The Braves have clinched the NL East. Man, it feels absolutely fantastic to put that on paper, and for it to actually be true. However, there is still a week left in the regular season, and the Braves still have some things to play for before the postseason begins.
Most importantly, the Braves have an opportunity to lock up home-field advantage for the Divisional round. With six games left on their schedule, the Braves hold a one-game lead over the Dodgers, who lead the NL West. The winner of the NL East will likely play the leader of the NL West, so this is something worth monitoring for Braves fans.
The Dodgers are not even a lock to win their own division yet, but if they find a way in, last year’s National League champions will be a force to be reckoned with. If that is indeed who Atlanta faces, they will surely want a deciding game 5 on their home turf in front of all of Braves Country.
There is also the outside chance that the Cubs collapse in the NL Central. Chicago currently owns a 3.5 game lead over the Braves for the best record in the NL. While unlikely, it is not unfathomable the road to the World Series goes through Atlanta.
The Braves do not want to wear any of these guys out as they enter postseason play. Nonetheless, we might get a peek at how they plan to use the bullpen when it matters. For the entire 162-game campaign, it has been an ongoing struggle figuring out the right combination of arms to use at the end of games. And decisions got even more intriguing, as Arodys Vizcaino is finally back in action.
The former closer has looked fantastic in his return, which should allow A.J Minter to slide into his more comfortable set-up role. That leaves the middle-relief options as the biggest question marks. Brad Brach, Daniel Winkler, Jonny Venters and Jesse Biddle have all been reliable in key situations. They have been forced to pitch in a multitude of different roles with Vizcaino on the DL. Venters and Brach were not even on the team when Vizcaino was healthy, so it will be interesting to see how their roles lineup over the last two series of the season.
The Final Rotation Spot
A couple months ago it appeared Newcomb would be a shoe in for a rotation spot if the Braves were to make the playoffs. Now that the Braves have clinched, that situation is a lot cloudier for a couple of reasons.
Mainly, Newcomb has been miserable in the season’s second half. It began with a July ERA of 5.06 and has only gotten worse since. In five August starts, he went 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA, and there have been no signs of progress in September.
The other deciding factor has been the success of the other pitchers in the rotation. The year Mike Foltynewicz is having has been well-documented. Kevin Gausman has been lights out since the Braves traded for him. Anibal Sanchez might be the best value in all of baseball. Finally, the roller-coaster that is Julio Teheran is on a high as the year ends. It will likely be Newcomb or Teheran for the final rotation spot, and Newcomb has a chance to make an impression in his final start of the year.