|Posted by theprincipality on July 26, 2019 at 1:45 AM|
It hardly seems any time at all since I last wrote and said the Atlanta Braves needed to improve significantly if they were to challenge for a second straight NL East title. On May 13th I wrote that 21-20 (becoming 83-79 over a full season) would not be enough for a division win in a competitive NL East, nor enough for a wild card spot in a stacked National League. Yet so much has changed since I wrote that blog. Dallas Keuchel has come on board as the big-name ace, Mike Foltynewicz has been sent down to Triple-A, Austin Riley has emerged as a major home run threat and the Braves went on a tear to find themselves 60-43, a full 17 games over .500 and holding a four-game lead in the NL East. That was the kind of improvement I had in mind!
All of a sudden the Braves are the media darlings. Mike Soroka and Ronald Acuna became the first teammates aged 21 or under to go to the All-Star game. Acuna performed admirably in the Home Run Derby, whilst Soroka pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the game itself. Freddie Freeman was also in attendance, elected to start at first base for the second straight season, whilst simultaneously quietly putting together another MVP calibre season. The talk in the media has gone from how the Braves might fare down the stretch in challenging for the division, to how far the Braves will go in October.
As a fan, the national attention is both flattering and a little scary. The Braves have blown big division leads down the stretch in recent years and over the last week or so have gone 2-6. However, the four-game lead is, for now, a comfortable cushion a-top the standings and well worth a Wild Card spot if everything were to go pear-shaped. I don’t believe however that Atlanta’s struggles of the past week will continue for too long. The team is just too good. The permanent threat of Acuna, the experience of Freeman, Markakis, McCann and Donaldson means this team will continue to win more games than it loses.
The big looming question is what, if any, action will the Braves take as the July 31st trade deadline approaches? It is pretty much assumed that the Braves will be active buyers. Whilst the lineup is formidable, pitching remains highly suspect. Braves beat-writer Mark Bowman believes both a frontline starter and a reliable reliever will be on the team’s shopping list, but with each passing game the higher priority seems to switch. For what it is worth, I think the bullpen is the biggest priority and that the rotation is adequate. Keuchel was signed because he is a proven postseason ace. Soroka has been magnificent all year and would justify an October starting role. Julio Teheran has been excellent this season, despite a 5-7 record, so just one more starter would be enough. However, that additional starter is the luxury you add if your intention is to win it all. Far more pressing is, as would likely be the case, in a close game who do you turn the ball over to in order to get the last three outs? Any Braves fan that has Luke Jackson in their answer is clearly deluded!
Jackson has been a reasonable asset this year, but a closer he is not. Currently he has 17 saves from 24 opportunities. That is a terrible conversion rate for a first-place team. If it is Game 7 of the NLCS and the Braves hold a one run lead going into the bottom of the ninth, surely nobody is saying “Here comes Jackson, we’re going to the World Series!”. The other internal options for closer are rather limited as well. A.J. Minter would be the first cab off the rank, but struggled in the early part of the season and spent some time back in Gwinnet. Anthony Swarzak has pitched well since he joined the team, but there are lingering doubts about the durability of his shoulder. Jacob Webb has also helped plug a leaky bullpen, but has also had injury concerns and is untested in the high-pressure role of closer.
The bottom line is Atlanta needs to make a big trade and pick up a big name reliever. A few names have been mentioned: Will Smith of the Giants, Ian Kennedy of the Royals, Wade Davis of the Rockies and even Edwin Diaz of the Mets, but none really stand out from the pack as proven postseason heroes. The Braves front office have been very quiet and keeping their cards close to their chests, not yet having publicly stated their intentions, with less than a week to go. A part of me is expecting Alex Anthopoulos to turn round out of the blue and pull off a surprise trade involving the likes of a Craig Kimbrel (although not Kimbrel, as the Braves were unsuccessful in their bid to secure his services the same time they signed Keuchel). However, Alex is a very intelligent, patient and conservative GM and if there is truly nobody on the market at the right price, then one can expect him to continue with the assets he has already. I doubt this will be the case though. The rest of the league know Atlanta are buyers and have the stocks of Major League-ready talent to spend.
So now to prematurely look ahead to the playoffs. Given the huge lead the Dodgers enjoy in the West and the comfortable position the Braves find themselves in behind them, it is safe to assume that they would avoid Los Angeles in the first round and wind up playing the winners of the NL Central. That division remains tightly contested between the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals, so any one of them could prove to be the opponent. The season series’ stand at 5-2, 3-3 and 4-2, respectively, so the Braves would go confidently into the NLDS knowing they can compete with every team they might face.
That said, Atlanta has not won a playoff series since sweeping the Astros in the 2001 NLDS. Every postseason appearance since that point has had Atlanta as underdogs. 2002 vs Barry Bonds and the World Series-losing Giants. 2003 vs the if-only-Steve-Bartman-hadn’t Chicago Cubs. 2004 saw us lose to the Astros and a red-hot Carlos Beltran. 2005 saw a repeat, with the Astros going onto the World Series. 2010 was a loss to the eventual World Champion Giants. In 2012 we lost in the crap-chute of the Wild-Card playoff game with St Louis, then in 2013 and 2018 we were beaten by superior Dodgers teams. Every year the same story. However this year feels different. Sort the pitching and watch us roll. I talked about Luke Jackson in a game-on-the-line situation, but I doubt any opponent of the Braves would be making travel plans in the same situation when faced with Acuna, Swanson, Freeman, Donaldson, Markakis, Riley, Albies and McCann. We are on the cusp of something big and nobody should rule out Atlanta raising that famous trophy in late October. Watch this space!