How the Braves keep moving forward — no matter what gets in their way

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Just over two weeks into the MLB season, the Atlanta Braves are exactly where they’re expected to be: atop the National League East standings. But any thought that the coming months would be about coasting through the regular season until the real challenge begins in October quickly went out the window when Spencer Strider felt discomfort in his right elbow during his second start earlier this month.

On Saturday, a team news release confirmed every Braves fan’s worst fear: Their ace needed season-ending elbow surgery, leaving Atlanta to navigate the rest of 2024 without the pitcher who set the franchise strikeout record a year ago. The situation is similar to last season, when lefty Max Fried left Opening Day because of a hamstring ailment then later missed much of the year because of a forearm strain. The Braves not only survived that blow but went on to win their sixth straight division title while providing a blueprint for their latest challenge.

“You can never replace frontline, Cy Young-caliber starters with internal depth,” Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos told ESPN on Saturday. “But it’s not like the NBA where one guy can dramatically change the impact, you’re going to have to do it as an entire 40-man group and beyond.

“I know it’s a cliché, but we really are going to take it day by day. People will get opportunities, no doubt about it. At some point if someone seizes that opportunity and gets a long period to start, that’s fantastic.”

Anthopoulos cited righty Bryce Elder’s opportunity, after Fried went down last season, as an example of what can come of a bad situation. Elder made the All-Star team, flourishing in the first half.

So on one hand, it’s a devastating blow to a perennial powerhouse. On the other, overcoming adversity is exactly what the franchise has excelled at doing. Instead of dwelling on the negative, the Braves just keep moving forward, owning the NL East in part by savvy management, continuity among their players and a history steeped in winning that began in the 1990s. It begins with an organizational mindset that Strider described in the days before his injury.

“It’s definitely the culture here,” Strider told ESPN. “It starts in development. They told us they’re trying to create championship pitchers, not just big leaguers. It’s an interesting thing to hear verbalized in Low-A.

“Your goal isn’t just to be a big leaguer, it’s to help the team win the World Series. That’s what they’re looking for.”

Winning in October is always the expectation in the Atlanta clubhouse, but only once over the past six seasons have the Braves finished the postseason atop the baseball world. And that title came in the most unlikely year, when the 2021 Braves caught fire late in the season and won the World Series despite entering August with a sub-.500 record.

Better regular-season results and greater expectations going into the next two postseasons only led to playoff disappointment, with the Braves bowing out in the past two division series rounds.

The constant, though, has been Atlanta’s ability to turn the page and dominate the division during the next regular season. Raising a World Series trophy in 2021 didn’t bring a hangover in 2022 — instead it was yet another division win, this time running away with the NL East by 14 games. And falling short during the 2022 playoffs didn’t stop Atlanta from winning its sixth straight division title last season, also by 14 games. Even after watching their ace get hurt during a series opener earlier this month, the Braves went on to sweep the Arizona Diamondbacks and moved into first place once again.

“We have a great team,” first baseman Matt Olson said. “We absolutely feel like we should be playing in the postseason. but you have to earn it. It’s the build-up throughout the season that gets you to that spot and gives you the confidence to go perform in that setting. Nothing is given.”

It’s a practice preached by their 68-year-old father figure of a manager, Brian Snitker. In some ways, his situation is a manager’s dream: He has a talented team filled with self-motivated players he’ll have to drag out of the lineup for a day off. Keeping stars happy while prioritizing daily goals, instead of fixating on the big picture, is harder than it seems. Under his leadership, the Braves excel at not fast-forwarding their brains to October.

“I talked to the guys about that early on,” Snitker said. “It’s easy to do. It’s easy to say — but you have to win today. You can only control today. If you want to fast forward, you’ll realize it doesn’t work that way. Our guys know what’s ahead of them.”

With that message preached to them from the first day of spring training through the sometimes monotonous grind of the 162-game season, the Braves have learned to embrace that winning each day along the way makes reaching their loftier long-term goals taste even sweeter.

“When you’re playing MLB The Show, you can just simulate the playoffs, it’s human nature,” Morton said. “You want your ‘want’ now. Thankfully, we’re still in reality. We have to go through the process so if and when we win the division, we’re looking around the room and they have the tarp up and there is a toast and a feeling of satisfaction and it’s like we’ve been here before. Now let’s find a way to get it done this year.”

Anthopoulos and the rest of the Braves’ front office have learned that roster building is about focusing on the entire picture in a profession in which you are ultimately judged on the final result. The elation of winning a World Series in 2021 lasted about three days before the GM meetings and offseason ahead demanded their full attention. In the early October exits that followed, they learned that the simple difference between winning the World Series and losing in your first round is more time to prepare for the winter — but also more time to stew.

“As a front office, you kind of mope and feel sorry for yourself but then, ‘Hey, the offseason is here, we have to build a team,'” Anthopoulos said. “You don’t forget, but you have to turn the page because all your competitors are doing the same thing.”

If six straight division titles sounds impressive, then just imagine walking into work every day and staring up at the 14 banners the Braves won from 1991 to 2005. The standard of success is ever-present motivation within the organization. It also keeps everyone humble, from the decision-makers in the front office to the players on the field.

“We think six is a lot, right?” Morton said. “You can acknowledge the past because you really are standing on their shoulders. But you also have to find your own way as a group. That’s a year-by-year thing. It’s a delicate balance because you want to keep some of the guys involved in that in the room. You have to be careful who you’re moving and what those guys mean in the clubhouse.”

That’s Anthopoulos’ job. Praised for locking down his stars on multiyear deals, he still needs to find the right balance from season to season. Losing in October in consecutive years can distort your vision. The Braves GM tries to remember a simple principle.

“[Former executive] Pat Gillick said this, turning 20% of your roster over each year is a good idea,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s five players. We don’t force moves, but the way the game is set up it’s going to happen anyway.”

This offseason, that turnover came via a spree of trades primarily focused on creating pitching depth. Chris Sale, Aaron Bummer and Reynaldo Lopez joined the pitching staff, while outfielder Jarred Kelenic came over in a trade with Seattle. All told, Anthopoulos made a half-dozen trades this winter to surround the core of the team led by Ronald Acuna Jr., Austin Riley, Olson and Ozzie Albies.

But losing their ace early in the season means the biggest decisions could come in the days leading up to this summer’s trade deadline when the front office will have to decide whether to augment the pitching staff or roll with what the Braves have. The timing allows the front office an opportunity to do whatever it takes to put the best roster on the field when the games matter most in October.

“What team would you rather have going into the playoffs?” Morton asked rhetorically. “The 2021 Braves or the 2023 Braves? We won 104 games last season but came up short. When you get there, there’s just no way to know. There’s no way to know how the first couple games of a five-game playoff series are going to go. All you can do is the best you can do for six months. That’s our goal every year.”

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