It’s not necessary for Braves to leap Mets in NL East, but it is urgent

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom walks to the dugout before a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom walks to the dugout before a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Everybody knows that the Braves don’t need to win the National League East to make the playoffs. There are three wild cards now, so they don’t even need to finish with one of the top two records for non-division winners. Getting in the postseason and then seeing what happens worked for the 2021 Braves, who weren’t the best team at the end of September but were in October. That could happen again.

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Still, the Braves should have some urgency about overtaking the Mets to win the East. I’ve felt that way all season because wild-card teams will play a best-of-three opening round. There’s lots of luck involved with such a short series. The importance of winning the East increased when the Padres made a blockbuster trade this week.

It’s one thing if a wild-card berth for the Braves means facing the Cardinals or Brewers of the Central in the first round. There’s a big difference between that and navigating a lineup with Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis and Josh Bell. Doing so with little margin for error in a three-game set is not appetizing. The Braves have their own Big Four — Ronald Acuna, Austin Riley, Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson — but San Diego’s quartet is on another level.

The Padres aren’t going to catch the Dodgers in the NL West, but they’ll surely be a wild-card entry. Winning the East wouldn’t assure the Braves of avoiding the Padres in that best-of-three round. The division winner with the third-best record hosts the top wild card. But it’s highly likely that the East winner will finish with a better record than the Central winner, so the race for the East title essentially is a race to earn the No. 2 seed and avoid the wild-card round.

All of that is why it’s important for the Braves to make up ground on the Mets over the next two weeks. The teams were to begin a five-game series in New York on Thursday night, with the Mets holding a 3 ½-game lead. New York plans to start co-aces Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom in back-to-back games to close the series (DeGrom will be on a pitch limit in his second start since coming off the injured list).

The Braves will have plenty of chances to leapfrog New York in the East, and the Mets will have an opportunity to bury them. They teams are scheduled to play a four-game series here from Aug. 15-18. Both teams made trades at the margins of their rosters before Tuesday’s deadline.

The Mets acquired outfielder Tyler Naquin, lefty reliever Philip Diehl and first baseman Darin Ruf. They sent away one major-leaguer, utility man JD Davis. The Braves added outfielder Robbie Grossman, right-hander Jake Odorizzi, reliever Raisel Iglesias and infielder Ehire Adrianza. They departed with two players from the big-league roster, relievers Will Smith and Jesse Chavez.

(One interesting tidbit from Joel Sherman of the New York Post: The Mets balked at trading for Iglesias because they didn’t want to take on his $16 million salary for three more seasons. New York is looking to re-sign closer Edwin Diaz, who can become a free agent after the season. It seems that even Mets team owner Steve Cohen, whose net worth is more than twice as much as his colleagues, has his limits.)

The Mets were heavy favorites to win the division before the trade deadline. The executed deals didn’t change that, according to FanGraphs writer Dan Szymborski. He evaluated all MLB trades using his ZiPS statistical projections and concluded that Braves slightly improved their odds of winning the East. Their ZiPS chances improved to 20.3% from 18.2%, while New York’s odds dipped to 79.4% from 81.6%.

One knock against the Braves is that they have a losing mark against teams with winning records. That includes all of their major rivals in the NL. The Mets won four of the first seven meetings against the Braves. The Braves are 2-4 vs. the Dodgers and 3-4 vs. the Padres. The Dodgers since have added Joey Gallo to make their outfield depth ridiculous, and the Padres acquired two of the game’s better hitters.

ZiPS rates the Padres as stronger than the Dodgers after they traded for Juan Soto and Josh Bell. I’m not buying that, and even if it is the case, San Diego isn’t going to catch Los Angeles in the West. The gap already was too big before the trade deadline. The Dodgers lead the division by 11-1/2 games with 58 to go and are five games clear of the Mets in the race for the NL’s top seed.

As things stand now, the Braves would open the playoffs at the Brewers. That wouldn’t be the worst possible outcome for the Braves as far as opponent (though the Brewers did improve their outfield and bullpen with trades). It still would be a dreaded three-game series, though. The Braves can make that fate less likely by overtaking the Mets. They don’t have to do it, but they should feel some urgency.