The Braves winning the NL East wasn’t really that big a surprise, as the questions surrounding the team generally centered on “when” rather than “if.” Perhaps a year ahead of schedule, 2018 saw some of the team’s prospect dividend started paying off richly.
Tanking may be what the cool kids do when they rebuild these days, but back in 2014, it wasn’t quite as de rigueur as it is now. Atlanta was unusually aggressive about trading their players with value, even those who were still young, must notably Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons, who were traded after their age-24 and age-25 seasons respectively.
But they didn’t trade all of them. Staying in Atlanta was Freddie Freeman, who signed an eight-year, $135 million contract before the 2014 season, a deal that looks like it’ll be excellent right until the very end, which is a relative rarity for nine-figure deals with players on the easy end of the defensive spectrum.
Also remaining was Julio Teheran, who the Braves signed to a very reasonable six-year, $32.4 million contract with an option that would keep him in Atlanta through 2020. The team’s unofficial stance was that Teheran would anchor the rotation throughout the rebuilding process, though I also felt he might have been traded if his post-2014 performances had been more impressive.
In terms of competing in 2018, I’m still of the mind that this past season’s success caught the organization somewhat by surprise. If they had thought they were positioned to win 90 games, Atlanta’s biggest offseason signing probably wouldn’t have been Anibal Sanchez. Even the team’s trade involving big-in-2011 names, which sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers for Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson, and cash, was mostly about competitive balance tax implications. Gonzalez and Kazmir didn’t play a single game for the Braves; McCarthy was basically replacement level and retired by the end of the season; only Culberson was really left to contribute much to the team.
While ZiPS was a big believer in both the Braves and Phillies in the long-term, the computer generally saw 2018 as a “too soon” kind of thing. ZiPS projected them well enough that I listed the Braves (and the Phillies) in the top two in a piece on stealth contenders in 2018. (The less said about the last two teams, the better!) ZiPS projected them for a 79-83 record in the final, official projection going into 2018, with a 1-in-7 chance of making the playoffs.
The team didn’t come out of the gate roaring, but they took most of their early series, and eventually took the divisional lead for the first time in early May after winning two out of three against the Phillies and sweeping the rapidly fading Mets. The team traded first with the Phillies over the next few months, never falling to second by more than a few games, before seizing first place for good in August.
Oddly enough, the Braves initially got to first without their eventual NL Rookie of the Year and best prospect, phenom Ronald Acuña, who was recalled at the end of April. Instead, it was some of the surprisingly good veterans, like Nick Markakis, Kurt Suzuki, and Ryan Flaherty, with wRC+s of 144, 136, and 126 respectively, leading the charge when they caught first place.
Markakis went on to make his first All-Star Game at age 34, long after anyone had considered him anything but a stopgap option in the outfield. It was not to last, with Markakis hitting .258/.332/.369 with only four homers after the midseason break. But the addition of Acuña to the roster more than compensated for the drop off; he was just as good as adding a Manny Machado or a Bryce Harper.
ZiPS already saw Acuña as a three-win player coming into 2018, hitting a perfectly respectable .269/.321/.425, a damn good line for a 20-year-old who would also be fully capable of playing centerfield if not for the existence of Ender Inciarte.
He was better than that. Reminiscent of Trout getting ZiPS best ever rookie projection and still eviscerating it by July, Acuña’s cromulent projected 101 wRC+ was mocked and beaten by the actual 143 he put up. For a time in July, when Acuña had slumped to a .249/.304/.438 line and missed significant time with a leg injury, it looked like Washington’s explosive Juan Soto would capture the Rookie of the Year award. But Acuña hit .322/.403/.625 while Atlanta put away the rest of the NL East and he won the award in a walk, taking 27 of the 30 first-place votes.
The postseason didn’t go quite as well for the Braves; the team was shutout in the first two games in Dodger Stadium by Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw. After the bullpen failed to hold the line in Game 4, a two-run single by David Freese in the sixth and a three-run homer by Manny Machado in the seventh ended Atlanta’s season.
What Comes Next?
While it would have been fun to knock off the reigning NL champions in the NLDS, this also wasn’t a team fighting against a closing window; rather they were still in the process of opening one.
The inability to sign international prospects and the declared free agency of Kevin Maitan and others as a result of the Braves playing with fire vis-à-vis the international signing rules was an enormous loss. But hiring Alex Anthopoulos to run the team was still a silver lining.
Anthopoulos, since joining the Braves in November 2017, has focused on staying the course and even if it wasn’t one he personally set, he’s served as a terrific caretaker of Atlanta’s rebuild, electing not to carelessly fritter away long-term value to improve the Braves in the moment.
That’s not to say the team stood-pat in 2018. They did make significant moves, most notably picking up Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day from the Baltimore Orioles, pickups that weren’t just about 2018. And they did it without giving up any of the crown jewels.
People are sometimes too quick to trade prospects who aren’t a great roster fit. Even if you don’t have an immediate slot for a Luiz Gohara or a Mike Soroka full-time, trading them now costs you the ability to trade them for a player who might be even more crucial later.
This winter, the Braves are blessed with both financial and roster flexibility, and are arguably one of the teams least constrained by various issues. They’ve already made their first move, bringing in Josh Donaldson for 2019, a move that is both win-now and will not block Austin Riley long-term. Atlanta doesn’t appear to be in on Bryce Harper, but they have the ability to go after just about anyone else. And with a team on the rise, they could be a real lure for free agents (as they were for Donaldson).
ZiPS Projection – Ronald Acuña
We’ve already spent a lot of digital ink on the merits of Atlanta’s young outfielder, so let’s just dump some projections on you; it’s almost fanservice at this point.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.