Atlanta Braves: The Defending Champs Needed Just $26 Million to Leapfrog the Dodgers as the Class of the National League

It’s not often that the reigning World Series champion is a decisive underdog in its own league. But that’s the case with the Atlanta Braves heading into the 2022 season.

The Braves defeated the Houston Astros in the Fall Classic for their first title since 1995. Before knocking off Houston, they took down the 2020 champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet entering this lockout-delayed season, the Dodgers are nationally viewed as a much larger threat than Atlanta.

LA may have stolen the show this offseason, particularly with its acquisition of 1B Freddie Freeman. But the Braves made some smart signings of their own that should give the champs the upper hand over their West Coast foe.

Despite winning the World Series, the Braves are decisive underdogs in their own league

The Braves beat the Dodgers, the previous year’s champs, then defeated the controversial Houston Astros in a six-game World Series. So why are both teams considered greater championship favorites heading into 2022?

Per Bet MGM, LA is a decisive 5-to-1 favorite to win the 2022 Series. The 106-win Dodgers were able to negate the losses of SS Corey Seager and SP Max Scherzer with Freeman, signing the longtime Braves slugger to a six-year, $162 million deal. He’ll join a lineup full of All-Stars and headlined by RF Mookie Betts and SS Trea Turner.

The Astros, meanwhile, are 10-to-1 favorites to win it all, the highest in the American League. They boast the same odds as the New York Mets, who poached Scherzer from the Dodgers while also adding a number of hitters through free agency. The New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays are all sitting at 11-to-1 as well.

Finally, we get to the Braves. Despite a World Series championship several months ago, Atlanta is only 12-to-1 to pull off a repeat.

There are a couple of reasons the Braves may be getting overlooked. First, they only won 88 games last season, the fifth-highest in the NL. Second, no team has won back-to-back championships since the Yankees in 1998-00.

Still, it’s strange to see last year’s champs sitting lower than six other clubs.

The Braves have quietly bolstered last year’s Achilles heel

At the All-Star break, the Braves sat at a paltry 44-45. At that point, no one expected them to win the division, pennant, and championship in a few months’ time, especially with the season-ending injury to RF Ronald Acuna Jr. and LF Marcell Ozuna’s legal issues. So what changed?

At the break, Atlanta’s bullpen was easily its weakest unit. The group combined for a 4.58 ERA, the 10th-highest in baseball. In the second half and subsequent postseason, Braves relievers strung together a 3.24 ERA, the fourth-lowest mark over that stretch.

Now, the Braves have made their improved bullpen a true strength.

Following the end of the 99-day lockout, general manager Alex Anthopoulos added two huge arms to the pen in Kenley Jansen and Collin McHugh. McHugh, 34, comes off an incredible 2021 with the Tampa Bay Rays in which he had a 1.55 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 64 innings. Jansen, 34, is a three-time All-Star fresh off one of his best seasons with the Dodgers. The veteran finished the year with a 2.22 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with a strong 11.2 K/9.

Atlanta added two elite relievers from two of the league’s top teams. And it did so with a combined $26 million, as Anthopoulos inked McHugh to a two-year, $10 million deal and Jansen to a one-year, $16 million pact. Those vets will now join mainstays Will Smith, Luke Jackson, and Tyler Matzek to form one of the best bullpens in MLB.

Are the 2022 Atlanta Braves better than the 2021 team?

Losing Freeman, the heart of Atlanta’s World Series team, was a gut punch. But there’s still a good chance that this year’s Braves club is actually better than its 2021 counterpart.

Freddie’s departure should sting less thanks to the acquisition of 1B Matt Olson. The 28-year-old slugger hit .271/.371/.540 with a career-high 39 home runs for the Oakland Athletics in 2021. From a production standpoint, the two first basemen should put up similar numbers.

Olson joins an infield returning 2B Ozzie Albies, 3B Austin Riley, and SS Dansby Swanson. In the outfield, the Braves managed to re-sign Eddie Rosario and added Alex Dickerson to replace the departed Jorge Soler. On the pitching side, Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Ian Anderson highlight a rotation that leads into the aforementioned group in the bullpen.

The difference-makers, however, will be who the Braves are getting back. Atlanta won the World Series without Ozuna or Acuna, two of its three top hitters. But the champs will have Ozuna back at the start of the season and Acuna sometime during the first half.

Those two bats make Atlanta’s deep lineup even better. Plus, its rotation has upside while the bullpen looks as strong as it’s ever been. With all the talk about the Dodgers, the Braves truly boast a case as the league’s best team.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

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