The 2020 regular season is winding down, and after wrapping up their series with the Orioles last night, the Braves have just ten games remaining on their schedule. Sixty games sure do fly by, but we’re just now getting to the best portion of the MLB regular season — the final stretch leading up to the playoffs.
However, with most of the National League playoff field already filled (six of the eight available slots currently have 68% or better playoff odds), the pool of potential Round 1 opponents for the Braves is beginning to dwindle.
Currently a no. 3 seed, the Braves would face the Cardinals or Reds in a best-of-three series in the first round if the season ended today. However, there’s barely any separation between the bottom-few contenders in the NL right now, so until the 2020 regular season is over, it’s probably best to remain open-minded. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t try and determine which opposing team we’d rather see the Braves face.
Before we do that, though, here’s a look at five possible opponents for Round 1 of the playoffs, ordered from the best to least potential, in my opinion…
Current seed — #6
The Cards and Reds are currently the worst of the three second-place teams in the NL. And given the Redbirds still trail the Marlins for the fifth seed by three games, I would presume the chances are higher that we wind up seeing a Braves/Cards NLDS rematch this year than any other possible matchup.
Current seed — N/A
At 25-26 overall, the Reds are tied with the Cardinals for second place in the Central, and this is the division that’ll most likely field the NL’s worst second-place team… so that automatically makes Cincinnati a potential opponent (barring a complete meltdown by the Braves). However, the rest of the regular season schedule looks pretty daunting for the Reds. They have a series versus the peaking White Sox, the Brewers, and then the Twins to close out the year. We’ll see if Cincy holds up.
Current seed — #7
The Reds and Cubs have almost identical opponents remaining this season as the Cubbies will also play the Twins and White Sox three more times each. If the Cubs struggle through that stretch, the Braves could take the no. 2 seed back, and if everything remains fairly stable, a first-round matchup with the current seventh-seeded Phillies could be possible. With a 20-14 record against NL East foes and a .511 winning percentage (24-23 record overall), Philadelphia has perhaps the best resumé among third-place NL teams. But they still need some help.
Current seed — #5
The Marlins are just half a game ahead of the Phillies for second place in the East, so if Miami slumps and teams like Philadelphia and the Cards finish hot, the Fish could quickly fall out of the picture. The overachieving Marlins must first complete their current series against the Red Sox, but will then play five with the Nationals, four against the Braves, and three versus the Yankees to conclude the regular season. I don’t see them playing .500 ball during that stretch, so Miami may be lucky just to remain in the hunt by the time the month is over.
Current seed — N/A
At 23-26, the Brew Crew held playoff odds of just 46.9% entering Tuesday’s games. I mean, this is a fourth-place team (hence its spot at the bottom of this list), but Milwaukee is just one game behind the Cardinals and Reds for second place in the Central… so there’s still plenty of hope.
The Most Favorable Matchup For The Braves
From a matchup standpoint… like who should the Braves have the easiest time facing?… I think of the five teams listed above, the Marlins are the most attractive. Sure, I get that the team has made some serious strides in 2020, but I can see the Braves easily sweeping Miami in a playoff series, with their three-best starters lined out.
Consider this: sure, the Braves have only played .500 ball against the Marlins so far this season (3-3 record), but check out the Braves’ starting pitchers in each of those six matchups…
- Kyle Wright (two starts)
- Max Fried
- Robbie Erlin
- Ian Anderson
- Tommy Milone
Other than Fried, the Braves never pitched any of their better starters versus Miami, and they still managed to split thus far, even routing the Marlins 29-9 in that Sept. 9 game featuring Milone on the bump (and guys like Milone, Wright and Erlin have been atrocious in 2020).
Also, of the potential teams listed above, the Marlins haven’t really flourished in any one area this season. The starting rotation has a 4.24 ERA and ranks among the bottom-ten in collective WAR, the lineup is hitting just .247 overall, and the bullpen currently sports a 5+ ERA with a walk-rate above 4.5 batters per nine. Defensively and on the basepaths, the Marlins are right around average. Still, those aren’t traits that scare me when it comes to a three-game series in the playoffs, especially compared to a club like the Reds, whose offense currently ranks fifth in the majors in home runs (74) and also wields a starting staff with the second-most combined WAR in baseball (6.1), just behind the Indians’ super-rotation (6.4 WAR).
So despite the chances of a Braves/Marlins NLDS being relatively slim, if we’re talking about just the easiest opponent, I’m going with Miami.
Now the series I’d like to see the most is a rematch with the Cardinals. And in terms of this season versus 2019, the Redbirds aren’t that different of a team.
The St. Louis offense currently ranks seventh in the NL in team wRC+ (102) — exactly where they finished last season; and the starting pitching has been eerily the same as well, posting a 3.44 ERA / 4.45 FIP so far in 2020, compared to a 3.78 / 4.44 in 2019. What’s hurting the Cardinals this season — and why a potential rematch could be favorable for the Braves — is their bullpen.
Last year, per FanGraphs WAR, St. Louis had the second-best relief core in the NL, managing a 3.88 ERA / 4.01 FIP with 9.74 strikeouts per nine. However, the bullpen has regressed a bit in 2020, currently maintaining a 4.10 ERA / 4.88 FIP with 9.12 K/9 (good for the ninth-best bullpen fWAR).
Sure, the Cardinals’ starting rotation looks mighty dangerous (especially when held up with the Braves’ staff). All four of their innings leaders currently have a sub-3.10 ERA so far, led by Kwang-hyun Kim’s ridiculous 0.33 ERA over 27.2 frames (five starts). Plus, Adam Wainwright decided to go off this season at the age of 39 as he’s now up to a 4-1 record through seven starts, all while pitching to contact and suppressing runs as he did in the old days. And of course, Braves’ nemesis Jack Flaherty is having himself another strong year (3.08 ERA / six starts).
However, this current Cardinals team is essentially the same group the Braves held their own against last October, despite terrible performances by several of the lineup’s key contributors and that out-of-this-world unraveling in Game 5. And this time around, the Braves wield one of the five-best bullpens in MLB, to go with an offense that has hit the second-most home runs in 2020 (and ranks sixth in WAR).
Save for a bottom-five starting rotation, this is a complete Braves team that appears more than capable of getting revenge and should match up well against any potential club in the first round of the postseason.