The Braves are in First Place. Can They Stay in the Hunt?
By George Kurtz
Are the 2018 Atlanta Braves for real? Going into the games Monday the Braves were in first place in the National League East. It was never expected that Atlanta would be a doormat this season, but competing for a wildcard spot seemed to be the best they could hope for and even that seemed out of reach just two months ago. The NL East was expected to belong to the Washington Nationals and it still may very well be. The Nats are only four games behind Atlanta and still have stars like Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg. More importantly, Washington will spend money at the trade deadline for a player that might become available to improve their team regardless of the expense. This could be Harper’s last dance with the team, after all. Will the Braves do the same?
Why do I believe that Atlanta themselves is surprised to be in the position they are in? During the offseason they made several trades to take on salary for this season. The Braves are paying Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir not to play for them and are very well aware that Brandon McCarthy is overpaid. Why did they make these deals? Because it rid themselves of salary in future seasons. They were able to get rid of all the bad contracts in one year, 2018. A team expecting to compete in 2018 wouldn’t have done that. It’s also the reason that I’m skeptical about whether or not the Braves will add talent and salary to their payroll at the trade deadline. Atlanta is not a small market team, but not the Yankees, Dodgers, or Red Sox either. There is a budget that ownership will not want them to go over, so the questions will remain about whether ownership would be willing to stretch that budget.
As for the team on the field. It’s good, and it’s only going to get better. The Braves have several young stars that are starting to blossom in Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies and a minor league system loaded with talent. Why are the Braves ahead of schedule? You can start with Albies. He was only on the Fantasy radar as a possible MI in March, but is now a Top five second baseman. Sure, Fantasy is different from the actual game, but you need players to outperform expectations to make that leap from pretender to contender. Albies has already hit 13 HRs this season. He has never hit more than nine at any one stop in professional baseball, so regression is probably coming, but we have seen this many times in the past. Sometimes, power is the last skill to develop for a hitter. He’s unlikely to hit 30-plus HRS, but 20-plus is not out of the question.
Acuna was/is expected to be a superstar. Maybe not quite on the level of Mike Trout or Harper, but not that far behind either. His power is legitimate as the ball jumps off of his bat. He is here to stay and with Freddie Freeman hitting behind him, Acuna forces pitchers to make a decision of who they would rather face. That decision that may have no right answer in many situations. With Acuna being right-handed and Freeman batting from the left side, it also forces opposing managers into difficult late inning situations about which relievers they should bring in.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) May 20, 2018
The Braves offense has been so good that they have moved Ender Inciarte down in the lineup because of the progress of Albies and Acuna. Inciarte is not a power guy but rather made for the top of the lineup with his ability to get on base and then swipe a bag or two. He is misplaced, but the Braves have hard decisions to make. The team is also getting a resurgent season out of Nick Markakis. He already has seven HRs and is batting .343. We haven’t seen these kinds of numbers since he first came up with Baltimore 10-12 years ago. Markakis may hit more long balls this year than the past three seasons combined.
Today’s baseball is all about power pitching and power hitting. The hitting is above average for Atlanta, but in the long term it’s the Braves’ pitching that will likely separate themselves from the pack, and I’m not talking about the pitching that is currently on the Major League roster. ESPN’s Keith Law had each of Atlanta’s Top 10 prospects in his Top 100 MLB prospects for this year. Out of those Top 10 prospects, eight were pitchers. Whether or not you agree with Law, it tells you what the strength of this organization is. If the Braves have injuries or poor performances, they are covered. Should they need to acquire a bat, they should be able to do so by trading away surplus pitching. The Braves should be a team to watch via the trade market, especially if ownership opens the purse strings just a little bit. The pitching may need another season to mature and several seasons before we truly see the best they have to offer.
So, back to the original question. Will the Braves contend this season? Yes, to a degree. They are a team that is a year ahead of schedule. They probably don’t have as much payroll room as desired and making a big trade may be ultimately challenging. Young players like Acuna and Albies will struggle eventually, because opposing teams make adjustments or just because it’s a long season. They do have great depth in their pitching, but not so much in their offense. Now maybe they stay healthy there, but an injury or two to certain key offensive players could derail this feel-good season in Atlanta. If I was a betting man my money would still be on Washington, but I’m not putting down as much cash as I would’ve before the season started and may take the complete opposite approach next year.