With four weeks and six days to go in the 2019 regular season, the Atlanta Braves hold a six-game lead in the NL East and a 100.0 percent chance to reach the postseason, according to SportsLine. The Braves have won eight straight games and they went into Citi Field this past weekend and swept three games from the red-hot Mets, asserting their dominance.
"We just faced a good Mets team twice and a good Dodgers team," manager Brian Snitker told reporters, including MLB.com's Mark Bowman, about beating the Mets five times in six games recently and taking two of three from Los Angeles. "It shows these guys they can compete with anybody at any time."
The Braves won Sunday (ATL 2, NYM 1) because their two most high-profile roster additions, third baseman Josh Donaldson and lefty Dallas Keuchel, had the kind of impact we've seen them make throughout their careers. Donaldson drove in his team's two runs with a pair of solo home runs. He is hitting .296/.413/.655 with 22 homers in his last 62 games.
"It's nice to get a few home runs from anybody, but JD especially," Keuchel told Bowman. "He's here for a reason and that's to back up Freddie (Freeman). If you walk Freddie, you've got to face JD and that's not an easy task."
As for Keuchel, he turned in his best start with the Braves, holding the Mets scoreless across seven innings. He struck out seven and has now allowed one run total in his last three starts. In his last 11 starts, Keuchel has a 3.57 ERA and has held opposing hitters to a .237/.311/.383 batting line. He's averaged just under 6 1/3 innings per start.
The Braves signed Keuchel to what amounts to a half-season contract worth $13 million back in June. They added Donaldson over the winter on a one-year, $23 million contract. Not long ago, the Braves making significant free agent additions was hard to fathom. Atlanta has been a middle of the pack payroll team for a long time now, and, in fact, their Opening Day payroll went down this year.
- 2018: $118.2 million (per Cot's Baseball Contracts)
- 2019: $115.2 million
"Did we promise we were going to spend more money, or did we promise we were going to have more flexibility?" GM Alex Anthopoulos rather infamously told Jeff Schultz of the The Athletic back in February. Payroll flexibility is a good buzzword but often more hype than substance, because if you're not going to use it, it has no value. The Braves have used it though.
Donaldson received the largest one-year contract for a free agent position player in baseball history and is the highest paid player on the roster. Over the last five seasons only Scott Kazmir, who never actually pitched for Atlanta, was paid more in a full season than Keuchel will be paid for a half-season among Braves pitchers. Those are considerable investments for any team.
Furthermore, the Braves took on Mark Melancon's contract in a deadline trade with the Giants. They'll pay him approximately $4.5 million this year plus another $14 million next year. Melancon is 5 for 5 in save chances with Atlanta and has been nails outside one truly disastrous outing against the Marlins (four runs and one out).
After starting the season with a lower Opening Day payroll than last year, the Braves have taken on nearly $20 million in salary between Keuchel, Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, and Billy Hamilton this summer. That's a lot of cash to take on during the season, especially for a team not known for running high payrolls.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Here's what CFO Jill Robinson told Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution back in November:
"We all believe (2019) is going to be a fantastic year for us on the field, and these financial results we are showing you should help us make wise investments in the team. Hopefully you will see the results of that on the field next year."
The Braves won 90 games and the NL East last year, plus their new ballpark is only three years old, so they should be increasing payroll right now. I mean, if you're not going to do it now, when would you? They have several core players signed to below-market contracts (Freeman, Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies) and the savings should be redirected elsewhere on the roster.
In baseball's current competitive climate, that not often the case. Payrolls are increasing at a slower rate than revenues -- in fact,-- and many rebuilding clubs are cutting back on spending as they hoard young talent. It's become notable when a team spends money. It really has.
The Braves, to their credit, have invested in what was an already-strong roster, and they are reaping the rewards. Donaldson has performed at an MVP pace the last two months. Keuchel has brought stability to the rotation and Melancon to the bullpen. Adding those players (plus Greene, Martin, and Hamilton) to a talented homegrown core has turned the Braves into one of the game's powerhouse teams.