Young and hun­gry

At­lanta’s col­lec­tion of pitch­ers has it op­ti­mistic for 2019

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Sports - By Dave Sheinin

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

JOE ROBBINS/GETTY

Ron­ald Acuna Jr. was named Na­tional League rookie of the year last sea­son lead­ing the Braves to the NL East ti­tle.

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