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Braves Sacrificed a World Series Repeat to Dominate the Decade

Atlanta is set up to bring home more championships in the 2020s than the club did during its storied ’90s run—even if this year’s team isn’t primed to win it all.

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When Marquis Grissom caught the final out of the 1995 World Series to give Atlanta its first major pro sports championship, NBC announcer Bob Costas exclaimed, “The team of the ’90s has its world championship!” Looking back, however, even though the Braves reached five World Series during the final decade of the 20th century, setting off a string of 14 straight division titles—an MLB record—they aren’t remembered as the team of the ’90s. That’s because after the Braves finally won it all, the Yankees reached three World Series between ’96 and ’99 and won all of them, beating Atlanta twice in the process, and added another in 2000 for good measure.

It’s still unclear which franchise will leave its mark on the 2020s. The decade’s first two champions in Los Angeles and Atlanta are the leading candidates, though. And the stark differences between how the two teams are setting out to prove themselves as the class of the league over the long haul were laid bare after the lockout ended.

The Dodgers’ odds are fueled by a seemingly endless supply of capital from the team’s consortium of billionaire owners, often publicly represented by beloved L.A. legend Magic Johnson. Media mogul Ted Turner owned the Braves during their ’90s peak and acted similarly, pouring money into the club to retain stars such as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Chipper Jones for most, if not all, of their careers. That’s not how things are being done nowadays, to say the least. Atlanta’s faceless corporate overlords at Liberty Media, which bought the club in 2007, aren’t willing to let the cash flow so freely. President of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos knows he’s working with a smaller budget, and thus must keep a watchful eye on team finances further in advance if he wants to avoid aging veterans’ bloated contracts clogging up the team’s future rosters.

That’s how Freddie Freeman, the man handpicked to stick with the Braves through the depths of its mid-2010s rebuild, ended up back near his hometown in southern California this offseason just months after helping the Braves win their first title in 26 years. The 2020 National League MVP, who turned 32 in September, was deemed too much of a risk to keep on payroll too deep into his 30s. And so with Atlanta unwilling to offer a sixth year to Freeman, Anthopoulos sent four of the team’s top 15 prospects to Oakland for A’s first baseman Matt Olson—who’s more than four years younger than his predecessor and is projected to provide similar value in the near future—then extended him for a team-record $168 million over eight years. Freeman was allowed to walk away and sign a six-year, $162 million contract with the Dodgers. Atlanta essentially chose the age-28 to age-35 seasons of Olson at $21 million per year, while Los Angeles happily snapped up the age-32 to age-37 seasons of Freeman at $27 million per year. You can trace that annual cost savings to a move the Braves made the very next day, signing reliever Collin McHugh for two years and $10 million.

It’s the latest example of Atlanta betting on the younger, cheaper side of the age curve. It’s a strategy that’s served them well in extensions with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, who are under club control at confoundingly cheap costs through 2028 and ’27, respectively. We’ll have to see how it works out this year, when its application results in the departure of Freeman, the face of the franchise, fresh off a World Series victory parade.

Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (1) and center fielder Guillermo Heredia (38) celebrate after receiving World Series championship rings

It would be unfair to paint Liberty Media as callously cheap. Letting Freeman walk away is not akin to the Marlins’ selling off their stars twice directly after winning championships in 1997 and 2003. The Braves are projected to carry a $205.6 million luxury tax payroll this year, the ninth-highest mark in the sport, according to Spotrac.

But that doesn’t come close to the first luxury tax threshold of $230 million, let alone Los Angeles’s $260.7 million figure or the league-leading $282.3 million figure of the Mets, Atlanta’s division rival. And because the Braves, as the only franchise overseen by a publicly owned company, are the only team obligated to release their revenue figures, we know they have more in the coffers. What we don’t know is how much of that will be earmarked for future players.

Atlanta’s projected luxury tax payroll is $125.3 million for 2023 and $80.7 million in ’24. After that, for a few years it’s just Olson, Acuña and Albies on the books for a combined $46 million per year. There’s a lot of room to build out the rest of the roster, especially compared to some of their NL peers.

Proj. Luxury Tax Payroll (millions)2022202320242025




































That sort of payroll flexibility will be needed to fend off the billionaire-backed Mets, the slugger-stacked Phillies, the Juan Soto–led Nationals and the pitching-rich Marlins in the NL East. Atlanta’s dominance over the division during the wild-card era is a point of pride for the Braves and a pain point for their rivals.

When I told a friend of mine who roots for the Mets that I’d been thinking New York would win the NL East before Jacob deGrom’s injury, he responded in true cynical Metsian fashion: “I feel like it’s hard to ever bet on the Mets over the Braves. You don’t even need to look at the players, owner, GM, anything. It’s just a fact of nature.” It’s true that he had just learned of deGrom’s injury, bringing out his tortured fan side, but you can’t blame him for thinking that way.

In 2021, the Braves captured their MLB-record 21st division championship and 16th NL East title since the current format was instituted in 1995. No other NL East team has won more than the Phillies’ five division titles over the same span. With New York’s suddenly injury-ravaged rotation, Philadelphia’s league-worst defense, Miami’s unproven lineup and Washington’s entire roster outside of Soto prompting reasons for concern, Atlanta appears to be the most complete team in the division and is the deserved preseason favorite.

That was usually not enough in the 1990s, when Atlanta underwent more October heartbreak than some teams experience for decades. But to a certain extent, you just have to get in the postseason—preferably as one of your league’s top two teams in the new 12-team format—and hope you get hot at the right time. It worked for the 88-win Braves last season.

Atlanta may not win the World Series again this year. Before the season, SI Sportsbook had them tied with the White Sox as the sixth-most likely team to do so. It’s unclear which of the Braves’ young starting pitchers may emerge behind Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson. The outfield depth isn’t what it was after last year’s trade deadline and will miss the services of Acuña until he returns from his torn ACL. In the meantime, castoffs Alex Dickerson, from the Giants, and Orlando Arcia, from the Brewers, have been platooning at DH so far, and Marcell Ozuna, one of the league’s worst defensive outfielders, is manning left field. Even after Acuña is back in right field, Adam Duvall will still be in center, and he’s far from your prototypical speedster out there despite his underrated glove work.

The best route to repeating may have been to re-sign Freeman and run it back with the same core, perhaps giving defensive whiz Cristian Pache another shot in center instead of trading him to Oakland in the Olson deal. That wasn’t what happened. But with the route the Braves have chosen, they could have a better shot at becoming the team of the 2020s. They’re off to a better start than they got out to in the ’90s, anyway.

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