It is no secret that the Atlanta Braves' front office has taken some heat lately for their offseason stagnation. In an alarming opening series against the Phillies, some of the weaknesses from last season, particularly on the mound, were put on full display. Fortunately, the Braves have bounced back to win seven of their eight matchups since then, and have reestablished themselves as a major force in the National League.
There's no question that the Braves' biggest strength is their offense. They already possessed some of the league's finest up and coming superstars in Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and the lesser known yet arguably equally productive (despite some early 2019 woes and lack of ABs) Johan Camargo. When guys like these are put in the mix with veterans like Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, now Josh Donaldson & once again Atlanta's beloved Brian McCann, it makes for a force to be reckoned with at the plate.
Thus far in 2019, our offense has done exactly what they were expected to do. Even though we've lost four games, in those four games our lineup has scored a combined 13 runs, which just goes to show that the bats aren't the issue-- any team scoring 13 runs over a span of four games should expect to win at least a couple of them. In the eleven games we've played up to this point, five out of the eight starting position players are hitting at least .320, and four of those five are hitting .340 or higher.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Braves' offensive game in 2019 has been the resurrection of Dansby Swanson, who's been an absolute blast to watch. It seems as though the first overall draft pick is finally getting his feet under him at the plate, and producing not only by getting on base (his bread and butter) but via the deep ball as well, which has come as a pleasant surprise to Braves fans far and wide. Dansby's Achilles heel throughout his professional career has been the outside pitch, and since the final two spring training games, he's put three over the opposite field wall, which shows he's taken huge strides in his offseason work. He currently leads the team in home runs and RBIs with four and fifteen respectively. He was one of the few weak links in a talented 2018 lineup, so seeing him finally excel with a bat in his hands is huge for the future of not only the fan favorite player but the Braves organization as a whole.
Another seemingly insignificant yet quite promising statistic is the massively improved selectiveness of Ozzie Albies. Being as fast as he is at the top of the lineup, we need him to get on base, period. Last year he posted just a .305 on-base percentage and struck out 116 times--more than three times as frequently as he walked. This year, he's walked five times and struck out just four. He's on pace to walk nearly 74 times in 2019, more than doubling his walks from 2018. More walks means higher OBP and higher OBP means more RBIs for the guys behind him. This means 2019's offense could literally be twice as productive as they were in 2018, which is scary.
Of course, stacking your lineup with some of the best hitters in the league is never a bad idea, but when you consider how good our offense was in 2018 with our starters at each position hitting an average .276 on the season and slugging at a .453 clip (.028 and .044 higher than the league averages, respectively) in contrast to a questionably reliable pitching staff, the lack of acquisition from a pitching standpoint seems like a failure to prioritize. It's been shown throughout the history of baseball that no matter how good of a lineup you have, they can't be expected to show up and produce night in and night out like your pitching staff can and should, and when you give up six runs three out of four games in the division series, this presents a problem. Acquiring Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in the offseason certainly won't hurt us, but it absolutely does raise the question, "why didn't we go get an arm?".
In 2018, the Braves posted the 10th worst ERA in the Major Leagues. While not a horrendous stat, it certainly won't win you a World Series-- or take you anywhere in the playoffs, for that matter. What's frustrating about the Braves (and really Atlanta sports as a whole) is that times like these don't come around infrequently. It's not rare that the Braves are a good baseball team. The thing is, it is rare that the Braves are a great baseball team. 2019 Is arguably our best opportunity to win big since the 90s, and considering how many pieces are in place, the obvious lack of willingness to make a move where we need it most, the pitcher's mound, is quite vexing.
Let's take a look at our starting rotation. The fact that Julio Teheran is our opening day starter says a lot. While he is a veteran who has shown periods of great success in the MLB, he is by no means a bonafide ace, which is what we're in desperate need of. Three of the six starting pitchers the Braves have put out there this season haven't even seen more than 75 big league innings, which is definitely a problem. These guys have as much raw talent as anyone, but to make a run in the postseason right now, which I believe the Braves are capable of doing, they need a proven winner--someone who's established themselves as a dominant force on the mound in the Majors. Mike Foltynewicz being on the IL certainly isn't helping the Braves' case; but, even when he returns, he isn't one of those guys who's going to win nearly every game he steps on the mound. He'll eat innings and keep you in ballgames, but I would hesitate to consider him a "dominant" starter. If we just had one major household name in our starting rotation, we'd be in a lot better shape.
Unfortunately, the rotation isn't the only thing holding us back from a pitching standpoint and is arguably the second biggest issue of concern. Our bullpen (or lack thereof) absolutely killed us in 2018. A good way to destroy any sort of morale within an organization is to watch a question mark of a starter throw a quality game, then have their efforts rendered vain thanks to an insufficient performance out of the bullpen; this was seen all too often last season and it's hard to believe it won't continue given the lack of change between now and then. Sure, we acquired an experienced closer in Darren O'Day (though he's currently on the IL), but he hasn't seen the mound since last June and now brings about health concerns--hamstring issues seem to stick around and haunt athletes more than just about any health issue in sports. He will certainly help upon return, but even then, either our middle relief is going to have to step up their game, or the front office is going to have to step up their game and get us a quality reliever. Our starters simply aren't going to go seven innings every night, whether that's something Braves fans like to admit or not.
I will say, the bullpen has seemed to pick it up in the last two series-- they've given up just three earned through 14 innings in the last five games. It's hard to use this as any sort of barometer of improvement, though, as those five games have been played against the two worst teams in their respective divisions. It's not a bad thing, but it doesn't necessarily get my hopes up either.
On the bright side, we do have a handful of the most highly touted pitching prospects in the nation, some of whom made appearances at the end of last season with moderate levels of success. Any scout will tell you that Touki Toussaint, Ian Anderson, and Kolby Allard (which is by no means an exhaustive list) have all the potential in the world, but the Braves have decided these guys aren't quite ready to be consistent contributors in the show. In my opinion, this is a good move-- the league has seen a number of careers fail to reach their potential due to a rushed upbringing. With that being said, considering we have the offensive and defensive pieces in place to be a world series caliber team right now, why should we wait on these young arms to come to fruition? Why not compete for a World Series now and later? Only one team in the past 26 years has won a World Series with a bottom half payroll, which makes it hard to understand why the organization is being so conservative.
It may seem like Atlanta's fan base is asking a lot when they say they want a top of the line starter and a quality reliever or two to complement their all-star loaded offense-- a lot of teams would be happy to have just one of those. The thing is, when your front office claims they're going to spend with the best of them, and you're as close as the Braves are to being a World Series caliber team, it's hard to be patient and wait for these young arms to develop--especially when the organization consistently spends $40 million less than the league average.
So, what does all of this mean for the Braves? I don't want to jump the gun eleven games into the season, but I think it's fair to assume the offensive production will continue, if not improve. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Josh Donaldson are both struggling at the plate, but being that the former is the reigning rookie of the year and the latter has an AL MVP and Silver Slugger award under his belt, I'm not too terribly concerned by their slow starts. It is clear that the offense will be there in 2019 (and for years to come), but what about the pitching?
Unfortunately, I foresee a failure to immediately address our pitching issues being fatal for the Braves in 2019 and perhaps even 2020. As hot as we are right now, it would be naive to ignore the fact that we are 0-3 against one of the best teams in baseball and 7-1 against three of the worst teams in baseball. If that doesn't forecast postseason disappointment, I don't know what will. Give it a couple of years and we'll be fine on the mound considering how many arms we've got in the farm system, but these guys simply aren't ready to step into the bigs and win 17 games; unfortunately, neither are the guys in the rotation right now. The bats may carry Atlanta to the postseason, but it may be NLDS and out-- there's simply too much pitching talent in the playoffs to expect to win a series with the bats alone.
With all of this being said, the Braves do have an incredibly bright future. In 2021, I think we'll be the team to beat. I could be wrong about 2019 & 2020, and I hope that I am, but it looks like immediate postseason success is going to boil down to whether or not the front office is willing to make that big move.