ATLANTA — In 2018, the Braves were coming off four consecutive losing seasons, the final three having been the byproduct of a massive rebuild. In 2019, the Braves were picked by most to finish third or fourth in the East, analysts then being agog over the thought of Bryce Harper with the Phillies. In 2020, spring training was halted on March 12 and what remained of the baseball season didn't get going until July.
Oh, and Freddie Freeman tested positive on the first day of summer camp.
Oh, and the rotation fell to pieces.
And yet: Here the Braves stand, National League East champs three times running. When last we saw them, they were playing — and for a while, leading — the Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS.
They haven't been losers, intentionally or otherwise, since 2017. Their rebuild essentially ended last fall, when their lovingly cultivated young arms carried them to two postseason series wins and a 3-1 lead in the third. They're no longer shocked when they do something good; they fully expect to do something great — i.e., win the World Series — before long.
Others are free to jump on the Mets' bandwagon, same as many hitched a ride with Bryce Harper three springs ago, but let's be honest: The Braves are the class of the NL East until proven otherwise, and they'll be shocked if anyone proves otherwise anytime soon. Oh, and they're pretty sure this team is better than its three immediate predecessors.
Said manager Brian Snitker, speaking Tuesday: "That one we started out with last year was really, really strong. The (universal) DH helped to lengthen that lineup unbelievably — and that bullpen. It was a team, and rightfully so, that we thought could go all the way. We were a game away from finding out if that was true."
Then their starting pitching collapsed. Felix Hernandez opted out. Mike Soroka got hurt. Mike Foltynewicz got DFA'ed. Sean Newcomb was demoted. Cole Hamels took forever to get healthy and lasted but 3 1/3 innings. Of the six men Braves believed in March were candidates for their rotation, five did next to nothing. As of September, the Braves' rotation consisted of Max Fried, period.
Come October, the Braves swept the Reds, swept the Marlins and stole a 3-1 lead on one of the best Dodger assemblages ever. Ian Anderson went from throwing simulated games at the alternate site to dominating playoff-level lineups in the crucible of the postseason. Kyle Wright finally showed something. Bryse Wilson reminded us he was on the roster. It almost defied belief, but it absolutely happened.
Cristian Pache, pressed into NLCS service after Adam Duvall was hurt, figures to be the everyday center fielder. Marcell Ozuna, re-upped for four years, will start in left. Austin Riley can devote himself to third base, though Pablo Sandoval, the beloved Panda, made the opening-day roster at age 34.
Spring training ended with Soroka working his first two innings since tearing his Achilles in August. General manager Alex Anthopoulos, who made it his mission to load up on bullpen arms one offseason ago, embarked on a similar quest for rotational insurance this time. He landed Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, which set many minds at ease, the manager's among them.
Said Snitker, asked about the rotation: "Going in, I feel really good. I felt really good when we added Drew and Charlie. It was going to be again a really young rotation. I think the depth of it you can't have enough, as we saw last year."
BetOnline puts the over/under on Braves' wins at 91.5, the fourth-highest total among MLB clubs, trailing only the Dodgers, the Yankees and the Padres. (Everyone is in love with the Padres. Check back in July.) The esteemed Joe Sheehan picks the Braves to win 92 games, which would tie them with the Padres and see them finish five games ahead of the allegedly reborn Mets.
Of the Braves' odds to win the East, Sheehan writes: "I see a bigger gap between the Braves and the field than most people do. This is a very good team, closer to the Dodgers than to the rest of the NL."
We say again: This is baseball, which means things can and will go wrong. But these Braves are no longer up-and-comers. They've arrived. They've won one of baseball's better divisions three years in succession. This should be the fourth. Then we'll see what October brings.
Said Snitker: "I tell the players every year in the beginning that we've worked really hard to get to that point of strength in our organization and our team, and I think we're right there. You've got to play the games, but we all feel really good with where we are. The rotation is deep. What we're starting out with is really, really good, I feel. We'll see how it ends up, but I feel really good about this club."