NEW YORK – His team has yet to play a game this postseason, yet Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos already can sense a different mindset with his ball club.
For as much as last year’s squad earned its way into the playoffs, the Braves felt more like guests to the playoff party. They opened under the bright lights in Los Angeles against a Dodgers team that expected to win a title, and the upstart Braves got the boot after four games.
“Last year was unexpected in a lot of ways and I think as much as our goal was to win the World Series there was a little bit of ‘happy to be here’,” Anthopoulos told Yahoo Sports recently. “The difference is year two now, we did this, we want to build on it and we’re coming into every game expecting to win. There’s more of a sense of belonging.”
The Braves certainly belong in this year’s playoffs and seem like a team that can make some noise and possibly prevent a third straight Dodgers pennant.
The lineup features MVP candidates like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman. The rotation has a Cy Young candidate in Mike Soroka and a former World Series champion in Dallas Keuchel. The once-maligned bullpen is now deep and formidable after three midseason trades.
These Braves, who host Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals, seem poised to end the franchise’s 18-year drought without a playoff series win.
“You could say we have some superstars in the lineup, which we do, but collectively I think we fly under the radar because of the geographic part we’re in,” Keuchel said. “It’s a huge market, but it wasn’t expected at this time from the Braves. That’s why we don’t get a lot of recognition. Hopefully we change some minds here next week.”
Not a popular pick
Anthopoulos understands why you picked his team to finish fourth in the NL East.
No, honestly, he does.
“Every team in the division got better. Everyone added good players. I totally understood it,” Anthopoulos said. “That being said we can’t react to what everyone else is doing. It’s not a good model for us to follow. I’ve been part of teams that won the winter and those didn’t work out for us. We just have to really worry about ourselves and focus on ourselves.”
Many discounted last year’s Braves division winner as a team that capitalized on a down year in the division with the preseason-favorite Nationals flopping. Someone had to win, and with the Mets and Phillies floundering, the Braves were able to navigate their way to the top. They didn’t play all that well in the postseason either.
Then came the offseason.
Anthopoulos prioritized adding a middle-of-the-order bat and a catcher, and accomplished those goals with Josh Donaldson and former Brave Brian McCann. But the big moves stopped there.
The Braves tried to fortify other areas, such as their rotation and bullpen, but Anthopoulos felt that “those deals didn’t make sense for us.” He decided to pass and carry some financial flexibility into the season to allow for moves later in the year.
That strategy earned him criticism both from local and national pundits, and especially since the rest of the division beefed up. The Phillies landed Bryce Harper. The Mets added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. The Nationals signed Patrick Corbin and were expected to rebound.
It didn’t help that once the season started, the Braves were immediately swept by the Phillies. The team that spent money wiped the floor with the team that had been passive.
“We kind of knew what we were getting into [in that series] and it would be wild the way their offseason was and who they acquired,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said with a laugh. “We started one guy that had been a pro for a year and a half. We started some young starters. The outcome didn’t necessarily surprise me. I went in there hoping we’d get one game.”
Those three games, though, were only three games.
Snitker said his team reported to camp ready to work, not hanging on their laurels as the division champions. The players believed in themselves, and expected to repeat, even if it seemed most didn’t. They knew they had a good team.
It would be up to the players to showcase how good they could be.
“Everybody else picked us to finish fourth. I’m not so sure our guys ever bought into that,” Snitker said during the final series against the Mets. “I told them, we got to play the games, why we play the games. I always felt a quiet confidence in their abilities.”
Welcome to Atlanta
Before the qualifying offer truly complicated his market, making it so he didn’t sign until after the draft, Keuchel, viewed the Braves as a potential landing spot.
“This is one team I really pegged this past offseason as a good fit for myself because of the young and veteran mix plus the infield is phenomenal, reminds me of Houston my first seven years,” the ex-AL Cy Young winner said. “It was a perfect fit for me.”
Since the Braves did not splurge in the offseason, they had some extra money and they signed Keuchel to a one-year deal in June. They needed rotation help and they outbid the Yankees.
That addition galvanized the clubhouse and Keuchel, who starts Game 1, went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA, tallying a 2.0 WAR according to Baseball Reference. The Braves went 64-37 after adding Keuchel compared to their 33-29 start.
“It was good and showed that Alex isn’t going to sit around and not do anything. All he does is try to make this team better,” Snitker said. “When you sign a guy like Dallas, World champion, Cy Young, Gold Glover, you’re telling your team we’re in this thing, we’re going for it. Those guys see that and they’re like OK, this is legit. That’s a good message to send to your club.”
Anthopoulos’ opportunistic methods came into play again in July with the Braves needing to make some last-minute additions for the final two months while nursing a sizable division lead. In the same way that the Braves could acquire Keuchel after finding the cost too prohibitive in the offseason, there were deals to be made in July that were not present during the winter.
Atlanta added relievers Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon, and later bolstered their bench by adding Adeiny Hechavarria and Billy Hamilton.
While some of those deals pushed the Braves beyond their comfort levels, Anthopoulos didn’t want to take his team’s success for granted. It would have been easy to hold firm since the Braves are set up well for the future, but fortunes can change fast.
“We ultimately did it because where the ball club was, how Keuchel was pitching, Donaldson playing, Freeman. We felt we owed it to this ball club with how they were playing to give a push and try to help the club out,” Anthopoulos said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen every year. Health, performance. Some years, it won’t end up being there for you.”
The Hechavarria and Hamilton addition flew under the radar at the time, but proved quite helpful due to injuries to Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte. Anthopoulos believes that depth will matter this month.
“The biggest difference for the postseason is our bench is significantly better,” Anthopoulos said. “Even though we got some guys that are injured, we had a bunch of injuries at the end of last year but we ran out of options. We’re in a much better spot now.”
Keuchel knows what constitutes a championship team, having helped the Astros topple the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series.
“I feel collectively in this clubhouse right now, we’re better suited to win in the playoffs than we were in 2017,” Keuchel said.
This Braves team actually mirrors that 2017 Houston team. This is Atlanta’s second time in the playoffs, just like that Houston team that first arrived in 2015 and won it all two years later.
Atlanta’s young stars like Acuña Jr. and Albies are not new to the experience. They know what to expect. And the Braves also have experienced players like Keuchel and Donaldson to guide the way.
The Braves are ready.
“They were better prepared for September, better prepared coming out of spring training going into the season,” Snitker said. “That experience is huge for young teams and it’s good they did go through it and experienced the playoffs. It made them hungrier and more confident as a team this year than we were last year as to what we’re made of and capable of.”
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