Braves GM on Acuña vs. Olson for MVP, long-term deals and more

September 25th, 2023

In a recent phone interview with, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos addressed a wide range of topics from the team’s division-winning season in 2023 to how far it can go in the postseason. What were you expecting from the 2023 Braves when the season started?

Alex Anthopoulos: Generally speaking, we liked our club, but also realized and understood the National League East was going to be very challenging and it was going to be a grind to try and get back to the playoffs. Winning the division wasn’t as grinding for the Braves. They were the first team in the Major Leagues this year to win the division title.

Anthopoulos: I still felt like the division was a grind. The Marlins have been in the hunt the entire year. The Nationals are significantly improved. The Philadelphia Phillies, we knew would be good, and they are. Other than not anticipating the Mets to trade players away – but even still, they have a really talented corps around the diamond. They had some bad luck as well. Who is to say they couldn’t have a spectacular month of August and September. You just don’t know. If we would have traded guys away in ‘21, they would have understood it as well. I still look at all of those teams as competitive. The Nationals were the only team that was openly rebuilding. Four other teams were clear that they were trying to win with talented rosters.

Winning the division as early as we did, I don’t think it reflects the division at all. I think it’s a reflection on guys on the Braves having unbelievable years. Spencer Strider has a chance to break John Smoltz’s Atlanta strikeout record. Matt Olson did break Andruw Jones’ home-run record. We had eight All-Stars. It’s never happened in the history of the Braves. Think of all the great Braves we’ve had here.  What was the most pleasant surprise this season? 

Anthopoulos: It’s hard to single anybody out. There are so many guys who have done special things. Eight All-Stars by itself, which has never been done. All of it. … I say it every year: to make the postseason, you need a lot of good stories – guys being healthy, guys having great years, guys who are surprises.  We had guys step up from the Minor Leagues. We can go around the diamond and talk about these things that guys haven’t done before which has been a huge part of the success.    But there is one guy I do want to talk about and that’s Marcell Ozuna. A lot of people thought he would be released in early May because of the start he got off to. Now, he has put up phenomenal numbers.

Anthopoulos: He had a phenomenal Spring Training. So it was a continuation of what we saw last September. Then he had an awful month of April. Obviously, two people deserve a lot of credit. One is Marcell. He did the work and all of his teammates said, “You know what? Even through the rough start in April and all the booing and all of those things, he was the same person in the clubhouse.” His teammates said he is a great teammate, cheering everybody on. His worth ethic stayed at a high level. His attitude and his demeanor were at a high level. This guy is beloved in our clubhouse. He deserves credit for sticking with it. It’s easy to be a great teammate and have a great attitude when things are going well. It’s very telling when you can do it during the worst month of your career statistically.

Brian Snitker, our manager, controls the lineup card and he kept playing him. He kept giving him an opportunity. There’s no way you can get out of a slump if you don’t play. Brian continued to give Marcell at-bats. He stuck with him because he believed in him. That was his call. Nobody would have criticized Brian if he sat him on the bench and took away playing time. To Brian’s credit and his credit alone, he made that call, and he was rewarded for sticking with him. What is your biggest concern going into the postseason?

Anthopoulos:  Anything can happen. I don’t know if there’s one concern. It’s a short series and you know you are playing a good team on the other side of the diamond -- whoever that is. I don’t know if there is any one area. You understand there are two very good teams that deserve it, that earned their spot in the postseason. You need to play error-free baseball. Hopefully, guys stay healthy and guys have good games. The Braves will have a long layoff after the regular season ends. What is the team going to do differently this postseason so it won’t repeat last year’s performance when it was eliminated by the Phillies in the Division Series?

Anthopoulos: I don’t think last year had anything to do with the layoff. It was a combination of things. The Phillies played better than us and that showed when they went all the way to the World Series. Secondly, our rotation was banged up. We need guys to be on all cylinders and healthy. … The layoff wasn’t going to help Max Fried get better any sooner or Spencer Strider having more rehab games. We’ve had layoffs in the past. Maybe that was one day longer than a year ago. But I think it’s just a matter of the Phillies playing well and deserved it and the guys in our rotation weren't at full strength. So the Braves are at full strength? 

Anthopoulos: We aren’t there yet. I hope so. Come Oct. 7, that’s [more than 10 days away]. A lot could happen. Hopefully, we can finish the season healthy. Things can happen at any time.  You have two guys -- Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson -- who are carrying the Braves. Talk about the job they have done.

Anthopoulos: A lot of the other guys, too. There is no doubt Olson and Acuña are going to be in the MVP conversation. Rightfully, so. But we have guys having phenomenal years. That’s reflected in the eight All-Stars we had in July. Who would you pick for the National League MVP between Acuña and Olson?

Anthopoulos: Ah, it’s like trying to pick between my two kids. Basically, the guys could share the award and be co-MVPs. When the Braves let Freddie Freeman walk via free agency, a lot of baseball experts were surprised that they replaced him with Olson. It turns out, you were proven right. Olson was the right guy to trade for. Could you tell me the pressure that Olson faced in replacing a legend like Freeman?

Anthopoulos: I understand [the concern] because of the timing of replacing someone. When I was in LA [as the Dodgers’ vice president of baseball operations], I was there for Vin Scully’s last year and Joe Davis was going to take over. I remember the interviews that Davis had. The question that was used was, you are replacing Vin Scully. I thought Davis said something that made sense and I agree with him. He said, “I’m not replacing Vin Scully. No one can replace Vin Scully.” He is 100 percent right.

It’s the same thing in Atlanta. The great players that we had -- nobody is going to replace Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson. You can’t replace those guys. They are elite, franchise-type players. But we had players follow them and they are their own person. Look, they have done a phenomenal job. They helped us win a lot of games. But I don’t think you truly replace a person, but I do think you have people who follow others. They’re next. You grew up in Montreal where you saw young and great players come and go. Is that the reason you signed players like Acuña, Olson and Austin Riley to long-term deals with the Braves?

Anthopoulos: I think subconsciously, we made those decisions. Ultimately, you are signing players long term because you are thinking about sustainability. You're going to sign players because you believe in their ability and their ability to be productive. There is no doubt I subconsciously thought about [what the Expos went through]. I grew up an Expos fan. It was hard watching and I understand economically it wasn’t viable to keep those guys. [The Braves] are fortunate that we have a fan base that draws 3 million fans and we have been able to have the financial wherewithal to have a payroll in the top 10. That’s a credit to the support that we have. We are trying to keep our players and have it be sustainable.  … At the end of the day, it’s about winning. You win games, your team is competitive year in and year out. Hopefully, we’ll continue to have that support that we have had here.  How much are you enjoying this run of success? 

Anthopoulos: When you are in the middle of it, you don’t really process things like that. I’m glad I can say I’ve experienced it once after you win the World Series. Then you enjoy it. When you achieve something in that moment, you enjoy it. You clinch the division, you celebrate, you enjoy it at that moment. But in terms of a run, we are kind of in the middle of it. The playoffs haven’t started for us. We have no idea how it is going to go. Hopefully, it goes well. But you realize, there are 11 other teams that are going to make the playoffs as well and all 11 have a chance of winning the World Series. I think the enjoyment stuff is just in that moment when you have those individual clinches or wins or things like that. You don’t enjoy any run unless it ends in a World Series.