Braves better than last year but need more pitching to repeat

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Braves are not a sure thing to make the postseason. There’s no such thing as certainty in baseball (though this year’s Yankees may come close). Still, it’s already safe to say the defending World Series champions again will play in the postseason. The Braves won’t have to rely on a magical run to make it this time because they are a better, deeper team.

The Braves are six games clear of the wild-card cutoff as they begin their post All-Star schedule Friday. They are 2 ½ games behind the Mets in the East. All three major statistical projections put their postseason chances at 95% or better. All signs point to the Braves (56-38) continuing to win at their current pace of 96 wins, which would be eight more than last season. Some signs indicate the Braves will finish even better than that.

That’s why I’m already pondering on how the Braves stack up against their main rivals to win the World Series. Betting markets are giving them the fifth-shortest odds to win (9-1) behind the Yankees (4-1), Dodgers (4-1), Astros (5-1) and Mets (7-1). Those probabilities look right to me. The Braves need more pitching to boost their chances.

Braves lefty Max Fried has been outstanding. Kyle Wright’s remarkable career turnaround appears to be real. The starting rotation is shakier behind those two. The trade deadline is Aug. 2.

It usually costs a lot to acquire a good starter. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos gave up a lot of the organization’s young talent to acquire first baseman Matt Olson before the season. Now Anthopoulos will have to decide if he needs to do the same to land an effective starting pitcher.

The starting rotation really is the only area in which the Braves are lacking. The situation is urgent. It would be reasonable for Anthopoulos to decide to ride Fried and Wright at the top of the rotation while expecting better from Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson. As things stand, there’s enough uncertainty with the starters that the Braves should cover themselves with a solid addition who doesn’t cost much.

I wonder how long Spencer Strider can remain effective as a starter with only two pitches, even if one of them is a filthy fastball. Strider also could tire out as he pitches more innings than ever. Every time I start thinking that Morton has righted himself, he goes out and gives up a backbreaking homer or two (the Mets tagged him for three in his previous start). Anderson has been better in July but still issues too many walks (Morton is doing that, too).

There should be pitching help available at the deadline. MLB Trade Rumors lists 13 starters among the top 50 trade candidates. Headliners Luis Castillo and Frankie Montas are likely to attract offers that the Braves won’t match. There are some second-tier starters on the list who are earning modest salaries this season and aren’t under contract beyond it: Jose Quintana (Pirates), Martin Perez (Rangers), Chad Kuhl (Rockies) or Jordan Lyles (Orioles).

Any of those pitchers would improve the Braves’ starting pitching. Otherwise, the team looks ready to make another run at the World Series. The lineup and the bullpen both have produced through injuries. And don’t forget there are potential reinforcements on the injured list for the lineup (Ozzie Albies), starting rotation (Mike Soroka) and bullpen (Kirby Yates).

Soroka and Yates are trying to return from long injury absences. The Braves can’t be sure what they’ll get from those two. They know Albies will be a reliable hitter and defender. The Braves have gotten weak production at second base without Albies, but they can afford to wait on his return by September.

One reason for that: Ronald Acuña surely will go on a tear soon. The Braves ranked third in runs scored before the break despite Acuña hitting just OK by his high standards. He’s been in and out of the lineup with injuries. Acuña has been much better in the second half than the first for his career.

Once Acuña finds his footing, the Braves will have a fearsome four at the top of the lineup with Acuña, Dansby Swanson, Olson and Austin Riley. In the NL, only the Dodgers can top that group. The Braves have the potential to slug their way to another NL pennant with those four plus youngsters William Contreras and Michael Harris.

It’s likely the Braves will have to go through the Dodgers again. The Mets are a real threat, too.

Los Angeles had several good pitchers on the injured list during the first half and still posted the NL’s best record. Mets right-hander Max Scherzer has been great in three starts since returning from injury, and Jacob deGrom (scapula) still is on track to be activated soon. Both the Dodgers and Mets have scored a lot of runs without needing to rely nearly as much on homers as the Braves.

The Dodgers are 2-1 to win the pennant, the Mets are 3-1 and the Braves are 4-1. The Dodgers are a notch above the Braves, but that also was true in 2021, when a lesser Braves team than this one bested them. The Braves are on equal footing with the Mets and they are better than the Padres, who are fading again.

The Yankees are on another level. They’ve outscored opponents by 199 runs and are chasing the MLB record of 116 victories, set by the Cubs in 1906 and tied by the Mariners in 2001 (neither team won the World Series). The Astros wouldn’t be an easy out for the Yankees, but New York is a worthy favorite.

The postseason can be unpredictable. Braves backers know this after seeing their team get hot and win it all last season. The Braves did it despite getting so-so results from their starters during the postseason. They patched together innings from the rest of the staff and got plenty of big hits. It was fun to watch, but it would be difficult to repeat that formula.

That’s why the Braves need another reliable starting pitcher. They’ll make the postseason, regardless, because they are a better team than last season. Once there, another solid arm in the rotation would give the Braves a good shot against the Dodgers, Mets or anyone else standing in the way of a repeat.