In 1994, Commissioner Bud Selig realigned both the American and National Leagues by creating three divisions in each league. In doing so, the Atlanta Braves moved from the National League West to the newly aligned East division.
Excluding the strike-shortened season of 1994 and the blip on the radar screen that was the 2006 New York Mets, the National League East has been dominated by two clubs.
In 16 of the past 17 seasons, either the Braves or the Philadelphia Phillies have carried the banner of the NL East into the playoffs.
Just over a month into the 2012 season, a new kid has moved into the neighborhood, and the Washington Nationals are knocking on the door of the former champions apparently ready to play for keeps.
While the Phillies have struggled out of the gate due to injuries to key players, the Braves seem rejuvenated after a September collapse last year that caused them to miss the playoffs on the last day of the season.
Although there is an unwritten sentiment in baseball that we don’t know what a team is until the 50-game mark, it’s safe to say at this point that the Nationals and Braves will be in the race for the NL East crown throughout the season.
Both teams currently sit atop the division, yet they have gotten there by using contrasting styles.
Washington’s pitching staff leads the MLB with a 2.64 ERA and a .207 average against, along with being fourth in K/9 (8.09).
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s offense is among the best in baseball, ranking in the top five in runs scored (166), batting average (.269) and, surprisingly, stolen bases (24).
It goes without saying that these two rosters will look different in September than they do at this early stage in the schedule, but let’s take how both teams are currently assembled and see who might have an early edge head-to-head.
Gio Gonzalez has a 1.72 ERA and a 10.06 K/9 rate for the Nationals this season.
When Bradford Doolittle of Baseball Prospectus (h/t Kevin Kaduk of Big League Stew) recently asked Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo why they were using a 160-innings limit for Stephen Strasburg instead of a total number of pitches or some other metric to count high-stress innings, the response was surprising.
"Who says it's not?" Rizzo said. "Look, the media put (the 160-innings limit) out there, not me. It probably comes from what Jordan Zimmermann pitched last year.
"I don't have a specific pitch count in my mind, a specific innings count in my mind. I am going to refer to my experience as a farm director, as a player development guy and knowing his body. In conjunction with Davey Johnson and Steve McCatty, when we feel he's had enough, we're going to shut him down.”
That quote leaves a lot of room for interpretation, so in terms of our little discussion, we will assume the Nationals aren’t going to pull one of the top five pitchers in MLB from their rotation during the playoffs.
On paper, the strength of the Braves' roster heading into the season was seemingly the starting pitching, more specifically, the wealth of pitching depth. That has yet to be the case, with Brandon Beachy the only Atlanta starter to provide quality innings on a consistent basis.
As Tim Hudson rounds into form after returning from back surgery, so should the remainder of the Atlanta rotation. Also, expect Tommy Hanson’s peripheral numbers, such as a career-high 1.39 WHIP and .307 BABIP, to stabilize closer to career averages.
A projected playoff rotation of Hudson, Hanson, Mike Minor and Beachy will be formidable for any lineup to contend with.
The offseason acquisitions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson combined with Zimmerman and Strasburg gives Washington a starting pitching edge in nearly any playoff series, including this one against the Braves.
With both clubs having above-average to plus rotations, how will each lineup fare versus the other's pitching staff?
The Nationals have lots of swing-and-miss in their lineup, led by Danny Espinosa’s 37 strikeouts in only 102 at-bats.
More concerning than Espinosa has to be Ian Desmond and his 26 strikeouts from the leadoff spot.
There’s also the likelihood Bryce Harper could be in line to bat second in the order, and although his strikeout total has been held in check through nine games, the league will eventually make adjustments, causing that number to increase.
If Desmond and Harper are penciled in at the top of the order, there will be a lack of run-scoring opportunities for Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche.
Atlanta also accumulates its fair share of strikeouts, but those come from the more conventional power spots in the lineup.
A high strikeout rate from the middle of the order is more acceptable because those numbers are usually followed by power totals that make up for the non-contact out.
This is where the Nationals fall short with an Isolated Power (ISO) of .119 compared to the Braves' .151.
The depth Atlanta’s lineup provides throughout the order gives them the edge offensively.
Washington hopes its bullpen looks dramatically different down the stretch than it does at this point.
Drew Storen and Brad Lidge are both slated to return in June, which would allow current closer Henry Rodriguez to slot into a setup role alongside Lidge and strengthen the bullpen depth.
Even when healthy, the Nationals' bullpen is slightly behind Atlanta’s trio of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
Add Kris Medlen’s ability to not only set up when Venters and O’Flaherty need rest, but also provide multiple innings in the relief roles if necessary.
It was a compelling argument before Mariano Rivera got injured, but with him now on the shelf for the rest of the season, Kimbrel becomes the best closer in the MLB without much dispute.
That factor alone gives Atlanta the bullpen edge over Washington.
Most of the criticism over last season’s collapse fell in the lap of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Many felt his overuse of relievers Kimbrel, Venters and even O’Flaherty was the main factor in the demise of Atlanta as it failed to hang onto a 9.5-game lead with a month left to play.
Gonzalez’s in-game decisions have also drawn the ire of fans and baseball analysts alike.
After a 10-year managerial hiatus, Davey Johnson took over during the 2011 season after the unexpected resignation of Jim Riggleman.
Johnson has won on the ultimate stage, leading the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series crown.
He has also been voted in the top three for the Manager of the Year award six times, including winning the award in 1997 while managing the Baltimore Orioles to a 98-win season.
Giving Johnson the managerial edge over Gonzalez puts this discussion at a 2-2 tie.
The tiebreaker goes to the experience of playing meaningful games at the end of the season, and although the Braves fell short in 2011, they have been through proverbial fire.
There’s also the playoff experience and leadership that Chipper Jones provides; it’s those types of unseen qualities that can make a difference when all other advantages are so slight.
Therefore, the overall edge goes to the Braves in a series that would likely come down to a seventh game.
Jim Pratt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, MLB contributor for MLBDepthCharts and BravesWire. Follow Jim on Twitter, @2OutSacBunt