I haven’t really paid much attention to the Atlanta Braves this season. I don’t know why, to be honest, considering they’re a fun team loaded with young talent that literally nobody expected to be good this year.
But after Ronald Acuna got drilled in the elbow by Jose Urena last night — for no other reason than being better than every single player on the Miami Marlins combined despite being 20 years old — I found myself in a rabbit hole trying to wrap my head around exactly what was going on with this Braves team.
Atlanta finished the 2017 season with a 72-90 record, good forth fourth in the National League East. They also had the No. 1 ranked farm system at the end of the season according to Baseball America. So, while the team was bad, there was certainly a bright future ahead. Still, nobody expected that future to arrive as easy as 2019. Nobody.
Prior to the season, FanGraphs’ staff put out their playoff predictions and not a single writer had the Braves making the playoffs. (Five had the Jays making the playoffs, though!)
Obviously You Can’t Predict Baseball but the point is that the Braves are really shocking the world right now. They’re 68-51 and have a two-game lead on the also-weirdly-good Phillies for the NL East. Their Pythagorean record is also 68-51, so it isn’t like this team is smoke and mirrors.
So, what’s going on here? What led to the Braves’ inexplicable premature breakout and can the Blue Jays accomplish the same thing in 2019?
There were three major changes to Atlanta’s lineup from 2017 to 2018. Matt Kemp (2018 All-Star Matt Kemp!), Brandon Phillips, and Adonis Garcia, who combined for a whopping 0.6 WAR were replaced by a trio of rookies in Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Johan Camargo. Those three rookies are all top three on the Braves in WAR this season, combining for 7.9 wins with over a month to go in the season.
These three rookies joined a team anchored by Freddie Freeman, a perennial MVP-calibre player, two good outfielders in Ender Incarte and Nick Markakis, a couple of solid catchers in Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers, and another top young player in Dansby Swanson. So while Atlanta’s lineup was injected with a massive amount of young talent, the team wasn’t completely devoid of talent. There was some semblance of a decent core at the big league level there.
And then there’s the pitching. The strength of the Braves has certainly been its offence, but above average pitching has helped the team too. Last season, the team’s top five starters by innings pitched were R.A. Dickey, Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Jaime Garcia, and Sean Newcomb, in that order. None of them had an ERA below 4.00.
This year, Foltynewicz owns a 2.86 ERA and Newcomb owns a 3.40 ERA. Teheran is about the same as he was last season with a 4.33 ERA. A big game-changer has been Anibal Sanchez who seems to have found the fountain of youth. After being so bad with the Tigers that he was relegated to the bullpen, Sanchez has posted a 3.07 ERA in 16 starts with the Braves. Their fifth spot has been in flux all year. Brandon McCarthy has struggled with injuries, 20-year-old Mike Soroka had a few good starts before getting hurt, and now Kevin Gausman is filling the role.
Alex Anthopolous was hired as the Braves’ general manager back in November after their previous front office got slammed for international signing violations. General manager John Coppolella got canned and was placed on baseball’s “permanently ineligible list,” the team lost top prospect Kevin Maitan who they signed with a $4.25 million bonus in 2016, and the organization isn’t allowed to sign an international free agent for more than $10,000 in the 2020 and 2021 signing periods.
Anthopolous, as we all expected, came in and immediately made a wild trade that nobody expected. He sent Kemp to the Dodgers for Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Charlie Culberson. Gonzalez was released, Kazmir is in outer space somewhere, and McCarthy has struggled with injuries. Culberson has actually been a revelation for the Braves as he’s been worth one win above replacement in a utility role. This was really the only major move that Anthopolous made and the goal was ultimately to open up a spot in the field for Acuna.
Acuna, of course, didn’t debut until April 25 despite leading the Grapefruit League in homers. The Braves had to, uh, keep him down there to, errrrr, learn how to run the bases and give, uhhhh, like Jose Bautista a good, fair look on the team. No, obviously this was about fucking with Acuna’s service time, which is exactly what the Jays will do with Vlad Jr. next spring.
To recap… Acuna, Albies, and Camargo replaced some bad veterans in a lineup built around Freeman, Markakis, and Inciarte. Foltynewicz and Newcomb have enjoyed breakout seasons and Sanchez has been inexplicably successful. Anthopolous had a pretty low-key off-season that featured a big move that ultimately gave him some depth and opened a roster spot for a top prospect. Now, time for the big question — can the Jays do something similar next year?
The Jays have a top farm system like the Braves did at this time last year. At the top of that system, the Jays, like Atlanta, also have the world’s No. 1 prospect. But do they have the other ingredients necessary for a breakout?
On the pitching side, good, healthy seasons from Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman could represent the breakout years from Foltynewicz and Newcomb. The rotation is largely in-flux beyond Sanchez and Stroman. Maybe Marco Estrada is back for another season? Maybe J.A. Happ returns in free agency? Maybe another veteran is added? Sean Reid-Foley and Ryan Borucki also represent possible breakout options for the rotation.
What about the lineup? Do the Jays have three guys who could jolt into the lineup like Acuna, Albies, and Camargo?
I think it’s fair to assume Vlad can break out like Acuna has, but I’m not sure the Jays have high-impact talent as good as Albies and Camargo ready to make the jump next season. Both Albies and Camargo joined the Braves in the latter-half of the 2017 season and hit the ground running. The closest comparables for the Jays would be Lourdes Gurriel and Danny Jansen. The former was hitting like a man possessed before getting injured while the latter has looked like a big leaguer in his very, very short stint since being recalled. There’s also Bo Bichette, Toronto’s No. 2 prospect, and his teammate Cavan Biggio, who are hitting well in Double-A.
Let’s say the Jays do have a handful of rookies, like Vlad, Gurriel, and Jansen, who make the team next year and mash like Atlanta’s trio. Do they have a solid core for them to join? There’s nobody on the Blue Jays, barring a Josh Donaldson return, that’s as good as Freddie Freeman. I don’t know if there’s even players on this team as good as Inciarte or Markakis. Right now, Toronto’s top four position players by WAR are Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Aledmys Diaz, and Russell Martin. It’s hard to imagine that group being as good in 2019 as Freeman, Markakis, and Incarite have been.
I’ll say it again — You Can’t Predict Baseball. Maybe Devon Travis pulls it together in 2019. Maybe Teoscar Hernandez is really good next year. Maybe it’s Randal Grichuk. Maybe Troy Tulowitzki is healthy. Maybe Josh Donaldson comes back. Who knows. That said, it doesn’t seem the Blue Jays have the core intact ready to augment an influx of young players to match what the Braves have done this year. Obviously Toronto’s future is bright, but I don’t think we’re going to be watching a window swing open prematurely in 2019.