The season is still oh-so young, the big picture still a blurred mess in the dark room of our baseball consciousness. While we wait for it to develop, there's no shortage of tantalizing topics. While the Astros' ridiculous rotation has been on my mind, and the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is already plenty word-worthy, it's probably best to focus instead on some things we might not have the chance to cover in the same context later in the season. Instead, let's gather by the warm hearth of mid-May baseball and turn the conversation to the Atlanta Braves.
We mentioned the Braves' 2018 success in passing when we took a look at the NL favorites' failures in the early goings of the season. In the two weeks since then, though, the Braves have gone 7-4 (despite a recent sweep at the hands of the Giants) and snuck into first place. The NL East is the currently the most tightly-packed in all of MLB, with the expected division-winning Nationals in 4th place, but even they are only 1.5 games out.
If we put aside our preseason expectations, it's not surprising to see the Braves where they are. Their offense has been the best in MLB by a number of markers, including fWAR (8.2), wRC+ (114), AVG (.274 ) and OBP (.341). They would have swept the slashline but for their their SLG (.446), second behind the Red Sox, and they also have the best strikeout rate in the NL (19.4 K%).
Before that series sweep by San Francisco over the weekend, in which shortstop Dansby Swanson was also placed on the DL with a sore wrist, the Braves' were already above a 22% chance to make the postseason per Fangraphs' projection system. Atlanta has the best run differential in the National League (+42) and their projected record is actually a little better than their actual record (two games better by Pythagorean and one by BaseRuns). Even if we're dealing with the small sample sizes of spring, there's more than enough here to merit deeper reflection.
Among those position players who have vaulted the Braves to the front of the pack, it's worth talking about their contributions in the context of age. Even if the Braves are out of first place by the time you read this, they're looking more and more like they have the building blocks in place to make repeated contention in the future a regular thing, thanks to the birthdates of some of the players who have made major contributions to this point.
Had it not been for the presence of a certain Ohtani injection into the prospect rankings heading into the 2018 season, outfielder Ronald Acuna would have been pretty much a consensus pick for the overall number-one spot. The 20-year old sprinted through the minor leagues in 2017, starting out in high-A and finishing up in AAA, improving at every level en route. His final slashline was an extremely impressive .325/.374/.522. He absolutely torched opposing pitchers during spring training (.432/.519/.727) and, had it not been for those pesky service time considerations, he would have (and should have) started the season on Atlanta's MLB roster.
Thanks to the need to procure an extra year of arbitration eligibility, though, the 20-year-old didn't get called up until April 25. Since then, he's more than delivered on all that promise, hitting .326/.367/.565 for a 155 wRC+ over 49 PAs. And he hasn't been the only baby Brave contributing.
Ozzie Albies, a 21-year-old second baseman, was quite good in his first go-around last year (.286/.354/.456, 112 wRC+, 6 HRs and 1.9 fWAR in 57 games). So far, his first full season has been even better. While he's walking less and striking out a bit more, he's surged in the power department, hitting .285/.323/.597 (146 wRC+) with 10 HRs and 1.2 fWAR in a little over half the total games that he played in last year.
While the aforementioned Swanson is currently on the shelf, hopefully it won't be for too long. The 24-year old shortstop seems to have put his disastrous 2017 (.232/.312/.324, 66 wRC+) behind him and rebounded quite a bit (.289/.336/.430, 109 wRC+). But the real draw here is Albies and Acuna. Players who crack the majors at that young an age and find immediate success are usually really, really good (and have a shockingly high percentage chance of making the Hall of Fame). The Braves have two of them, at the same time, for five more seasons after this one.
While the Braves' pitching hasn't been nearly as dominant as their offense, as Atlanta's staff's 2.8 fWAR puts them in the middle of the pack at 14th in MLB, there have still been some promising developments in terms of young players. 20-year old RHP Michael Soroka made his debut on the first of May, only because the Braves have suffered a couple of injuries (to Julio Teheran and Anibal Sanchez). But they're going to have to make a tougher decision than they did with Acuna, because Soroka has worked 10 innings and has a 3.77 FIP. His ability to put the ball wherever he wants suggests good things are to come from Soroka.
Along with Acuna and Albies, Soroka's addition to the MLB roster gives Atlanta the three youngest players in MLB. That's before you get to the other young pitchers who might very well be added to the 2018 Braves' staff, like Atlanta's 2017 first rounder (5th overall), Kyle Wright.
A bit more ready than Wright, though, 21-year-old Luiz Gohara's results in his five starts down the stretch last season weren't quite as good as his peripheral stats suggested they might be (4.91 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 9.51 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, 0.61 HR/9). He turned 21 just a week before he was called up, so it goes without saying that there's plenty of room for him to improve, before you even get to the fact that he's almost certainly better than his 2017 ERA. We've just learned that he's heading back to the majors, likely to work out of the bullpen, for now.
There've been plenty of breaks going the Braves' way in the department of veteran affairs that merit mentioning. Nick Markakis is currently hitting like it's 2008 and he's putting up an even better wRC+ (169) than he did in his 6.0 fWAR season (138 wRC+) a decade ago. Catcher Kurt Suzuki is hitting .310/.375/.548 for a 151 wRC+. While that number is certainly surprising, maybe it shouldn't be: Suzuki put up a 129 wRC+ last year, which was second only to Gary Sanchez if we cap the PAs at 300.
There have been other veteran contributions that are even less likely to hold up over a full season (sorry, Ryan Flaherty and Mike Foltynewicz), and we've got every right to be skeptical about the Braves' ability to contend all year, even if we might expect better things from, say, Ender Inciarte. It's worth noting, however, that ew GM Alex Anthopoulos has a history of making deadline deals during his time with the Blue Jays and there will certainly be a certain Manny Machado available to take over at third if I'm not wrong about Flaherty and the Braves maintain their current relevance for the next couple of months.
There's plenty left in the prospect tank that we haven't even touched on yet, whether or not Anthopoulos decides to make use of it this season. 19-year old outfielder Christian Pache is turning heads as one of the most interesting prospects in all of baseball, for example. The Braves came into this season with one of the best farms in MLB, despite all the prospects they lost in the offseason's international-signing scandal and despite all the prospects they've already graduated. That's surely a scary thought for the other teams in the NL East, whatever happens in 2018.
As with all other aspects of life, it's presumptuous to assume that things will ever work out the way you expect in baseball. Some of the players that are already here are going to suffer through setbacks and adjustments. Some of the players in the pipeline won't develop as hoped. But the Braves look like they're ahead of schedule and it might be sooner than we think that they can start to flex a little bit of financial muscle and fans of other teams go back to abhorring the Braves again. The 90s are making a comeback, after all.