On the morning of Memorial Day, the Atlanta Braves led the National League East by a half-game. Their winning percentage was .588. They awoke on the Fourth of July with a winning percentage of .583. Their lead over the second-place Phillies was 2-1/2 games. In bigger news, the Braves led the Nationals – long the consensus choice to win the division – by seven games.
Washington has lost 16 of 21 and is no longer above .500. The Braves no longer merely occupy first place; they’re now the favorite to take this. On the morning of Memorial Day, Baseball Prospectus assigned the division-leading Braves a 16 percent chance of winning the East. As of 9 a.m. July 4, BP gave them a 47.4 percent chance of finishing first and a 64.9 percent shot of qualifying for postseason.
Over 37 days, the landscape has changed. The Nationals have crashed, and the Braves haven’t gone away. They haven’t even wobbled. On the morning of Memorial Day, they were on pace to win 95 games. As of the Fourth, they were on pace to win 94.
Not everything has gone right. Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson and Tyler Flowers are hitting below .250. Ozzie Albies saw his OBP dip below .300. Of late, Freddie Freeman hasn’t been himself. Mike Soroka and Brandon McCarthy, two of the six rotational pitchers, are on the disabled list. Closer Arodys Vizcaino just exited the DL. So did Ronald Acuna, ascendant rookie.
And yet: The Braves rank second among National League teams in runs, and the ERA of their starters is likewise second-best. What was true on the last national holiday rang truer on the Fourth: This team is where it is on merit.
The disbelief that prevailed in April – can the Braves really be this good? – has dissipated in the face of gathering reality. They’ve played three months. They’ve occupied first place for 57 of the past 63 days. They can pitch. They can hit. They can stand in against any opponent.
The worry now isn’t so much that a team of tender years will melt in the crucible of a pennant drive. (If you’re good enough, you’re good enough.) At issue is whether this rotation can keep turning. McCarthy mightn’t have much left. Julio Teheran is either sublime or substandard; in Wednesday’s loss he was both -- 10 strikeouts in five innings, but also five earned runs. Sean Newcomb, who hasn’t worked as many as 158 innings in a professional season, is on pace to log 183. Anibal Sanchez was plucked from the scrap heap. Soroka is on the 60-day DL.
The state of the starters is critical because Braves relievers have the 11th-best ERA in a 15-team league. This team just lost consecutive home series to last-place Baltimore and Cincinnati, blowing three leads over six games. This isn’t a playoff bullpen.
As high as I am on the 2018 Braves – and I’m higher on the Braves of 2019, 2020 and 2021 – I’m enough of a realist to wonder what happens if this rotation buckles under the strain. I’m surprised Alex Anthopoulos has waited this long to address the bullpen. (There has been in-house movement; the Braves have deployed 24 pitchers over 85 games.) It was notable that the Nats pried closer Kelvin Herrera from Kansas City for three non-prime prospects, not that Herrera has been a savior there.
Last month, Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reported that, per a source: “(The Braves) could use a bullpen guy, a front-of-the-rotation starter and a big bat, but they're not going to have the dollars to fill all those spots. They also don't want to use that much prospect capital to fill that many holes."
The money part might be traced a miscalculation, albeit an understandable one, by a new general manager. Anthopoulos’ trade with the Dodgers to shed Matt Kemp’s salary for this year and next added $23 million to the 2018 payroll. (Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir, we hardly knew ye.) Over the winter, nobody thought the 2018 Braves would be buyers come July. Lo and behold …
Anthopoulos recently told the AJC’s David O’Brien: “Funds are definitely going to be a part of it,” referring to deadline buying. And a club that suffered through three years of a painful reset can’t get carried away by the first blush of success. Anthopoulos would be foolish to deconstruct the farm system that the banned-for-life John Coppolella moved heaven and Earth to build. But there is, as this GM conceded, a tangle.
“That’s where the job gets a little bit complicated,” Anthopoulos said. “We have a really good competitive club right now, and we owe it to the guys in that clubhouse and the fan base … to do what we can to try and win as many games as we can.”
Soon and very soon, Anthopoulos needs to tell Liberty Media: “This is where we are, and this is what we need to get over the line.” The Nats have cratered. Unless the Phillies land Manny Machado, they aren’t as good as the Braves. There’s a division – and maybe more – to be won. And it’s not as if Anthopoulos hasn’t been here before.
There are two MLB franchises with corporate ownership. He has worked for both. In July 2015, he persuaded Rogers Communications to pony up for big-arm David Price, a three-month rental, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, in the fifth season of a then-massive 10-year deal. Toronto won its division for the first time since 2003. The Blue Jays beat Texas in the Jose Bautista bat-flip Division Series. They got over the line.
The Jays shed six minor leaguers, including their Nos. 1 and 4 prospects, to consummate those two deals. (To date, neither Daniel Norris nor Jeff Hoffman have made major-league noise.) The cautionary part of this tale: Toronto again made the playoffs in 2016 – due to internecine strife, Anthopoulos resigned after the 2015 season – but finished below .500 last year and are 17 games out of first place now, and Tulowitzki, who’s under contract through 2021, hasn’t played since July 28.
In 2015, the Jays were viewed as having a mid-table farm system; the Braves’ is top-shelf. The Braves have more to offer, which isn’t to say they should offer more. They can help themselves without doing a Teixeira deal. The obvious hole in this lineup has been filled by Johan Camargo. The need is for arms of immediate impact. Cole Hamels would be a pricey rental, Francisco Liriano less costly. Relievers come cheaper, and nobody will expect three top 10 prospects in return.
Given the talent on hand, an arm or two might be all that’s required. If Liberty Media isn’t willing to assume that cost, it has no business owning a baseball team. The Braves are doing their part. Time now for those not in uniform to do theirs.