They lost seven players to season-ending injuries. Two more key players batted under .200. Even with all that, the Braves managed to win 96 games and capture their first division since 2005.
But once October arrived, it was the same ol’ story.
Another postseason disappointment.
The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001, their streak of eight straight losses now the second-longest in baseball history to the Chicago Cubs, who dropped 10 series in a row between 1910 and 1998, according to STATS LLC.
“A lot of good stuff happened,” manager Fredi Gonzalez insisted after the season ended Monday night in the NL division series with a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. “A lot of guys participated in the 96-win season. It’s going to be one of those seasons that you’re not going to appreciate for about a couple of weeks, and then you say, ‘You know what? It was a pretty darn good team, a pretty darn good season.’”
Indeed, there are plenty of reasons for the Braves to be hopeful.
First baseman Freddie Freeman had an MVP-type season. Young pitchers Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran took the lead in the starting rotation, especially after Tim Hudson went down with a broken ankle. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons could be in line for a Gold Glove. Evan Gattis emerged as one of the NL’s top rookies. Closer Craig Kimbrel had another dominant season.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen during the offseason, but I’m already looking forward to spring training,” Freeman said. “Hopefully we can start preparing over again with these same guys. I think we’re really close.”
But the postseason has been a huge stumbling block. Since winning the NL pennant in 1999, the Braves are 13-30 in playoff games — with only one victory in 11 postseason series during that span.
While the players on this team had nothing to do with most of those October failures (catcher Brian McCann and Hudson were the only holdovers from Atlanta’s last division champion in 2005), it has become the defining theme of the franchise going back to the early 1990s, when the Braves managed only one World Series title during a remarkable run of 14 straight division titles.
“All the regular-season accomplishments, those don’t count anymore once you get to the postseason,” outfielder Jason Heyward said.
With so many young players, the Braves aren’t headed for a major overhaul during the offseason. McCann and Hudson are the only prominent players eligible for free agency.
The Braves may look to get a hometown discount from the 37-year-old Hudson to return for another year, which would give the team a much-needed veteran among the 20-something starters.
McCann is another story. While he grew up in the Atlanta area and has been with the Braves his entire career, it seems likely he’ll be playing elsewhere next season. Gattis’ natural position is catcher, and he showed plenty of promise with 21 homers and 65 RBIs. The Braves also have veteran Gerald Laird and 22-year-old Christian Bethancourt, one of Atlanta’s top prospects.
After going 0-for-13 in the playoffs, including four strikeouts in the finale, McCann acknowledged it might be his farewell game in a Braves uniform.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t know if that’s happening or not.”
A more pressing issue for the Braves is how to deal with B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. The two highest-paid players on the team struggled through miserable seasons.
Upton, in the first season of a five-year, $75.25 million contract, batted .184 with nine homers and 26 RBIs. He lost his starting job but there’s not much the Braves can do except hope for dramatic improvement in 2014, given he’s still owed nearly $60 million.
Uggla is even trickier situation. His numbers have gotten progressively worse in three years with the Braves, plummeting to .179 with a franchise-record 171 strikeouts this season. His relationship with the organization is rocky at best after he was left off the postseason roster.
Then again, Uggla is still owed $13 million over each of the next two years, so it’s unlikely he could be moved in a trade and it’s debatable if the Braves are willing to take such a big financial hit to get him off the roster.
“We’ll be fine,” Laird said. “We’re building for the future.”