Three-plus weeks beyond Opening Day, the National League East is as most figured. The Marlins have MLB’s worst record; the other four are at/above .500, the distance between first and fourth place a game and a half. FanGraphs’ projected standings have those four winning between 89 and 85 games. There’s a chance three NL Easters could make the playoffs; there’s also a chance only one will.
The Phillies are 12-9, having played .500 ball since sweeping the Braves in the opening series. The Braves are 11-10, having gone 11-7 since leaving Philadelphia. None of the four — the Mets and Nationals being the others — has torn it up lately. Over their past 10 days, they’re all 5-5 or 4-6. If you’re the Braves, who have one obvious issue, the good news is that nobody has stolen a march. The bad news is that the Braves haven’t, either.
The Braves could be in better shape, but the lingering feeling is that, all things considered, they’ve stayed afloat when they might have been deep-sixed. Mike Foltynewicz hasn’t started a for-real game. Mike Soroka has started one, Kevin Gausman three. In 21 games, they’ve deployed eight starting pitchers, with Foltynewicz yet to come; over 162 games last season, they used 13.
And yet: Even with Touki Toussaint’s abortive turn in Cleveland (four outs, seven earned runs, ERA of 47.25) serving to blow up the starters’ stats, the Braves still are third-best among NL East rotations in ERA, with the Phillies (who have Aaron Nola) and the Mets (who have Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard) having fared worse. Assuming Foltynewicz and Soroka settle in, the Braves’ starters — we say again — should be fine. Max Fried is second in ERA among NL starters at 1.38; Gausman is at 2.75.
Julio Teheran remains the eternal riddle — he’s at 5.61 — but that’s better than Syndergaard (5.90) and Nola (6.84!). The Braves could get by with Teheran as the No. 5 starter. This season began with him working the opener, which underscores the amount of scrambling Brian Snitker has had to do. That his team is 11-10 qualifies as a victory.
Granted, the Braves were close to falling to 9-11 on Saturday night. After Teheran came apart in the first game of a doubleheader, Toussaint left them in a 7-0 hole. They trailed 7-3 and were one out from a fifth consecutive loss; they won 8-7. Ozzie Albies singled in two runs. Josh Donaldson walked to reload the bases. Freddie Freeman walked to make it a one-run game. Ronald Acuna doubled to win it. The line kept moving, as Snitker and every manager likes to say.
On Sunday night, Donaldson hit two home runs and Fried threw another big game. The Braves won a series and headed to Cincinnati on a high note. It’s way early, but we might put a star by the weekend off Lake Erie. The Braves not only stopped the rot but took a series from a strong opponent in chilly conditions. That’s the sort of thing Snitker’s teams have come to do. They can look pretty bad, and then they up and steal a game and everybody feels good again.
We can’t know what the remaining 140 games will reveal, but we can make some guesses. The Braves’ everyday eight is at worse a match for any other in this division, and it might be the best of the lot. (The Braves are second among NL clubs in OPS and OBP, fourth in runs.) The rotation could/should stabilize. At issue, as ever, is the bullpen — though this beleaguered bunch did work 7-2/3 scoreless innings to keep matters semi-close in Saturday’s rousing victory.
This same bullpen was largely if not mostly at fault for the Diamondbacks’ SunTrust sweep last week, and this bullpen will be without closer Arodys Vizcaino for the duration. For all the blather over Craig Kimbrel, some of which has been indulged here, signing him for $15 or so million wouldn’t obviate the matter of the sixth/seventh/eighth innings. And there’s really no way Alex Anthopoulos could trade for two/three set-up men in April — because it’s April, and almost no club except Miami is ready to give up on its season.
Finding usable relievers will be easier in July, when sellers will be ready to sell, but the summer market for middle-inning men will be heated if not a-boil. Here’s a list of NL teams that are .500 or better with worse bullpen ERAs than the Braves — Dodgers, D-backs, Cubs, Mets and Nationals. This will not be a buyer’s market, and it would make no long-term sense to sell Austin Riley or Ian Anderson or Cristian Pache for a non-starting pitcher.
As unpalatable as it sounds, the Braves’ best hope for immediate bullpen improvement is, er, to hope like crazy that this bullpen improves. Me, I’m not sure the quality of arms in this ’pen is enough to sustain a pennant drive, but sometimes needs must. Toussaint could be tried as a reliever. Sean Newcomb, recently demoted to Gwinnett, could be, too. Contrary to popular belief, the Braves aren’t stupid. They know that what they’ve seen from these relievers won’t be good enough over a six-month season.
The rest of the team should be. The Braves can hit and field, and their starting pitchers should be able to keep them in enough games for September to matter. If these first 21 games have taught us anything, it’s that last season was no fluke. This is still a good club. The division, however, has gotten better. It could well be that the first NL East general manager to find a difference-maker for his bullpen will be the one whose team finishes first.
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