Yesterday, Kyle Wright pitched a gem, leading to a 7-0 win and the Braves first trip to the NLCS since 2001. Everybody deserves plenty of credit. The bats finally showed up, the pitching has overachieved — throwing four shutouts in the first five playoff games — and Brian Snitker pulled all the right strings. However, perhaps the man who deserves the most credit wasn’t even in the dugout.
Braves’ GM Alex Anthopoulos has been criticized for his lack of blockbuster trades, how he’s helped develop pitchers, and even many of his free-agent signings. But as the Braves dominated the Marlins on their way to the NLCS, his fingerprints were all over the team that finally got the monkey off their back.
Marquee Free Agent Signings
Outside of Cole Hamels, every marquee free agent signing panned out to perfection, and all have been critical so far in the postseason.
If it weren’t for advanced statistics crushing Marcell Ozuna’s defense (deservedly so), he very well might have won the MVP award. He led the NL in home runs and RBIs to go along with his .338 batting average. Ozuna was just a few points shy of winning the NL triple crown, and he’s continued to rake in the postseason.
While Ozuna might have been Anthopoulos’ best free-agent signing, Travis d’Arnaud has provided the most bang for his buck. Instead of trading a boatload of prospects or spending a zillion dollars for a marquee backstop, Anthopoulos took a gamble on d’Arnaud, and it has paid substantial dividends. Not only did he hit .321 with nine homers in 44 games this season, but he also could have single-handedly carried Atlanta’s offense in the NLDS to a win over the Marlins. He slashed .600/.692/1.400/2.092 with two homers and seven RBIs in the Division Series.
The most expensive free-agent signing was Will Smith. The veteran lefty was brought in to solidify the Braves bullpen, and while his season didn’t go as planned (partly because COVID cost him a few weeks) he’s proved his worth so far in the postseason. He’s tossed 4.1 scoreless innings with six strikeouts.
The last “marquee” free agent I’ll talk about has been the best piece of the entire bullpen, and that’s saying something considering how elite Atlanta’s relief core has been this season. After trading Kolby Allard for Chris Martin at the trade deadline last year, Anthopoulos re-signed the 6’8″ right-hander to a two-year, $14 million deal this offseason, and all Martin did is post a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings this season.
Avoiding the Land Mines
I’m certainly not trigger happy when it comes to potential blockbuster trades or free-agent signings. Still, even I admit, I’ve been discouraged at times with some of the Braves decision-making in the offseason and at the trade deadline. However, when you look back at it, there are very few deals that Alex Anthopoulos passed on that I’m upset about.
J.T. Realmuto would have been nice, but he definitely wouldn’t have been worth an ace with six years of control like Mike Soroka, and some. Or just imagine if Anthopoulos had given up significant pieces of the Braves farm for Kris Bryant, who was abysmal this season. Hell, teams were asking for Ian Anderson at the trade deadline? What if Anthopoulos had parted ways with him before he made his MLB debut? The Braves may already be eliminated.
Anthopoulos also avoided many disasters in free agency. He didn’t offer a long-term deal to Madison Bumgarner and even resisted offering five years to Josh Donaldson, who everyone in Braves Country wanted to retain after last season. Those types of contracts or trades would have been detrimental to the team’s future. Cole Hamels might have been a tough pill to swallow, but at least he comes off the books at season’s end.
I was probably the most heated when Anthopoulos didn’t make a move for a starting pitcher at this year’s trade deadline. However, as our Clint Manry pointed out, all the guys that were dealt or on the trading block didn’t exactly excel after the trade deadline, and the one blockbuster name that was moved, Mike Clevinger, couldn’t even help his team in the postseason because of an arm injury. Now, nobody can foresee injuries, but we can all agree in hindsight that Anthopoulos made the right decision by not giving in to the high asking prices and trusting his young arms, who have delivered so far in October.
Under the Radar Gems
As you can see, Anthopoulos has done a ton of good to help put the Braves in the best situation to win a World Series, but this is where I think he’s done the best job, finding guys that nobody else wants, who end up becoming integral pieces to the team. There are two guys I want to focus on in particular.
Darren O’Day isn’t exactly an unknown, but I’m not sure how many guys would have signed him to a one-year deal in the offseason after he barely pitched a game in two seasons with the team because of injuries. For a while, many Braves were questioning whether he was even a real person. However, in 2020, O’Day has become a household name in Atlanta after posting a 1.10 ERA over 16.1 innings with 21 strikeouts, and just like the marquee free agents that I talked about, he’s been a huge piece to the Braves postseason run.
The second guy his Tyler Matzek. Finding hidden gems like him just does not happen very often. He’s been out of the league for five years, for God’s sake! And he might just be the most important member of Atlanta’s bullpen. Matzek led the unit in innings during the season with 29, posting a 2.79 ERA and an even better 1.92 FIP to go with his silly 13.3 K/9 — good for 0.9 WAR. During the regular season, he did a lot of the dirty work that doesn’t always get recognized, but it sure has in the postseason. Matzek was one of the heroes in the Game 1 win over the Reds, and he’s yet to allow a run while striking out eight over 3.1 postseason innings.
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