When presumptive NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr. went down with a torn ACL on July 10 against the Marlins, it was thought the Atlanta Braves would not be able to sustain the loss of one of the best players in the National League. After all, through 82 games, Acuna had a team-best .990 OPS, OPS+ of 155, 24 HRs and 17 stolen bases, and was leaving an underachieving Braves team that was 44-44 and 4.5 games behind the New York Mets in the NL East standings.
Yes, the Braves still had Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies, but all of those players had been inconsistent, the pitching staff looked bleak, and the team had been unable to right the ship to that point. Surely the loss of Acuna would prove 2021 was simply not there year, and that a fourth straight NL East title wasn’t in the cards.
However, to his credit, Braves President & GM Alex Anthopoulos didn’t give up. While he didn’t exactly push all his chips to the middle of the table, he did try to add a cadre of veteran players to his outfield in the hopes they would hold down the fort and give his team enough offense to outlast the Phillies and Mets.
We all know what happened next. The Braves went 44-28 in the second half and 36-19 over the season’s final two months as his four acquisitions shined.
- Joc Pederson had a .713 OPS in 73 games with the Cubs and a .752 OPS in 64 games with Atlanta
- Jorge Soler had a .658 OPS in 94 games with the Royals and an .882 OPS in 55 games with Atlanta
- Adam Duvall had a .755 OPS in 91 games with the Marlins and an .800 OPS in 55 games with Atlanta
- Eddie Rosario had a .685 OPS in 78 games with Cleveland and a .903 OPS in 33 games with Atlanta
And a couple of those players have had huge moments in this year’s postseason.
Contrast Atlanta’s deadline moves with those of the Phillies, both this year and in years previous. In 2021, Dave Dombrowski addressed a massive shortage in his starting rotation by trading for Kyle Gibson and got what he hoped would be a stabilizing figure in the 9th inning in Ian Kennedy. He also traded for shortstop Freddy Galvis to provide some defense to the worst infield in Major League Baseball.
- Gibson had a 2.87 ERA and 3.76 FIP in 19 starts for Texas and a 5.09 ERA and 4.04 FIP in 11 starts for the Phillies.
- Kennedy had a 2.51 ERA and a 3.66 FIP in 32.1 innings for Texas and a 4.13 ERA and 6.21 FIP in 24.0 innings for the Phillies.
- Galvis had a .720 OPS in 72 games for the Orioles and a .684 OPS in 32 games for the Phillies.
The Phils arguably made a bigger push to acquire talent at the trade deadline but had far less to show for it.
Atlanta’s bulk purchase approach was reminiscent of what former general manager Matt Klentak did at the 2018 trade deadline when he acquired Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilson Ramos, Jose Bautista and Justin Bour. Here’s how those deals worked out.
- Cabrera had an .817 OPS with the Mets and a .678 OPS with the Phils.
- Ramos had an .834 OPS with the Rays and an .879 OPS with the Phils, but missed all of August with an injury.
- Bautista had a .718 OPS with the Mets and an .870 OPS with the Phils, but only had 45 at-bats in his one and only month with the team.
- Bour had a .759 OPS with the Marlins and a .643 OPS with the Phils.
Those Phils memorably suffered an 8-20 September in Gabe Kapler’s first season as manager.
Anthopoulos’ additions weren’t a whole lot different than what Klentak did three years prior, but he received far more production than what the Phils received, both this year and in ‘18. And let’s not forget the trade deadline of 2019, when Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas were brought in and did very little, as well as the 2020 deadline, when the Phils brought in a cadre of relievers, all of whom flamed out incomprehensibly.
Some of this is luck. There’s no way Anthopoulos could have known he would get this kind of production from the four outfielders he brought into the fold. Yes, it was admirable of him not to give up and to give his team a chance over the final two months to stay in it, but it’s clear from the deals he made that he knew the odds were long they would be able to overcome the loss of Acuna.
Now, before we forgive the Phillies for simply being unlucky and praising the Braves for receiving a gentle smooch on the cheek from the baseball angels, it’s important to note money played a factor here. According to Spotrac, Atlanta began the season with a team payroll of $147.5 million, 12th highest in MLB. The Phils, meanwhile, had a total payroll of $183.5 million, 6th-highest in baseball.
The additions of Kennedy, Gibson and Galvis accounted for $922,000 in adjusted salary. The Texas Rangers agreed to pick up a big chunk of Kennedy and Gibson’s contracts. Atlanta’s adjusted salaries for their four acquisitions cost them $8.1 million. Had the Phils spent that kind of money at the trade deadline, they would have gone over the luxury tax, and while Dombrowski continues to say he has no payroll restrictions, it is interesting to note all the moves he made at the deadline, despite the team having numerous holes, kept the Phillies under the tax.
So to say the Braves solely “got lucky” at the trade deadline isn’t 100% true. Yes, all their acquisitions are playing well, but they also were willing to spend a bit to bring in additional talent.
The Braves are two wins away from a World Series berth. The Phillies are watching the postseason for a 10th straight season.
It’s not coincidence.