Braves' success offers blueprint on how to build around a young core

Arash Madani caught up with Austin Riley after his big ninth inning home run to help the Atlanta Braves win Game 1 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When the MLB playoffs reach the Championship Series stage, it officially becomes time to take stock of what can be learned from the teams who are on the brink of a title.

Anyone can win a best-of-three wild-card series, but if you’ve made it all the way to baseball’s final four, there’s something to be said about what you’ve accomplished in terms of putting together a ballclub. Each team left in the running has a formula that’s worth examining, although some are easier to replicate than others.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have an elite front office brain trust backed by unmatched financial resources. That’s a tough one to copy. The Rays seem to win every trade they make. That’s what everyone’s trying to do, but it’s not so easy. The Astros used a lengthy tanking period to conjure a championship-calibre core, then sprinkled in some blatant cheating. Although that method is probably repeatable, and undoubtedly effective, it’s not a road most want to walk down.

That means this season it’s the Atlanta Braves who bring the most accessible blueprint to the table -- one that teams with up-and-coming cores like the Chicago White Sox or Toronto Blue Jays should take notice of. Specifically, the Braves have done an unbelievable job of supplementing their nucleus with wise free-agent spending.

In Monday night’s game, the Braves' third and fourth hitters -- Marcell Ozuna and Travis D’Arnaud -- were signed to deals that combined for $34 million over three years. Their eighth hitter, Nick Markakis, signed a one-year deal worth a modest $4 million. The first pitcher out of their bullpen, Chris Martin, was a free agent signing on a two-year, $14 million deal.

Ozuna led the National League in home runs and RBI -- and led the majors in total bases. D’Arnaud was a top-five catcher in every offensive category and WAR. Even Markakis hit a playable .254/.312/.394 after initially opting out, although his defensive contributions ultimately cancelled that out. Martin had an ERA of 1.00 during the season.

The conventional wisdom is that spending in free agency severely restricts your team-building flexibility, and is unlikely to provide surplus value. Atlanta is showing that’s not necessarily true. This team spent $117.25 million in free agency prior to the 2020 season, but not a dime will remain on their books past 2022. By packing their team with short-term signings, they’ve bolstered their club significantly without affecting their maneuverability in the years to come.

All-in-all, they signed eight players to major league contracts that spanned one or two years. Here’s a summary of FanGraphs’ estimates of their value, compared to what they cost the Braves this year:

This is not a list of unmitigated successes. Far from it. Hamels is a near worst-case scenario situation where the Braves got precisely 3.1 innings from a guy they were counting on, and paid handsomely. Despite the veteran left-hander providing them essentially nothing, this team got approximately $15.5 million in surplus value from their group of short-term signings in a shortened 2020 season.

Prior to the 2019 season, the Braves did the same thing -- albeit on a smaller scale -- with three big-league signings, all for one year:

That’s an even better result thanks to Donaldson’s outstanding year -- and McCann’s quiet competence. Markakis hasn’t been a great signing in either season, but the club probably sees the veteran bringing some intangible value that isn’t captured here.

In 2018 the Braves -- as we now know them -- emerged. Ronald Acuna Jr. arrived as one of the best players in the game at the age of 20, and Ozzie Albies made his first all-star team in his first full season. Combining those two with Freddie Freeman, the Braves officially had a core.

Rather than committing huge money and term to another star to add to their existing group, the Braves have rotated a cast of talented players through the team -- players with just enough warts to be available on short term contacts. Last year, they took a chance on Donaldson’s health. This year they bet that D’Arnaud was the player he looked like at the end of 2019, while Ozuna was more like his 2017 self. They were right in each case. Even when they went astray with Hamels, their other successes more than made up for that serious flop.

The way MLB free agent contracts work, the best value in each deal is almost certainly going to be in the first two years. So, in recent years, the Braves have decided to eschew the ones that come after that. The only player they’ve taken past that is reliever Will Smith, who got a three-year pact lasat off-season.

It sounds easy to limit yourself to short-term deals in free agency, but it requires a willingness to miss out on some players, an appetite for risk, and the patience to wait out the market -- like the Braves did with Ozuna this year. Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves front office have shown they have all of these qualities.

They’ve been rewarded with massive contributions from guys like Donaldson and Ozuna, and their playoff runs aren’t going to come with the consequence of enduring the decline years of their October heroes. Maybe the Braves will opt to run it back with an Ozuna extension, but they could also take a swing at Nelson Cruz for their 2021 DH spot, or simply catch whichever big bat falls through the cracks in an off-season where spending patterns will be tough to predict.

Front offices are often obsessed with flexibility to the point that they don’t jump in on the free agent market. The Braves are having their cake and eating it too. Thanks to that philosophy, Acuna Jr. and Albies have always had a playoff-calibre supporting cast, and when Freeman hits free agency after the 2021 season, the money should be there to retain him.

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