Anyone watching the 2018 National League Division Series between the Braves and Dodgers could easily point out the biggest discrepancy in the two teams – depth. The Dodgers could seemingly throw two almost completely different lineups at the Braves and hit at a very high level regardless of the starting eight. Meanwhile, the Braves fielded a postseason roster with names like Rene Rivera, Lane Adams, and Ryan Flaherty (none of whom have played in the majors in 2019).
To be fair, no one expected the 2018 Braves to win the NL East and square off against a well-rounded Dodgers team that was defending their NL pennant. So, it came as no surprise that the Braves had not yet developed their roster fully as they entered their competitive window at least a year earlier than expected.
Alex Anthopoulos has clearly taken this lesson from the 2018 playoffs and from his time in the Dodgers’ front office to heart. Depth has been a focus and has been tested thoroughly in the last month. The Braves have sustained the following recent injuries to key position players:
- Dansby Swanson out since July 23 with foot injury
- Nick Markakis out since July 26 with broken wrist
- Austin Riley out since August 5 with a knee injury
- Ender Inciarte out since August 16 with a hamstring injury
- Brian McCann placed on IL on Wednesday with a knee injury
Unfortunately, it hasn’t just been position players. The Braves have endured many injuries to the bullpen this season, as well. Arodys Vizcaino was expected to close games this season for the Braves but suffered a season-ending injury in April. (He was later traded to Seattle, but as merely a financial maneuver since he is a free agent at season’s end.) Darren O’Day has still yet to pitch in a Braves’ uniform, as a forearm injury he suffered in Spring Training has kept him out all season (though there have been encouraging signs for a September return lately). Jacob Webb was having a breakout season with 1.39 ERA and great contact management over 32 1⁄3 innings this season but is now on the 60-day IL with an elbow impingement.
To be transparent, I was critical of the Braves’ failure to improve the bullpen over the offseason and particularly on their reliance on injury-prone relievers like O’Day and Vizcaino to anchor the bullpen. But, to be fair, O’Day still having not thrown a pitch and Vizcaino’s season ending in April is about as worst case scenario as it could be.
Despite this rash of injuries, though, the Braves have a 17-10 record since Swanson went down on July 23 and have increased their chances of winning the division by 9.7% during that span, per FanGraphs. Perhaps most impressive is that the Braves have not lost a series during this span, which includes series wins over the Nationals, Phillies, Twins, Dodgers, and surging Mets.
What the Braves’ front office did (or didn’t do) over the offseason, and what they’ve done in response to these injuries has shown a clear commitment to depth and has allowed the team to maintain a significant lead in the division. To start, the Braves did not trade away any depth over the offseason, but rather added to it. While some questioned why the Braves signed Josh Donaldson while having Johan Camargo already on the roster, that move has proven to be brilliant in retrospect. What might be the most impressive part of the whole “Atlanta Braves 2019 depth” situation is that the team has endured all of its injuries even while Camargo, the player who was supposed to play a vital superutility role and fill in everywhere, has played below replacement-level this season (-1.0 fWAR) and finds himself in Triple-A right now.
Moreover, Anthopoulos refused to trade away major league-ready talent in any trades over the offseason. Names like Riley, Camargo, and Inciarte were thrown around in hypothetical trade scenarios among Braves fans for players like J.T. Realmuto, but Anthopoulos didn’t budge. At the Trade Deadline, it also must have been tempting to deal away someone like Inciarte to upgrade the roster elsewhere when the Braves had Ronald Acuña, Jr., Riley, a healthy Markakis, Adam Duvall, Joyce, Charlie Culberson, and Camargo all capable of playing outfield (with top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters coming down the pipeline). Additionally, Duvall easily could have been non-tendered after an abysmal second half of 2018, but Anthopoulos opted to keep his depth intact by optioning Duvall to start the season. In turn, Duvall provided a big boost to the offense right after being called up in July.
Unheralded depth signings in the offseason, like Matt Joyce and Rafael Ortega, have already paid off, as well. Joyce has provided a spark off the bench all season with a 111 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR in just 145 PAs. Ortega, who was signed in January to a minor league contract, has already earned every dime of his salary after hitting a game-winning grand slam against the Dodgers in a game that felt bigger than just one win.
While “financial flexibility” became an overused punchline after the offseason, the Braves’ Front Office has put their money where their mouth is. Since the start of the season, Anthopoulos has been very active in adding depth to the roster. The Braves have made the following midseason transactions:
- Traded for Jerry Blevins;
- Traded Jesse Biddle and Vizcaino for Anthony Swarzak;
- Signed Dallas Keuchel;
- Traded for Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, and John Ryan Murphy at the deadline;
- Signed Lucas Duda and Lane Adams to a minor league contracts;
- Signed Adeiny Hechaverria; and
- Claimed Billy Hamilton off waivers.
Additionally, the Braves are expected to sign catcher Francisco Cervelli after the Pirates released him on Thursday. Cervelli would fill in for McCann while he is out and can provide valuable depth and playoff experience, as he won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009 and has been on other postseason clubs since (2010 Yankees, 2015 Pirates).
To be clear, the Braves have also cut ties with players like Kevin Gausman, Wes Parsons, Jonny Venters, and Shane Carle. However, the fact that Anthopoulos worked diligently to upgrade their depth instead of sticking it out with players who had not been performing well enough to justify a roster spot further demonstrates his commitment to quality depth.
Every transaction listed here added much-needed depth to the major league roster (except the Swarzak trade, which was a significant upgrade nonetheless). And some of these acquisitions have required significant financial commitments, like Keuchel ($13.2 million for less than a full season), Melancon (over $18 million through 2020), and Hamilton (who will make $1.9 million through the end of the season as a pinch runner and defensive substitute).
Nothing demonstrates Anthopoulos’ commitment to depth more than the acquisitions he made at the trade deadline. He was not content in just adding an All-Star closer in Greene. He added three relievers who are capable of handling high leverage situations and fundamentally revamped the bullpen. To demonstrate how such depth alters a bullpen, Luke Jackson, who had been the team’s closer, has now slotted down to handling mostly seventh inning duties.
The contributions of the players added have generally been positive. Although Greene, Martin, and Melancon got off to a rough start, they seem to have settled in and have contributed a combined 0.5 fWAR since being acquired. Hechaverria already has 0.4 fWAR in six games (0.3 fWAR more than Markakis in 104 games).
This isn’t to say that the these additions have carried the team. Other factors, like the Braves’ one through four hitters having a 142 wRC+ and 31 home runs and the starting pitchers having a respectable 3.90 ERA since July 23, have certainly contributed. But with such a significant rash of injuries — both in the quantity and quality of players missing — and with a Nationals team playing good baseball over the same span (17-11 since July 23), it would have been very easy for the Braves to slide and make the division race a tight four-team affair (with the Phillies and Mets not far behind the Nationals), just like it seemed it was going to be before the season. Undoubtedly, the Braves’ depth has played a key role in stabilizing the roster through adversity and is paying dividends for team that increasingly appears poised for a run into the playoffs.