What a Difference a Year Makes

Alex Anthopolous, GM of the Atlanta Braves (Photo credit: MLB.com).

December 2017 was not a happy time for Braves fans.  The team was coming off a season that saw them finish 72-90—their third consecutive 90-loss season—and rumors were swirling that interim manager Brian Snitker might soon find himself looking for a new job.  Then things got even worse.

Seemingly without warning, John Coppolella announced he was resigning from his post as the Braves’ general manager. Coppolella’s resignation came on the heels of news that the Braves were the subject of an MLB investigation into potential rules violations in international recruiting.  Not long after that, John Hart was reassigned from his position as president of baseball operations before himself resigning

On November 21, 2017 Major League Baseball announced that the Braves would be stripped of more than a dozen prospects and handicapped in the next several international signing periods. Coppolella was banned from the sport for life due to his role in circumventing international signing rules between 2015 and 2017.

Enter Alex Anthopoulos, hired away from the Dodgers to serve as the Braves’ new GM.  Despite being just 40 years old, Anthopoulos brought a fair amount of experience to the job, having previously served as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and most recently vice president of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

In his first offseason in his new role, Anthopoulos repeatedly stated that he had no intention of making big moves right away; he wanted to take some time to get a better feeling for the talent on the major-league roster and in the minor league system.

Predictably, Anthopolous almost immediately swung a deal sending overweight and overpaid outfielder Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in return for Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson, Scott Kazmir, Adrian Gonzalez, and cash.  The trade allowed the Braves to shift all future liability for Kemp’s contract to the Dodgers in return for taking on the 2018 salaries of McCarthy, Kazmir, and Gonzalez, two of whom would never play an inning for the Braves.

The rest of the offseason, though, was relatively uneventful. The Braves made several minor trades and signings, picking up the likes of an aging prospect outfielder named Preston Tucker, a journeyman starting pitcher named Anibal Sanchez, and a reliever named Shane Carle.  Those Braves fans who hoped the team’s new GM would make more big changes were sorely disappointed.

As the start of the new season approached, national baseball writers largely picked the Braves to again challenge 90 losses in 2018.  In picking the Braves to finish 4th in their division, Carlos Collazo of Baseball America lamented that the team “did nothing to improve the team or advance a rebuild entering its fourth year.”  Vegas oddsmakers also were unimpressed, with some predicting the Braves would win just 74 games on the season.

Then the season started, and something magical happened as the Braves raced to a 19-11 start and found themselves in first place in early May.  Freddie Freeman continued being Freddie Freeman.  Young second baseman Ozzie Albies began to hit bombs.  Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, both of whom came over in trades during the rebuild, began to resemble quality starting pitchers. 

Ender Inciarte pushed through some struggles at the plate to again provide Gold Glove offense in center field.  Johan Camargo showed that he wasn’t just as good as he showed in 2017, but better.  Nick Markakis remembered how to hit for power and looked 10 years younger in the field. 

A.J. Minter showed why the Braves had drafted him in the 2nd round out of Texas A&M in 2015.  Anibal Sanchez became one of the better starting pitchers in the National League.  Charlie Culberson, thought by many to be a simple throw-in of the Kemp deal, became known as “Charlie Clutch,” with good reason.

There was also another guy you may have heard of:  Ronald Acuña.  Though his coming-out party was briefly delayed by a scary moment, Acuña escaped significant injury and came back swinging.  Suddenly, what had been a feel-good season was perhaps the most fun stretch for Braves fans in recent memory.

Ultimately, the Braves coasted to their first division title since 2013.  And though the team made an early exit from the playoffs, it wasn’t before some high drama, as Acuña became the youngest ever to hit a grand slam in the playoffs.

So here we are in December once again.  New Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen has already proclaimed the Mets the “team to beat” in the NL East after some seemingly shrewd offseason moves.  The Nationals and Phillies have made moves of their own.  Already, some Braves fans are complaining about the Braves’ perceived passivity in the trade/free agent market this offseason (though Anthopoulos signed 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson for $23 million in 2019 and added catcher Brian McCann alongside Tyler Flowers).

Even without more moves — and certainly, more moves should be expected before the 2019 season begins — the Braves’ lineup will again feature at least Albies, Acuña, Freeman, Camargo, and Inciarte alongside newcomers Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann.  Foltynewicz, Newcomb, and midseason acquisition Kevin Gausman will have the chance to show that their solid performances in 2018 were no fluke.

Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and other young guns likely will get a shot at increased roles in the pitching staff.   Despite promoting so many good players the last season and a half, the Braves still have the 2nd highest ranked farm system in the major leagues.

It’s December again, and I can’t wait for baseball season to get here.  It’s amazing what a difference a year can make.

By Marty Levinson

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