5 things to know NL East's tight start

My likes, dislikes and uncertainties about Braves’ start

Hi, it’s been a while since we did one of these. I’ve digested a month of Braves baseball, already dosed in ups and downs that’s swung fan reaction to every end of the spectrum. It’s been fun — though MLB should stop sending the Braves to Denver in April.

This time I’m checking in from the W hotel in Hollywood, where I’m jotting down thoughts while a jazz band goes at it about 11 p.m. Pacific time. As a saxophonist, this is the best of all worlds.

Anyway, about the Braves: They’re OK, jumping the .500 pole thanks to sweeping the we’re-just-glad-to-show-up Marlins. They begin three in Los Angeles on Monday before embarking to Phoenix for four. It’s a difficult enough tilt, the Dodgers being the typical Dodgers and the Diamondbacks exceeding relatively low expectations. 

To easily organize my first impressions, I listed them as good, bad and undetermined. I’m not going to cover every facet of the team because you have other things to do, but here are some quick thoughts:

The Good

Max Fried is an easy pick. The lefty has taken the next step (we’re past small sample size), finally figuring it out after bouncing between levels the past couple years. I love everything about the fellow 25-year-old millennial. He’s poised, collected and isn’t fazed by any individual opponent or hazardous situation. 

Fried anchored the staff in Mike Foltynewicz’s absence. Mike Soroka isn’t far behind, also excelling in every capacity despite a diminished spring training. The Braves are thrilled with how this has transpired, and you should be too. Health permitting, Fried and Soroka are two of their starting five for the next decade.

Pitching is volatile. That’s why these hearty rebuilds require so much quantity. You’re lucky if a couple hit their ceilings; Fried and Soroka are very much on that trajectory. And the Braves’ rotation, as a result, is among its greatest strengths after entering camp plastered with questions.

Other worthy inclusions: Ronald Acuna and Freddie Freeman (surprise!), Luke Jackson (actual surprise!), Josh Donaldson and the entire defense, which has been superb. Nick Markakis’ start shouldn’t go ignored either, though it will be.

The Bad

The bullpen has its brilliant moments, though they’re scattered between futility. I don’t think the group is as bad as we sometimes make it out to be, but it’s the clear area that needs improvement. We can assume Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle, A.J. Minter and Chad Sobotka are better than they’ve shown; that doesn’t mean their performance will trend upward enough to make the ‘pen trustworthy.

Jackson is an enigma who’s certainly turned the corner since opening day. The Braves have always believed in Jackson’s stuff, hoping he’d eventually put two and two together. Even if his renaissance is temporary, it’s bailed the Braves out from a potential train-wreck situation.

I do find the back end concerning. I do not find Craig Kimbrel the solution. I wouldn’t be comfortable going beyond two years, a stance the Braves share. The only other answer is trying out internal options - I’d like to see Thomas Burrows up soon enough - and attacking the bullpen later this summer. Yes, there’s a risk factor in waiting, but teams aren’t offering much bullpen help in May. That’s just how it works.

The Braves didn’t address that unit this winter. Most of the reliever signings thus far have been busts. But to criticize the team’s passiveness in that market is fair. They liked what they had, a few arms went haywire, and now they’re searching for assistance. Sometimes situations don’t play out as you hoped.

Outside the bullpen, there aren’t glaring holes. Matt Joyce has been a serviceable bench guy. The catcher combo is excellent, on and off the diamond. A veteran, frontline starter would be nice, but I’d categorize that a want more than need.

The Undecided

I don’t know if this is a postseason team. Early last season, there was a “feel” to the club. It’s hard to describe, but it didn’t take long to figure out this team was far better than outside expectations. Now, that required a lot going right; aspects that haven’t assembled perfectly this time around.

The National League East is also significantly better. The Braves, Phillies and Mets are all on a similar playing field. I didn’t really buy the Nationals going in, and they’re sorting out their own plethora of issues. Again.

Offensively, it’s been Jekyll and Hyde. The Braves will explode on Tuesday only to be silenced on Wednesday. That’s a common case with most teams, but when your bullpen allows runs like the Niagara Falls exudes water, you can’t afford too many spurts of lifelessness.

Ozzie Albies has provided a fresh dynamic at leadoff. Acuna will be a top-five MVP candidate, I still believe. Freeman is Mr. Reliable. Ender Inciarte is off to another slow start, while unsung contributor Markakis has been well-worth his minuscule contract. Dansby Swanson is the great unknown, and how his campaign develops might determine if the Braves play beyond Sept. 29.

Will Foltynewicz get right? Can Josh Donaldson stay healthy and keep raking? What about utility extraordinaire Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo, each of whom played such an important part in last year’s story? There are enough questions with the team to worry you, but their high-end talent supersedes their weaknesses.

Summary

I love mostly how the rotation is trending, like the offense, question the bullpen. Not a revelation, but that’s where we’re sitting a month-plus in. Considering the schedule and circumstances, my concern level would be about a 3/10. There are too many redeeming qualities for this team to finish under 83 wins. At that point, we’re looking at a several wins that could make a difference in a postseason spot.

They won 90 games last season. They probably need a similar number to win the division this time around, and I’d guess 86-88 for a wild card. The NL is better, with three contenders in the NL Central and the NL West boasting a couple pesky teams. If Washington factors in, the East has four postseason possibilities. I would be surprised if three teams made it from the East, however, because of how talented the top three in the Central are. It will come down to the final series of the season.

The Braves’ three most important factors in those few contests: A better bullpen, Swanson avoiding the low points, and health. It’s conceivable an injury or two could determine the division, in which case the Braves should be optimistic because of their depth. The May slate, which includes two Western trips and a list of contenders, will be a telling one.

If you thought last year’s race with the Phillies was interesting, break out your preferred snack and choice of beverage. This summer will be that race on steroids.

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About the Author

Gabriel Burns
Gabriel Burns
Gabriel Burns is the Braves beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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