On Monday night, the Atlanta Braves’ surprise season came to an end. The Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Braves 6-2 to avoid a Game 5 in the National League Division Series. The losing squad received praised before exiting the field.
Dodgers are celebrating on field, but #Braves fans are giving their own team a standing ovation. Good to see that. NL East champs, folks. Surpassed all expectations. Can't forget that.
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) October 9, 2018
2018 was supposed to be the last installment of the rebuilding process for Atlanta. Baseball writers and prognosticators alike projected the Braves to be at the bottom of league before the season began. There was some young talent, but no one expected a run like the 2018 Braves displayed.
The scary thing for other teams in the league is that Atlanta’s young talent is staying put for the foreseeable future. There were significant contributions from veterans like Nick Markakis and Anibal Sanchez, but the youth movement that has evolved from multiple regimes of management is what will position them for more division titles and championships for the next few years. The Braves currently have five of the league’s 10 youngest players on their roster.
This team was expected to compete for part of the season while figuring out where their young pieces fit. It didn’t take long for one rookie to make his mark. There is no secret that the Braves have one of the game’s most intriguing talents in Ronald Acuna, Jr. The Venezuelan is likely to win NL Rookie of the Year and could receive some votes for MVP.
After the All-Star break, manager Brian Snitker elected to to start Acuna at leadoff. Previously, he batted in multiple spots, but never the No. 1 hole. Despite offensive success, Atlanta was struggling at the position going into the break while on a 2-8 skid. After the break, their leadoff problem was solved. Acuna slashed .322/.403/.625 the rest of the regular season. He also had an astounding 1.028 OPS. The 20-year-old was the catalyst for a team whose offense stalled during the summer. He earned a WAR of 4.1 in only 111 games.
The spry outfielder was also the biggest contributor in what was an otherwise lackluster postseason. Acuna became the youngest player to hit a grand slam in the postseason. His four runs accounted for half of the Braves’ run production in the NLDS.
Another youngster made his mark as well. Ozzie Albies exceeded his rookie qualifications last season and was able to make some strides in 2018. Unlike Acuna, the second baseman can actually legally purchase an alcoholic beverage in the U.S. The 21-year-old did well enough in the first half of the season to earn an All-Star selection. Even though the hits slowed down midway through the season, Albies still made contributions in the field. The Curacao native should see Gold Glove honors in the future, if not this season. The smallest guy on the team still produced 40 doubles and ended the regular season with a WAR of 3.8.
Having young studs at the plate is nice, but pitching is where Atlanta holds most of the cards. Sean Newcomb made some steady improvements. The 25-year-old finished second on the team in wins with 12. The former first-round pick (Angels) might have the most dangerous combination of pitches among the Braves starting rotation. He struggled with his command late in the season, but the Braves were not afraid to hand him the ball in a win-or-go-home Game 4 in the NLDS.
Another young arm who Atlanta had confidence in was Max Fried. The 24-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif. displayed a devastating breaking-ball. Working out of the starting rotation and pen, Fried was able to produce a 2.94 ERA along with an impressive 11.8 SO/9 rate. Like Newcomb, the Braves turned to him in the playoffs in dire situations. The southpaw appeared in three of Atlanta’s four postseason games. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2012 Draft via San Diego.
Perhaps the Braves’ most dangerous arms have yet to thrive. Rookie Bryse Wilson got called up for a spot-start in August. He threw five effective innings, surrendering no runs and only three hits. He also had five strikeouts. Wilson was the second youngest player to appear in the league in 2018.
Then there is Kolby Allard. He appeared in three major league games. Those outings were rough, but he won his debut. His minor league production is what impressed the most. The 21-year-old posted a 2.72 ERA with a 6-4 record for Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate, the Gwinnett Stripers. Allard is considered by many to be the Braves surest prospect.
The list goes on. Chad Sobotka, 25, posted the lowest ERA among Braves relievers with a 1.88 mark. Touki Toussaint made a statement by making both spot-starts and relief appearances. The 22-year-old produced 32 strikeouts in 29 innings. He also made appearances in the postseason. It is notable that Toussaint and Dansby Swanson were all acquisitions via trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks during separate transactions in 2015.
The names continue for the Braves pipeline, but we will stop here. Keith Law still had Atlanta listed as his number one farm system back in July. There have not been any transactions involving the Braves’ top prospects since.
The #Braves have some decisions to make going forward, but they are in a comfy position when you look at their future assets. A good problem to have. Here is a look at some notable contractual obligations:
Acuna: 5 yr control , Arb in 2021
— Logan Quinton (@LDQsports) October 10, 2018
That’s what is so impressive about rookie GM Alex Anthropoulus. He has been able to manage a tight budget in addition to adding contributing pieces without the expense of future talent. However, the finances will be different for the 2019 free agency budget. Thanks to AA clearing Matt Kemp’s contract off the books for the 2019 fiscal year, the Braves will have some nice coin to shop around with this winter. Considered a middle-market club, the Braves will essentially be a dollar store diva visiting Macy’s for the first time, albeit with a briefcase full of money.
Whether it was Frank Wren’s signing of Acuna and Ablies, John Coppollela’s youth shopping spree or AA’s savvy approach, the Braves are set up for success. None of these GMs deserve full credit. It’s the players who deserve the most, though. This team was disregarded as a 70-win club in rebuild mode, but the youngsters had other plans.
#Braves' Freeman: “We didn’t win the World Series, so it’s a lost season in my book. But overall, I thought winning the division was a good start to what’s going to happen in the future.”
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) October 9, 2018
The first half of the season, it was Albies. Acuna took over in the second half, much to the chagrin of other clubs. But it was this team as a collective that willed its way to the first division title since 2013. There is more to come, all thanks to the accelerated progress of the youth movement just north of I-285.