The 2021 Braves: How Blue Chips and Cast-Offs Came Together to Win the NL East

After their third consecutive NL East Title In 2020, the Atlanta Braves came within 1 win of making it to the World Series. Certainly, getting to a 3-1 advantage over the vaunted Dodgers was a bit of a surprise, but they were there. Then, they weren’t.

On April 1st of 2021, the New York Mets had an 82% chance to make the playoffs and 60% chance to win the NL East. The Braves were at 60% and 28% respectively. The Braves started 2021 with a starting outfield of re-signed Marcell Ozuna, a rookie who was supposed to be the second coming of Andruw Jones in Christian Pache, and superstar Ronald Acuna, Jr..

By the end of May, Pache was back in the minors and Ozuna was on the IL before being arrested for domestic violence and placed on MLB administrative leave. Neither would return to the Braves in 2021.

On June 1st, the Braves odds were down to 22.6% to make the playoffs and 12.9% to win the division. They were 25-27 and 4 games back from the 1st place Mets. In early July, just before the All Star break, they lost Ronald Acuna Jr to a torn ACL for the rest of the season. Gulp.

What happened next has been documented elsewhere but the core story is this:

The Braves didn’t give up. Their GM Alex Anthopoulos didn’t give up. He needed a new outfield. He built a new outfield. He got back Adam Duvall from the Marlins who would end up leading the NL in RBI and be 2nd in HR across both teams. He traded pinch-hitter extraordinaire (but not much else besides fun dugout celebrations) Pablo Sandoval for Eddie Rosario, who would go on to hit for the cycle for the Braves. He added other pieces like Stephen Vogt, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, and Richard Rodriguez. Most of these players were having sub-par seasons. Would the gambles pay off? Would it make a difference?

Why can this team win the World Series?

They are built with blue chip prospects like Max Fried, Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson, playing right next to cast-offs like Adam Duvall, Travis d’Arnaud, Rosario, Charlie Morton, and Jorge Soler. Brought together by the one and only Freddie MVFreeman.

The Blue Chips:

Max Fried

Fried went to a private high school in Southern California that produced not just one but two other bright young pitching stars in Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty. He was drafted in the first round by the San Diego Padres in 2012. He was traded to the Braves just after Tommy John Surgery with others in a trade for Justin Upton, so confident were the Braves that he would pan out. After a few cups of coffee, he was a rotation mainstay in 2019 where he went 17-6 with an ERA just over 4 but was largely overshadowed by fellow young pitcher Mike Soroka. That all changed in 2020 with Soroka getting hurt – and Fried delivered. He expects to be here – and can flat out dominate when all right.

Dansby Swanson

Another former 1st round pick, the first overall in the 2015 draft by the Diamondbacks. In one of the more fortuitous trades in recent memory, the Braves traded Shelby Miller to get him. Miller had just spent one year for the Braves after coming over for Jason Heyward and despite leading the league in losses with 17, he had made the All Star Team and had a very good ERA just over 3. It has not worked out well for him since.

Meanwhile, Dansby with his flowing hair can play great defense at shortstop and seems to come up big when it matters most. He is fulfilling those expectations, if not to the level perhaps some had originally projected for him.

Austin Riley

Being the heir apparent to Chipper Jones is a tall task. Especially when you are personally mentored by the HOF Braves Legend. When he was finally called up in 2019 he lit the world on fire. In the month of May he had 7 HR and 21 hits in 59 at-bats. Those numbers tumbled to 7 and 24 in 115 AB’s in June. By July it was clear the pitching had adjusted to him as he hit just 2 HR and 10 total hits in 70 AB’s. 2020 wasn’t much better, leaving many fans to wonder about his long-term viability despite being 24 years old. Chipper after all was 4th in MVP voting his age 24 season. Yet Austin kept working, and in 2021 it paid off. He ended up leading the team in BA with a .898 OPS and playing stellar defense at 3rd base. The Heir to Chipper’s throne has arrived.

The Outcasts:

Travis d’Arnaud

Let’s start with Travis d’Arnaud. Braves fans before 2020 knew him mostly for when Andrelton Simmons made almost the exact same play to get him out in two separate seasons. I love Dansby and all, but I sure do miss watching Simmons play defense every night.

After a career high 112 games in 2017, he battled more injuries and poor performance in 2018 before a miserable start to 2019. d’Arnaud went 2 for 26 with the Mets before being released there, to the Dodgers for a game, before ending up with Tampa Bay. In a familiar story we will see later, it looked like maybe he found something there and the Braves signed him for 2020. He was a major cog in the 2020 Braves machine, hitting cleanup and coming up with big hit after big hit. Though he missed much of 2021 due to injury, the Braves are better for him and recently rewarded him with a nice extension.

Adam Duvall

It is strange to say that Adam Duvall is a cast-off when he finishes 1st in the NL in RBI and 2nd in Home Runs…but it is true. Duvall rose to prominence with the Reds in 2016 as a 27 year old. After being traded to the Braves at the end of 2018, he struggled. In 2019 he spent 101 games in AAA getting his swing back. It worked. He led the International League in home runs and was a key piece to the Braves offensive juggernaut in 2020, highlighted by hitting 3 home runs in multiple games. He signed with the Marlins though to start 2021, before the Braves got him back for backup catcher Alex Jackson. With the Braves he produced an astounding 45 RBI in 55 games with 18 Home Runs and an .800 OPS to boot. Having him play CF isn’t my favorite, but he does boast an above average arm and gets the job done.

Eddie Rosario

Rosario came up with the Twins in 2015 and finished 6th in Rookie of the Year voting. He has been a pretty solid if not spectacular player through his career, but left the Twins for the Indians in 2021. He was traded for Pablo Sandoval and cash. Though injured at the time, he ended up in 33 games for the Braves and posted a .903 OPS. As noted earlier, he also hit for the cycle.

Jorge Soler

Probably my favorite outcast. Soler came up as a future Cubs star, and was a part of the 2016 World Series Championship team. But by that point he played a bit part, and only logged 16 total plate appearance in their playoff run. He went to the Royals and after a couple of subpar seasons emerged in 2019 with 48 home runs and a .922 OPS. He struggled in the short 2020 season, and was abysmal early 2021 with just a .288 OBP. When he came to the Braves for a minor league pitcher, he stepped up to his best Ronald Acuna Jr impersonation. His patient eye was impressive, as well as the pure power he commands from the batters box. He hit 14 HR in just 55 games compared to 13 in 94 for the Royals.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton is 37 years and younger than me by about 3 months(which is depressing – because he’s portrayed as if he’s much older) and he keeps getting better(I do not). Drafted originally by the Braves back in 2002, he started one unspectacular season for the Braves in 2008 before being traded for Nate McLouth. A forgettable trade to say the least. He was a rotation mainstay for the Pirates for several years but not spectacular. He almost retired. As the Pirates cast him off, the Astros called and said they something in him. They did. He came alive with Houston in 2017 at 33, winning a (trash can-aided?) World Series in the process and getting his legacy for post season big game magic. He almost retired. He was brilliant again for the Rays in 2019 finishing 3rd in the Cy Young voting. He almost retired. Coming home to the Braves in 2021, he has been terrific and provides a veteran post-season starter who can compete with anyone. Even you, Max Scherzer.

The Captain

Freddie Freeman

I could go on about Freddie Freeman’s value and impact to the Braves for days. In fact I already did go on for awhile last year as he wrapped up his MVP Season. Then this off-season he had twins, had some fun with Anthony Rizzo on the bases, and his son Charlie stole the show at the All Star Game by motivating Freddie to get better so that Charlie could meet his hero Fernando Tatis Jr. A lot to love. Sure, he also got struck out by Anthony Rizzo, but it didn’t ruin his smile. Freddie struggled early, but ended up exactly where you expect Freddie to end up, hitting over 30 homers for the third time in his career with 85 walks against 107 strikeouts and an OPS of .896. As Freddie goes – the Braves go.

Season Results

So the Braves made some moves at the trade deadline. It wasn’t the flash of adding Max Scherzer, the headline of Kyle Schwarber, or the Cubs dismantling of their championship core. On August 1st, the Braves were now third in FanGraphs projections of winning the NL East. Just 13.9% compared to the Mets up to 65.7% and the Phillies 20.3%. The Braves didn’t care.

The Braves went 18-8 in August – even if both games I went to in Atlanta were losses.

By September 1st, they had switched the script in the NL East. They were now the heavy favorites at 66.8%, the Phillies at 27.8% and the Mets…oh the Mets…down to 5.4% even before their acting GM was arrested for a DUI after a party at the owner’s house. Not the way to impress the boss to likely be the drunk guy at the party AND get arrested on the way home.

The Braves had some tough games in September going 16-11, but ended up clinching with a handful of games to spare after sweeping the Phillies in dominant fashion. The question now is what happens next?

Playoff Predictions

The Braves enter the playoffs as the least feared team in the National League if not all the playoff teams. That’s fine. They will start with the vaunted Brewers pitching staff in the Division Series. The Braves bullpen has issues. The offense strikes out a lot. Adam Duvall is playing centerfield. I believe that the Braves starting pitching can defeat the Brewers, led by the ageless Charlie Morton, Fried, and rookie Ian Anderson who wowed us all last year in the final few weeks of the shortened season and into the playoffs.

I believe the NL Wild Card team will beat the Cardinals, and will defeat the Giants. So the Braves will be matched again with the team they played last year in the NLCS, who this year were the first NL Wild Card team. Unfortunately for them, they recently lost their heartbeat player Clayton Kershaw as well as superstar Max Muncy at first base.

The Braves aren’t expected to do much. That’s fine. They’ll win the NLCS in 6 this year, before taking down the White Sox in the World Series.

A team of blue chips and cast-offs, the Braves have the lowest odds of all division winners, tied with the Yankees, with one NL Wild Card Team the favorite to win it all. That team would be the first back-to-back World Series Champions since the 1998-2000 Yankees.

The Braves have been in this position before, and it hasn’t stopped them yet.

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