- The Braves have a young, formidable core of players to keep the organization competitive for years to come. But can they jump the timetable and win it all in 2019?
The Braves were the National League’s premier franchise in the 1990s, ripping off 14 consecutive NL East titles from 1991-2005. Are we at the doorstep of a new golden age of baseball in Atlanta? It may be a bit premature to even raise such a question, though after winning the NL East in 2018 and 2019, the infrastructure for sustained success is in place. So allow us to hopscotch ahead to a bigger question: Could the Braves win it all ... this year?
There's a case to be made, and we're here to lay out the blueprint.
Dominant Top Four
It’s hard to find a NL team with a better top four in the lineup than Atlanta. The Braves scored a run in 35.7% of first innings this season, second in all of baseball. Their leadoff hitter is largely to thank. Ronald Acuna Jr. enters the season’s final week leading the NL in runs and stolen bases, three steals away from becoming the fifth 40-40 club member in MLB history. He’s one of three players to hit 40 homers in a season before turning 22. Only seven players under 22 have scored more runs in a single season. Acuna is perhaps the most valuable asset in the National League. One hot month could swing the postseason.
Atlanta’s offense remains electric after Acuna. Ozzie Albies, 22, has improved across the board in his second season as a starter, raising his batting average, OBP and slugging in 2019. Only Ketel Marte has a better OPS and batting average among NL second baseman. No second baseman in baseball has more doubles. His maturity at the plate may rival Acuna.
Perhaps the final members of Atlanta’s powerful quartet helped mold Acuna and Albies’ precociousness. Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson are professional hitters in every sense of the word, with a combined seven top-ten MVP finishes since 2013. Freeman’s 38 homers and 121 RBI are both career highs, and he’s crossed the .900 OPS mark in three of the last four seasons. There are few more reliable bats in baseball. Freeman is followed by Josh Donaldson, who has more than lived up to his one-year $23 million deal in the offseason. The 2015 AL MVP has revived his career in Atlanta, blasting 37 homers in 2019 along with an .896 OPS. There are arguably better lineups in baseball, but few can pack an early punch quite like the Braves.
The Kids Are All Right
Atlanta’s 90s dynasty was defined as much by its dominant pitching staff as Chipper and Andruw Jones. And while its wildly premature to plot Mike Soroka’s Cooperstown plaque near Greg Maddux, Atlanta’s young frontline starters could swing a playoff series.
Let’s start with Soroka. The wirey righthander should ccertainly pick up some Cy Young votes, and has a legitimate argument for National League Rookie of the Year honors after posting a 2.60 ERA in 2019. Just three NL pitchers with 150-plus innings posted a lower opponent OPS. Only Sonny Gray and Jacob DeGrom posted a lower slugging. Soroka pitches with the calmness of an even-keeled ace who should feel right at home in the postseason. His slim walk-rate and ability to avoid the long ball point to postseason success.
Soroka is joined by another youngster in Atlanta’s rotation, lefty Max Fried. The NL’s wins leader is holding opponents to a .701 OPS since Aug. 1, posting a pair of double-digit strikeout performances in the process. Fried could be deployed as early as Game 2 of the NLDS if Brian Snitker opts to use him at home instead of a road start in Game 3. He and Soroka make for a formidable duo along with Dallas Keuchel, who has a 2.06 ERA in his last eight starts. The Braves can go toe-to-toe with the Cardinals in the NLDS, then potentially close the gap to a degree if they face Los Angeles or Washington in the NLCS.
Bullpen Woes Solved?
The Braves avoided splurging on a starter at the trade deadline, instead enlisting bullpen help in the face of a struggling back end. The early returns were disastrous. Middle reliever Chris Martin allowed five runs in his first four outings with Atlanta, while then-closer Shane Greene took home a loss and a blown save in his first two appearances. But the early struggles didn’t hold for long. Greene has cruised since taking over the eighth inning, entering Tuesday with a 1.53 ERA in his last 17 2/3 innings.
Mark Melancon has held steady as Atlanta’s closer. He’s 12 for 12 in save chances with the Braves, leaning on the his cutter for 23 strikeouts in 16 appearances with Atlanta. The Braves held firm and didn’t bite on Craig Kimbrel, thankfully so for GM Alex Anthopoulos and Co. Even without a lights-out reliever, Atlanta’s 'pen should suffice in October.