The Dodgers are good, which doesn’t mean the Braves can’t win

Los Angeles Dodgers players celebrate after securing the National League West division title with Monday's win over Colorado.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

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Los Angeles Dodgers players celebrate after securing the National League West division title with Monday's win over Colorado. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

The Dodgers just won their sixth consecutive division title. They don’t have the National League’s best record, but they’re the team to beat on this side of the bracket. The first chance to beat them falls to the Braves, who have the worst record of the 10 qualifying teams. Which isn’t to say beating L.A. would be impossible. This is baseball. Anyone who’s in has a real chance.

These Dodgers aren’t as sleek as, say, last year’s Dodgers. They’ve been without Corey Seager, their best everyday player, since April. Clayton Kershaw just had his least impressive season since 2010. Kenley Jansen hasn’t been his lockdown self. (Note that Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story hit back-to-back home runs off him in today’s tie-breaker game.) Matt Kemp, an All-Star in July, has become Matt Kemp, platoon player in autumn.

The reason the Dodgers still won 91 games – officially 92 after beating Colorado 5-2 to clinch the West – is that they’re ridiculously deep. Going by WAR, Chris Taylor has been the third-best Dodger in 2018. He didn’t start against the Rockies on Monday. Neither did Kemp or Brian Dozier or David Freese. All of those figure to make the 25-man roster for the Division Series, which is a bit different from having to rely on Lane Adams. (Nothing against Lane Adams, mind you.)

The Dodgers had seven different pitchers start 15 or more games. Three of those – Alex Wood, Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda – have recently been redeployed as relievers, which is the key reason the Dodgers’ bullpen was baseball’s best in September. Their playoff starters stand to be Kershaw in Game 1, Rich Hill in Game 2, Walker Buehler in Game 3 and maybe Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 4. Even with Kershaw not having a vintage year, L.A. still led the National League in ERA.

It also led in runs scored, the five-month absence of Seager notwithstanding. It helped that the Dodgers could pay the freight in prospects to land Manny Machado at the trade deadline. It also helped that Max Muncy, a middling minor-leaguer who was cut by the A’s in 2017, hit 35 homers for the Dodgers, the most recent being a fifth-inning shot off the Rockies’ German Marquez. That stripped the last vestige of drama from Monday’s rather uneventful non-elimination game, which (finally) determined the identity of the Braves’ Round 1 opponent.

It’s worth noting that Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ latest general manager, was an assistant GM in L.A. before coming here. We’ve seen the sort of resourcefulness in him – plucking Anibal Sanchez from the slag heap; landing Charlie Culberson in the Kemp salary dump – that has become a hallmark of the latter-day Dodgers. They have baseball’s second-biggest payroll, yes, but they’re also adept at value investing. Muncy is one example. Buehler – picked in Round 1 of the 2015 draft even though the Dodgers knew he’d need Tommy John surgery – is another. Taylor, who was acquired from Seattle in a minor trade, is a third.

The Braves lost five of seven to L.A. (They also lost five of seven to Colorado.) There’s no compelling reason to pick this up-from-oblivion club over the team that has again become an October fixture, but there are reasons to believe the Dodgers aren’t unassailable. They haven’t won a World Series since 1988. Last year’s Dodgers won 104 games, 12 more than this crew, and didn’t win it all, the Astros denying them in Game 7. Kershaw especially has had October issues.

The Braves are among the very few NL assemblages that can approximate L.A.’s everyday eight. (The Cubs are another, but they got bumped to the wild card game by the Brewers.) The Braves don’t yet possess the Dodgers’ 1-through-25 depth, but a couple of guys getting big hits or big outs can change the course of a postseason series. This is a meeting of Old Money versus New Kids On The Block, but October doesn’t always pay attention to pedigree.

This won’t be a walkover. This could well go the distance. And the Braves would absolutely have a shot to win Game 5.

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