By Eli Hershkovich
Although the Los Angeles Dodgers haven’t slowed down, another intriguing contender has formed the National League — the Atlanta Braves.
After tallying a 20-8 record in June, the team’s best calendar month since going 20-7 in August 2013, the Braves own a 5.5-game lead in the NL East. Their offense is leading the way, generating the sixth-most runs per game (5.42) in baseball — a spot ahead of the Dodgers.
Second-year outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (.295/.376/.513) represents one of the centerpieces in their lineup, and his 20 home runs are tied for the 10th-most in the NL. Rather than deal with the arbitration process down the road for the up-and-coming star, Atlanta opted for an eight-year, $100 million contract extension in April, which included two club options.
“For the right player, for the right deal, (it) makes sense to lock things in and know we have players under control for a certain period of time,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s always easier for a position player. The volatility of arms, health, regression of performance. I think we always lose sight of the fact that having these players for six years when they get started, the chance (for) potentially seven (years) if they come up in the middle of the year, is a long time.
“Between (Mike) Trout and Acuna in terms of guaranteed money ... I’ve seen it before when you guarantee guys dollars and guys get criticized and so on, but they’re still young enough to get a (big) deal (later on).”
Trout received a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension a few years into his career before the Angels locked him into the biggest contract in North American team sports history (12 years, $430 million). While Anthopoulos noted the eight-time All-Star’s prowess can’t be compared to current budding players, Acuna is still on track to becoming one of the league’s premier talents.
The 21-year-old is tied for the 16th-highest WAR (3.1) across MLB, aided by his speed on the basepaths (64 runs, seventh-most).
Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies followed Acuna’s path less than two weeks after Acuna signed his extension, inking a seven-year, $35 million deal with a pair of club options. The deal was critiqued at the time because of Albies’ worth, but Anthopoulos cited his hope to provide Albies with a larger extension if he continues to ascend in coming seasons.
The 22-year-old has already raised his on-base percentage by 37 points (.342) from a campaign ago, delivering the league’s seventh-highest OBP at his position.
“From our standpoint, trying to keep this core together, especially considering how young these guys are, was very important to us,” Anthopoulos said.
In the short-term, Acuna and Albies boast the skillset to help guide the Braves to their first NLCS appearance since 2001 — and possibly further.
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