The Phillies almost certainly will be one possible opponent for the Braves. They were on the verge of clinching the top wild-card seed Tuesday. Should the Phillies win the best-of-three wild-card round, they likely will get a rematch with the Braves in the NLDS. The Diamondbacks, Cubs, Marlins and Reds are in contention to face the Phillies as the No. 5 seed.
Which of those five teams is the best NLDS matchup for the Braves? (I’m assuming the Braves and Brewers won’t blow the Nos. 1 and 3 seeds, respectively.)
It’s certainly not the Phillies. They have the most pitching depth among potential Braves opponents. That’s crucial because the starters for Games 1 and 2 of the wild-card round won’t be available to pitch on full rest in the NLDS until Game 2. The starter for wild-card Game 3 (if necessary) wouldn’t be fully rested until Game 3 of the NLDS.
The Diamondbacks also aren’t a favorable opponent for the Braves. There’s not much depth behind frontline starters Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, but those two combined for three quality starts versus the Braves this season. Also, the D-Backs put a lot of balls in play (not ideal for the Braves’ shaky defense) and their home ballpark doesn’t surrender many homers (not favorable for the Braves’ powerful offense).
That leaves the Cubs, Marlins and Reds as candidates for best NLDS matchup for the Braves.
The Cubs have struggled lately. They still have the best run differential by far among NL wild-card contenders at plus-101 (all statistics before Tuesday’s games). Chicago’s lineup doesn’t have much pop, but it’s deep. The pitching staff doesn’t allow many homers. The Braves would be better off facing the Cubs than the Phillies or Diamondbacks, but they aren’t the most favorable potential matchup.
Drawing the Reds would be good for the Braves. Cincinnati’s offensive production relies heavily on walks and stolen bases. Braves pitchers don’t issue many walks and catcher Sean Murphy controls the run game. Even Cincinnati’s best starters, Hunter Greene and Andrew Abbott, have high rates of walks and homers allowed. Braves hitters feast on pitchers with that profile.
It would be even better for the Braves if they end up playing the Marlins. No potential NL wild-card team offers a more favorable matchup. That was true before ace pitcher Sandy Alcantara and star rookie Eury Perez were shut down with injuries in recent days. Now a team short on scoring also is down to two quality starters.
The Marlins would have a few things going for them in a series against the Braves. They have a lineup full of high-contact hitters. Miami’s good bullpen is filled with tough lefties. Not many balls fly out of Miami’s home ballpark.
The Braves have the edge in every other way.
Marlins starters Jesus Luzardo and Braxton Garrett are good. Fried and Strider are better. Jorge Soler, a World Series hero for the Braves in 2021, is the lone power threat for the Marlins. Pretty much every hitter in the Braves’ lineup is a power threat.
The Marlins would have a chance against the Braves. The Reds would, too. The strange things that happen in baseball are magnified in a short series. But I’d like the Braves’ odds against the Reds, and I’d love them against the Marlins. Miami and Cincinnati would provide the easiest NLDS path for the Braves in their weakened state.
Of course, the Braves are good enough to beat anyone even despite the question marks about the pitching. They’re an offensive machine. Braves batters rake against lefties and right-handers. The top of the lineup is great, but it’s not top-heavy: All nine Braves regulars currently prove above league average production, per the Weighted Runs Created metric at FanGraphs.
The Braves can overcome poor pitching with their offense. You’ll recall they had a good lineup in 2022 but lost to the Phillies with Fried (illness) and right-hander Spencer Strider (oblique) both ailing. But the lineup is even better this year and the NLDS schedule offers some relief for the pitching.
Unlike last season, the Braves will have a day off between Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS. The starters for those games can pitch Games 4 and 5, if needed, with the regular rest of four days. For the Braves, that means Fried and Strider can cover all but one game of a five-game series. The Braves need a Game 3 starter (leading candidate Bryce Elder is fading to the finish) but the off day is a huge boost for the ailing rotation.
Drawing the Reds or Marlins would give the Braves even more reason to believe they can get through the NLDS even if their pitching isn’t at its best.