The Braves, as of this writing, sit in 3rd place in the East, 4.5 back of the Marlins and 4 back of the Phillies and sitting one game under .500. Not the start they were hoping for, but in a division with very weak Nationals and Mets teams, and a Marlins team that is overachieving, in my opinion, the Braves are looking in pretty good shape, and really look like a team that could make a better run at the division than I initially thought. Let’s take a look at why they’re in good position.
Hitting: This is a group of hitters that has performed much better than I would have predicted this season. You have Jason Heyward doing scary good Jason Heyward things, Brian McCann being the best human catcher in baseball (Buster Posey of course being a Demigod), Chipper Jones pretending he’s 29 and not 39, Martin Prado continuing what he started in his breakout year last season and Freddie Freeman beginning to find his groove after coming into the season than with only slightly less hype than Brandon Belt. The three biggest weak spots for the Braves? Center fielder Nate McLouth, who while not doing really well, is at a MUCH better place than last season, Dan Uggla who has had some big struggles so far, but still has been hitting long balls, and Shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who more than makes up for it with his glove. The only other area that makes me pause when I look at their lineup is a very shallow and weak bench outside of backup catcher David Ross. But seriously: Chipper Jones has been looking scary good this season, it’s incredible considering going into Spring Training that he looked like he was going to retire.
Pitching: With all the talk about the pitching rotation of the Phillies, Giants and Brewers this offseason, the Braves were almost completely ignored, except now that I look at their starting it’s got to be one of the stronger ones in the National League. Tim Hudson is the only one of Oakland’s old Big Three (Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder) that has been consistently good the last few seasons and he looks really good this year. His ERA is a bit high, but watching him pitch tells you a different story. Jair Jurrjens just came back from the DL, and continues to mow people down as he somehow is the most underrated young pitcher in the NL right now. Tommy Hudson has a great strikeout rate (1 an inning) but a fairly high Opponent Batting Average, but this guy is young and will be the Braves ace for years to come. Derek Lowe, the Braves 4th pitcher, looks more like the old Red Sox Derek Lowe and less like the Lowe of the last few years, leading the team in K’s and the starters in ERA. Brandon Beachy came out of nowhere during Spring Training to win the 5th starters job, and although he hasn’t looked amazing, has looked way better than expected with 31 K’s in 29 innings and 1.09 WHIP. Add in to that a ridiculous back of the bullpen of Eric O’Flaherty, Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, and if the Braves have the lead going into the 7th inning, they’ll probably win. That said the rest of their bullpen has proven to be a big time weak spot and you can only hope George Sherrill holds up for so long before you need to go get yourself a solid right hander, or call one of your many AAA prospects to get it done.
Overall: If this team stays healthy there is no reason to think that it can’t win the NL East this year, in fact if the Phillies continue to break down, that’s exactly what I expect to happen.