Ian Anderson and the young Braves like the postseason stage. They might be here to stay

·6 min read

Ian Anderson is 23 years old, and technically still a rookie. He doesn’t have 200 big-league innings under his belt yet, but he’s a seasoned pro at this whole October thing. Since making his MLB debut in August of 2020, Anderson has tossed 18.2% of his innings in the playoffs, and it’s gone pretty, pretty well.

When he got the call for the Atlanta Braves on Friday night in World Series Game 3, it was the eighth postseason start of his career — the second-most of any pitcher before his 24th birthday (behind fellow Braves prodigy Steve Avery). Anderson celebrated by firing five no-hit innings against the Houston Astros, logging his fourth scoreless playoff start and lowering his October ERA to 1.26.

Again: A rookie, technically. The postseason — certainly the World Series — is supposed to represent a culmination. Everything built to this, all roads led here, etc. And that’s undoubtedly true for a Braves team now two wins away from a championship. But with Anderson making his name on the national stage and 24-year-old Austin Riley driving in a huge run to support him, there’s also the distinct feeling that we’re watching the beginning of something.

Yes, the Braves are banging down the door to a World Series title, but they are also flinging open a window of contention.

Before the Braves took down the Dodgers and brought the World Series back to Atlanta, before they overtook the Mets and Phillies to reclaim the NL East, and before an aggressive trade deadline gave them the firepower to do so, their hopes for 2021 seemed to come crashing down alongside Ronald Acuña Jr. in Miami.

Through July 10, the day he tore his ACL leaping for a catch in the outfield, Acuña was batting .283 with 24 homers and 17 steals. He led the National League in WAR by FanGraphs’ calculations and was one of the top contenders for the league’s MVP award despite the Braves’ overall sluggishness. Without him, a turnaround seemed hard to fathom.

As we know now, GM Alex Anthopoulos’ optimistic, bulk-buying strategy helped patch the holes, and Atlanta’s remaining core fueled a rollicking summer sprint that just hasn’t stopped. 

It’s not particularly bold to say that a World Series team getting an MVP-level player back next season could continue to thrive. But it’s hard to overstate how well-positioned the Braves are. Across MLB, there were only 10 total hitters age 25 or under who amassed 4 WAR or better in 2021. Three of them play for the Braves, and they are all signed through at least 2026.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 29:  Austin Riley #27 of the Atlanta Braves throws to first base for the out during Game 3 of the 2021 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on Friday, October 29, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Austin Riley is one of several young stars in the Braves' lineup. He drove in the first run of the night in World Series Game 3. (Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Second baseman Ozzie Albies, a compact switch-hitter who pairs surprising power with superlative defense and baserunning, is still only 24. He’s signed through 2025 with $7 million club options for 2026 and 2027 that would be obvious pickups even if the salaries were doubled, based on his track record.

Riley is even a few months younger than Albies. The strapping third baseman’s approach at the plate clicked in 2021 after some uneven, if promising, early returns. Braves fans have regaled him with MVP chants throughout the playoffs as he’s racked up clutch hits to supplement a 33-homer, 107-RBI campaign. 

Just entering arbitration, Riley wouldn’t become a free agent until 2026 under the current system.

And of course, there’s Acuña. He will return for the start of 2022 with five guaranteed years left on an extremely team-friendly extension he signed in 2019. He will make $15 million in 2022, then $17 million through at least 2026. The deal also includes two club options for $17 million in 2027 and 2028. In technical terms, that’s highway robbery for Acuña’s production.

Elsewhere in the lineup, Dansby Swanson, the shortstop and only member of the infield who did not slug 30 homers in 2021 (slacker only managed 27), is the closest of the youngsters to free agency. The former No. 1 pick could fly the coop in 2023. Game 3 star Travis d’Arnaud — the catcher who found his stroke in Atlanta — is under contract through at least 2023, with an option for 2024.

The big question mark — if you want to call it that — is Freddie Freeman. The 2020 NL MVP and spiritual leader of the lineup is set to become a free agent at the end of this World Series. But as both sides express a desire to keep Freeman with the only team he’s ever known, odds seem good that he will make a triumphant return to his perch at first base.

In the rotation, Anderson won’t be a free agent until 2027. He has good company in lefty Max Fried, who just completed his second straight top-shelf season at age 27. He’s under team control until 2025.

Mike Soroka, who was at one point perhaps the most promising of them all, is attempting to come back from an Achilles injury (and rein jury) that has kept him out almost entirely since 2019, but remains just 24 years old. Like Fried, he won’t reach free agency until 2025. (Relievers are a notoriously volatile bunch, but dynamic lefties Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter are also under team control until 2025, if you were wondering.)

Anthopoulos, meanwhile, has developed a reputation for striking fast in the free agent market. He snagged Charlie Morton out from under the nose of the Tampa Bay Rays last winter. Who knows what reinforcements he could lure to Atlanta with a World Series ring on his finger, but the list of needs may not be lengthy anyway.

The record for postseason starts before age 30, by the way, resides with Andy Pettitte. The southpaw staple of the 90s Yankees’ Core Four took the ball 24 times in his twenties, five more times than Clayton Kershaw did before crossing that threshold. That's all to say a lot has to go right for Anderson, or anyone, to threaten that mark. But when this Braves team puts on a performance like Friday night’s, the possibilities have a way of looking endless.

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