Wasn’t Matt Adams’ walk-off homer Tuesday night against the Marlins just absolutely perfect? The guy has been a Brave for all of 24 hours, and in his first exhibition game, he wins it in the bottom of the 9th.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) July 22, 2020
And if you’ve been following the Braves these last couple of seasons, as they’ve won back-to-back NL East titles, you’ve probably seen several well-timed signings that have almost instantly proved successful.
While Adams’ game-winner on Tuesday came during a meaningless summer camp matchup, bringing in just the right player seems to continue for GM Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves. And with Adams on my mind late Tuesday night, I began diving into the Braves’ various additions over the last two seasons (2018-19), while narrowing my search to players added either right before Opening Day or in the middle of the season. To keep with the theme of instant-contributors — or at least players that produced within just a couple of months of their signing — I limited my pool of offseason additions to players acquired on or after February 1 of each winter. It’s incredible just how many players have been added from February 1 through the end of the regular season over the last two years, and it’s even more compelling just how many of those acquisitions made such a significant difference in the Braves performance.
Below are my findings, using Baseball Reference’s transactions log for the Braves’ 2018 and 2019 regular seasons.
2018’s Timely Additions
The Braves’ surprising NL East title in 2018 was a result of breakout seasons from their young offensive core, such as Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Johan Camargo, making it a top-10 offense in all of the majors. Still, it was timely additions made to the starting rotation and bullpen that put the Braves over the top in their division.
Before the ’18 campaign began, the Braves made five acquisitions, with three of them winding up as worthy deals. And once the regular season cranked up, Anthopoulos didn’t just sit on his hands, the Braves GM ripped off another 14 transactions throughout the year, and though several of them were either minor in significance or failures altogether, the team benefited greatly from at least four of them that very season. Here’s a look at all seven additions I believe to be crucial to the Braves winning their division championship in 2018:
Signing reliever Peter Moylan (February 19): Moylan had already completed two separate stints with the Braves (2006-12 & 2015), and those first seven seasons of his big league career in Atlanta were undoubtedly productive. But in February of 2018, entering his age-39 season, the Aussie was well past the 80 appearance / sub-3.00 ERA days of his late-20s. However, at an initial cost of just $575,000 (plus a $625K bonus if he made the MLB team), Moylan pitched more than good enough for the Braves that year, posting a respectable 4.45 ERA in 39 relief appearances (28.1 IP). Granted, he struggled a bit with walks, but Moylan was a great add by the Braves at that kind of price.
Signing starter Anibal Sanchez (March 16): This may go down as one of the biggest out-of-nowhere signings in Braves’ history, given where Sanchez was in his career (though he continued to be effective even longer than just that season). At a price tag of just $1 million — if he made the MLB team — Sanchez was coming off three consecutive seasons in which he posted a 4.50+ ERA with the Tigers… and the expectations were rather low regarding his potential in Atlanta. However, the 34-year-old veteran found his groove from the get-go and wound up making 24 starts for the Braves in 2018, while finishing with a 2.83 ERA, 7-6 record and a stingy 2.8 walks per nine. Not only was Sanchez one of the better arms in the Braves’ starting rotation, but he also took care of the younger guys on the staff… and is probably responsible for Julio Teheran’s career lasting another year in Atlanta. Sanchez was one of the keys to the Braves’ first division title since 2013.
Signing third baseman Ryan Flaherty (March 26): His final numbers at season’s end may not have been pretty, but for roughly the first month of 2018 Flaherty was one of the best hitters in the majors, slashing .362/.471/.500 with 6 XBH and 8 RBI in his first 18 games, which stretched from Opening Day (March 29) to April 21. By the end of May that AVG had fallen to a still decent .274. Although by June 30 it fell to .248 and eventually sunk to .217 by the end of the season. But there’s no doubt Flaherty’s hot start heavily contributed to the Braves winning 35 of their first 60 games; and even better for the up-and-coming Braves, was that the then-34-year-old Flaherty only cost $750,000 during that ’18 season — an absolute steal given just how productive he was for roughly 40% of the season.
Signing reliever Luke Jackson (June 17): At this point in the 2018 season, the Braves were up by three games in the division and enjoying an excellent 42-29 record. Those three moves listed above, during the last few months of the offseason, had certainly paid off. And though Jackson had already been part of the Braves the season prior, the decision to sign him shortly after designating him for assignment just days earlier in June of 2018 proved to be a wise choice. The 26-year-old showed off an impressive fastball, and during August, helped lead the Braves’ bullpen by pitching to a 2.84 ERA and punching out 11 batters in 12.2 innings. The former Texas Ranger didn’t end the year exactly how he wanted, but his overall line was still admirable for a guy jerked around during the middle of the season. After absolutely dominating while in Triple-A Gwinnett, carrying a 1.69 ERA and 14+ strikeouts per nine, Jackson turned in a 4.43 ERA over 40.2 total innings with the big league Braves.
Acquiring reliever Jonny Venters (July 26): The late-July addition of the left-handed Venters was even more clutch than adding Jackson during the previous month, as the Braves division lead had begun to crumble. Overall, Venters cost the Braves just $250,000 in international bonus money — paid to the Rays — and it was probably the best $250K the team spent all season (save for maybe the next addition on this list). The 33-year-old Venters didn’t allow a single home run throughout his 28 appearances (28.1 IP) with the team, and despite struggling with walks here and there, he finished the ’18 season with a 3.54 ERA and 4-1 record as Braves’ reliever.
Acquiring reliever Brad Brach (July 30): It’s like the Braves were reliever whisperers around this time of the 2018 season. After posting a 4.85 ERA across 42 appearances with the Orioles, Brach — then 32-years-old — was on his way to Atlanta (also costing the Braves $250K in international bonus money). The former 42nd round pick instantly caught on, and by season’s end, Brach managed to pitch to a 1.52 ERA in 27 second-half appearances with the Braves, thanks to just one homer allowed and 8.4 strikeouts per nine.
A day later, the Braves received even more good fortune from the Orioles…
Acquiring starter Kevin Gausman and reliever Darren O’Day (July 31): Despite trading away four minor leaguers (Brett Cumberland, JC Encarnacion, Bruce Zimmerman, and Evan Phillips), Anthopoulos hit the jackpot landing Gausman and O’Day at the deadline in 2018. The latter was injured at the time and wasn’t able to suit up while in Atlanta, but the former went on to post a 2.87 ERA and go 5-3 in 10 starts with the Braves. At 27-years-old, Gausman appeared to be a potential under-the-radar star for many years to come, though he flamed out a year later. Still, Gausman’s ten outings helped the Braves hold on to their division lead, and as we know, O’Day eventually logged innings for the team in 2019.
2019’s Timely Additions
If you thought the Braves made all the right moves in 2018, wait till you see just how well last season’s additions turned out. Anthopoulos was pressing all the right buttons, and from February 1 until Opening Day, he made four acquisitions, with half of them turning out to be positives for the Braves.
But Anthopoulos didn’t just set the team up for success in the offseason’s final few months. No, his best moves came during the 2019 regular season, when the Braves just continued to get the best out of their newest additions, especially key bullpen pieces. From Day 1 of the ’19 regular season until the final game, Anthopoulos made 14 different acquisitions, with nine of them contributing to the Braves’ second-straight NL East title. Like we did with the previous season, here’s a look at all of them:
Signing reliever Josh Tomlin (March 21): How do you explain a 34-year-old soft-tosser suddenly posting an ERA almost two runs lower than his previous two seasons combined? Well, in 2019, Tomlin did just that, appearing a whopping 51 times and racking up 79.1 innings for the Braves, all while maintaining a 3.74 ERA. Oh… and that’s after agreeing to a minor league contract in late March.
Acquiring outfielder Matt Joyce (March 24): So you thought Tomlin was a rather dull pickup before the start of the 2019 campaign, how about a 34-year-old outfielder coming off a 2018 season in which he hit just .208? Of course, Joyce hit nearly .300 (.295) with seven home runs while with the Braves!
Acquiring reliever Jerry Blevins (April 28): With the 2019 season underway, the Braves were playing around-.500 ball by late April before purchasing Blevins’ contract from the Athletics. I’ll admit, I wasn’t too excited when I saw that the 35-year-old lefty hadn’t even pitched in the majors in 2019, not to mention his 2018 numbers with the Mets were nothing to feel good about. But what do you know, Blevins righted the ship with the Braves, and by season’s end, he was sporting a 3.90 ERA and 10.3 K/9 through 45 relief appearances (32.1 IP).
Acquiring reliever Anthony Swarzak (May 20): It cost the Braves two of their own relievers, Jesse Biddle and Arodys Vizcaino, but Anthopoulos was able to get Swarzak from the Mariners in late May as the team was stuck at 2.5 games back in the division. The 33-year-old wasn’t anything flashy, but given his 6.00+ ERA with the Mets the previous season, his 4.31 ERA and 7.9 K/9 through 44 appearances with the Braves seemed like a pretty solid effort.
Signing starter Dallas Keuchel (June 7): Despite the Braves’ starting rotation not quite reaching expected heights during the first 50-60 games of the 2019 season, primarily due to ineffectiveness from the likes of Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Gausman, the signing of Keuchel in early June was supposed to provide some much-needed stability. At the cost of $13 million, sure the then-31-year-old Keuchel could’ve perhaps pitched a bit better, but it’s hard to complain about a 3.75 ERA and just 3.1 walks per nine over 19 starts. And though Keuchel’s signing had nothing to do with it, given he didn’t pitch every day, starting on June 7 (the day he was signed), the Braves began an 8-game winning streak, going from two games back in the division to 2.5 games up.
Acquiring reliever Chris Martin (July 30): The day before 2019’s trade deadline, Anthopoulos moved a long time prospect pitcher in Kolby Allard, landing one of the game’s most consistent strike throwers, Chris Martin. The deal with the Rangers netted the Braves some much-needed control in the bullpen, as the team’s core of relievers were giving up games almost on a nightly basis. The 33-year-old Martin did his best in helping turn things around, logging 17.2 innings down the stretch for the Braves, while striking out 11+ batters per nine and pitching to a 4.08 ERA. Throughout his entire time in Atlanta, Martin walked just one batter.
Acquiring reliever Shane Greene (July 31): More reinforcements for the bullpen were on the way on Deadline Day, as Anthopoulos continued to wheel and deal, this time landing Greene from the Tigers in exchange for two talented minor leaguers (pitcher Joey Wentz and outfielder Travis Demeritte). Greene was practically unhittable while pitching for Detroit in 2019 (1.18 ERA), and despite regressing some once in Atlanta, he still managed to post a 4.01 ERA, including a stingy 1.8 BB/9. The 30-year-old allowed just three homers in 24.2 innings as a Brave last season.
Acquiring reliever Mark Melancon (July 31): Perhaps the most costly trade of the 2019 season, though no less significant to the team’s success, the Braves traded away highly ranked prospect pitcher Tristan Beck (along with Dan Winkler) to the Giants, netting 34-year-old Melancon. It didn’t take long to see why Anthopoulos was so quick to trade a talented prospect, as the veteran reliever struck out 10+ batters per nine while walking less than one per nine, finishing the season in Atlanta with a 3.86 ERA. Consistent with the other newly-acquired relievers from the 2019 season, Melancon very rarely surrendered a home run, giving up just one long ball in 21 total innings with the Braves.
Signing shortstop Adeiny Hechavarría (August 16): Now down to the final 30-40 games of the 2019 season, the Braves had a relaxing lead in the NL East and were planning to shore up holes in the lineup and on defense. A career-.253 hitter, adding Hechavarría seemed like nothing more than a glove to utilize during the late-innings, and for just $1 million the signing didn’t look too concerning. However, the man we call Hech experienced a breakout performance in Atlanta, as the 30-year-old defensive specialist hit .328 with four homers (10 XBHs) and knocked in 15 runs in 24 games. His play not only assisted the Braves in the latter portion of the 2019 season, but it also secured him a spot on the roster in 2020.
Claiming outfielder Billy Hamilton (August 19): Many of us had no idea what was so attractive about Hamilton that he was worth paying the remaining $4.25 million left of his 2019 salary to come pinch-run for a month and a half. While in Kansas City, the 28-year-old speedster was virtually unplayable as he hit just .211. But like so many other new Braves players last season, Hamilton heated up and put together a solid 26-game stint in Atlanta. He hit .268 and scored nine runs for the Braves, even tallying a couple of extra-base hits to boot.
Signing catcher Francisco Cervelli (August 24): Granted, Cervelli’s time with the Braves was perhaps too little to count, but this goes to show just how much several of these players enjoyed playing in Atlanta. Multiple concussions had Cervelli holding onto a .193 AVG with the Pirates. But during a 14-game stretch with the Braves to end the year, he looked like a guy five years younger, hitting .281 with eight extra-base hits and 7 RBI. Heck, Cervelli even threw out two of the four would-be base stealers during his time behind the plate in a Braves uniform.
We’ll see what happens in 2020, but from the looks of it, it appears Anthopoulos is becoming more comfortable making moves in Atlanta. If the current trend continues, the Braves’ GM should have plenty of savvy additions up his sleeve in the coming months.