Run differential was, and presumably remains, Frank Wren’s favorite stat. Ten days in, Wren’s former team – which bears scant resemblance to the one he left behind in September 2014 – leads the majors in run differential. Even as we pause to inject the boilerplate “small sample size,” we also note: These Braves figured to be better in midseason than at its onset.
That they awoke Monday at 6-3 suggests – but does not prove, we stipulate – that midseason could find the Braves in a position they haven’t held since the pre-rebuild days of Wren. They could exit the All-Star break with something at stake besides draft position. They could be deadline buyers, as opposed to manic sellers. They could, ahem, be a contender.
Apologies for the liberal deployment – four times in four sentences – of the wiggle word “could.” The flip side is that they could revert to stinking. The guess is that they won’t. We say again: These are no longer the lose-on-purpose Braves of John Coppolella/John Hart; they wouldn’t have been if that tandem still held office. There was no timetable as to when rebuilding would yield to rebuilt, but the obvious moment was when the first full wave of prospects found its feet in the majors. Well, looky here.
Dansby Swanson, demoted to Gwinnett last July, is fifth among big-leaguers in hitting. Ozzie Albies has three home runs and looks utterly big-time. Sean Newcomb has struck out 15 against four walks in 10 1/3 innings and just worked six shutout innings at Coors Field. Mike Foltynewicz has – stop me if you’ve heard this already – struck out 15 against three walks in 10 1/3 innings and just beat Max Scherzer. And baseball’s No. 1 prospect will be here soon. He’d be here already if it weren’t for MLB’s silly service-time clock.
One of the reasons the Braves could stash Ronald Acuna in Triple-A for a month, give or take, was that nothing that happened in March/April figured to mean very much. This team wasn’t projected to break .500. The over/under was set at 74.5 wins, only 2.5 up from last season’s finish. (That piddling upgrade was why many professional observers saw the “over” as a no-brainer.) But these first 10 days have been an eye-opener. In chronological order, the Braves have won a series against Philadelphia, regarded as an up-and-comer; Washington, viewed by some as a World Series team, and Colorado, a 2017 playoff qualifier.
Again, small sample size. (Every paragraph in this missive could begin thusly.) That said: After nine games, the Braves led the majors in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. That was without Acuna; without much from the excellent catching combo of Tyler Flowers, hurt in the opener, and Kurt Suzuki, plunked the next night; and with Ryan Flaherty, signed three days before the opener, becoming the full-time third baseman.
I’m reasonably sure Flaherty won’t hit .414 over a full season. I’m positive Preston Tucker, another plucked-from-the-scrap-heap acquisition, won’t finish with a Baseball-Reference WAR of 7.2. (He’s on pace for that; Giancarlo Stanton, the 2017 National League MVP, had a 7.6.) Even if these guys do little else, they’ve helped bridge the gap to Acuna, who one day will post a 7.2 WAR.
A year ago, the Braves started 3-6, saw their rent-a-codger rotation flop and lost Freddie Freeman for 6 1/2 weeks – and were 45-45 on July 16. That team didn’t have the retro rockets that Acuna and Mike Soroka/Kolby Allard/Kyle Wright could become. By the end of this season, we’ll see what all the fuss about this No. 1 farm system has been about. Come August, this should be one of the better-looking teams in the business.
Are there concerns? Sure. Julio Teheran’s first two turns were awful. (He was scheduled to start against Scherzer in Washington on Monday night.) It wasn’t just the 10.13 ERA and the five strikeouts against six walks; it was that the average speed of his four-seamer, per FanGraphs data, has slipped to 89.7 mph, which is at best No. 5 starter stuff. Yes, velocities can skew low in colder weather, but still: He’s supposed to the No. 1 here.
Helping offset Teheran’s wobbles: Brandon McCarthy, landed in the offloading of Matt Kemp, has been pretty good. It’s impossible to know if that’s sustainable – McCarthy hasn’t worked more than 93 innings since 2014 – but it’s a bright start. Also: Anibal Sanchez, yet another bargain-basement buy, looks as if he could fill out this rotation until Soroka/Allard/Wright arrive.
A word about Alex Anthopoulos, who arrived as general manager in the wake of the tumult that saw Hart jettisoned and Coppolella banned for life. The new man could have sought to Put His Stamp on this organization. (There’s no shortage of ego among execs.) He has been content to let the inherited talent grow while doing no more than tinkering with the big-league roster. This would be the baseball equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. It also made great good sense.
Anthopoulos alit atop a gold mine. There’s a possibility the rebuilt Braves won’t win a World Series. (As we know, the imperial Braves who took 14 consecutive division titles only won one.) There’s little chance this team won’t be pretty darn good someday soon. It’s far too early to be planning any Chuck Tanner parades down Peachtree, but a season that held the promise of bigger and better has, 10 days in, grown more intriguing.