It’s still early. Not quite a week ago, the Braves were 1-6. This is baseball, where momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. Which brings us to today’s topic.
The Braves’ starting rotation has the second-best ERA among National League teams, trailing only the Cubs. Every game at SunTrust Park – three as of this writing – has yielded a quality start from the home hurler. OK, so all three were against San Diego, which ranks last in baseball in hitting. Still, the Padres were 5-5 when they arrived, 5-8 as of Monday morning.
The Braves, meanwhile, reported for work unbeaten at STP and winners of four in a row. Being 5-6 wouldn’t ordinarily be cause for celebration, but last year’s team didn’t register its fifth victory until it had absorbed 17 losses, at which point the season was gone and Fredi Gonzalez was going.
It’s too soon to attach great significance to anything. That said, what we’ve seen these past four games was what the Braves’ architects had in mind for their 2017 big-league product. R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon worked quality starts Saturday and Sunday. They were acquired to lend stability to a rotation that had none last season. (The Braves deployed 16 starting pitchers, only Julio Teheran to much effect.)
“The idea was to get guys who could cover innings,” manager Brian Snitker said Monday. Colon, who’s 43, has worked more than 150 innings 14 times; Dickey, who’s 42, has done it seven times. Jaime Garcia, who’s 30 and was scheduled to start Monday night, had worked 120 innings five times in nine big-league seasons. The Braves were under no illusions that they’d landed Glavine/Maddux/Smoltz, but they believed these three could get the Braves through six without putting the team in a five-run hole.
If that could happen, the Braves believed they might – key word, “might” – win enough to have a wild-card shout come the All-Star break. They finished last season with a warm feeling for their bullpen, and these were the relief numbers over this four-game streak: 12 innings, no earned runs, four hits, two walks and 14 strikeouts. (We say again: The Padres are good for what ails you.)
Snitker: “A lot of young (relievers) took big steps last year. They still don’t have extensive baseball-card statistics, but they’ve been good.”
That leaves the offense, which was baseball’s worst for much of last season until it became one of the best over the final two months. There’s always reason to distrust a late-season surge from a team that didn’t play a single meaningful game and, as if on cue, the Braves opened the new season not hitting a lick. They were last in the majors in runs a week ago, and it’s not as if they’ve thrown up 10-spots since. (They entered Monday’s game 25th in scoring.)
But they are hitting (eighth in batting average) and getting on base (11th in on-base percentage), and they’ve hit 13 home runs in 11 games. They had five in 23 last April. By himself, Ender Inciarte had four in the past five games.
Snitker: “We think we have the makings of a good offense. I think what happened at the end of last season was real.”
The July trade for Matt Kemp and the August promotion of Dansby Swanson lent a balance to the lineup that wasn’t available to Snitker’s predecessor. The top of the order – Inciarte, Swanson, Freddie Freeman and Kemp – was lefty/righty/lefty/righty. “We could mix and match,” Snitker said. “That enlivened our offense.”
The only Brave who hit much in the season’s first week was Kemp, who tweaked his hamstring and is about to come off the disabled list. Swanson hasn’t gotten going. Freeman is hitting .346, but his three RBIs have come when he drove in himself. The consensus outside the organization is this remains an offense with only one hitter (Freeman) who scares anybody. That could well be true.
Here, though, we note that the Braves’ major offseason moves involved signing Colon and Dickey and trading for Garcia. The lineup is, with the exception of platoon catcher Kurt Suzuki, the one that ended last season. The bullpen has changed only in the re-rehiring of Eric O’Flaherty. The result is a team the Braves hope will be competitive, but it’s also a team constructed without sacrificing a single major prospect, unless you count Mallex Smith.
Asked Monday what he thought of his creation, general manager John Coppolella said: “Nothing is better than a winning streak, but we have been in just about every game. This team is going to compete every night. They have that talent and that makeup.”
They also have modest expectations. Almost anything would be an improvement over 2016, and it’s not as if the Braves shredded their farm system to assemble this 25-man roster. The really good stuff remains a ways away. If the Braves are merely presentable in the interim, that’ll do.