Welcome to the final week of baseball’s regular season, which should correct your first question, “No. The season did not end two months ago.”
The Braves and Washington Nationals are a mess. Two franchises that not long ago were mortal enemies at the top of the National League East Division are now major league punching bags.
The Braves own the second-worst record in baseball, and at 62-94. So with six games left, they are mathematically alive for a 100-loss season (although it's an unlikely promotion on this homestand). The Nationals, an overwhelming choice to win the East before the season, are 80-76 and nine games behind the New York Mets. They also punctuated their next-to-last home game of the season Sunday with a fight … between teammates … in the dugout … during a game … caught by television cameras. NATITUDE!
If you could wave a magic wand -- and sorry but this exercise wasn't made available before Frank Wren went shopping-- and were given a wish of one team to be yours for the immediate future, which would it be? Some would say the Braves. They have a lower payroll, which theoretically means more flexibility and therefore the potential to acquire more talent in free agency and trades. Others would say the Nationals because they have more major league talent on the roster. The others include me.
An abbreviated breakdown:
• MANAGERS: It would be stunning if Washington kept Matt Williams. Granted, they have had injuries and clubhouse issues, but the team was an overwhelming choice to win the division and has woefully underachieved. That's on Williams. The Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez obviously didn’t have much to work with this season and the trade of closer Craig Kimbrel on the eve of the season was like lighting a fuse that stretched from John Hart's office to the bullpen. The team overachieved when it was 42-42, but it completely unraveled thereafter (going 20-52 since). They have gone from a sometimes-entertaining, high-energy, minimal-talent team to an unwatchable product. Despite the cast he has been forced to play, some of the failures have to fall on Gonzalez. So let’s call this a push.
• EVERY DAY LINEUPS: Bryce Harper isn’t the most popular guy in Atlanta but by all accounts he has matured. (Recommended reading on this subject by the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore on the Harper-Jonathan Papelbon dust-up is linked here) Harper is a 22-year-old superstar. He's at least in the best-player-in-baseball argument and the Braves have nobody at that level – not Freddie Freeman, certainly not anybody else. They have a great defensive shortstop who can hit sometimes (Andrelton Simmons, .261), an unknown 30-year-old commodity in Hector Olivera (center to the most questionable of the Hart/John Coppolella deals) and a solid corner outfielder (Nick Markakis) who can't hit home runs, which is somewhat amusing because the most common criticism of the traded Jason Heyward was he didn't hit enough home runs. And they also have -- well, what exactly? Some guys with "potential" and "catcher-of-the-future" Christian Bethancourt, who has a significantly shrinking fan base. The Nationals -- who had a $162 million payroll on opening day compared to the Braves’ $97 million – will retain outfielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (both of whom have struggled with injuries most of the season). Other starters have been hurt and/or underachieved. They likely will lose center fielder Denard Span and shortstop Ian Desmond in free agency. But with Harper and a healthy Werth and Zimmerman, I'll take the Nats.
• STARTING PITCHING: Washington has Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister. Zimmerman and Fister will be free agents. But if you're starting point is Scherzer, Gonzalez and Strasburg (assuming good health), I'll take that over Shelby Miller (who, yes, has pitched in bad luck but is better as a No. 2 or 3) Julio Teheran (who's stock has fallen) and the raw talents/relatively unknown potential of Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz and other prospects. If you chose to side with cost and potential upside, I understand leaning toward the Braves here. But all I know is the Braves, who have used 37 pitchers this season, have a staff ERA of 4.57 and that's not all because of the bullpen: starters 40-66, 4.48 ERA.
• BULLPENS: Let's not even go there.
• BOTTOM LINE: Both clubs have problems. But the Nationals can fix a lot with a manager who can take charge of the clubhouse and a few leaders on the roster. They have more proven major-league talent than the Braves. They're the team I'd take going into the offseason right now.