After four straight losing seasons and an offseason wracked by front office turmoil, expectations for the 2018 season were low. But the Braves surprised virtually everyone, easily winning the NL East over the consensus preseason favorites, the Nats. How the heck did that happen?
Change of the Guard
At the end of our last episode, GM John Coppolella (aka Coppy) was forced to resign shortly after the conclusion of the 2017 regular season in the midst of an investigation into shenanigans regarding signing of both international and domestic amateurs.
Then on November 13, the Braves announced that Alex Anthopoulos (aka Thoppy) had been tapped to take the helm, while John Hart headed for the exit. I wrote but never published the lyrics to a parody song in celebration that went something like this:
Hart-less, (now we’re) hart-less He let Coppy get out of control Hart-less, (glad we’re) hart-less The team ain’t winning while he’s playing 18 holes
Anthopoulos had served as GM of the Toronto Blue Jays from the 2010 through 2015 seasons, with the Jays winning the AL East for their first postseason appearance in 22 years during his final season. He was named the Sporting News Executive of the Year, but rejected a five-year contract extension with the Jays (most likely due to conflicts with newly hired team president Mark Shapiro) and joined the Dodgers organization as VP of baseball operations. The Braves desperately needed new blood, and AAR penned an excellent analysis of his career.
Manager Brian Snitker was an unintended beneficiary of Coppy’s offenses. He was essentially “next man up” when Fredi got the chop in 2016 and was mostly viewed as a placeholder until the team was ready to be competitive. If the sh*t doesn’t hit the fan when it did, it’s likely Snitker would have been let go or reassigned to another role when the 2017 season ended. Instead he got a reprieve, which he made the most of.
Manfred Drops the Hammer
On November 21, the Braves paid a heavy price for Coppy’s transgressions. The team forfeited their ill-gotten gains (including prize signee Kevin Maitan), were severely restricted from signing international players through the 2020-2021 cycle, and lost a third-round draft choice in the 2018 amateur draft. In addition, Coppy got himself placed on the permanently ineligible list (well deserved IMO).
Although the penalties were announced after AA was hired, I have to believe he knew what was coming. So far, none of the players directly lost have amounted to much, but it’s hard to gauge the long-term impact of not being able to participate in a meaningful way in the international market for the past couple of cycles. It certainly doesn’t help.
AA Takes It Slow
From a player perspective, the offseason was relatively quiet. RA Dickey decided to hang up his spikes, Matt Adams and Jace Peterson were allowed to leave, and Jim Johnson was traded to the Angels for a minor league pitcher that hasn’t amounted to anything. In the most significant trade, Matt Kemp was sent to the Dodgers for Adrian Gonzales (released a couple days later), Scott Kazmir (released before the regular season started), Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson, and cash. From the Braves perspective, this was mostly about accelerating Kemp’s 2019 contract dollars onto the 2018 budget, while hopefully acquiring another starter (although with a long injury history), and useful utility bench depth.
Oh yeah, during spring training AA took a flyer on a pitcher that had gotten consigned to the scrap heap, signing him to a minor league deal. More on that guy later.
2018 Season Highlights
Opening Day Roster
- Catchers: Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki, Chris Stewart. The latter was carried until a fifth starter was needed.
- Infielders: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Ryan Flaherty, Charlie Culberson. Johan Camargo started the season on the DL. AA took a May flyer on Jose Bautista, but he crashed and burned.
- Outfielders: Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis, Preston Tucker, Peter Bourjos, Lane Adams. Not very inspiring. Our best outfielder started the season in Gwinnett (Oh the game GMs play now/Every time its just the way now/Hold ‘em down to stunt their pay now/And it’s a dirty rotten shame, whoa-ah).
- Starters: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Brandon McCarthy (who lasted for 15 essentially replacement-level starts before breaking down and being shelved), Sean Newcomb
- Relievers: Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Jose Ramirez, Peter Moylan, Sam Freeman, Dan Winkler, Rex Brothers, Shane Carle. In July, AA traded some international bonus slot bucks to the Rays for feel-good story Jonny Venters, who pitched well enough to win NL Comeback Player of the Year. AA also traded more of those IBSB to the Orioles for Brad Bach.
Young Ronald was sent to Gwinnett to start the season (you know why). Conveniently for management, he got off to a relatively slow start while Preston Tucker was doing a great impression of a major leaguer. Acuna finally got the call on April 25, debuting in Cincinnati. He got off to a torrid start, but then cooled a bit. On May 27, while beating out an infield hit in Boston against the Red Sox, disaster struck.
Honestly, watching that in real time, I thought he was done for the season, and maybe at least part of the next one. Somewhat miraculously, he suffered only a relatively mild ACL sprain and some back contusions. He missed just over a month, returning to the lineup on June 29. If anything, he was even better.
He finished the season at .293/.366/.552, leading the team with 26 HR despite playing in only 111 games. He was overwhelmingly voted the NL Rookie of the Year, garnering all but 3 first place votes.
Ozzie debuted with the Braves on August 1, 2017, played regularly throughout the remainder of that season, and showed promise with good OBP skills and more pop than expected. He was freakin’ amazing out of the gate in 2018, and at the end of April sat at .320/.373/.680 (!!!) with 12 doubles and 8 homers in 116 AB. His hot start got him selected as a reserve to the all star team.
But as happens with fires, what once was a blaze became dying embers. As the season wore on his AVG dropped, his ISO returned to earth orbit, and by the end of the season he was really struggling with OPS in the .600’s over the last two months. He wound up finishing at .261/.305/.452 for the season. His splits were problematic: a star standing in the RH box (.333/.359/.545), but a scrub batting lefty (.231/.282/.413). Unfortunately, 70% of his plate appearances were from the weaker side. Would Ozzie find more balance at the plate in his next season? Stay tuned for our next episode.
On March 11, the Twins cut veteran righty Anibal Sanchez to make room for Lance Lynn, and on March 16, AA signed Sanchez to a minor-league contract. He was abysmal for Detroit in 2017, with a 6.41 ERA over 105.1 innings, and the last season where he was measurably above replacement level was 2014. There was no reason to expect much when he was called up on April 2.
But then, in 24 regular season starts Anibal put up a 2.38 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 136.2 innings, good for 3.0 WAR. He was easily the second most valuable pitcher, behind only Folty (who had a breakout season, putting up almost identical ERA and WHIP numbers but over 7 more starts and 47 more innings while being named to the all star team).
We Are the (NL East) Champions
The Nats and the Phils both underperformed, and the Braves took advantage. The young stars were exciting, Freddie had another great year (.309/.388/.505, 6.1 WAR), Markakis was solid if unspectacular, and Camargo was productive (balancing out Dansby’s less-than-stellar offensive performance). Besides Folty and Sanchez, mid-season pickup Kevin Gausman was effective, and Teheran and Newcomb both took the ball every fifth day turning in sub-4.0 ERAs. Mike Soroka made his debut but was put on the DL in mid-May with shoulder tightness. He returned briefly in June, but then was shut down for the duration. Max Fried was also effective, seeing limited action as both a starter and reliever. Touki Toussaint also started and relieved down the stretch, and made the postseason roster as a reliever.
The Braves clinched the division on September 22 with a 5-3 win over the Phillies. Folty shut out the Phils over 7.1 innings, allowing only two hits. The Braves finished the season 90-72, 8 games ahead of the Nats. Rob posted some season highlights on this thread.
Postseason Groundhog Days
The Braves entered the postseason as the NL 3-seed and faced the Dodgers in a best of five division series. As apparently required by law, it did not go all that well. Except for one game, the Braves offense was essentially non-existent. Meanwhile the pitchers gave up homers like it was their job or something.
Game 1: Dodgers 6, Braves 0
Game 2: Dodgers 3, Braves 0
Sanchez took the mound, and again the Dodgers struck in the first with a 2 run homer by Manny Machado. Sanchez gave up a solo HR to Yasmani Grandal in the fifth. Meanwhile Clayton Kershaw was dealing, allowing only 2 hits over 8 innnings.
Game 3: Braves 6, Dodgers 5
Newcomb got the start and drew a bases-loaded walk in the 2nd for the Braves first run of the series. Young Ronald followed with a grand slam off Walker Buehler, and the outlook was rosy for a change. But Newcomb allowed a 2-run HR of his own in the 3rd, while Gausman and Fried allowed a pair of home runs in the 5th to tie the game. Fortunately, Freddie homered off Alex Wood in the 6th to regain the lead, and the bullpen made it stand up.
Game 4: Dodgers 6, Braves 2
Folty returned on short rest (well, he didn’t throw all that many pitches in Game 1), and the Dodgers drew blood in the first inning for the third time in the series (at least it wasn’t a homer). The Braves took the lead with a 2-run 4th. Folty was fairly effective, but was lifted in the top of the 5th. Brad Brach allowed a 2-run single in the 6th to cough up the lead, then Chad Sobotka gave up a 3-run HR to Machado in the 7th to put the game out of reach.
Although the postseason ended in disappointment yet again, all in all it was an exciting season to be a Braves fan. The club emerged from the darkness of the rebuild with a core of young players and a sprinkling of veterans that looked like they could be contenders for seasons to come. To top it all off, I somehow managed to win the Braves Journal fantasy league despite having zero experience (or even a firm grasp of the rules when the season started). Chief, I’m still waiting for my trophy.
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