Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
Mets GM Billy Eppler Tried to be Alex Anthopoulos
There are many reasons that the Atlanta Braves open play today just a game back behind the New York Mets after once trailing in the division by 10.5 games. The Braves' pitching has gotten better - backed by Spencer Strider's move to the rotation. Their offense, since calling up Michael Harris II, has been far more explosive and let's not ignore the defensive boost the addition of Harris II has made. Even shaking off the championship hangover could be a reason the Braves now control their own destiny in the NL East rather than focusing only the Wild Card.
But one more reason the Braves have turned the NL East into a race is that Billy Eppler is not Alex Anthopoulos. At least, not yet.
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Last year, the Atlanta Braves needed a shake-up. Gone was their young dynamic star in Ronald Acuña Jr. due to injury. Also gone was 2020 emotional leader, Marcell Ozuna, though less because of injury. The team was stagnant and it almost looked like a lost year. But Anthopoulos refused to accept that and acted. In the immediate aftermath of Acuña's injury, he traded young first baseman, Bryce Ball, to the Cubs for Joc Pederson. At the deadline, he shipped five players off in four different deals as he brought in a trio of outfielders in Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario along with reliever Richard Rodriguez. While the Rodriguez move wouldn't pay off so well, the other moves would all pay off huge dividends in helping to replace the lost bats of Acuña and Ozuna.
None of the deals were huge. Ricky DeVito (Rodriguez) and Kasey Kalich (Soler) were borderline prospects while Ball, a beast of a man, lasted until the 24th round of the 2019 draft for a reason. The moves for Duvall and Rosario didn't even cost the team a real prospect as Alex Jackson, a catcher who had flamed out, was dealt in the former deal while cheerleader Pablo Sandoval was traded in the Rosario move. All in the all, the Braves kept all of their better prospects, some of which would be packaged together to acquire new franchise cornerstone, Matt Olson. Others, like Strider and Harris, would spearhead the 2022 Braves' efforts to repeat. Still others like William Contreras, Bryce Elder, and Vaughn Grissom would factor into that effort as well.
The end result was a team that took off like it was shot out of a cannon. They lacked some of the star power, but had enough talent to get by their heavily-favored playoff opponents to hoist the World Series trophy. The following year, nobody talks about the players the Braves gave up in those deals and not only because they weren't big prospects. Winning it all means you don't have to care about the players you traded along the way.
But it's important to remember that the moves the Braves did make were hardly stunners. The Giants went out and acquired Kris Bryant. The Mets? They acquired 2016 NLCS MVP, Javier Báez. The other team in New York picked up Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo while the A's added future Met, Starling Marte. The Blue Jays went after a player long attached to the Braves, José Berríos, while the White Sox dealt the fourth overall pick of the 2018 draft to get former Brave, Craig Kimbrel. And nobody made more of an impact than the Dodgers, sending their top two prospects to the Nationals as part of a four-prospect deal to get Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.
In the end, though, none of the moves the other contenders made had as much of an impact as the measured, careful responses Anthopoulos made.
At the deadline this year, Anthopoulos would continue his approach, most notably moving former prospect Tucker Davidson in a deal to get Raisel Iglesias while avoiding any major prospect dump in big deals for other potential targets like Bryan Reynolds and Ian Happ. Other trades for Robbie Grossman, Ehire Adrianza, and Jake Odorizzi cost the Braves precious little in prospect capital.
Elsewhere, in Flushing, the Mets had surrendered their fifth-best prospect in July of 2021 to acquire Báez along with Trevor Williams from the Cubs. At the deadline, they led the NL East by five games despite having a 0 run differential. This time around, the lead was just two games but they were a much better team. They were considered not just a contender, but a favorite in the National League. Yet, their general manager, Billy Eppler, went the Anthopoulos route. Attached to Josh Bell, Willson Contreras, Happ, and even Iglesias, Eppler opted for a smaller quartet of moves, picking up reliever Mychal Givens and roster fillers like Darin Ruf, Daniel Vogelbach, and Tyler Naquin. The moves didn't hurt the Mets' prospect depth and were designed to help deal with some of the team's biggest weaknesses (mainly lack of production from the DH spot and bullpen depth).
You're forgiven if you thought the moves were influenced by the Braves' refusal to dump prospects for the stars of the trading deadline the previous year. After all, the Mets are a good team that just had a few holes. Did they really need a roster overhaul? But some of their fans were less-than-thrilled by the moves, pointing out that the Braves had already cut deeply into the division lead and that the moves didn't have enough of an impact to keep up with the Dodgers. It didn't help that the crosstown rivals, the Yankees, made big splashes for Frankie Montas and Andrew Benintendi. Had Eppler erred by following the Braves' blueprint rather than go for the bigger get?
Certainly, the season is not over. The Mets are 99% favorites to go to the playoffs, either by holding off the charging Braves or by getting the top Wild Card spot. But the moves have done little to fix the team's problems. Vogelbach and Naquin have both been decent with the latter showing some impressive pop and Vogelbach's patience, while annoying at times for Mets' fans, resulting in a .371 OBP. But both currently are struggling to push their OPS over .800. That's much better than Ruf, though. After a .904 OPS in 312 PA with the Giants last year, Ruf followed the trend many Giants' heroes from 2021 went through - his numbers cratered. But even his struggles in San Francisco (.216/.328/.373) would be much better than what Ruf has done since joining the Mets. At this point, his most noteworthy moment for the Mets may be throwing two scoreless innings out of the pen.
Meanwhile, Givens has received much criticism, though probably unfairly. While he's had a few bad games, including getting roughed up by the Braves on August 15, he's been mostly the same pitcher he's always been. But there's a reason why good teams seemed to pass on giving the Orioles' a good prospect for Givens. He's vulnerable to homers and walks, a dangerous mix for a guy you might want in high-leverage innings. Givens fills out your bullpen, but he's not the guy you go to with the bases loaded and one out in a 3-2 game in the seventh inning.
To be fair, not all of Anthopoulos's moves last year looked like winners immediately. Rosario, hurt when the deal happened, wouldn't make his Braves' debut until roughly a month after the move happened. Over his first 41 PA from August 28 to September 14, Rosario hit just .222. He did, however, flash a lot of pop (1 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR to give him a .556 SLG). He'd take off the rest of the way, including hitting for the cycle on September 19, and ride that wave of success into the playoffs where he was NLCS MVP. Of course, Rodriguez would pitch so poorly - possibly due to a ban on the "sticky stuff" - that he would be left off the postseason roster.
But the moves that hit for Anthopoulos were celebrated. Soler, aimless and struggling in Kansas City, did his best Acuña impression in the leadoff role and played himself into a World Series MVP honor. Duvall, while he struggled to get on base, hit homers in bunches, including a Grand Slam in the World Series. And Pederson? He reminded us why it's actually called Joc-tober and became an emotional leader of his new squad. He'll never have to pay for anything in Atlanta. And again, while Rosario didn't take off right away, he was a star by the end of the season. These small, almost ignored, moves were bigger than the Dodgers' huge trade for Scherzer and Turner or the Yankees offensive makeover with Rizzo and Gallo. And in the end, the Braves still had the prospects that acquired Matt Olson along with the super-prospects that became part of the core of the next year's roster in Strider, Harris II, and Grissom.
There's a reason why no one is debating whether Anthopoulos is one of the best general managers in baseball and, subsequently, if Eppler is the right guy for the Mets after a five-year run with the Angels where they failed to make the playoffs despite having the best player of his generation. Not that Eppler hasn't made good deals. The Mets did sign Scherzer and Marte last offseason after all. But during the season, when they were attached to so many bigger pieces, why did they settle for depth guys? Remember, this Mets' team is not guaranteed another season of Jacob deGrom, who is expected to opt-out after the World Series. Even if he does return, the Mets have one of the oldest pitching staffs in baseball (31.3 years-old) to match an aging offense outside of youngsters Brett Baty and Mark Vientos. If there was ever a time to put all the chips on the table, it was the 2022 Mets.
Instead, Eppler did his best Anthopoulos impression.
But an impression, even if it comes from Bill Hader, is never as good as the original. Time will tell if Mets fans remember 2022 for what the season could have been rather than the season it ultimately did become. As a Braves fan, I hope it’s the former and we see Steve Cohen tweet through it by October while Mets fans wish to never hear the name Darin Ruf ever again.
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