A lot of the credit for the Atlanta Braves' postseason surge was rightly attributed to the midseason deals made by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, because without Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson, Atlanta would not have hosted a championship parade.
But what may have been lost in that narrative was just how much organizational bedrock continued to develop underneath those additions. Austin Riley, just 24 years old, became one of the National League's best players. Max Fried, who turns 28 next week, posted a 1.74 ERA in his last 14 regular-season starts. Ian Anderson, just 23, now has a full season of experience. The talented Kyle Wright, 26, may have reached a crossroads in his development during the postseason, with moments on which he can build confidence. Dansby Swanson had 62 extra-base hits last season and has developed into one of the sport's most consistent defenders. Ozzie Albies is a multitalented star. And Ronald Acuña Jr. was the front-runner for NL MVP at the time he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
As the National League Championship Series began in October, the Braves were considered something of a long shot against the Los Angeles Dodgers — and similarly, they were betting underdogs against the Houston Astros in the World Series. So underestimate them now at your own peril.
The Braves' ownership still needs to open its fattened coffers and pay Freddie Freeman. If that happens, Atlanta may actually have a better team in 2022 than that group honored in the championship parade, and have a legit shot at becoming the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back titles.
Early in 2022, with a lot of players unsigned and many more trades to come after the next labor agreement is forged, here are MLB's top 10 teams:
1. Atlanta Braves
Nothing inspires quite like success, and the Braves' ascendance last year with a very experienced group of coaches may have informed some of the decisions made by the division-rival New York Mets. Atlanta's Brian Snitker leads a group that includes the well-traveled Ron Washington, Rick Kranitz, Eric Young, Sal Fasano, Kevin Seitzer et al.
Buck Showalter's first staff hirings as Mets manager included the highly respected Wayne Kirby, Joey Cora and long-time big-leaguer Eric Chavez — and actually, the Mets made inquiries about whether they could pursue Washington.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
When teams get back to business, the Dodgers will have some work to do. First and foremost, they'll need to settle all-time-great lefty Clayton Kershaw's situation, and then, presumably, they'll be looking for at least one high-end player with some of the cash they were willing to spend on Corey Seager, who signed a 10-year, $325 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Does that mean luring Freddie Freeman back to his home state with a big offer? Does that mean chasing Trevor Story?
3. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox seemingly wrapped up the AL Central by late July, but as with the Braves, there was actually a lot that could've gone better. Luis Robert, who looks like he could be a superstar, was limited to only 68 games, and left fielder Eloy Jimenez played in just 55. In fact, the White Sox had only two position players appear in more than 127 games. The core, outside of Jose Abreu, is relatively young, and there is room for growth. The rotation should be strong again, and the bullpen should be pretty good again, too, following the addition of Kendall Graveman.
And let's face it — the bar is low for the White Sox to be the best team in the relatively weak AL Central. The Tigers and Royals are getting better, and the Guardians have a competitive pitching staff, but the White Sox's talent may overwhelm the division again.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
As the American League playoffs began, a rival executive was asked whether he was relieved Toronto was knocked out of the postseason on the last day of the regular season. "F— yeah," he responded assertively, like this was the dumbest question ever.