The Braves aren’t out of this NLDS series. It’s best-of-five, and the Braves are better than what they showed in losing 6-0 in Game 1 on Thursday night.
For Friday night’s Game 2, the Braves will send out right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who has discovered some late-career magic. They’ll go up against lefty Clayton Kershaw, a three-time NL Cy Young Award winner who hasn’t pitched up to his standard this season.
The Dodgers ambushed the Braves in Game 1, leading 4-0 after two innings. It’s likely Braves hitters will deliver a better effort in Game 2 after they struck out 11 times in the opener. Sanchez’s postseason track record is good.
Yet it’s clear that the Braves will need an extraordinary effort to win this NLDS. If that wasn’t obvious before, it was after Game 1. The Braves didn’t see the full power of a fully operational Dodgers roster and still were overwhelmed.
Matt Kemp, David Freese and Chris Taylor were on the bench for Game 1. Chase Utley couldn’t even make the roster. There are good hitters among that group. The Dodgers are so good they didn’t need them.
The game highlighted the disadvantage the Braves face against the Dodgers. The Dodgers have about $70 million more committed to payroll, and a substantial portion of that reflects their ability to outspend their mistakes.
The Dodgers have roughly $30.5 million committed to players no longer on the roster. The Dodgers are still paying for giving Hector Olivera a $28 million signing bonus, then dumping him to the Braves before he played a game for L.A. The Dodgers ate money to offload Kemp to San Diego in December 2014, then sent the Braves more money when they reacquired him in December.
Mistakes like Olivera hamstring the Braves. They compounded that error by taking on more money to acquire Kemp. The Braves salvaged it somewhat by acquiring key contributor Charlie Culberson in the trade with the Dodgers in December.
Usually the Braves must live with their mistakes longer because they can’t burn cash. Remember how long they kept Dan Uggla around after he was no longer productive? When Carl Crawford showed rapid decline in 2016, the Dodgers swallowed $35 million to get him off the roster.
The Dodgers make mistakes with money and just keep spending it. That’s a reason they are so much deeper than the Braves. The Dodgers had the highest payroll in the majors each year from 2014-17 and the third-highest this year.
I’m not making excuses for the Braves’ performance in Game 1. They should be better than that. Nor I am giving team owner Liberty Media a pass. It could choose to spend more of its publicly subsidized cash windfall on payroll.
I’m also not discounting the Dodgers’ smart acquisitions. It takes more than big money to win big. They have a good farm system and they’ve supplemented their spending with smart trades and shrewd free-agent signings. They signed Max Muncy to a minor-league deal in 2017, and he hit a three-run homer in Game 1.
But the reality is that the Dodgers operate in a different financial stratosphere than the Braves. I thought about that while watching the Dodgers send up a long line of scary hitters while leaving more of them on the bench, or off the roster.
Whether you believe big-spending clubs are good or bad for baseball may depend on your perspective. I think teams should be able to spend as much on payroll as they want. Maybe that’s easy for me to say because I don’t have a rooting interest. But that’s unrelated to my belief that players should get as much of the pie as they can, especially in baseball, whose owners have a long history of colluding against labor.
The plan for the Braves is to eventually compete for championships with the big spenders by filling the roster with more homegrown prospects. With relatively small salaries and long-term control, those players offer more value than free agents. Current Braves bargains include Mike Foltynewicz, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies.
The Dodgers are formidable despite their past mistakes with money. Until (and if) the next crop of Braves prospects shows up and pans out, they will try to compete with the Dodgers with what they’ve got now.