It’s World Series or bust for Braves

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, left, and manager Brian Snitker celebrate the Braves' 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers to advance to the World Series in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Truist Park, Oct. 23, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, left, and manager Brian Snitker celebrate the Braves' 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers to advance to the World Series in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Truist Park, Oct. 23, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

My lasting memory of the 2022 Braves: Standing in the visiting clubhouse in Philadelphia while Dansby Swanson, moisture in his eyes, declared the whole season a failure. In that moment, the 101 wins and fifth straight National League East title didn’t matter much to Swanson. They’d became irrelevant once the Phillies easily dispatched the Braves in the NL Division Series.

I’m sure that, once the sting wore off, Swanson gained some perspective on what the Braves accomplished in 2022. I’m equally certain that there will be a similar scene in their clubhouse if the 2023 season ends short of the World Series.

Swanson won’t be there because he plays for the Cubs. That won’t change expectations for the Braves, just like Freddie Freeman leaving for the Dodgers didn’t change them before last season. As far as the Braves and many of their supporters are concerned it’s World Series or bust, again.

I don’t see it that way because I admire division titles so much. Teams don’t back into them with a lucky week or two. Division champions prove they are the best of the bunch through the slog of a season. The Braves have done it for five straight years (the 60-game season wasn’t a full summer, but nothing could be done about that).

We’re in the middle of another dominant era for Braves baseball. If it doesn’t seem that way to Braves supporters, then I get it. Division championships probably feel like old news to them. Really, though, last season was the first real letdown of the Alex Anthopoulos/Brian Snitker era of Braves baseball.

Before that, there was an accelerated rebuild with steady progress from 2018-22. NLDS loss in four games to L.A. NLDS loss in five to St. Louis. NLCS loss in seven to L.A. And then the Braves finally vanquished the Dodgers before earning World Series glory in Houston.

The 2022 Braves were the best of the past five division champions, as judged by wins and run differential. They had the worst season of those teams, as judged by postseason performance. The setback should be temporary because the Braves are too good to go one-and-done again in the playoffs. But who can say what will happen when the sample sizes are small and randomness is the rule?

I’m not thinking about that as the Braves prepare to open the season Thursday in D.C. I’m looking forward to watching them try to win another East title. There’s joy in watching the journey.

The Braves are going to be really good again. It’s possible they will be better than the Dodgers, who had a curiously quiet offseason by their free-spending standards. The Mets will be pests, but they can’t trick me into believing in them again. No other NL teams are in Atlanta’s class.

FanGraphs ranked all MLB lineups by position based on projected Wins Above Replacement. The Braves were second or better in the NL at catcher, first base, second base, third base, centerfield and right field. The Braves ranked ninth at designated hitter, 12th at shortstop and 16th at left field.

Those are real holes. Every team has them. At least the Braves can reasonably hope that things will work out with at least one of those lineup spots.

Marcell Ozuna hit for power and didn’t strike out much during spring training. That’s something. The Braves only need Ozuna to be an effective DH less than half the time. Catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Sean Murphy can handle the rest.

Left fielder Eddie Rosario can be an average hitter now that his vision problems are behind him. That would be good enough. At shortstop, the Braves made the odd decision to send down both Vaughn Grissom and Braden Shewmake. Orlando Arcia has been most effective in small doses for the past three years so there’s no clear baseball reason why he’ll start the season as the shortstop.

Six or seven consistent hitters should be enough to back up a strong pitching staff.

Atlanta’s starting rotation is excellent at the top with lefty Max Fried. It won’t be easy for Spencer Strider to validate his strong rookie season. His electric strikeout ability makes it more likely. Kyle Wright will join the rotation after building up innings in extended spring training. That’s three good-to-great Braves starters.

Any concerns about whether Charlie Morton is finished should be mitigated by the seemingly never-ending supply of talented, young Braves pitchers. Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd are the latest youngsters to get their shot. Ian Anderson, Bryce Elder and (eventually) Kolby Allard will be on the farm waiting for their chance.

The Braves have enough plausible options that they don’t need to stick with any one starter for long if they aren’t getting it done. The same goes for the bullpen. Braves closer Raisel Iglesias will begin the season on the injured list. The ‘pen is still good without him. Maybe Snitker can be more flexible about who he uses to finish tight games. It doesn’t always have to be one guy.

Those kind of developments are fun to watch over a season. Depth is required to win division titles. Attrition becomes an opponent. That’s one of many reasons why the Braves’ recent domination of the East should be celebrated.

Yet it seems division titles have become a low bar for the Braves. Pennants are expected even though they’ve hung just one since 1999. One way to look at it is the 19 division titles in 31 years titles should have netted more than two Series victories. An alternate view is that no team in baseball wins more consistently than the Braves.

They have the longest active streak of division titles in MLB. Only three teams in MLB history have won more consecutive division titles: the Dodgers (eight straight from 2013-20), Yankees (nine from 1998-2006) and Braves (14 from 1991-2007, not including the strike-shortened 1994 season). The Braves made it five East titles in 2022 even with a lot of things going wrong.

Superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. pressed in his return from ACL surgery. Ozzie Albies never found his rhythm because of injuries. The Braves stayed afloat because rookies Harris, Strider and Grissom became instant hits when forced into major roles. The Braves had the best record in baseball from June 1 and clinched the East by sweeping the Mets on the final weekend.

All that was forgotten in the immediate aftermath of the NLDS flop against Philly. That’s why Swanson was moved to call a very good Braves season a failure. I think he was wrong but I get why he felt that way at the time. It’s World Series or bust for the Braves.