As a 90s baby, it’s difficult to remember the days when the Braves were not contending for division championships, but it wasn’t long ago that they were the laughing stock of the National League. From 1966, when the Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee, they only made the playoffs twice until 1990 and did not win a single playoff series. In fact, they did not even win a single playoff game over that stretch, as they were swept 3-0 the two times they did reach the postseason. And those final years of the 80s were the most miserable of all, finishing fifth or worst in each of the last five seasons of the decade and in 1990.
But every Braves fan remembers the magic of the 1991 season. A Terry Pendalton led Atlanta squad overcame the odds, going from worst to first and holding off the Dodgers to win their first NL West title since 1982. The Braves won their final eight games of the season, topping Los Angeles – who led by two games with ten left to play – by just one game in the final standings. Pendelton would later be named the National League MVP, and Tom Glavine took home his first Cy Young award after winning 20 games. Unfortunately, the season would end in heartbreak, as the Twins won the World Series in seven games over Atlanta, but the season as a whole was a sign of the dominance that was to come.
The Braves would go on to capture 14 straight division titles, appearing in five World Series over that span. Of course, only one of those resulted in a trophy (1995), but their regular-season success – led by possibly the best starting rotation of all time – may never be replicated ever again. Baseball in Atlanta was euphoric, but it’s calm down a lot since those days. Despite the Braves reaching the postseason nine times since 2001, they have yet to win another playoff series, and the fan base is no longer content with regular-season success. They want to see it happen in the postseason, as it did in the 90s. Well, welcome to the 2020s.
This current Braves squad is constructed much like the one that led Atlanta to fourteen straight division titles – from within. They have a boatload of young, homegrown talent that is under team control at a bargain for years to come. Guys like Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and more are all just entering their primes as we turn the page to a new decade – a decade that should belong to the Braves.
Atlanta has already captured back-to-back division titles, and they have done so reasonably comfortably. Still, they have not been able to make out of the NLDS. However, with a few tweaks to their roster this offseason, they should be poised to make several runs at the World Series in the coming years.
It started with addressing the bullpen. Alex Anthopoulos neglected to add anything last offseason, and it nearly came back to bite the Braves. Fortunately, unsung heroes like Luke Jackson, Anthony Swarzak, and Jacob Webb were able to hold it down until reinforcements arrived. Those reinforcements came in the form of Chris Martin, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon at the trade deadline – all of whom are under contract for 2020. Then, Anthopoulos doubled down on this unit by making his first splash of the offseason and signing Will Smith to a three-year deal – who was widely regarded as the best reliever on the market. Now, the Braves possess perhaps the best bullpen in the National League to go along with their already stellar core that led them to a division title and nearly 100 wins a year ago.
Of course, a significant part of continuing this momentum is keeping that core together. While younger guys like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña are locked in for years to come, there is still the ongoing Josh Donaldson sweepstakes. It looks like the Braves are frontrunners, but if they happen not to land him in free agency, they must add another power bat to their lineup, preferably at third base. That is likely where Anthopoulos will pivot if the Bringer of Rain walks, as both Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant are rumored to be on the market. The Braves have also been linked to Marcell Ozuna if Donaldson heads elsewhere. Either way, Anthopoulos is going to address his cleanup issue, it’s just a matter of who will be batting behind Freddie Freeman next season.
With those two pieces of the team intact, we get to the fun part. The rest of the Braves youthful core that is already responsible for two division titles and one 97-win season is locked up for the foreseeable future. Freddie Freeman – the wily veteran of the bunch at 30 years old – is under contract through 2021, but it is almost a certainty that Atlanta takes care of him and makes him a lifelong Brave. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we started hearing murmurs about a contract extension this year.
After that, Atlanta has Ronald Acuña under contract at an absurdly generous rate through 2027. By then, he should hold the crown as the best player in baseball. The Braves have Ozzie Albies locked up at an ever more ridiculous rate through 2026. In his final season, he will only be making $4 million… This is the guy who led the National League in hits last year… at only 22 years old. Those two deals make everything easier on Anthopoulos financially and will allow the Braves the flexibility to continue to improve as they see fit while maintaining a reasonable budget, something that is key under the ownership of Liberty Media.
But while Acuña and Albies will receive all the headlines for their friendly deals, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Mike Soroka and Max Fried – the best two arms in the Braves rotation – don’t even become arbitration-eligible until 2022 and are under team control through 2024 – that’s absurd. Sean Newcomb won’t become a free agent until 2024, same with Johan Camargo. Dansby Swanson will be around until at least 2023, and we haven’t even gotten to the second batch of young prospects that have only begun to dabble in the majors.
Let’s start with Austin Riley. Braves fans had the opportunity to see what he is capable of after he burst onto the scene with an electric month and a half. However, a wicked cold streak followed, and he wound up not even making the playoff roster. Still, this was the top prospect in a system some viewed as the best in baseball entering last year. There is plenty of reason to believe he can be an elite player in the majors, and he’s under team control through 2025.
Then there are the young arms like Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Touki Toussaint – all of which have gotten their feet wet in the big leagues already. They may not have had a ton of success thus far, but it’s normal for young arms to have an adjustment period, and sometimes that can last a couple of years. Like Riley, they are all under team control through 2025.
Looking even further down the line, Ian Anderson may be the best pitching prospect the Braves have had since they began this rebuild. He’s knocking on the door of the majors and could make his debut this season. And of course, Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are anxiously waiting for their opportunity. After being promoted to AAA midway through last season, both could also make their debuts in 2020 and should help complete a dream Acuña, Waters, Pache outfield.
Anthopoulos will likely use some of these prospects as trade bait at some point. However, the Braves are so loaded from the top down that they can afford to lose a few young guys in order to win now. No matter what, this window isn’t anywhere near closing. In fact, I don’t even know if it has opened yet. The last two seasons were nice, but they were also a bit unexpected. Atlanta’s youth has far outperformed their expected worth, and it has set the Braves to go on another unprecedented run. The 2020s will be the decade of the Braves. This time though, let’s hope there’s more than just one World Series trophy waiting at the end of the rainbow.