Last season the Atlanta Braves surprised many going 90-72 and winning the National League East. Are they well-assembled to repeat as division champions in 2019? Yes, but they would be wise to deepen their pitching staff before spring training.
The Braves have a reliable starting rotation with upside. Last season, Mike Foltynewicz (age 27) recorded a 2.85 ERA and 1.08 WHIP while totaling 202 strikeouts in 31 starts. He was the Braves ace and someone manager Brian Snitker could rely on to pitch deep into games every fifth day. Left-hander Sean Newcomb (25) recorded a 3.90 ERA and showcased composure in the 4.2 innings he pitched in the postseason. Given that 2018 was his first complete season at the MLB level, there’s reason for the Braves to be optimistic about the southpaw’s future.
Meanwhile, veteran right-hander Julio Teheran is still in place and is, in a way, the father figure of the Braves starting rotation. He has been in Atlanta for the duration of his eight-year career and had a bounce back 2018 campaign, recording a 3.94 ERA (Teheran recorded a 4.49 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 2017). After coming over in a midseason trade with the Baltimore Orioles, right-hander Kevin Gausman recorded an impressive 2.87 ERA in 10 starts with the Braves. At the same time, he pitched with inconsistency before moving to SunTrust Park, and the Braves will need him to pitch more like the pitcher they saw in the second half of 2018. The Braves also lost right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who recorded a 2.83 ERA in 24 starts in 2018, to the Washington Nationals in free agency.
In what has been a slow Major League Baseball free agency period, several starting pitchers remain on the open market. Some starters who could be season-long fixtures for the Braves on short-term deals include Gio Gonzalez, Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, and Wade Miley. Adding one or two of those veterans would give their starting rotation more reliability and flexibility — especially if general manager Alex Anthopoulos upgrades their bullpen.
Last season the Braves pen struggled to serve as a lockdown bunch. Finishing 2018 17th in MLB in ERA (4.15), fourth in walks surrendered (373), 18th in strikeouts (556), and just 21st in innings pitched (557.0), they didn’t pick up the slack for their starting rotation — which was fourth in MLB in ERA (3.50).
Now, there are some young and intriguing young relievers in the Braves pen such as Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Shane Carle, Jesse Biddle, and Dan Winkler. At the same time, they put runners on base often and were, overall, an inconsistent group — which is alarming for a bullpen. Signing a proven closer and/or backend relievers would pay dividends for the Braves. Targeting relievers such as Tony Sipp, Xavier Cedeno, and Adam Warren makes sense, or perhaps the Braves could pursue a reunion with closer Craig Kimbrel; that would be the definition of an improvement.
If the Braves shore up their pitching staff, they have all the tools to contend in the NL, headlined by their offensive firepower. With Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Nick Markakis, free agent signee Josh Donaldson, Ender Inciarte, Johan Camargo, and Adam Duvall on the depth chart, Snitker has multiple high-profile individuals and proven bats to spread around his lineup.
The NL East is going to be extremely competitive this season. You could make the case that there are four teams in the division who could be crowned NL East champions at year’s end — making it pivotal that the Braves take care of business within the division.
While Bryce Harper still hasn’t made a decision on where he’ll play in 2019 and right-hander Tanner Roark was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, the Nationals have been one of the most active teams in MLB this offseason. They’ve signed 2018 All-Star left-hander Patrick Corbin, second baseman Brian Dozier, first baseman Matt Adams, right-hander Trevor Rosenthal, catcher Kurt Suzuki (who spent the last two seasons with the Braves), and Sanchez, while swinging trades for reliever Kyle Barraclough and All-Star catcher Yan Gomes. A lineup that features the likes of Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, and Dozier, among others, along with a starting rotation headlined by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Corbin, gives the Nationals the chance to win any game they play.
Like the Nationals, the New York Mets have been aggressive when it comes to improving their ballclub. They acquired perennial All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano and blossoming closer Edwin Diaz from the Seattle Mariners while agreeing to deals with catcher Wilson Ramos, reliever Jeurys Familia, infielder Jed Lowrie, and reliever Justin Wilson. Their starting rotation features Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz, and with an improved lineup, the Mets should be able to finally back their pitching staff with run support; the Mets have the talent and depth to make a significant jump in the division.
The Philadelphia Phillies haven’t made a blockbuster transaction, but they’ve added some proven and impactful players to their roster this offseason. Agreeing to deals with veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson while acquiring All-Star shortstop Jean Segura from the Mariners, they’ve filled voids on their roster. With a starting rotation headlined by Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, as well as a lineup that features the likes of Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, Maikel Franco, Segura, and McCutchen, the Phillies have a roster capable of competing for a Wild Card seeding — even if they don’t sign Harper or Manny Machado.
The Braves core can only improve in the coming years, making them legitimate NL Pennant threats for the foreseeable future. With that said, they’re not a flawless ballclub, and considering the starting pitching within their division, it’s imperative that the Braves fortify their pitching staff. Without reinforcements in that aspect of their roster, they will have difficulty escaping the NL.