The Atlanta Braves finished with baseball's fifth-worst record in 2016. They were third-worst in 2015. Going by the first iteration of Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA rankings, they were expected to be 10th-worst this time. Owing to the flimsiness of their supposedly bulked-up rotation, which has posted the fifth-worst ERA among rotations, they haven't been quite as good as we (and they) would have hoped. And now they've lost Freddie Freeman for 10 weeks.
And yet ...
They're in second place in the National League East. (Here we note that the NL East is the only division in which they'd be above fourth; they'd be fifth in fourth of the other five.) They have the sixth-worst record in the 15-team National League, the eighth-worst in baseball.
BP's PECOTA now projects the Braves to finish 72-90, five games worse than the original forecast of 77-90. It would also mark a 4 1/2-game upgrade over last season's 68-93, though the Braves were surely hoping for better than that when they spent $32.5 million to buy/rent Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia. (In alphabetical order, the three have been awful, passable and pretty good.)
But here's the thing. Even with an unreliable rotation and slow starts from Dansby Swanson and Adonis Garcia; even with Matt Kemp having done a 10-day stint on the disabled list; even with A. Garcia and Freeman now DL'ed ... the Braves wouldn't have to do a whole lot better to hover near .500 into midsummer.
The East is awful beyond Washington. Of the Braves' next 40 games, 34 will come against opponents currently at or below .500, which would take them to the Fourth of July, which might make that traditional fish-or-cut-bait month problematic for John Coppolella and John Hart. Conventional wisdom has held that the Braves would again use the trade deadline to dump short-timers -- Phillips, Colon, Dickey and J. Garcia -- for more precious prospects. But what if the team is four games back of the second wild card at the All-Star break and Freeman's ready to return?
Yes, we're getting ahead of ourselves. By the time Freeman gets back, these Braves could be closer to landing the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft than to playoff contention. But they did just take two of three from Washington, having faced Gio, Scherzer and Strasburg, and Coppolella did author yet another deft trade in landing Matt Adams as a temp. (The 19-year-old Juan Yepez wasn't ranked among the Braves' top 30 prospects.)
Don't get me wrong. This hasn't been a very good team. It might well get a lot worse really soon. The schedule, however, suggests that the Braves wouldn't have to be anything special to stay afloat. It would be fascinating to see how the front office reacts if they do.