There was more to Dallas Keuchel’s first two starts than what met the eye. He was the steady, commanding presence the Braves desired in their rotation. He was by no means at his best, but perhaps that’s what’s most encouraging. He showed enough to let one feel comfortable that he’s an upgrade.
At the price of $13 million, the Braves emphatically bolstered their already strong odds of returning to the postseason while immediately appeasing a groaning fan base. As we glance at the rotation and bullpen — which at this point just needs to complement one of the better offenses this franchise has had — the Braves shouldn’t stop at Keuchel.
The window of opportunity has opened. There’s no National League team east of Los Angeles that’s clearly better than the Braves. They’ve already ensured at least a split in Chicago this week, furthering their case as the senior circuit’s second-best team.
If the Braves do win the East (an increasingly likely proposition, but more on that later), they’ll probably see the NL Central winner in the NLDS. Would the Braves be favored over the Cubs or Brewers? I don’t know, but they wouldn’t be heavy underdogs like they were against the Dodgers last time around.
Now, comparing contenders in June is a fruitless exercise. Still, we can’t help thinking ahead with every bit of distance the Braves continue building from their competitors. This is real progress for a team many thought would go backwards after winning 90 games.
Instead, they’ve made a leap. The offense is ridiculous: Freddie Freeman might be having his best season. Josh Donaldson might be “back.” Dansby Swanson’s bat has never looked so good. Ozzie Albies is an All-Star candidate again.
You can already pencil in Austin Riley for 30 jacks a year. Brian McCann is revitalized, joining Tyler Flowers to form an impeccable catching tandem. The bench trio of Charlie Culberson, Matt Joyce and Johan Camargo make up an experienced group with a knack for big hits.
All that without seeing one of those elongated hot stretches from Ronald Acuna, who we assume will catch fire sometime in the second half (not to hold him to last season’s expectations). His presence at leadoff has again been a spark.
The pitching, meanwhile, is better than it’s credited. Keuchel and Julio Teheran are the wily veterans - how the latter finishes will be a point of second-half intrigue. Mike Soroka would start Game 1 if the postseason began today. Max Fried is no longer Cy Young-worthy, as he looked through 10 starts, but middle-of-the-rotation production over the next few months isn’t an unrealistic request.
Yes, there’s Mike Foltynewicz’s drop from All-Star to Striper. But shockingly his swift decline hasn’t been detrimental. The Braves will hope he sorts himself out at Triple-A and can return as an asset later, though whatever he provides can be considered a bonus now.
The same people who criticized general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ offseason approach should credit him now. He landed Keuchel on a deal that favors the club. He made the shrewd move for Anthony Swarzak, who’s come out of nowhere to be the team’s best reliever. He signed Markakis and McCann at bargain prices.
Anthopoulos didn’t sign A.J. Pollock. He didn’t give into the temptations of a J.T. Realmuto trade. He didn’t even cave to fans’ begging for Craig Kimbrel. As a result, Anthopoulos is armed with prospects and funds to pursue more complementary pieces in July and next winter.
And his team, which hasn’t gotten what it expected from Foltynewicz, A.J. Minter, Kevin Gausman, Sean Newcomb (before his revival in the bullpen) and others maintains a comfortable division lead. There’s plenty of credit to go around for that, but we’d be remiss to ignore the division’s incompetence.
Philadelphia has been extremely underwhelming. There have been injuries — they were a first-place club before Andrew McCutchen went down — but they haven’t gotten the best from Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola and Realmuto. They’ll have an active deadline, and on paper, they’re better than they’ve shown, so don’t write them off just yet.
You can, however, probably cross off the Mets. Mickey Callaway’s and Jason Vargas’ incident with a Newsday reporter was an embarrassment. The team’s performance hasn’t been much better, leaving Callaway likely on thin ice. The Mets are talented, but they’d need to concoct the unlikeliest of turnarounds to make the Braves sweat.
Washington might be the Braves’ biggest threat. The Nationals pulled within a game of .500 on Wednesday, playing much better after a dreadful start. They dropped two of three to the Braves at home last weekend, but they have the talent and resources to make this a race. If they don’t, would they dare make another managerial change?
The Marlins, openly rebuilding, deserve props. Don Mattingly has done a solid job and their young pitching looks dangerous. They’ll finish last but could spoil someone else’s postseason bid (that probably won’t be the Braves, who are 8-1 against the Fish). They swept the Phillies in Philadelphia earlier this week.
So even if you don’t expect the Braves to stay on a 96-win pace, it will fall on one of their division rivals to close the gap. I suspect the Phillies and Nationals will be heard from before October, but it’s hard bet against the Braves right now.
Which is why Anthopoulos and company should bid aggressively at the deadline. That doesn’t mean packaging Cristian Pache, Drew Waters or Ian Anderson in one deal. But it does mean finally parting with some of those prized youngsters we discuss ad nauseum.
Madison Bumgarner generates mixed reactions among Braves fans. I opine he’d be a fantastic addition, especially from the standpoint of adding his track record and letting the Sorokas and Frieds see how he works. Will Smith, another San Francisco Giant, is from Newnan and might be an All-Star reliever, so that fit makes sense.
We aren’t going to list all the usual names. Not to mention, there are tons of players available we won’t have a clue about. But the Braves have clearly entered their window of contention. No one expected what happened last season, and if Braves executives were being truthfully, they surely didn’t expect to upset the Dodgers in the NLDS.
This time is different. This group is better, deeper, more experienced, more talented. Maybe this is the beginning of another 14-year run; maybe it isn’t. But we know this team, in 2019, is capable of being the first to win a postseason series since 2001.
The Braves owe it to their players, coaches and fans to get aggressive. Keuchel was only the start of what could be an eventful deadline and offseason for the most exciting team in baseball.
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