The Braves keep getting deeper — and better

Credit: Atlanta Braves

As the free agent and Braves general manager discuss new four-year deal, the outfielder asks why the team waited so long to sign him.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

The Braves just told us what they think of themselves. They’ve believed for two years they were good enough to win the World Series; last year they came close. They played 12 postseason games. They won eight. They led Game 5 of the NLCS with 10 outs to go, Game 7 with 12 outs remaining. They almost eliminated one of the best teams of the era.

Coming off a COVID-shortened year in which every club lost serious money, the Braves could have approached this offseason by saying, “We might have been the second-best team in baseball last year, and we’ve got Ronald Acuna and Max Fried and Mike Soroka and Ozzie Albies and Ian Anderson under club control for a good while longer. Let’s ride with what we have — at least until we know when we can again sell tickets for games.”

They chose otherwise. They signed Drew Smyly, a starting pitcher of no special distinction, for one year at $11 million. And here you thought, “Makes sense. They need a placeholder in the rotation until Soroka gets back.” But wait.

Eight days later, they signed Charlie Morton, a 37-year-old starter, for one year at $15 million. And now you thought, “This isn’t a sub-prime starter added in case of emergency — this is a guy who can win games in October. They’re really getting serious. But that’s surely where the spending stops.” It wasn’t.

On Friday night, the Braves announced the re-signing of outfielder Marcell Ozuna for four years at $64 million. (There’s a club option for a fifth season at $16 million.) And this left us with but one conclusion:

The Braves, who aren’t given to profligacy in the best of times, feel their moment is at hand. Such is their weight of young talent that they have reason to believe, this will still be a playoff-level club in 2025, but they’re not looking beyond anything. They’re aiming to win it all in 2021. And then, dare we say, to win it again.

Their three offseason moves proved they’re leaving little to chance, or at least as little as is possible in a game where arms get sore and bats go cold. The rotation as we left it figured to include Fried, Anderson, Kyle Wright and maybe Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa, all of whom had splendid October moments. They expect Soroka will return from his torn Achilles by Memorial Day. They didn’t have to rent another starter for a year, as they did in 2019 with Dallas Keuchel, who wasn’t bad, or with Cole Hamels, who logged 3-1/3 innings last year.

Instead they rented two. Smyly is one of those risks — Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud in 2020 were others — who owes the size of his contract not to any back-of-the-bubblegum-card stats but to analytics. Smyly worked only 20 innings last season, but his strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate (14.35) leapt off the computer screen.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Veteran pitcher Drew Smyly - who has signed a 1-year deal to pitch in Atlanta - addresses how the interest with the team dates back a few seasons.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

If you recall Morton as the fidgety rookie who plummeted from favor with the Frank Wren regime — which dumped him at 25 for Nate McLouth, known to Braves fans as Nate McLousy — you’re working with outdated data. Morton has remade himself as a hard thrower, having averaged 10.47 strikeouts per nine innings over the past four seasons. As general manager Alex Anthopoulos said in November: “We always ask, ‘Can he start a playoff game for us?’ " If your playoff starters can induce swing-and-misses, you’ve got a chance to go a long way.

The Braves had to think regarding Ozuna, who led the National League in home runs and RBIs over last year’s 60 games. He’s 30, which means he’ll be under contract only through age 34. That’s different from Josh Donaldson, whose big Braves season came at 33. The belief is that Ozuna is a better designated hitter than an outfielder. Owing to a 2020 tweak that made the DH universal, he started only 21 games in the outfield.

As it stands, the DH won’t be used in National League parks in 2021. (As with many things in baseball, this has become a point of disagreement between players and owners. It also could be subject to change.) There is, however, every expectation that the universal DH will be here to stay no later than in 2022. That’s reason enough to lock up Ozuna over four seasons. If it was believed he’d spend much time in the outfield as he ages, they mightn’t have made the deal. But they can get away with him in left field (though not right field) for a year, and they need his bat behind Freddie Freeman.

Speaking of whom: The Braves’ next big move figures to be an extension of Freeman’s contract, which lapses after this season. The good news: Getting four years of Ozuna at $16 million per annum still leaves the Braves with, ahem, financial flexibility. Contrast Ozuna with George Springer, who’s 31 and who signed with Toronto for $150 mil over six years. The Blue Jays will be paying him when he’s 37; the Braves can buy out Ozuna for $1 million when he’s 34.

The Braves couldn’t have afforded Trevor Bauer, whom the Dodgers will pay $85 million over the next two seasons. He should make a great team even better, but pitchers – we say again – do get sore arms, and the history of big-ticket pitchers who justified their mammoth salaries is short. (It begins with Greg Maddux.) The Braves know they’ll need to get past L.A. to reach the World Series, but they nearly did a year ago, and that was with a rotation that collapsed in late August.

Evident in every Anthopoulos move is the pursuit of depth. The Dodgers under Andrew Freidman were the first to see how important a 25th man can be; the Braves’ GM spent two years working alongside Friedman. In November 2019, the Braves loaded up on bullpen arms because Anthopoulos saw how the injury to Chris Martin in Game 1 diminished his team in the NLDS against St. Louis. “If losing one man affects you that much,” Anthopoulos said, “you’re not deep enough.”

The Braves’ bullpen was among the best in baseball in 2020. The rotation looked unbelievably deft in postseason, but nobody knows if Anderson/Wright/Wilson are as good as they showed in October. That’s why the Braves moved for Smyly and especially Morton. They re-upped Ozuna because they believe his big season was no fluke. They stand to be better in October 2021 than in October 2020, when they were very nearly good enough.

This should be the deepest band of Braves of this century. It should also be the best.

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