The Atlanta Braves were eliminated from the postseason on Monday, but any proper postmortem will note they were a year ahead of schedule anyway. They’re going to be around, bothering teams in October for years, and there is no other logical conclusion that can be reached.
I have a can of garbanzo beans in the pantry that’s older than Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Ozzie Albies could — should? — be an all-star for the next decade. The Braves’ rotation is overstuffed with youth, and there’s still a geyser of talent that hasn’t broken through the surface yet. Even after all of the promotions this season, they still have one of the very best farm systems in baseball.
It’s possible there’s no better team to be a fan of right now.
The Braves have the kind of electric young talent some franchises wait decades for, and they’re not even done producing players yet. What if, after the glory of Acuña has been fully revealed to our unworthy eyes, it turns out Austin Riley is the next Kris Bryant? What if he’s the next Chipper Jones? What if half of the pitchers in their top 10 pan out? And don’t forget that the structure of baseball allows for all these players to be underpaid for years, which will allow them to subsidize a free-agent cavalry.
This is just a great time to be a Braves fan.
Because I’m a tactless ghoul, however, I would like to posit a simple question: What if this doesn’t have to get better?
Please, put the rocks down. I’m going somewhere with this. What I’m trying to say is the Braves don’t not remind me of the 2012 Nationals.
Aaaaand now the rocks are flying. This isn’t going well. Hold on just one second, uh, let me recalibrate. This is so dumb, but I’ve already started, so let’s dive in.
The comparison starts in a way that’s a little too obvious, with Bryce Harper and Acuña. Both players were doing things at an age when it was more reasonable for them to be exploring the South Atlantic League, and, as an unabashed Harper enthusiast, please believe me when I say this is not damning with faint praise. What I’m saying is Acuña is going to win an MVP on his way to a half-billion dollars.
The Nationals started with one of the best foundational pieces any franchise could hope for, in other words. They had under-30 players all over the roster, including a rotation that featured Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Stephen Strasburg, all 26 or younger. Their double-play combination was powerful, defensively sound, and young. It was the sweetest setup you’ll ever see. And then you wouldn’t believe what they did next.
The Nationals were creative! They spent money! Lots of money! They traded and signed and traded and signed and attacked every offseason with the urgency they should have. They ended up with a Cy Young monster on his way to the Hall of Fame, and that precocious young superstar was plugging along the whole time, winning awards and being outstanding.
And yet something ... always ... happened.
This doesn’t take away from the success of the Nationals during the Bryce Harper Era. It’s just to point out that something ... always ... happened. They had everything on their side, and they still have enough talent and money to win the World Series next year, but there is still a whole lot of what-if to that story. They had everything, and it was never enough for some reason.
Now, I know I don’t need to lecture Braves fans about how there aren’t guarantees when it comes to postseason success. The Braves of the ‘90s and ‘00s won the Baseball’s Most Talented Roster Award at least five or six times, with just one championship to show for it. Braves fans know that a collection of the most talented baseball players to ever live is not the greatest predictor of October success. They are 100-percent clear on this theory. This is mostly for the rest of us.
And if you’ll stop winging rocks at me for a second, let me tell you about another team the Braves remind me of: the 2015 Astros. That was a team with a lot to offer and a lot more on the way. Or, no, the 2015 Cubs, even better. Like hell am I going to slap one arbitrary comparison on this Braves team and pretend it’s predictive. They’re too special, too talented to be that easily defined. They just might win three out of the next four World Series.
Still, don’t take a team’s youth for granted. Don’t anticipate that there will always be a next year. Don’t look at the 20-something superstar anchor and assume that everything continues on an upward trajectory from there. Don’t fail to be as mad about this postseason loss as you would have been if it were Game 7 of a World Series, with an entire roster scheduled to test free agency the day after. Don’t use the precociousness of extraordinarily young players and a deep farm system as talismans to ward off the pain.
Always be wary of the something that has plagued the Nationals over the last few years. Always look for upgrades at every turn, always approach every offseason like the window is slamming shut, and for the love of all that is holy, always make sure you don’t have a manager that’s going to screw it all up*.
* Pulling Zimmermann for Drew Storen, you have got to be sh ...
Keep trying, I guess? Yeah, that’s the overall point, and, fine, the Braves didn’t need me to tell them that. It’s just that I get nervous whenever there’s a sense of “Eh, we’ll be back. Don’t worry about us” with any team just bounced from the postseason. The Braves have more going for them than most teams in recent memory, and that’s what worries me.
But if we’re also being honest, we could note that the Nationals have actually had a pretty badass ride. They got to watch a possible future Hall of Famer blossom and win an MVP. They’ve watched Cy Young seasons and celebrated the dogpiles on the mound after a division title. I’m not sure where the Nationals rank on a best-teams-to-root-for list over the last few years, but they have to be up there, even with all the postseason weirdness.
If that’s a worst-case scenario for a team, it’s going to be a pretty sweet ride.
You’re all welcome to throw this article back in my face in a couple years. I’m used to it. When baseball sets something up this perfectly, though, I worry. It’s my nature. The Braves are set up so well that I’m squinting and looking for future flaws that I can’t even comprehend. That says more about me than it does about the Braves, but I’d keep an eye on them. They’re a little too loaded with nowhere else to go but up.