Braves: Under the radar signings already paying dividends

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I say it every year, but few GMs — if any — are better at bringing in undervalued players for pennies and making the most out of them than Alex Anthopoulos. He’s a wizard in that department, just like he is at signing talented young players to lengthy team-friendly contract extensions, and this year is no different.

It’s only been two weeks, but because of a bevy of injuries to star players, several under the radar acquisitions — some that weren’t even expected to contribute this season, especially so early — have stepped up in a big way.

Let’s start with a familiar face. The Braves let Jesse Chavez walk a couple of offseasons ago, only to trade back for him within a few weeks for Sean Newcomb. They then let Chavez go again in a trade with the Angels for Raisel Iglesias. However, Chavez once again ended up back with the Braves after the Halos released him following several shaky outings. With every other team, Chavez looks like a 39-year-old that has no business still pitching in the majors, but with the Braves, he’s been an elite reliever, and that’s continued into 2023.

Alex Anthopoulos signed Chavez to a minor-league deal with an invite to Spring Training. Unsurprisingly, he made the roster, and he’s been nearly flawless in a league-leading seven appearances this season. Chavez has yet to give up a run and has only surrendered three hits to go along with no walks over 6.1 innings. The longer this goes, this story keeps getting crazier, but I never want it to end.

Two other bullpen arms that have been critical to this point in the season are Michael Tonkin and Nick Anderson. Tonkin is by far the most out-of-nowhere contributor, perhaps in all of baseball, this season. This is a 33-year-old that hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017.

Tonkin has spent time in the Atlantic League, Japan, and Mexico since he last pitched in the bigs, and his perseverance is finally paying off. He’s served as the team’s primary long reliever, and like Chavez, there hasn’t been anything to complain about. Over 8.1 innings, Tonkin boasts a 2.16 ERA and 0.480 WHIP. His story is incredible, and he’s making a case to keep his spot on the roster once guys like Raisel Iglesias and Collin McHugh return from the IL.

Nick Anderson’s emergence was much more expected. Before undergoing Tommy John Surgery, he was one of the best relievers in baseball. Anthopoulos was able to get him at a bargain this offseason, and he’s already paying substantial dividends, recording a 3.18 ERA with a 12.7 K/9 and a save thus far. It wouldn’t shock me one bit if we looked up at the end of the season, and Anderson ended up with the best numbers of any reliever on the Braves staff.

Another player I was high on coming into the season, Sam Hilliard has made the most of his opportunities starting in place of the injured Michael Harris. He’s hitting .333 with an .896 OPS, and he also has a couple of steals over eight games. Given his speed, power and defense, Hilliard is a player that has the potential to be a major-league starter, and he may get a chance to play in left field every day sooner rather than later.

There’s a chance some of these guys end up being critical pieces to the team for the entire 162-game campaign. There’s also the possibility they fall off a cliff in the coming months. Regardless, all of them are on cheap contracts that they’ve already proven worth it. Games in April count just as much as the games in September, and these four have been critical to the Braves hot start early in the season.

Photo: John Adams/Icon Sportswire

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