A lot of the credit for the Atlanta Braves’ postseason surge was rightly attributed to the midseason deals made by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, because without Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson, Atlanta would not have hosted a championship parade.
But what may have been lost in that narrative was just how much organizational bedrock continued to develop underneath those additions. Austin Riley, just 24 years old, became one of the National League’s best players. Max Fried, who turns 28 next week, posted a 1.74 ERA in his last 14 regular-season starts. Ian Anderson, just 23, now has a full season of experience. The talented Kyle Wright, 26, may have reached a crossroads in his development during the postseason, with moments on which he can build confidence. Dansby Swanson had 62 extra-base hits last season and has developed into one of the sport’s most consistent defenders. Ozzie Albies is a multitalented star. And Ronald Acuña Jr. was the front-runner for NL MVP at the time he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
As the National League Championship Series began in October, the Braves were considered something of a long shot against the Los Angeles Dodgers — and similarly, they were betting underdogs against the Houston Astros in the World Series. So underestimate them now at your own peril.
The Braves’ ownership still needs to open its fattened coffers and pay Freddie Freeman. If that happens, Atlanta may actually have a better team in 2022 than that group honored in the championship parade, and have a legit shot at becoming the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back titles.
Early in 2022, with a lot of players unsigned and many more trades to come after the next labor agreement is forged, here are MLB’s top 10 teams:
Nothing inspires quite like success, and the Braves’ ascendance last year with a very experienced group of coaches may have informed some of the decisions made by the division-rival New York Mets. Atlanta’s Brian Snitker leads a group that includes the well-traveled Ron Washington, Rick Kranitz, Eric Young, Sal Fasano, Kevin Seitzer et al.
Buck Showalter’s first staff hirings as Mets manager included the highly respected Wayne Kirby, Joey Cora and long-time big-leaguer Eric Chavez — and actually, the Mets made inquiries about whether they could pursue Washington.
When teams get back to business, the Dodgers will have some work to do. First and foremost, they’ll need to settle all-time-great lefty Clayton Kershaw‘s situation, and then, presumably, they’ll be looking for at least one high-end player with some of the cash they were willing to spend on Corey Seager, who signed a 10-year, $325 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Does that mean luring Freddie Freeman back to his home state with a big offer? Does that mean chasing Trevor Story?
The White Sox seemingly wrapped up the AL Central by late July, but as with the Braves, there was actually a lot that could’ve gone better. Luis Robert, who looks like he could be a superstar, was limited to only 68 games, and left fielder Eloy Jimenez played in just 55. In fact, the White Sox had only two position players appear in more than 127 games. The core, outside of Jose Abreu, is relatively young, and there is room for growth. The rotation should be strong again, and the bullpen should be pretty good again, too, following the addition of Kendall Graveman.
And let’s face it — the bar is low for the White Sox to be the best team in the relatively weak AL Central. The Tigers and Royals are getting better, and the Guardians have a competitive pitching staff, but the White Sox’s talent may overwhelm the division again.
As the American League playoffs began, a rival executive was asked whether he was relieved Toronto was knocked out of the postseason on the last day of the regular season. “F— yeah,” he responded assertively, like this was the dumbest question ever. And maybe it was, considering the extraordinary lineup Toronto has developed. In the 78 games in which George Springer played last year, mostly in the second half, the Blue Jays went 48-30. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. became the AL’s best pure hitter. Bo Bichette continued his growth as a player.
The Jays have to fill in for the lost production of Robbie Ray, who won the AL Cy Young Award last year — and Toronto could do that with the addition of Kevin Gausman and a full season of Jose Berrios.
The parts are always changing, but there will be three constants as Tampa Bay moves forward:
A) The Rays are an industry leader in developing pitching — in picking the right pitchers, in giving them time to develop and in providing the necessary substance and manner of counsel to help them improve. Tampa Bay seems to be perpetually rich in young arms, such as Luis Patiño, Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz.
B) They have developed a culture of success, to the degree that players now join them with open minds about playing time in anticipation of success.
C) Wander Franco will be part of their lineup for the foreseeable future. And he is a superstar in the making.
Whatever the competitive balance tax threshold turns out to be, owner Steve Cohen is all but guaranteed to be way over. So it stands to reason that the Mets will just keep on spending, devoting some future dollars to a left-handed starting pitcher (like Carlos Rodon) and bullpen help.
Buster Posey has retired and Kevin Gausman has moved on through free agency, and some of the same questions that hovered over the Giants going into last season cling to them now. But like the Rays, this team has earned the benefit of the doubt — through the choices of Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler, it will find ways to win.
It’s possible the Brewers (and other small-market teams) will make adjustments to their budget if the labor shutdown lingers and revenue diminishment becomes a reality. Folks with other teams wonder if Milwaukee will feel compelled to deal Josh Hader, one of the team’s more expensive players. But whatever the Brewers do, they should still go into the 2022 season with one of the best rotations in the majors and a solid bullpen, and like the Rays, they have constructed a winning culture.
The big X-factor for St. Louis will be the status of Jack Flaherty, who has thrown just 118 1/3 innings the last two years. He has demonstrated he can be a front-of-the-rotation type, but he’s had some injury issues. The Cardinals front office and new manager Oliver Marmol will have to determine the best way to rebuild his innings and dominance. St. Louis has already signed Steven Matz this winter to bolster the back end of the rotation.
10. Boston Red Sox
In order to build on the success of 2021, the Red Sox will need a continued recovery from Chris Sale in his second full year following Tommy John surgery. They’ll also need similar production from Nathan Eovaldi. The Red Sox have been lurking in the discussions for a premier infielder — and whether that is just due diligence or a precursor to them taking a legitimate run at Matt Chapman, Trevor Story or Carlos Correa remains to be seen.
Houston Astros. You could make a really compelling case for the Astros to be in the top 10, maybe even at No. 7 or 8 — especially because they play in the AL West, which is likely to be weakened because of a significant subtraction of star players by the Oakland Athletics. But the Astros must settle on a shortstop, and the Mariners and Angels could challenge them.
New York Yankees. They could crack the top 10 after they begin to make moves again, perhaps landing upgrades at first base, shortstop, in the rotation and bullpen. They could be one of the busiest teams when baseball business resumes.
Seattle Mariners. They won 59 of their final 96 games, a 100-win pace for almost two-thirds of the season, and closed out 2021 with 90 victories. And then they added Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray.
Miami Marlins. The offense will probably be mediocre at best, but the rotation is dangerous.
Los Angeles Angels. They need some good luck — health for Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani — but if they get that and the rotation gets a little better, they’ll be in the playoff conversation (the expanded version, anyway).