Odds say rivals have leapfrogged Braves, but I’m not buying it

Every team in MLB is chasing the Braves. They won the last World Series without their best hitter, Ronald Acuna, and he’s expected back in May. The Braves replaced Freddie Freeman with Matt Olson, who should give them similar production at first base. A good bullpen got even deeper. The pitching rotation is solid.

It’s hard to go back-to-back. Only 14 teams have done it, none since the Yankees won three consecutive titles from 1998-2000. To my eye, the Braves have the pieces to be a better ballclub than the one that just won the World Series. The bookmakers don’t see it that way.

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As of Friday, three teams had clearly shorter odds than the Braves (11-1) to win the World Series: the Dodgers (5-1), Blue Jays (9-1), and Astros (10-1), according to Vegas Insider. The odds for the Mets and Yankees were a fraction shorter, too. The Braves weren’t even favored to win their fifth consecutive National League East title. That would be the Mets, who haven’t finished better than third over the past five seasons.

I think the betting markets are way off. The Braves are much better than their odds, and the Mets are much worse. Going against public consensus to make predictions can be foolish. At least FanGraphs is backing me up in this case.

Its statistical projection gives the Dodgers the best chance of winning the World Series (6-1 implied odds), followed by the Blue Jays (7-1), Braves (7½-1), Astros (10-1) and Yankees (10-1). According to FanGraphs, the Braves are on the top tier of World Series contenders. The Astros and Yankees are a notch below, and the Mets (16-1) are way behind.

That forecast pretty much aligns with my view. The Braves will run away with another East title. To get to the World Series they’ll have to go through the Dodgers again. The Mets are the most immediate threat to the Braves since both are in the East. Yes, there are three wild-card berths this season instead of two, but that round should be avoided at all costs.

The wild-card round is best-of-three, with the higher seed hosting all games. Too much luck involved in that. The two division winners with the best record will get a bye to the best-of-seven division series round. The safest path for the Braves is to win the division again. Improving on 88 wins is key, too, because that likely won’t be enough to avoid the wild-card round.

The Mets spent big money in their quest to catch the Braves. There was a time when I bought the hype each time the Mets threw cash at their problems. I long ago started dismissing them on principle no matter how much they spend. Something always goes wrong for the Mets. The culprits have been injuries, underperformance and their owners getting duped by a Ponzi scheme. It’s always safe to assume the Mets will fall in their faces.

Steve Cohen has accelerated the spending since purchasing the Mets in September 2020. (Cohen calls the new luxury tax threshold a “Cohen Tax” that his fellow franchise owners sought to rein in his spending, which he said he won’t do.) Last offseason, Cohen invested $341 million for Francisco Lindor’s contract extension after the Mets acquired the shortstop in a trade. Cohen went big again for 2022.

The Mets signed right-hander Max Scherzer for $130 million over three years. He joins Jacob deGrom to form the best starter combo in MLB. The Mets also traded one of their best pitching prospects for All-Star Chris Bassitt. Marcus Stroman (Cubs) and Noah Syndergaard (Angels) signed elsewhere but the Mets come back with a rotation that projects to be better.

Scoring runs was New York’s biggest problem last season. To solve it, the Mets added outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha and infielder Eduardo Escobar. Javier Baez, a Mets rental in 2021, opted to sign with the Tigers, but New York has assembled a deeper lineup.

FanGraphs projects the Mets will improve from 636 runs scored in 2021 to 672 this season. That seems reasonable. But the forecast says that, despite adding Scherzer to the pitching staff, Mets will allow roughly the same number of runs in 2022 as in 2021. I can see that happening because of the previously mentioned perpetual bad luck for the Mets.

The theme in recent years has been injuries to their best pitchers. The Mets couldn’t make it out of spring training without that worry resurfacing again. As I was writing this, the Mets announced that deGrom will be shut down for at least four weeks after he was scratched from a Friday start because of shoulder tightness.

A trip to the 60-day injured list seems likely for deGrom. He’s been the best pitcher in baseball when healthy, but can the Mets count on that anymore? He was limited to 15 starts in 2021 because of forearm and back issues. He’ll be 34 years old in June.

Scherzer is a great pitcher, too. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame one day. But he’ll be be 38 in July and has pitched more than 2,500 innings over his career. Remember, the Dodgers scratched Scherzer from scheduled start against the Braves in NL Championship Series Game 6. They were facing elimination, and their best pitcher couldn’t go.

The Mets still aren’t on the same level as the Braves. The Dodgers are there. Unlike the Mets, the Dodgers have supplemented their big spending with shrewd moves around the margins and a bountiful farm system. That’s how the Dodgers can lose Scherzer and shortstop Corey Seager in free agency (and right-hander Trevor Bauer to the administrative list) yet still remain favorites to win the World Series.

Signing Freeman, a better hitter than Seager, makes L.A.’s long lineup even longer. The pitching rotation isn’t as deep as last season without Scherzer and Bauer. The Dodgers still have their top three starters from 2021: Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw.

Closer Kenley Jansen left the Dodgers to sign a free-agent deal with the Braves. That left the back of bullpen thin until the Dodgers on Friday traded for Craig Kimbrel. He was good as the closer for the Cubs last season before being sent to the White Sox and struggling in a setup role.

The Dodgers are worthy favorites to win the World Series. They looked like that for most of last season, too, until the Braves eliminated them from the NLCS in six games. The gap between the clubs is small. FanGraphs projects the Dodgers will outscore their opponents by 133 runs while the Braves will be plus-118.

The Braves, like the Dodgers, have few weaknesses. One of them could be the lack of a frontline starter, however that’s defined. Lefty Max Fried is young enough (28) to believe that he can keep building after good back-to-back seasons. He and the other starters will be backed by a strong lineup and a bullpen that should always have quality arms available.

Anything can happen in the MLB postseason. We saw that when the 88-win Braves got hot and won it all. It’s possible the Braves can be a better team this season but not make it as far. Some good luck is required to make deep postseason runs. Winning a World Series is hard. Doing it again has been a long shot for a long time.

Andrew Simon of MLB.com notes that the current 21-year gap between repeat champions is the longest in league history. Among those 21 defending champs, only two made it back to the World Series. Eleven of those teams missed the playoffs the following year.

A lot would have to go wrong for the Braves to miss the postseason. If they make it, they’ve assembled a ballclub that’s good enough to repeat. Maybe I’m wrong about that and the betting markets are right that several other teams have a better chance. But I think those 12-1 World Series odds are selling the 2022 Braves way short.