Well, that sucked. The Braves were on the doorstep of the World Series for three games, and then proceeded to lose all three to a Dodgers team that stepped up when their backs were against the wall. The Braves will finish the 2020 season as the second-best team in the National League after coming agonizingly close to being the NL representative in the World Series. It’s a painful loss, and it’s one that I’d understand a lot of fans being angry or despondent about how the season ended for the Braves. They were so close to getting across the finish line and making it to the World Series and it definitely stings to know that the season’s going to go on without the Braves after they got so close to advancing to the Fall Classic.
With that being said, I’m not going to let this turn into a mourning session. I’m sure there’s plenty of places around the internet where you can go to vent your frustration on how things ended it. Shoot, this is one of those places — I definitely understand if things still end up getting dark down there in the comments section. Still, I’m going to try to focus on the positive outlook that this team has following a good season that ended on a down note. It’s just about all you can do in order to really look at this season in a productive lens.
For starters (and this time, the pun is intended), the Braves got to the seventh game of the NLCS with Mike Soroka making a grand total of three (3) starts during the regular season before getting injured. Cole Hamels made one (1) start. Felix Hernandez opted out due to concerns about the ongoing pandemic. They spent much of this season going with a rotation that was downright abysmal at times. The main reason why Max Fried, Ian Anderson, and Kyle Wright got their chances in this postseason was because they were the only ones who were either consistently good (in Fried’s case) or showed more than one flash of actually being good (which is where Anderson comes in. It’s especially the case for Wright). Simply put, it was an amazing achievement that these young hurlers were able to put the team on their back for as long as they did in order get as far as they did. In the end, this Dodgers lineup proved to be too tough for them — for now.
Max Fried is going to get better. Ian Anderson is going to get better. Kyle Wright is going to get better. Once he’s healthy, Mike Soroka should just keep on getting better. If Alex Anthopoulos can make a splash signing in the offseason in order to add to that rotation, then the Braves could end up having a fearsome five-some that I’d be very confident to put against any lineup in the future. It’s not a guarantee of success — for all we know, some cosmic force could end up deciding that all of these guys could end up flaming out for no good reason, whatsoever. The odds of that happening are very low, though. As long as this rotation continues to get innings under their belt, they’re going to get better and better. Fried, Anderson, and Wright can go forward knowing that they’ve got the tools to succeed when it matters. It wasn’t good enough to make it to the World Series this year, but the future is looking bright for this rotation.
As far as the rest of the pitching staff goes, it’s going to be interesting to see how the rest of this bullpen develops. Two of the three high-leverage relievers that the Braves acquired back in 2019 are up for free agency, as Mark Melancon and Shane Greene may have thrown their last pitches for the Braves during this series. With that being said, I feel a lot better about the rest of the bullpen now than I did when the 2019 season was at a close. A.J. Minter has bounced back and looks more like the pitcher we expected him to be after a rough 2019 campaign. Tyler Matzek has emerged as one of the most reliable relievers that the Braves currently have. Chris Martin will be coming back, and we know what to expect from him from year-to-year. Will Smith may have had a rough season outside of the Wild Card Series and the NLDS, but I’d imagine that his 2020 season was more of an aberration than the norm going forward. They’ve still got to find some more arms to plug in here, but there’s a good core bullpen here and they should be fine in the immediate future.
Then there’s the lineup. For 60 regular season games and most of the postseason, this lineup was firing on all cylinders and mashing balls left-and-right. The Braves finished the season third in MLB in wRC+ (121, only slightly behind the current NL champs and the Mets. Yeah, the Mets.), fifth in OPS+ (116, six points behind those Mets who finished at the top of the leaderboard), second in Isolated Power (.215, only behind the Dodgers) and league-leaders in wOBA (.355). Atlanta’s lineup in 2020 was as good as any lineup that you could put out on a baseball diamond this season, and was only barely out-slugged by their opponents in the NLCS. As evidenced by the NLCS going the distance, this lineup is not far off from being championship-caliber.
Just like the rotation, there are plenty of young faces in this lineup. Ronald Acuña Jr. continues to be a dynamic force at the top of the lineup and he’s only going to be 23 going into 2021. Ozzie Albies is only going to be year older than his good friend at the top of the lineup. Dansby Swanson finally had a good season at the plate and if that continues, he’s going to be exciting to follow going forward. Austin Riley isn’t on their level, but he’s also only going to be 24-years-old next season and he’s still going to get every chance of growing into the slugger that he has the potential to be. Cristian Pache has pretty much sewn up the center field starting role going forward and outside of some service-time chicanery, he’s going to be around starting in 2021 and he’s proven that he can swing the bat a little in addition to giving you fantastic defense. The young core of this team is absurdly talent and as long as they’re around, the Braves will be in the conversation.
Freddie Freeman will be over 30-years-old next year, but there’s also a very good chance that he’ll be heading into the 2021 campaign off the heels of an NL MVP season in 2020. If age is going to hit him, it might come in a form of him aging gracefully instead of suddenly hitting a wall. 2021 will also be a contract season for Freddie, and if he takes full advantage of that opportunity season (or if Alex Anthopoulos just decides to pull the trigger on a deal sooner) then the Braves may just decide to make him a one-club man for the rest of his career. He may be an elder statesman when compared to the rest of the lineup regulars, but he’s proven that he’s willing to lead by example for as long as he’s still in this lineup.
The Braves have a core that’s worthy of not just making it to the World Series, but winning the whole thing. This is where the front office’s role in all of this comes in. They have to keep moving forward with investing in the team. The starting rotation is on the cusp of potentially being great and there are plenty of viable options for starters on the market. They could also choose to stay in house and put a guy like Bryse Wilson into the rotation, but it’s hard to do that when the options in the free agent market are so enticing. However, if there was ever a time to splash some cash in the offseason, this would be the time.
If the Braves decide to move on from the soon-to-be 30-year-old Marcell Ozuna, they’re going to have a big bear-sized hole in their lineup. Again, this is a hole that the Braves could fill by promoting talent from within. Drew Waters is the obvious choice in that scenario. If the Braves choose to go to the market, there’s a wealth of options when it comes to outfielders. They could make this simple by simply keeping Marcell Ozuna with a team and clubhouse that he likes, but we’ll see. Baseball is still a business, and Ozuna’s definitely earned the right to test the waters in order to secure the bag from any team that’s willing to pay him. It may or may not be the Braves. Only time will tell.
Similarly, that’s the one thing that this current group of Braves has on their side: Time. The 2020 NLCS is not the end of the road for the Braves as we know them. The road to a potential World Series title victory may not be a linear one for this bunch, but it would be foolish to completely write off this squad at any point. Shoot, the Dodgers themselves can tell you just how bumpy the road can be — they’ve been World Series contenders for a few years now and they’re still only on the cusp of winning and they haven’t won yet. The future is impossible to predict with certainty — especially in a sport where you can win a World Series one year and finish tied for dead last in the division in the next year. I think the Braves can and will avoid that pratfall since there’s too much talent on this team from top-to-bottom to suffer such a fate. It’s still possible, so the front office must take advantage of this large window that they currently have.
This may have been a little long-winded, but I feel like I need to drive home the point that even though the NLCS had a painful ending, this is not the ceiling for this franchise going forward. They’ve had a taste of postseason glory and they should all be chomping at the bit to return to October. I have a very strong feeling that this team is going to be back at this point of the postseason, and they’ll be back, soon. As angry as I was at the end of 2019, that’s how optimistic I am right now. They’ll earn the right to get back to the postseason and maybe they’ll put it all together and put another trophy next to the one from 1995. If they don’t, they’ll likely have another chance after that. The Braves are set up to potentially be great. The time wasn’t now, but it could absolutely happen for them in a bright future.