For the first time since 1999, the Atlanta Braves are National League champions. They defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the National League Championship Series, and will take on the Houston Astros in the World Series. The Braves will look to win only their second World Series since moving to Atlanta in 1966. They previously won the title in 1995.
Like every team, the Braves were assembled through all sorts of different methods. No team is built exclusively through the draft, or trades, or free agency. It's not possible. Successful teams acquire talent through every available avenue. Here is how the Braves constructed their 26-man postseason roster:
- Trades: 9
- Free agency: 7
- Draft: 5
- International free agency: 3
- Other: 2
The Braves have leaned heavily on outside acquisitions. In fact, they made a well-documented flurry of trades at this year's deadline, though their trade success dates back much further. They've also done well in the free agent market with lower-profile signings. Let's take a deeper look at how the Braves built the roster that carried them to the 2021 World Series.
In a perfect world teams would draft and develop their entire 26-man roster and never spend money on free agents or give up players in trades. That world does not exist. Not even close. The draft remains the best (and most cost effective) way to acquire talent, and the Braves certainly acquired several core players through the amateur draft.
Atlanta has just one true first-round pick on their postseason roster: Ian Anderson. The Braves went 67-95 in 2015, giving them the No. 3 pick in the 2016. They used that pick on Anderson. The Phillies selected Mickey Moniak with the No. 1 pick and the Reds selected Nick Senzel with the No. 2. High school pitchers are risky, but Anderson has worked out wonderfully.
Franchise icon Freddie Freeman was a second-round pick way back in 2007, and that 2007 Braves draft is one of the best drafts in recent memories. In addition to Freeman, Atlanta also selected Jason Heyward (first round) and Craig Kimbrel (33rd round) that year, and they drafted Brandon Belt too (11th round), though he did not sign and went back to school.
High school first basemen are not the most popular players on draft day because they're usually limited defensively. A high school first baseman typically needs huge power to get drafted early. In Freeman's case, he showed innate feel for the barrel and pure hitting ability. That played throughout the minors, then he grew into power a few years into his MLB career and became a star.
Freeman was named NL MVP last year and third baseman Austin Riley will receive MVP votes this year. The Braves selected him with the No. 41 pick in the 2015 draft. That was a competitive balance lottery pick that originally belonged to the Padres. Competitive balance picks are the draft picks that can be traded, and Atlanta received that pick in the Kimbrel deal.
Opinions were split as to whether Riley was the better prospect as a pitcher or hitter at his Mississippi high school. He had -- and still has -- a rocket arm, one that routinely unleashed 95-mph fastballs. He also had enormous power potential. Ultimately, Riley stuck with being position player and it's worked out exceptionally well. He's an All-Star player at the hot corner.
Lefty reliever AJ Minter (second round in 2015) has been a bullpen stalwart the last few seasons and a force this postseason. Righty Jacob Webb (18th round in 2014) has been a solid up-and-down depth arm. Anderson, Freeman, and Riley are three wildly successful picks in the first two rounds of the draft. The Braves nailed those selections, and did nice work in the later rounds too.
It should also be noted erstwhile ace Mike Soroka, who did not pitch this year and has made only three starts since 2019 due to a series of Achilles injuries, was Atlanta's first-round pick in 2015. The Braves landed Soroka, Riley, and Minter in that draft, as well as lefty Kolby Allard, who later provided value as a trade chip. A nice draft class, that is.
No team was more active than the Braves at this year's trade deadline. They did not make any blockbusters -- there was no Max Scherzer and Trea Turner-caliber deal for Atlanta -- but they revamped their outfield on the fly and didn't give up a whole lot to do it. They took on money and traded expendable prospects, and that's about it. Their deadline outfield additions:
- July 15: Acquired Joc Pederson for Bryce Ball.
- July 30: Acquired Jorge Soler for Kasey Kalich.
- July 30: Acquired Adam Duvall for Alex Jackson.
- July 30: Acquired Eddie Rosario for Pablo Sandoval.
Ronald Acuña Jr. suffered his season-ending knee injury on July 10, and five days later GM Alex Anthopoulos brought in Pederson even though the Braves were 44-45 and 4 1/2 games back in the NL East. Atlanta was below .500 but no one was running away with the division, so Anthopoulos went for it. Pederson was only the first domino.
It should be noted Rosario,, was injured at the time of the trade. He was out with an oblique strain and did not return to the lineup until Aug. 27, nearly a month after the trade. He was worth the wait. Cleveland was out of the race and wanted to unload salary, so they sent Rosario to the Braves and released Sandoval a day later. They saved about $3 million with the trade.
MLB.com does not rank Ball among the Cubs top 30 prospects nor Kalich among the Royals top 30 prospects. Jackson was the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft, though he's essentially a light-hitting backup catcher now, and was an easy piece to part with to get Duvall. All told, the Braves absorbed about $20 million in salary and buyouts at the deadline. That was the real cost. Just money.
Of course, two of Atlanta's most significant trade additions came years ago, long before Anthopoulos took the reins. On Dec. 19, 2014, the Braves and Padres swung a six-player trade that boiled down to Justin Upton for pitching prospect Max Fried. Fried was the No. 7 pick in the 2012 draft and he didn't reach MLB until Aug. 2017. Now he is Atlanta's co-ace.
Almost exactly one year later, the Braves landed Dansby Swanson in a four-player trade with the Diamondbacks. Shelby Miller was the lone piece sent to Arizona and gosh, what a disastrous trade for the D-Backs. They made Swanson the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft just a few months earlier and Miller melted down on them immediately. The trade set the franchise back years.
Swanson is a good player more than a great player -- the World Series will feature the No. 1 (Swanson) and No. 2 (Alex Bregman) picks in the 2015 draft -- though he has moments of greatness, and the trade is laughably one-sided. It is one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. Just to wrap it up all, here are the Fried and Swanson trades combined:
- Braves get: RHP Aaron Blair, OF Ender Inciarte, LHP Max Fried, OF Dustin Peterson, UTIL Jace Peterson, OF Mallex Smith, SS Dansby Swanson
- Braves give up: RHP Shelby Miller, RHP Aaron Northcraft, OF Justin Upton
That is some mighty fine tradecraft right there. Blair, the Petersons, and Smith had largely forgettable stints with the Braves. Inciarte gave the club a few nice years before declining and getting released earlier this year. Still, even ignoring them, turning Miller and Upton into Fried and Swanson is a massive win for the Braves. Those moves helped set the foundation for the 2021 club.
The Braves acquired utility man Orlando Arcia (Brewers) and righties Luke Jackson (Rangers) and Chris Martin (Rangers) in trades. Martin was acquired for Allard in July 2019. The Braves got Jackson from Texas in Dec. 2016 and designated him for assignment in Dec. 2017, April 2018, and again in June 2018. He remained with the team all three times and is now a late-inning reliever.
We must also mention the Braves acquired righty Richard Rodríguez from the Pirates at this year's trade deadline, though he is not on the postseason roster. Righty Huascar Ynoa came over from the Twins in July 2017 and was slated to start Game 4 of the NLCS, though his shoulder acted up before the game and he was replaced on the roster due to injury.
Generally speaking, free agency is the least efficient way to acquire talent in terms of cost vs. production. The Braves have been fairly aggressive in free agency under Anthopoulos, though they're mostly shorter-term contracts. Atlanta does not have that big nine-figure free agent on the roster. That said, there's more than one way to work free agency, and the Braves have worked it well.
The club's most significant free agent addition is ace Charlie Morton, who inked a one-year contract worth $15 million last offseason, after the Rays declined his $15 million club option. The Rays don't make many mistakes, though letting Morton go was pretty egregious. Morton was excellent this year and recently signed a new one-year extension worth $20 million for 2022.
Travis d'Arnaud, another Rays castoff, joined the Braves on a two-year, $16 million contract two years ago and he was excellent in 2020, but hurt and ineffective in 2021. Still, quality catching is hard to find, so Atlanta gave d'Arnaud a new two-year, $16 million deal in August. With the Morton and d'Arnaud extensions, the Braves have already handled some important offseason business.
Closer Will Smith signed a three-year, $38 million contract with the Braves two years ago, and he has acknowledged that if Atlanta had not approached him so early in the offseason, he would have accepted the qualifying offer to stay with the Giants. Several top relievers have seen their market hurt by the qualifying offer and Smith didn't want to risk it. The Braves jumped in early to get him.
Atlanta gave Drew Smyly a one-year, $11 million contract last offseason in hopes his Sept. 2020 velocity spike would hold and that didn't really work out. There's no such thing as a bad one-year contract though. Utility man Ehire Adrianza, righty Jesse Chavez, and lefty Dylan Lee all joined the Braves on minor-league deals this year. Adrianza and Chavez in particular have worked out well.
It must be noted that Marcell Ozuna, the team's fourth-highest paid player in 2021, signed a four-year, $64 million contract to remain with the Braves last offseason. He went down with a finger injury in May, then was arrested on domestic violence charges shortly after. Ozuna has been on paid administrative leave since as MLB investigates the incident under the league's domestic violence policy.
International free agency
There are two ways to acquire amateur talent: the draft and international free agency. The Braves scout Latin America very well and, in July 2013, they gave Curacao native Ozzie Albies a $350,000 signing bonus to turn pro. Albies quickly developed into a top prospect and is productive, high-energy, All-Star-caliber cornerstone player for Atlanta.
The Braves landed backup catcher William Contreras (Willson's younger brother) and utility infielder Johan Camargo as low-profile international free agents a few years back. Contreras signed for $10,000 out of Venezuela in 2015 and Camargo received $42,000 out of Panama in 2010. Neither was a top international prospect, yet here they are on a postseason roster.
Atlanta's most significant international success story is not on the postseason roster: Acuña went down with a season-ending knee injury in July and is relegated to cheerleader duty this October. That's a shame. The Braves gave Acuña a $100,000 bonus out of Venezuela in July 2014 and he immediately exploded into an elite prospect, and then an elite MLB player. What a scouting find.
Top prospect Cristian Pache spent some time on the postseason roster when Soler was on the COVID-19 list. Unlike Albies and Acuña, he was a significant international amateur prospect, and received a $1.4 million bonus out of the Dominican Republic in July 2015. He is Atlanta's center fielder of the future and is the first in line to be an injury replacement in the World Series.
There aren't many other ways to acquire players in this sport, though the Braves have two players on their postseason roster who were not drafted, signed as an international or MLB free agent, or acquired in a trade first. First, they selected reserve outfielder Guillermo Heredia off waivers from the Mets in February. Heredia has been a solid speed and defense extra outfielder this year.
And second, the Braves purchased ace setup man Tyler Matzek out of the independent American Association in Aug. 2019. He was playing for the Texas AirHogs in Grand Prairie at the time. When an MLB club purchases a player out of an independent league, they pay his team some sum of money to release him from his contract, then sign the player to a minor-league deal.
Matzek's story is truly incredible. The Rockies made him the No. 11 pick in the 2009 draft, but things went poorly in the minors and eventually Matzek developed the yips. Colorado released him in Nov. 2016 and Matzek bounced to the White Sox (2017), Mariners (2018), the AirHogs (2018), the Diamondbacks (2019), the AirHogs again (2019), and then finally the Braves.
Still only 31, Matzek has carved out a second phase of his career as an elite power lefty reliever, and one of the most trusted arms in the Atlanta bullpen. He is a player worth rooting for, no doubt. Matzek readily admits he considered calling it quits multiple times over the years. Two years ago he was in an independent league and now he's in the World Series. Just remarkable.
Like every good team, the Braves have built their 2021 NL championship roster through every available avenue. They landed key contributors through the draft (Anderson, Freeman, Riley) and international free agency (Albies and, when healthy, Acuna), they spent on free agents (Morton and d'Arnaud), and they knocked it out of the park with countless trades over the years. There is no right way to build a team. The right way is the way that works, and this is working for Atlanta.
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