With a Door Left Open, Atlanta Hopes to Walk Right In


It was the ripple before the typhoon, the start of the wildest late-July swap meet in baseball history. On July 15, the last day of the All-Star break, Alex Anthopoulos, the general manager of the Atlanta Braves, dealt a prospect to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Joc Pederson. By the end of the month, 158 players — including some of the biggest names in baseball — had been traded, and all 30 teams had made at least one move.

Anthopoulos was not trying to spark the industry, of course. He was trying to send a message to his team, whose dazzling outfielder, Ronald Acuña Jr., had just ended his season by tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Anthopoulos did not want the lull of the All-Star break to be a permanent state of mind.

“I felt it was important to show the players, ‘Oh, OK, we’re going to keep trying,’” Anthopoulos said by phone over the weekend. “I didn’t talk to anybody about it; no one talked to me about it. It was just something my instincts felt strongly about doing. It was very important to me that we come back from the break and we have a deal in place.”

It was also a signal to the Mets that Atlanta, which has won the National League East in each of the last three seasons, has no plans to concede. By the end of July, Atlanta had also traded for catcher Stephen Vogt (from Arizona), outfielders Adam Duvall (from Miami), Eddie Rosario (from Cleveland) and Jorge Soler (from Kansas City), and reliever Richard Rodriguez (from Pittsburgh).

Individually, none of those players matches the sizzle of the headline moves from the deadline: Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers, Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees, Craig Kimbrel to the White Sox, Kris Bryant to the Giants, Javy Baez to the Mets.

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Collectively, though, Atlanta’s haul made the N.L. East a lot more intriguing. The Mets have led the division for more than 12 weeks, but all along, the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies have lingered close behind. Entering Monday’s games, the Mets led Philadelphia by three and a half games and Atlanta by four.

The Mets have already ruled out their ace, Jacob deGrom, for August because of further inflammation in his forearm. They have the worst record of baseball’s six division leaders (55-49 through Sunday), and dropped home series to Atlanta and the Cincinnati Reds before heading to Miami for a three-game series starting Monday.

As a result, Atlanta, with a losing record, still has a chance at catching the Mets for a division title.

“The Mets have been in first place the entire year, pretty much, but no one’s really pulled away,” Anthopoulos said. “If someone had pulled away, or we were 20 games under .500, then you’re looking at it as highly, highly unlikely. But with the way things have gone, we have a chance.”

When Anthopoulos has a chance, he goes for it. In his first five years as a general manager, with the Toronto Blue Jays, his teams never reached the playoffs. Then, after the 2014 season, he pursued a trade for Oakland’s star third baseman, Josh Donaldson, who was widely considered unavailable. But Anthopoulos doesn’t rule out potential acquisitions, no matter how far-fetched, and he got his man with a four-player package.

“It’s easy to say no to everything, and I get it — 99 percent of the time, things will be a ‘No,’ and they can’t be done,” he said. “But there’s nothing wrong with at least having the thought process of: How can we? And if you do that and you still can’t come up with a solution, fine. But at least you gave an effort to see if there was any way you could come up with it.”

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It is a useful lesson far beyond the sports world: Show me a yes. The path to that answer might not be worth taking. But it never hurts to find out how to get there.

The Donaldson deal was a triumph for the Blue Jays: He immediately won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award and led Toronto to its first division title in 22 years. That was the first of six consecutive division crowns for Anthopoulos’s teams, as he followed it with two as an assistant with the Dodgers and three with Atlanta.

A seventh might seem unlikely after the loss of Acuña, who is probably one of the majors’ five best players. Anthopoulos could not swing a deal for a star in Acuña’s class, but he had to try something.

“You can’t replace Ronald Acuña, but I just don’t believe you can have the mind-set of: You lose any one player and you just shut it down for the season,” Anthopoulos said. “You’ve got all these other players and people in the organization and the fan base. You keep trying, and you keep going.

“I remember in Toronto, when we lost Marcus Stroman in spring training. He was going to be a really important starter for us. I got the news and I got in my car, went for a drive along the water for about 30 or 45 minutes, came back, turned the page and said: ‘OK, there are opportunities for other guys.’ You just try to find a way.”

Duvall, who played for Atlanta from 2018 to 2020, has 69 runs batted in, tied for fourth in the N.L. through Sunday, along with 22 home runs. Soler slammed 48 homers in 2019 to set a Royals franchise record. Rosario was a steady, productive left fielder on three Minnesota playoff teams.

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All three have struggled to reach base this season, as Pederson did with the Cubs, and Rosario is on the injured list with a strained oblique. But without Acuña — and the former All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna, gone since late May as baseball investigates domestic violence charges — the Braves at least have established options with a recent track record of success.

There are other signs of optimism: The infield (Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley) has combined for 82 homers. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud and starter Huascar Ynoa are on injury rehabilitation assignments, and Ian Anderson (shoulder) is getting closer to one. The bullpen is strong, and the rotation has been solid.

The Phillies acquired starter Kyle Gibson and reliever Ian Kennedy at the deadline, but their pitching still seems too thin to make a serious charge; they are now taking the unusual step of converting their closer, Ranger Suarez, into a starter. The Braves (52-54) have not been above .500 all season, but they were the only team in the division with a positive run differential (+49) through Sunday, and the Mets have let them hang around.

Now the Braves are better — at least a bit — than they were when Acuña went down. The Mets will not meet them again until late September, in the final series of the season. Their goal is to make sure those games will not matter.

For now the pennant race is on, because Atlanta refused to go down quietly.

“I’ve been there when you’re out of it in August and September, and it’s not fun,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s not fun for the organization, it’s not fun for the fan base. We’re in it. We were in it at the deadline. I just don’t think you can take those things for granted.”