The Braves are in First Place. Can They Stay in the Hunt?By George KurtzAre 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.
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