There seems to be two storylines the baseball world cares about pertaining to the National League East: The Philadelphia Phillies offense, financially led by Bryce Harper, and the Washington Nationals sending themselves to the pit of misery. No one cares a smidgen about the Atlanta Braves.
To be fair, the Phillies, Nationals, and New York Mets had exuberant offseasons. The Phillies added Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson; the Nationals acquired Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, and Kurt Suzuki; the Mets added Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos, Edwin Diaz, Jed Lowrie, and Jeurys Familia. All the Braves did was attain Josh Donaldson, albeit to a hefty one-year, $23 million deal, and reunite with veteran catcher Brian McCann.
There was a case for all four teams to win the NL East, but the Braves were essentially disregarded. Why did this happen?
To refresh your memory, this is a team that went from 72 to 90 wins in 2018, won the NL East, and exhibited one of the most promising young cores in Major League Baseball; it was only a matter of time before their youth movement came into focus.
Led by NL Rookie of the Year Award recipient Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, the Braves showcased their potential at the plate. Having the likes of Freddie Freeman, one of the premier first basemen in baseball, Nick Markakis, who hit .297 and drove in 93 runs, and Ender Inciarte only catapulted their offense. Guess what? They’re all still playing home games in SunTrust Park.Right in the thick of the National League East race, it seems like nobody is talking about the Atlanta @Braves, despite a solid club. @RPStratakos explains.Click To Tweet
Going into their Friday night matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves were ninth in MLB in runs (252) and OPS (.774), third in hits (453) and batting average (.259), fifth in total bases (768), and eighth in on-base percentage (.335). Freeman is hitting .320; Acuna has driven in 31 runs; Markakis has driven in 27 runs; Donaldson has driven in 21 runs; Albies has been underwhelming, but shown a continued ability to hit for contact; McCann has been an efficient bat in manager Brian Snitker‘s lineup, driving in 17 runs in 83 at-bats; Dansby Swanson has showcased more plate discipline and driven in 35 runs.
You could argue this lineup, considering its balance of budding youth and high-caliber veterans, will be more productive as the season goes on. The same goes for their starting rotation.
Even with their ace, Mike Foltynewicz, missing the first month of the season, the Braves have received competent and impressive outings from their starters. Julio Teheran has been his relying on contact and efficient self, owning a 3.67 ERA, and in the four starts he has made in May, the right-hander has surrendered a combined two runs; Max Fried has wowed with his nasty breaking ball and owns an impressive 2.88 ERA, as he continues to adjust to being a full-time starter; Mike Soroka has been astonishing, surrendering no more than one earned run in each of his seven starts and is beginning to pitch deep into games.
Kevin Gausman has been prone to contact, and Foltynewicz has struggled mightily since his return from an elbow injury, but the two right-handers are proven commodities, and the latter should return to form as he begins to get into a rhythm. Meanwhile, Snitker made the bold decision to place Sean Newcomb, who was once a rotation fixture, into the team’s bullpen — which is the Braves’ Achilles heel.
Sure, Jacob Webb and Dan Winkler have been reliable forces in the late innings, but the Braves bullpen went into Friday night 20th in ERA (4.39), 22nd in opponent batting average (.251), and second in walks surrendered (98). They don’t have a lockdown closer and are struggling to get pivotal outs. At the same time, granted it’s vital in baseball right now, a bullpen is the easiest aspect of a roster to improve. If general manager Alex Anthopoulos upgrades their pen before the MLB trade deadline, the Braves will be an official threat to win the NL pennant.
Now, the Braves are a respectable, but not remarkable 29-23, which has them a game and a half behind the Phillies for first place in the NL East. However, they’ve won 11 of their last 14 contests, and every one of their division rivals are flawed. The Phillies starting rotation has been shaky, and their bullpen is a guessing game; the Nationals are 20-31 and anemic in every aspect of the game; the Mets (24-26) have been wildly inconsistent, and their bullpen is alarming; the Miami Marlins don’t pose a threat.
Atlanta has the bats to hang with any team in a five- or seven-game series, and their starting pitching will only improve as the season goes on. They’re the only team in their division whose young core has been to the playoffs. They know what it takes to get to such play, and with some bullpen fine-tuning, the Braves will be the frontrunner to win the NL East for a second consecutive season.
Exciting offseasons often distract us from the steady teams that already exist. The Phillies, Nationals, and Mets made, what appeared to be, productive and roster-altering transactions, but only the Phillies (30-21) are seeing positive results. There was a legitimate case to be made for the Braves missing the playoffs this season because of how competitive the NL East projected to be, but it was irresponsible to write them off.
It has been a long time since a team won its division with a roster that possessed upside and was totally cast aside the ensuing season like the Braves have been.