When Alex Anthopoulos rolled out of bed on July 15, the Atlanta Braves were less than a week removed from losing their best all-around player and FanGraphs was giving them an 8.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.
Just over 100 days later, they’re in the World Series after taking down a Milwaukee Brewers club that many envisioned making a deep run, and a Los Angeles Dodgers squad with the strongest roster in the majors.
There are a number of reasons for the 88-win Braves’ arrival at this point, but one of the simplest ones is that Anthopoulos didn’t give up on his group. In fact, back on July 15 he decided it was a good time to add, grabbing Joc Pederson.
Just 15 days later, the Braves had just played a 7-9 stretch, sat three games below .500, and still faced grim playoff odds (11.4 percent). There was justification for becoming a seller. At the very least, the 2021 Atlanta Braves didn’t look like a venture worth pouring more resources into. That’s not how Anthopoulos saw it, and he added reliever Richard Rodriguez and outfielders Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, and Adam Duvall at the deadline.
While the acquisition of Rodriguez didn’t pan out (he posted a -0.5 WAR down the stretch and didn’t make the playoff roster), Pederson, Rosario, Soler, and Duvall have been crucial to both the Braves’ playoff run, and their run to the playoffs.
Starting with the regular season, the quartet of outfielders hit a combined .251/.325/.503 down the stretch with 44 home runs in 758 plate appearances — good for three WAR. The Braves' hot finish wasn’t solely authored by the new arrivals, but they more than played their part.
In the playoffs, they’ve been even more instrumental to Atlanta’s success. The new Braves have hit .313/.370/.557 and accounted for seven of the team’s 12 home runs and 24 of their 39 RBI. Considering the rest of the team has hit .217 and slugged just .309, it’s fair to say Atlanta would be in the midst of its off-season without Rosario, Pederson, Duvall, and Soler.
While the Braves deserve immense credit for identifying players who could make such a difference for them, this is a tough template to follow. After all, none of the four outfielders they acquired was setting the world on fire when Atlanta picked them up. It’s tough to say the key to a deep playoff runs is to pick up guys with stat lines like these:
You could argue the lesson these 2021 Braves teach us is that you should always be looking for struggling and undervalued players that you can pick up for cheap, and there’s no doubt they got this group for very little.
Atlanta grabbed Rosario for Pablo Sandoval and the willingness to pay a portion of the outfielder’s salary. Joc Pederson cost them Bryce Ball, a 23-year-old first base prospect with massive strikeout rates at High-A. Duvall was pried from Miami for Alex Jackson, a 25-year-old former prospect who’s struck out nearly half the time (47.4 percent) in his 173 MLB plate appearances. Kasey Kalich, who they traded for Soler, has some promise, but he’s also a relief-only prospect who hasn’t cracked Double-A.
The problem with focussing on this aspect of what Atlanta did is that it’s not repeatable. While the Braves undoubtedly had reasons to like the players they acquired, there’s no doubt the group performed beyond their wildest expectations. Every team is trying to find productive bargains every year. That’s not a strategy, it’s one of the basic functions of running a front office.
What teams can take away from the Braves is the value of staying in the fight, even when the odds are stacked against you.
One part of that equation is the way teams — even big-budget contenders — prioritize future value and hoard prospects. The selling business just isn’t what it used to be, particularly for rental players.
The Chicago Cubs are an excellent example of this phenomenon as they moved impending free agents Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant at the 2021 deadline. None of the three were having their best seasons, but they’d combined for 5.4 WAR in Cubs uniforms when the deals were made, and each represented a significant upgrade for the team acquiring them. The prospects the Cubs got from those deals rank just fifth, 12th, 14th, 16th, and 19th on their most current MLB Pipeline top prospects list.
Less than one month after the deals were made, MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis ranked them 18th on his farm system rankings, only up four places from 22nd in the off-season. That’s not to say the Cubs’ front office did a bad job, it’s just that game-changing, blue-chip prospects are almost never available for rentals these days. The flip side of that is that useful MLB talent on expiring contracts tend to be pretty affordable.
With that in mind, the upside of hoisting the white flag isn’t that enticing if you’re on the fence. The Braves didn’t decide to make midseason additions because they delusionally believed that they were mortal locks to reach the World Series if they did. They simply knew that their chances would improve, it wouldn’t cost them much, and the alternatives weren’t particularly inspiring.
If you’re a team on the bubble there is an opportunity cost associated with not trading some veterans for prospects at the deadline and bolstering your farm system. While that shouldn’t be ignored, these Braves are showing us the opposite side of the coin. If you opt to sell, you are shutting the door on the possibility of the type of magical and improbable run we’re seeing now — one that might just end with a World Series title. While the chance of that may be remote, it’s far from impossible.
Anyone who opts to sell when their team’s playoff odds look like a pitcher’s batting average will be able to defend their choice, and they’ll never know what might have been, anyway. That said, a few more GM’s might approach the 2022 trade deadline a touch more hesitant to fold their hands — just in case their clubs have some 2021 Atlanta Braves in them.