In case you missed it, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas became the first sportsbooks to release their 2019 MLB win totals. Per usual, there are a number of surprises, but perhaps none more head-scratching than that of our very own Atlanta Braves.
The Braves’ total is 84, six games less than they won a year ago on their way to the NL East crown. There is no questioning that Atlanta was last year’s Cinderella story. A tale of an energetic and youthful bunch overcoming the odds to topple the vaunted Nationals inside their division.
It’s also pretty clear that Vegas isn’t buying it.
Even with another year of progression amongst their youth and the additions of Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, Vegas doesn’t see the Braves much better than a .500 team in 2019. Meanwhile, the Nats are projected to win 88.5 games, and the Phillies and Mets totals are set at 83 and 83.5 wins respectively.
So why doesn’t Vegas see the Braves as a team that could improve?
The most obvious reason is the upgrades inside their division. The Nationals experienced an oddly down year for the amount of talent they have on their roster. Even if they do wind up missing out on Bryce Harper, they still have the best starting rotation in the entire National League and plenty of bats to return to the top of the National League East.
The Mets have been a bit of a shocker this offseason, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to upgrading their team. They worked out a blockbuster deal to acquire Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano, signed the top free agent catcher on the market in Wilson Ramos, went out and got Jeurys Familia back, and most recently, brought in Jed Lowrie. Who knows if the Mets are done yet, but they look to be exponentially better than they were a year ago.
And finally, you have the Philadelphia Phillies, who could wind up being the most dangerous team in the NL East by the time spring training kicks up. The Phils have already signed free-agent outfielder and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. They also inked elite reliever David Robertson to a two-year contract. Not to mention, they are rumored to be the frontrunners for Bryce Harper and are still in on Manny Machado. The Philadelphia front office is living up to their guarantee of spending “stupid money” this offseason, which will make this team much more worrisome in 2019.
Then you look at the Braves, who have been much quieter than all three of these teams. They did bring in both Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann on the same day. While those two pieces will be integral to the Braves repeating as NL East champs, they could also backfire and be rather insignificant.
Donaldson is coming off back-to-back injury-plagued seasons. According to Anthopoulos, the Braves believe he is well on track to be healthy for the start of the season. But what if that becomes a problem? And as far as Brian McCann goes, he is nothing more than a clubhouse leader at this point in his career, something the Braves will only find vital if they are competing for the division.
Atlanta also has some young stars who could experience regression. Ronald Acuña set the world on fire in the season’s second half. Can he avoid a sophomore slump? Ozzie Albies was a shell of himself the final 70 games of the season. Can he bounce back? Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo and all of the members of the Braves young pitching staff could be subject to growing pains. There are a lot of variables, and it will only take one or two of them to go wrong for the Braves to fall out of contention.
Last year, Atlanta went 49-27 against the NL East. Vegas (and I) do not see any way that happens again with all of the improvements that have been made to the other teams. The Braves were 41-45 outside of their division. If the Braves cannot do better than that, they are going to have an exhausting time even reaching .500. There is a target on their back now, and the rest of the East is doing everything in their power to catch them.