Braves trail Phillies in East now but look good enough to overtake them

The Braves signed left-hander Dallas Keuchel about five minutes after I opined that it's doubtful they would. They needed Keuchel because their starting rotation got shaky not long after I noted it was surprisingly solid. At this point, Braves backers should hope I declare their team will fall apart so the opposite will happen.

Instead, I believe the Braves look like the favorites to win the NL East. That won't necessarily doom them — last July I declared the Braves good enough to win the East after their deadline trades, and they were. The reasons to doubt they could repeat included improved division foes, especially the Phillies, who led the East by a game after the weekend.

But Philadelphia has more issues than the Braves, including bad injury luck. The Mets have been middling: they were 13-13 in April, 13-15 in May, and 4-4 to begin June. The Nationals are underachieving, as usual.

Meanwhile the Braves, despite their flaws, have been admirably persistence. Their starting pitchers were good during their sweep of the Marlins over the weekend. Mike Soroka added another case to his Rookie of the Year file, Julio Teheran provided more evidence his resurgence is real and Max Fried bounced back from consecutive sub-par outings.

Keuchel was scheduled to pitch for Single-A Rome on Monday night. Once he's ready, the Braves can drop Kevin Gausman from the rotation. Keuchel will provide insurance against regressions by Soroka, Fried and Teheran and some cushion for Mike Foltynewicz to figure things out. Keuchel will have a trickle-down effect across the staff, but he's not the reason the Braves look poised to overtake the Phillies.

The Braves are hitting better than Philadelphia’s underachieving lineup with reason to expect more from Josh Donaldson and Ozzie Albies. Their starting pitching has been better than Philadelphia’s and now adds Keuchel. Philadelphia’s relievers have been OK, which makes them significantly better than the Braves’ group.

That's why, even after Braves starters wobbled, I thought a reliever should be higher priority for the Braves. General manager Alex Anthopoulos added two solid relievers at last year's trade deadline at little cost, so maybe he can do it again. If not, the Braves still are a pretty good ballclub.

They aren’t nearly on the level of the Dodgers and the Cubs, which makes them like every other NL team. The Braves may not be good enough to best the Brewers, Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Rockies in a wild card race. That won’t matter if they can outlast the Phillies, and the odds say they will.

Before the Braves signed Keuchel, the synthesis FanGraphs projection gave them a 39 percent chance to win the East compared to 28 percent for the Phillies. The Braves lost that day, but Keuchel’s addition later that night boosted the Braves’ odds of winning the division by five percent, according to FanGraphs. The overall playoff odds for the Braves increased from 57.9 to 63 percent.

The "ZiPS" statistical model developed by FanGraphs senior writer Dan Szymborski projected the Braves to win the East by three games without Keuchel. It puts the margin at four games with him. One extra win is significant —MLB teams pay roughly $12 million for it on the free-agent market — and it could be important for the Braves in tight division race.

ExploreWrites Szymborski:

"Is adding a Keuchel a giant, season-changing move? Of course not, but those are more or less unicorns. . . . (T)he Braves have turned about 20% of the scenarios in which they don't win the NL East into NL East titles, and erased about 30% of their non-playoff finishes from the timeline. Without trading prospects or developing time travel technology, the Braves made as good an acquisition as you realistically can make in June."

The Braves can use another good one. Every time it seems as if their bullpen has stabilized it provides a reminder of why it’s hard to trust. The latest came on Sunday at Miami when the best Braves reliever, Luke Jackson, blew a save in the bottom of the 10th inning. He tried to sneak a fastball by old pro Martin Prado, who smashed it for an RBI double.

It happens. It’s been happening more lately for Jackson, who blew four of his last 11 save chances over the past month. Bad luck has something to do with it. Over those 16 innings Jackson struck out 29, walked three, allowed two homers and induced a lot of ground balls. He didn’t give up much hard contact during that stretch, so you’d expect better results.

The Braves can win with Jackson as a setup guy and occasional closer. They will look to the trade market for another reliable, high-leverage reliever. The Phillies will seek outfield depth and pitching help. The Braves have more good prospects to include in trades. The Phillies may be more willing to take on money than the Braves, whose payroll is roughly the same as the end of last season after Keuchel got $13 million for the remainder of the season.

It’s up to Anthopoulos to swing another deal that helps the Braves. Already, they look good enough to out-duel the Phillies in the East.

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