Repeating as NL East Champions will be a Challenge for the Atlanta Braves

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The Atlanta Braves shocked the baseball world by winning the National League East this season. With that said, while their 90-win season and playoff appearance was impressive, the road to a second consecutive division crown will be a challenge for the Braves.

Last week, the Braves were eliminated from the playoffs via a Game 4 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series. At the end the day, the Dodgers were the better team in terms of both talent and postseason experience. But it’s not to take away from the talent the Braves possess.

Whether it be Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, or Ender Inciarte, manager Brian Snitker has one of the more blossoming lineups in Major League Baseball. This season, they were 10th in MLB in runs (759), fourth in hits (1433), and fifth in batting average (.257).

Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb established themselves as reliable top-of-the-rotation forces, Julio Teheran held his own, and Anibal Sanchez was a pleasant surprise. The Braves’ Achilles heel was their bullpen. Their pen was 17th in ERA (4.15), 25th in walks surrendered (273), and 18th in strikeouts (556). They were simply unable to consistently get the big out on a consistent basis when need be.

So, 2019 should be more of the same for the Braves, right? A division crown, an improving core, and a second consecutive October playing at SunTrust Park, right?

The Braves have some significant figures hitting the open market after this season, most notably Markakis and Sanchez. Hitting .297 to go along with 14 home runs and 93 RBIs (which is the most runs Markakis has driven in since he recorded 101 RBIs in 2009), the right fielder was one of the most reliable sources of offense in the Braves order. In fact, in mid-August, he was hitting an astonishing .327; he recorded just 80 strikeouts — his fewest since 2013 (76). Markakis is also a great fielder and has kept the corner outfield position on lockdown in his four years with the Braves. He will surely cash in on a contract worth more than $11 million a year this offseason (which was his annual salary with the Braves). Will the Braves go to the end of the earth to ensure keeping Markakis?

Yes, Foltynewicz and Newcomb headline the Braves rotation going forward, but Sanchez was a vital piece to their rotation’s success in 2018. Recording a 2.83 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 25 appearances, 24 of which were starts, Sanchez was a model of consistency and reliability. He never surrendered over four earned runs in a start and was the veteran arm in a rotation that, outside of Teheran, was young. There will likely be teams lining up to sign Sanchez and offer him some nice coin. Will the Braves go to extremes to retain him, or opt to bolster their bullpen instead?

The growth of the Braves youth can potentially offset the potential losses of Markakis and Sanchez. But the Braves aren’t the only team in the NL East with some intriguing youth.

The Washington Nationals were expected to win the NL East for the fifth time in the last seven seasons in 2018, but ultimately could never get anything positive going on a consistent basis. At the same time, a turnaround to compete for the playoffs is not far-fetched in the nation’s capital. With Anthony Rendon, Ryan ZimmermanTrea TurnerJuan Soto, and Victor Robles in place, the Nationals have the bats necessary to become one of the game’s most potent offenses yet again. Meanwhile, they have one of the best starters in the sport in Max Scherzer and a dominant righty, when healthy, in Stephen Strasburg. While Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy may have played their last games in Nationals uniforms, management has the flexibility to fill the holes that exist on their roster to come back strong in 2019.

Throughout the first four months of the regular season, the Philadelphia Phillies were going back and forth with the Braves for the division lead. Although they fell apart in the final two months of the season, a young core and a roster with upside is in place. Their offensive production, as a whole, was one of the worst in the sport, but with Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, and Rhys Hoskins, among others, in place, the Phillies have some intriguing position players; they also have one of the best one-two pitching punches in the game in Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta. Plus, the Phillies have one of the lowest payrolls in the sport and appear poised to make a run at Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado in free agency this offseason.

The New York Mets have continually been unable to stay healthy and pose a respectable force at the plate. But there are some positives to take from this season, their starting pitching in particular. Jacob deGrom will likely win the National League Cy Young Award based on his historic 2018 success, Noah Syndergaard was potent in the 25 starts he made, Zack Wheeler came into his own in the final two months of the season, and Steven Matz, for the most part, pitched well. And while their bats have been silent for the better part of the last three years, the Mets do have a young core in place around the diamond with Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, and Jeff McNeil. If management can add some depth to their everyday order, the Mets could potentially compete for a Wild Card seeding.

A core that features the likes of Freeman, Acuna, Albies, and Camargo with a rotation headlined by Foltynewicz and Newcomb forms a team that could be a National League powerhouse in the coming years. But this season wasn’t the time for such an emergence.

While there were certainly some proven veterans players in place, the featured part of the Braves was their youth, and it showed in the NLDS. Going scoreless in Games 1 and 2 in Dodger Stadium, the Braves looked like a lineup that wasn’t ready for the postseason. Sure, they were able to win Game 3, but going scoreless in back-to-back games will lead to an early postseason exit 10 times out of 10.

Five years ago, the Braves won their division, lost to the Dodgers in the NLDS, and missed the playoffs the ensuing four seasons. Now, the difference between 2013 and today is that five years ago the Braves were mostly a team of veterans in their prime, or on the back nine of their careers. Today, they’re a team with an improving young core that was founded after their playoff deprived 2014 season. This season was a great start to what could be an extremely bright future for the Braves, but nothing is a given.

Winning the division is not going to be a walk in the park for the Braves next season. Some would argue they were a beneficiary of the Nationals becoming an enigma, the Phillies falling apart, the Mets crawling into a cocoon, and the division, as a whole, being one of the worst in the sport in 2018. There will be the pressure of proving that last season wasn’t a fluke and that they can improve with age.

The Braves should be the frontrunners to win the NL East in 2019. But being expected to win the division and actually winning the division are two different animals.

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