Since the early ‘90s (when former Braves manager Bobby Cox took over for Atlanta) until 2005, the Atlanta Braves had been a mainstay for first place in their division and were always on the fast track to the playoffs.
Well, the last two years, the Braves have re-surged in their division, and they’ve finished in second place each season. This year looks to be different, as the offseason has shaken up one of the most competitive divisions in the MLB.
First, the Miami Marlins completely changed their look, as well as their personnel. The Washington Nationals improved their starting pitching and look as if they’ll be in contention by the end of the year. The Phillies are always involved in the playoff talk, and the Mets—well, it’s just another tough year in Queens.
However, the Braves will still win the National League East, because their starting pitching is dominant, either the best or tied for best in division with the Phillies. Their bullpen is definitely the best in the league. Not to mention, this season their offense has exploded onto the scene.
Let’s start with their pitching.
Let me just start out by saying first that the Phillies lost one of their aces (Cliff Lee) to the DL this past Saturday. He injured his oblique muscle, and there is no timetable for his return. Right now, he is on the 15-day DL, and he'll be out for at least a month.
With that said, the Braves starting five just became that much more tough and strong. Led by ace and veteran Tim Hudson (who is currently on the DL), the rotation is very experienced but still young. There’s a great mix of veterans who have been around the game a long time and younger players who haven’t been around for too long, but have already proven themselves.
Although the Braves currently rank 11th in the majors in pitching with a 3.82 ERA, there’s definitely time to improve and lower that mark, especially with the Phillies loss. The Nationals lead the league with a 2.34 ERA, and the Phillies sit in second with a 2.46 ERA.
Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado are the Braves’ starting five at this point in time. When Hudson returns later this month or early May, Delgado, who is 2-1 with a 5.64 ERA this season, will be demoted back to their AAA affiliate.
Jurrjens, who was 13-6 with a 2.96 ERA last season, has struggled this season over his first three outings. He’s 0-1 with a0 8.10 ERA in just 13.1 innings (12 earned runs allowed). Those numbers do not reflect the capabilities that Braves fans have seen in the past. In his career, he’s 50-34 with a 3.48 ERA. He’ll get back into the swing of things and pitch like an ace.
Hanson is 2-2 with a 3.38 ERA over his four starts this year, and he’s been the strongest, most consistent so far for the Braves. Last season, he was 11-7 with a 3.60 ERA, and in his career, he sports a 34-24 record with a 3.29 ERA in 81 career outings.
Beachy leads the majors with a 0.47 ERA, as he’s allowed just five runs, one earned, over his 19.1 innings of work. He’s 2-1 and has compiled 14 strikeouts, and opponents are batting just .162 off of the righty. In his career, he’s just 9-6 with a 3.27 ERA, but he has a great future ahead of him.
So, those are the Braves top three, without Hudson right now. Not to mention, Minor is on the rise and one of the top prospects around the game. If I had more time, I would delve into more stats. With the Phillies losing Lee, the Braves have a great opportunity to make up some ground on the Nationals and take charge in the east.
The Braves have one of the best bullpens in all of baseball, and that’s no surprise. Last season, their pen was so overworked, they fell apart in September, and that was the main reason for their downfall and missed playoff opportunity.
Ventures has tossed 6.2 innings over his seven appearances and has yet to allow an earned run—or even an unearned run, for that matter. Closer Kimbrel’s surrendered one earned run over his six innings of work and is a perfect five for five in save opportunities.
These two relievers are probably the best one-two punch out of a bullpen across the league, if not in the majors. They shut down their opponents like it’s nothing, and they continue to be successful even though teams have seen them in the past—they’re unable to adjust.
Who can forget the dominant Eric O’Flaherty? Well, he’s struggled this season thus far, so maybe that’s why people are talking about him. He’s surrendered four earned runs over just 4.2 innings. Last season, he finished with a microscopic 0.98 ERA over his 78 appearances (he allowed eight earned runs all of last year). It’s early, and his ERA looks worse than it really is (7.72 ERA).
Other than these three dominant relievers, they feature veteran Chad Durbin, who has struggled this year with a 10.13 ERA, as he’s allowed six earned runs over 5.1 innings pitched. He’s a proven relief pitcher who has tossed for the Phillies and can definitely pitch under pressure. He knows what it’s like to pitch during the playoffs and has experience to lend to the newcomers.
Other than that, Kris Medlen has allowed just two earned runs over his first six outings (2.00 ERA, nine innings). Cristhian Martinez is 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA as he’s surrendered just two earned runs over his five innings of work.
Currently, the Braves have the third-best offense in the National League average-wise (.264, behind the Cardinals' .281 and the Rockies' .266). However, they’ve scored the most runs in the NL with 91 already.
Collectively, they accumulated 18 home runs, 144 base hits and 29 doubles through the first 16 games.
Jason Heyward is leading the charge with a .309 batting average, after he finished his sophomore season with just a .227 clip. The 22-year-old’s slugging percentage is .527, as he’s crushed two home runs and two doubles, and he’s driven in eight RBI so far.
Heyward succumbed to the sophomore slump last year after breaking out in his first year with the club. He smashed 18 home runs and drove in 72 in his first year with the Braves—last year, he finished with just 14 home runs and 42 RBI in an injury-shortened season.
Center fielder Michael Bourn, the former Astro, is putting together an impressive year with the Braves. He’s batting .338 over his first 16 games as he’s collected 22 base hits in just 65 at-bats. Not only has he been able to get on base, he’s scored 12 times already.
Up-and-coming, young first baseman Freddie Freeman is hitting at a .283 clip and leads the club with 15 RBI over his first 15 games. He’s scored 12 runs as well—not to mention, he’s smashed three home runs, which is tied for second on the club with third baseman Juan Francisco.
Martin Prado, who was contending for the batting title most of the season last year, is hitting .271 on the year, but he’s second on the team with nine RBI. He’s collected 16 base hits over his 59 at-bats, and he’s scored 10 runs on the year.
So, although they haven’t put up staggering statistics, everyone has contributed to their offense this season in one way or another. It’s still early, but look for Heyward to have another impressive season (as long as he stays healthy) and Freeman to be one of the best young players out there.
Problems in Their Division
The Phillies are getting too old. They just lost Lee for at least a month of the season. Superstar Ryan Howard is still not in the lineup, and who knows how he’ll perform when he comes back from his Achilles’ injury he suffered last October?
Of course, their starting pitching and bullpen is great. We’ll see how they do without Lee, but their offense is really the question.
The Nationals bolstered their pitching this past offseason with the addition of former Athletic Gio Gonzalez to fortify their starting five. Of course, Strasburg heads the rotation. But they’re too young as a group. Gonzalez is in his mid-20s, along with Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler.
There is no doubt the Nationals will compete this season behind their strong pitching, but I think the question is whether they can last the entire year, as they’re too young collectively.
They need more experience, because none of them have really been in a playoff-type situation, except for Jackson, and he’s bounced around from team to team in his young career.
Well, what is there to say about the Mets?
They lost their two best players in Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. Although ace Johan Santana finally returned, there’s no way to predict how he’ll pitch the rest of the season. They need someone to step up and take charge, and it sure isn’t going to be Jason Bay.
At the beginning of the season, the Marlins were chosen as one of the teams to be this year with the additions of Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano and Heath Bell, among others.
They just haven’t played as well as they thought they would. I think they are too new and still need another year to play together and get situated.
Especially playing under the eccentric Ozzie Guillen, they need at least a season together before they can be competitive.