The Atlanta Braves are back in the postseason and are expected to make some noise. Are the Baby Braves all grown up and ready to play in October this year?
Last year, the Atlanta Braves surprised everyone by not only qualifying for the postseason but winning the NL East for the first time since 2013. Atlanta was in the midst of its biggest rebuilding phase as a franchise since the late 1980s. Though they only managed to win one game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, getting back to the postseason was everything.
Flash forward a year later and the expectations have changed. Sure, everybody was an idiot in picking either Philadelphia Phillies or the Washington Nationals to win the NL East in 2019. No MLB pundits even picked Atlanta to qualify for the postseason, despite the Braves coming off a division-winning season.
Since the 1990s, Atlanta has been elite at winning its division, having done so 17 times since 1991. From 1991 to 2001, the Braves played in every single NLCS, outside of 1994’s strike-shortened campaign. 10 straight championship series appearances will never again happen in baseball. Let’s hope the New England Patriots don’t try their luck on the baseball diamond.
However, since playing the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 NLCS, Atlanta has yet to advance when the Braves have qualified for the postseason. Shockingly, Atlanta has lost seven straight NLDS matchups and the infamous inaugural NL Wild Card Game in 2012.
Teams like the Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants have brought Atlanta’s World Series hopes to an end as soon as possible in many recent early Octobers. This year feels different, but should it?
Atlanta finished with the second-best record in the National League behind only Los Angeles. The Braves have a home-field advantage in their NLDS matchup with the Cardinals. That should help, but of course, fate would have it that the same umpire who let the Infield Fly Rule happen back in 2012 will be the crew chief in this best-of-five series.
There will be no southern hospitality coming Sam Holbrook’s way, I can tell you that much. But what remains to be seen is if the second incarnation of the Baby Braves have what it takes to take care of business and win the whole damn thing.
There are three things the Baby Braves didn’t have last time when Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur were youngsters: Brian Snitker as the skipper, Alex Anthopoulos calling the shots upstairs and a right-handed power bat by the name of Ronald Acuña Jr.
It all starts with Snitker, a man who waited years for his shot to lead the big-league ball club. Snitker epitomizes all the great parts of National Baseball Hall of Fame skipper Bobby Cox in that he’s great managing a clubhouse, putting his players in positions to succeed and will let the umpire have it in case Holbrook is ready to drop Infield Fly Rule, Part Deux in the ATL.
Snitker’s players will go to war for him and most importantly, he is everything that his predecessor Fredi Gonzalez was not. This guy manages with a chip on his shoulder and a crashing sense of urgency that the Braves Way hasn’t manufactured for the better part of the 21st century. A big reason for this is the outstanding job Anthopoulos has done as general manager.
Before his arrival in Atlanta, the Braves only used John Schuerholz or one of his many disciples when it came to building a team. The Braves Way felt completely antiquated and desperately needed new ideas yesterday. Anthopoulos brought his forward-thinking front office tactics from the Toronto Blue Jays and Dodgers organizations to Atlanta. It has worked out wonderfully.
He has made many big-name free-agent acquisitions that Atlanta used to pass on for much of the decade prior as a mid-market franchise. Signing third baseman Josh Donaldson has been a godsend and landing left-hander Dallas Keuchel to round out the rotation has most certainly been solid. Add in that Atlanta has completely revamped its farm system and this team is cooking.
While first baseman Freddie Freeman is the franchise cornerstone, Acuña has become the closest thing since Andruw Jones in his prime manning centerfield. Though not an all-timer defensively as Jones, Acuña has the young right-handed power and foot speed the Braves haven’t had since arguably Ron Gant. Acuña would have achieved 40-40 if not for a late-season injury.
So the Braves now have an elite manager, a progressive general manager and a complementary star to Freeman that would be the best player on most teams in the league. Will that be enough for Atlanta to get over the top and win the whole damn thing? Probably not, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Simply put, Atlanta has to beat the Cardinals in five games and face the winner of the other NLDS series between the Dodgers and Nationals for a shot at getting to a World Series. Not advancing isn’t acceptable anymore; this team is too talented and has had a better year than St. Louis.
Atlanta hasn’t been to a World Series since falling to the New York Yankees in 1999. Getting to the World Series would be a huge accomplishment and winning it all would be nothing short of remarkable. These Baby Braves have to take it one game at a time and the rest will fall into play.
What could potentially hold the Braves back from winning its second Commissioner’s Trophy while in Atlanta is three-fold: an unproven starting rotation, the Dodgers’ pedigree as NL contenders and what could lie ahead coming out of the AL.
Atlanta has the bats and has massively upgraded its bullpen at the MLB trade deadline. Anthopoulos added arms such as Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon to give a once lackluster bullpen some bite. All three have been up and down since arriving in Atlanta, but it has certainly been more good than bad with that trio.
What hurts Atlanta’s pitching staff is that so many guys have so few postseason starts. Longtime Braves starter Julio Teheran didn’t make the postseason roster. Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried and Mike Soroka are all talented, but young starting pitchers. Keuchel won a World Series with the Houston Astros, but he’s not having a Cy Young-caliber season for the Braves.
Atlanta can potentially dispel its postseason inexperience both in the rotation and collectively, but will almost certainly have to get by the Dodgers to reach the Fall Classic. While the Dodgers aren’t the juggernaut they were a year ago, Los Angeles has been to the last two World Series and are the presumptive favorites to represent the Senior Circuit for the third year in a row.
So what if the pitching staff is unproven and so what if the Dodgers feel like the inevitable matchup in the NLCS? Atlanta is certainly capable of advancing twice and reaching the World Series for the first time in 20 years. What is the Braves’ biggest problem is that they’re not beating the Astros or the Yankees in said Fall Classic. Those two teams are just too good.
The Braves probably match up better with the Yankees, as both clubs have strong lineups that can outslug anybody. But the New York bullpen is superior and Atlanta bats have gone cold in October plenty of times before, twice to the Yankees in fact in 1996 and 1999.
As for Houston, Atlanta will have a problem. The Braves’ trio of Soroka, Foltynewicz and Keuchel don’t honestly compare to the Astros’ Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander. Verlander is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, Greinke is making his case and Cole will be the biggest name to hit free agency this winter. Great pitching will always beat good hitting, unfortunately.
So what does this all mean for the Baby Braves in the second postseason berth of their second rebirth? They must beat St. Louis and get to the NLCS for anyone to take them seriously. If they beat the Dodgers in the NLCS, that’s money in the bank. But defeating either Houston or New York in the World Series feels like only a pipe dream. But keep dreaming, Braves fans. It’s October.