When the Atlanta Braves became the first team to punch their ticket to the 2023 postseason with a win Sunday over the Pirates, the celebration was subdued. Manager Brian Snitker spoke a little, and then the players toasted one another with champagne.
There were a couple of reasons for this. First, they had to play a doubleheader the following day in Philadelphia, with players expected to be at the ballpark around 10 a.m. Second, and more saliently, the specific achievement was that they were mathematically assured at least a wild-card berth — but the Braves had seemed bound for a division title for months. And with four games against their closest rivals in the National League East, the Philadelphia Phillies, on the horizon, they could clinch the division within days.
The Phillies — reigning NL pennant winners and likely postseason-bound themselves as the current holders of the top NL wild-card spot — are no slouch. With their heavy hitters getting hot in the second half, the Phillies have the second-most home runs since the All-Star break … behind the Braves, who also had the most in the first half and who might end the season with the most team home runs ever.
Last October, it was in Philadelphia that the then-reigning champion Braves were eliminated in the Division Series. Still, as their series in Philly got underway, some Braves players were already eyeing the off day Thursday in Miami as a chance to celebrate the NL East title with their families. Just three more wins for the team that has had sole possession of first place since the fourth game of the season, and they could celebrate in full. Even in the superstitious world of baseball, it would appear, the Braves are — at this point in the calendar, anyway — beyond jinxes.
And yes, on Wednesday, they defeated the Phillies 4-1, donned goggles and let the booze rain down. It is Atlanta’s sixth straight NL East title, their MLB-leading 26th in franchise history. And the scary part for the rest of the division — and the sport as a whole — is that this could be just the beginning of their reign.
The defining feature of these Braves — beyond being incredibly good at baseball — is their propensity to sign players to long-term extensions, often early in their careers. In doing so, a team assumes a certain risk — that some day, injury or underperformance or age-related decline will sap the player of his productivity, leaving behind a blight on the payroll that serves as an anchor of opportunity cost. But for now and from what we know so far, the Braves’ extensions seem to provide not just cost certainty but also an almost guaranteed level of success.
Currently, Atlanta’s top eight position players by fWAR — Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Sean Murphy, Michael Harris II, Ozzie Albies, Orlando Arcia and Marcell Ozuna — are signed through at least 2025, and only Ozuna is over 30 years old. The top five are signed through at least 2028.
Their best pitcher by fWAR, Spencer Strider — last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, a Cy Young contender this season and the man who allowed just one run over seven innings in the division-clinching game — is 24 years old and signed through 2029 (!).
This year, the Braves are over the first competitive balance tax threshold for the first time in team history — but so are the Phillies and the New York Mets, two division rivals with bigger payrolls and fewer wins to show for it. The Mets’ disappointment extends far beyond finishing behind the Braves, while the Phillies are enjoying more success than plenty of other star-studded teams assembled in free agency and know how formidable they can be in the postseason.
But the point is that Atlanta’s closest competition is trying to overtake the Braves from a position of less flexibility — even accounting for Atlanta’s long-term contract commitments. Currently ninth in MLB in payroll, the Braves are behind the Phillies and Mets (and Padres and Yankees) in terms of what’s already on the books for 2025.
By 2026, the Braves’ commitments are third to just the Yankees and the Padres — but while those two teams need to revamp their rosters between now and then to get back to the playoffs, the Braves need only stay the course.
Granted, recent history provides ample examples of teams that sustained regular-season success but failed to solidify dynasty status come October. The Dodgers are cruising to their 10th division title in 11 years, having won the World Series only in the flukey 2020 season. The Braves’ previous five first-place NL East finishes took them to the Fall Classic only once. And at the end of the last century, of course, they won the East 14 out of 15 years but emerged with just one championship.
Which is to say that Wednesday’s clinch is merely the first step toward determining if the Braves’ dominance — they’re currently on pace for 106 wins — will be what we remember about the 2023 MLB season or merely a point of context in some other team’s narrative to the top. Players and coaches dutifully reiterated that sentiment amid Atlanta’s celebration Wednesday. But if this team does prove capable of winning it all, the rest of the league should be nervous.
Because basically the same club will be coming back for years to come.
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