 3 of the NLDS completing their second consecutive postseason series sweep on Thursday, Oct 8, 2020 in Houston.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
It’s selfie time led by Marcell Ozuna (right) with Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies as the Atlanta Braves celebrate advancing to the NL Championship Series by defeating the Marlins 7-0 in Game 3 of the NLDS completing their second consecutive postseason series sweep on Thursday, Oct 8, 2020 in Houston. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

It’s not that every move has worked. Jose Bautista didn’t. Kevin Gausman did until he didn’t. Dallas Keuchel did, at least until October. Hamels was a write-off, even at his prorated cost. What makes Anthopoulos among the best in his cutthroat business is that he’s nimble. He got one huge season from Josh Donaldson, then one from Marcell Ozuna. Donaldson proved too expensive (also too old) to keep; Ozuna was re-signed for $65 million over four seasons. At an average asset value of $16.25 million, that’s less than he would have gotten had his 2020 salary ($18 mil) not gotten prorated.

Anthopoulos concedes that his first season here was something of a happy surprise: He didn’t know the team he inherited from John Coppolella could contend until the first of May, and he reacted accordingly, summoning Mike Soroka to the majors ahead of schedule. (Ronald Acuna was promoted five days earlier.) The two seasons since have been harder slogs. Foltynewicz flamed out. Hamels worked 3-1/3 innings as a Brave. Sean Newcomb disappointed. Dansby Swanson got hurt twice in 2019. Freddie Freeman got COVID-19 last July. And yet …

The Braves have won three consecutive division titles with room to spare. The Phillies signed Bryce Harper in February 2019 and have gone 109-113 since. The Nationals won the World Series as a wild card two years ago, but finished 26-34 in 2020. The Mets have finished an aggregate 33 games behind the Braves the past three seasons. The Marlins made the expanded 2020 playoffs after going 31-29.

Since Anthopoulos arrived, the Braves haven’t finished anywhere but first. He has shepherded a rebuilding team from its formative years into young adulthood. What they’ve needed, their GM has found. He bought three relievers at the 2019 deadline and added Will Smith last winter, and that bullpen kept the Braves buoyant when the rotation fell to pieces. Last year’s struggles became moments of arrival for Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright, and maybe Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa, too. Just to be sure he had enough starting pitching — not that anyone ever has enough — Anthopoulos added Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.

The bullpen isn’t as deep this time — Mark Melancon and Darren O’Day signed elsewhere — but the men the Braves considered their key relievers, meaning Smith and Chris Martin, remain in place. Were you going to run low on starting pitching, last season was the time. Sixty games made for 63 percent fewer innings to eat. Depth in starters figures to matter more again in 2021. Retaining Ozuna fills the hole in left field — Adam Duvall also is gone — although the adoption of a universal DH could make room for Drew Waters. (The players’ union hasn’t approved the universal DH, but that’s subject to change.)

This isn’t a perfect roster. Unless you spend as much as the Dodgers, there’s no such thing. The Braves could use a backup catcher, another outfielder and another infielder. Jason Kipnis, signed this week to a minor-league deal, is an intriguing buy. He’s 33. He was once (though not lately) an All-Star second baseman.

A team that led Game 7 of the NL Championship Series with 12 outs remaining has had the sort of offseason that should make its players feel no less enthused about their chances, and they proved in October that their chances are, give or take, as good as anybody’s. Something will go wrong over the next eight months because something always does, but the Braves seem stout enough to handle anything. They nearly won it all last season. They can win it all this time.

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