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Michael Cunningham: Young Braves will be championship contenders for a while

Michael Cunningham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Baseball

Their 349-264 record since the start of the 2018 season ranks fifth best in the majors behind the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros and Rays. The Braves are the only team from that group to win four consecutive division titles. Only the Dodgers, with two pennants and one championship, bested the Braves’ one pennant and one title.

There’s still a chance we eventually will be talking about a new Braves dynasty. The Braves are built to win for years to come because they are winning with a roster heavy on young players. That doesn’t mean winning is inevitable. Injuries and underperformance are variables that are hard to predict. But the Braves can put so much young talent on the field for the next several seasons that it’s reasonable to believe this run is far from over.

This season’s Braves have four position players ranked among the top 100 in the majors for FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement: Dansby Swanson (10th), Austin Riley (28th), Matt Olson (70th) and Ozzie Albies (81st). Four Braves pitchers are in the top 100: Max Fried (fourth), Kyle Wright (11th), Ian Anderson (79th) and Charlie Morton (81st). Morton is 38 years old. The other seven players are no older than 28, the age at which production tends to start declining for players in the aggregate.

The Braves’ peers have good players, of course. The Dodgers have seven (!) batters among the top 100 in WAR, and the Yankees and Astros have six (all statistics and records before Tuesday’s games). The Yankees have seven (!) top 100 WAR pitchers, and the Rays have five. But those four teams are much older than the Braves. The Astros are the exception and, not coincidentally, they built a championship team through their farm system (and cheating).

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has earned deserved praise for the moves he made to build a World Series champion. He also should get credit for the moves he didn’t make. Anthopoulos inherited a strong farm system and resisted the urge to deal prospects for veterans even as the Braves started winning earlier than expected. The result is that the Braves won a World Series and still remain a contender because they didn’t sacrifice the future to do it.

Most of the top Braves hitters who were there at the start of the winning run are still here. The exceptions are third baseman Josh Donaldson, catcher Kurt Suzuki and outfielders Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis. Donaldson and Suzuki have been replaced by good players, Riley and Travis d’Arnaud. Riley, 25, is four years from free agency. D’Arnaud, 33, is under contact for one more season, but William Contreras is on track to take over at catcher.

The Braves have turned over pitchers often since 2018. Fried, the best of those still here, is under contractual control through 2024. Mike Soroka, 24, hasn’t pitched much since 2018. He was so good when he did pitch that he ranks second to Fried in WAR. Two pitchers who came after Soroka and Fried, Wright (26) and Anderson (24), have the potential to be part of the starting rotation long term.

Those are among the developing players whom Anthopoulos kept instead of flipping them for proven big leaguers. He finally made that kind of deal after the Braves moved on from Freddie Freeman, the team’s WAR leader from 2018-21. To acquire Freeman’s replacement, Olson, Anthopoulos sent catcher Shea Langeliers, outfielder Cristian Pache and right-hander Ryan Cusick to the Athletics.

 

That was a steep price to pay. Talented young catchers, center fielders and power pitchers are valuable (though Pache looks overmatched at the plate with the Athletics, same as he did with the Braves). But it turns out the Braves have more young players on the come. Contreras, outfielder Michael Harris and right-hander Spencer Strider already are helping the big-league club win games.

It’s too early to say those players will stick. Still, it’s obvious the Braves still have some talented prospects in the pipeline after parting with Langeliers, Pache and Cusick. FanGraphs scout Eric Longenhagen recently evaluated the top Braves prospects and rated the organization’s farm system as average overall. That’s a good position for a contending team with several players who were promoted in recent years.

Longenhagen rates Harris as the top Braves prospect. He projects Harris to be an average everyday player with the potential for more if his recent swing changes work out long term. Longenhagen projects Strider as a mid-rotation starter if he can develop a change-up to go with his superb fastball. Contreras no longer is a rookie. As a prospect, Baseball America projected him to become an everyday catcher if he improves his defense.

The path is clear for Contreras, Harris and Strider if they prove they belong in the big leagues. D’Arnaud’s contract expires after the 2023 season. Braves outfielder Adam Duvall has a one-year contract. There’s always a spot available in the starting rotation for a pitcher who earns it. The Braves have shown they’ll give young pitchers a real shot to do it.

The Dodgers and Yankees usually will be contenders because they’ll spend to replace older players. The Rays make up for a relatively small player payroll and lack of star power with organizational depth. We’ll see if the Astros can win a non-tainted title after the Braves denied them in October.

The Braves have one World Series title to go with the four consecutive division titles. But it’s easy to forget they weren’t supposed to be good in 2018. They still didn’t have enough pitching in 2019. Last year’s run seemed unlikely through July, and it happened without their best player, Ronald Acuña. The Braves may not win the East again this season, but they are on the path to winning one of three NL wild cards.

The Braves have been true World Series contenders for a very short time. They should remain contenders for a long time. More pennants aren’t a given. Winning another World Series title will be hard. The Braves have a lot of good, young players who will get multiple shots to pull it off.

©2022 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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