Much to the dismay of the fan base, the Braves didn’t go on an all-out spending spree following their first NL East title since 2013. Instead, they spent the bulk of their cash on a one-year deal for former AL MVP Josh Donaldson and searched the bargain bin to fill out the rest of their squad. Their bullpen, which was abysmal in 2018, was not messed with at all, relying strictly on the returns of pitchers like Darren O’Day and Grant Dayton, as well as the development of young fireballers, A.J. Minter and Chad Sobotka.
As we all know through 43 games of the season, it hasn’t all come together yet for the Braves. The offense, as expected, is phenomenal, but even they have experienced their fair share of lumps early on in the season. The starting rotation, which is featuring a host of young arms, has been up and down. But it’s the meddling bullpen that has been the culprit in most of the Braves close losses.
A group that was relying on A.J. Minter and Arodys Vizcaino to be the closer has had to settle for Luke Jackson. That’s because Vizcaino is out for the season and A.J. Minter appears to have lost all his confidence on the bump. Thankfully, Luke Jackson, who wasn’t even a lock to make the Opening Day roster, has emerged as one of the most consistent relievers in all of baseball to this point. Darren O’Day has yet to make it back, and Dayton has only tossed a couple of innings since his return. This is a unit that is not fit to make it to the playoffs let alone win a World Series, and it’s why Vegas has become even more skeptical about the Braves winning the whole damn thing in 2019.
Before the first pitch of the season was thrown, oddsmakers had the Braves at around 14/1 (depending on where you looked) to secure their first World Series trophy since 1995 – tied with the Brewers and Indians. Now those odds have more than doubled up to 30/1 according to sites reviewed on SBD. It’s apparent after watching the Braves hover around the .500 mark for the first quarter of the year; oddsmakers aren’t buying them patching up all their holes during the season
I’m not nearly as pessimistic…
First off, the main goal for any playoff team is winning their division. The Wild Card is a decent consolation prize, but a one-game play-in is often the equivalent of a flip of a coin. While the Braves have shown very little consistency to this point, nobody in a loaded NL East has either. The Phillies sit on top of the division, 2.5 games up on Atlanta (2nd place) for now. That is nothing when there are still 120 games remaining, and the Braves should only strengthen as a team as this lengthy season continues.
If there is one area that is rather easy to fix during the season – it is the bullpen. The Braves have already done a makeshift job of it, and they have not acquired anybody new of note. Luke Jackson is comfortable in the closer’s role. Jacob Webb has given the team a reliable set-up man. Dan Winkler has come up from AAA, and outside of last night, been lights out. Grant Dayton has enjoyed success in his brief work. Even Josh Tomlin has provided some aid since being signed right before the season.
Not to mention, an explosive arm like A.J. Minter could be just an outing away from completely flipping a switch. The Braves also have plenty of money and capital to bring in relief help as the season goes on. Yea, it’s atrocious to watch right now, but as long as they find themselves near the top of the division, they have plenty of time to figure it out.
The other lingering concern for Atlanta has been their rotation. However, it is not for a lack of arms. The Braves have a boatload of young, live weapons ready to make their impact at the major league level. Max Fried and Mike Soroka have turned into the top of the rotation arms, but after that it gets cloudy. Julio Teheran has been decent, but he’s not the ideal candidate to be relied on in the playoffs. The same can be said for Kevin Gausman. Mike Foltynewicz has fallen off a cliff early, but as long as he’s not injured, we could see a surge from him in the second half.
Then you have young arms like Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson – who have all had their opportunity to start this season. None have shown enough to earn a permanent spot in the rotation, but they are all incredibly talented and could find themselves cogs in a Braves World Series run. Atlanta also has the option of finding another top-of-the-line starter in the form of a trade. Madison Bumgarner, anyone? A top three of Bumgarner, Soroka, and Fried in the playoffs sounds mighty swell to me, and it could be even better if Folty finds his groove. But what will have to carry this group throughout the regular season and into the playoffs will be this juggernaut of an offense.
Last night Braves Country caught a glimpse of how this lineup will look at its peak. Austin Riley fills in for Ender Inciarte, and immediately, the Braves have another bat that is good for 30+ home runs in a season. With Riley in the lineup, there is not an easy out 1-8 and game-changing power everywhere. When Brian McCann, a perennial All-Star in his prime that is currently hitting over .300, is the worst bat in the lineup – your team is in pretty decent shape offensively. This bunch hasn’t even come close to hitting their stride, and when they do, I have a feeling Atlanta is going to have no problem stringing a lot of wins together.
Are the Braves a top tier team? They still have a lot of work to do to be put in the same category as the Astros and Dodgers, but the pieces and the opportunities are there for it to happen this year. It’s going to be up to Alex Anthopoulos pulling all the right strings, and potentially a little help from the baseball gods in regards to injuries (cough, cough. Folty), but things are not as dire as they appear after 43 games.