Young and hungry
Atlanta’s collection of pitchers has it optimistic for 2019
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Three weeks ago, on a stretch of bullpen mounds, in a distant corner of the Atlanta Braves’ spring training complex, in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, on a warm morning in mid-February, Kevin Gausman saw his baseball mortality flash before his eyes.
Having arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex a few days before the opening of camp to get in some early work, ahead of his first full season for the defending National League East division champions, Gausman, generally listed at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, took note of the large, youthful humans surrounding him on those mounds — “They were some massive specimens,” he recalled.
And then those young pitching prospects began to throw.
“I actually called my wife that first day,” Gausman, 28, said, “and I was like, ‘Baby, I’m going to have to clean my [stuff] up or I’m not going to be around here much longer.’ I swear to God, I told her that. It’s the honest truth.”
It’s only a slight stretch to say the Braves have staked their entire empire on that collection of young pitchers, both the ones that arrived before and during their surprise march to the division title last summer, and the ones still on the way. The entire winter came and went, and now a good chunk of spring as well, without the team making a single significant addition to a pitching staff that ranked fifth in the NL with a 3.75 ERA last season. They even allowed veteran stalwart Anibal Sanchez, their Game 2 starter against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series, to walk away via free agency.
The Braves’ entire offseason checklist, in fact, was more or less completed during a single afternoon in late November, when they signed third baseman Josh Donaldson ($23 million) and catcher Brian McCann
($2 million) to one-year contracts. Their only other significant move was to re-sign veteran right fielder Nick Markakis to a oneyear, $6 million deal.
All of this offseason accounting, of course, must come with a caveat — “at least so far” — because two elite pitchers remain available on the free agent market at this late date, in lefty starter Dallas Keuchel and former Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, and both would be perfect fits with the Braves, at least from a personnel standpoint, if not a financial one.
“We had a target list, and there were very few players we felt strongly about, that we really wanted to have,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said, declining to speak specifically about the still-available free agents. “Josh Donaldson was a player we really wanted to acquire, and we wanted to get that done early. It was a big [salary]. And it was going to take up a good chunk of our payroll, so it would give us clarity for the remainder of the winter. So there was value in doing that early.”
Barring a late signing or two, the Braves are likely to open 2019 with a smaller payroll ($109.6 million,
19th-highest in the majors, according to Spotrac) than the one they finished 2018 with ($130.6 million). It is a decidedly curious direction for the defending champs to take, particularly in a division in which three dangerous rivals — the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets — all made significant (and expensive) moves to get better.
The Braves could still target the July 31 trade deadline to make additions — as they did in 2018 when they added Gausman (Orioles), reliever Brad Brach (Orioles) and outfielder Adam Duvall. “The winter to us is certainly valuable,” Chairman Terence McGuirk told The Athletic. “But the psychological value when you add to the team at the trade deadline is appreciable. We build that into the budget now.”
Still, by largely standing pat this winter, as their strongest division rivals made significant on-paper gains, the Braves are showing extraordinary faith in a collection of young talent to not only repeat their 2018 performances, but improve on them.
“We’ve got the ingredients here to win a championship,” said McCann, 35, who has been to the playoffs six times this decade with the Braves (2010, 2012, 2013), Yankees (2015) and Astros (2017, 2018). “This team got better because all those young players who emerged in 2018 got a year older, and got another year of experience.”
It is indisputable that the Braves’ collection of young talent is the envy of the game. It includes not only left fielder Ronald Acuna Jr., who won the NL rookie of the year award at the age of 20, but 17 other rookies who played for the team during 2018, including 15 pitchers. Four of the five youngest players to debut in 2018 were Braves.
And more are on the way, as MLB Pipeline lists eight Braves among the top 100 prospects in the game, a number exceeded only by the San Diego Padres. Among those eight, three — pitchers Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson — got a taste of the majors in 2018.
“I’d heard [the Braves’ farm system] was good, but I didn’t know it was this good,” McCann said. “I knew they had prospects. But I didn’t know how deep it was, and how good these kids are. There’s waves of ‘em. There’s the wave that’s at the big leagues now, the wave that’s knocking at the door, and the wave that’s in Double-A.”
Gausman, who came to Atlanta in a trade from the Baltimore Orioles last July, concurred: “No disrespect to the Orioles, but I’ve never seen a spring training like this, with just the amount of young, quality arms they have. They don’t just throw hard — they have quality [secondary] pitches to go with them. And they all seem pretty advanced for their age.”
All along, the Braves figured 2019 was the year their collection of young future stars would put it all together, and the fact they arrived a year early — in a year when the NL East was down, allowing the Braves to win the division title with 90 wins — did not change that assessment. This is still the target year — except they are trying to defend a title rather than win one.
“We had a whole team full of guys [last year] who, really, I don’t know if they knew the fight they were in for,” said Manager Brian Snitker, to whom the Braves gave a two-year contract extension after the 2018 season. “We’re a year older. We’ve gained experience. We made some good additions also. But as a young team, we’re still developing. I told the players, ‘We’re not a finished product yet. We still have to work. We’re not where we want to be yet.’”
“I didn’t know how deep it was, and how good these kids are. There’s waves of ’em.” —Brian McCann, Braves catcher
Ronald Acuna Jr. was named National League rookie of the year last season leading the Braves to the NL East title.