We may still waiting for 'Atlanta' the television show to return, but Atlanta certainly has returned to The Show. While the Phillies have lain claim to first place in the NL East for the majority of the season, the Braves haven’t lost a series since June rolled around and are 13-5 over that time. They find themselves with a 4.0 game division lead and their +45 run differential is by far the best in the division, with Washington in second at +7. But we have to ask: is the latest surge from Atlanta for real and should we expect it to continue?
While Atlanta is 21-19 against teams over .500 overall, their recent dominance has relied on beating up on teams that are decidedly less so, with a big chunk of those wins coming against Detroit (.371), Miami (.361) and Pittsburgh (.452). But that’s really not a knock on the Braves, as good teams should beat up on bad teams, so we’re going to have to dig a little deeper. Plus, the Braves have the easiest schedule going forward, although that’s based on teams’ current records and that could certainly change, given how much season is left.
The lineup has been really good, one of the best in baseball by fWAR (13.1, 4th in MLB, 2nd in the NL). With the exception of Ender Inciarte, who was struggling (.218/.300/.323) prior to hitting the IL in mid-May with a back injury, all of the regulars have been better than average. And the loss of Inciarte hasn’t stung as much as we might have expected, thanks to the emergence of Austin Riley (.292/.348/.608). Brian McCann is home and he’s good again, apparently. You really shouldn’t underestimate how important it is not to have any black holes of suck in your lineup, even if this offense isn’t in the same realm as that of the Dodgers, Twins or Astros.
Nope, if there’s been a problem in Atlanta so far in 2019, it’s been the pitching. Mike Soroka, who is clearly in discussions for Rookie of the Year with his 2.12 ERA and 3.08 FIP, has been the lone high point in an Atlanta rotation that ranks 18th in MLB fy fWAR (4.5), 17th by ERA (4.39) and 16th by FIP (4.38).
Mike Foltynewicz was an All-Star last year, with a 2.85 ERA/3.37 FIP over 183 innings. This year, he’s posted a 5.53 ERA/6.04 FIP over 55 innings. It doesn’t appear that anything is necessarily wrong, as the velocity is still there, but he’s just not getting results. Kevin Gausman has a 6.21 ERA, although there’s at least some hope that he could improve. His 4.13 FIP gives him the largest differential between ERA and FIP among all pitchers in MLB with a minimum of 60 IP. Max Fried and Julio Teheran have been fine, if not particularly impressive. Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Sean Newcomb have all briefly made appearances for Atlanta but the first three didn’t work out and the latter is now in the bullpen, which is it’s own problem that we’ll be discussing shortly.
But there’s already some good news on the rotation front. Dallas Keuchel is scheduled to (finally, dear freaking god) make his 2019 debut as a Brave this week. Leaving aside the fact that he should have already been playing baseball for months, just like we discussed with Craig Kimbrel, the deal is hard to argue with from Atlanta’s point of view.
$13 million for the rest of the season for a pitcher who has won a Cy Young and is coming off a 3.74ERA/3.69 FIP/3.3 fWAR season is likely a steal. While it’s more than a little possible that Keuchel is going to have to shake off some rust, there’s absolutely no reason not to take the chance at that cost.
If they’re committed to hanging on to their most important prospects, as they’ve already indicated is the game plan, they should certainly be checking in on rental options if their non-Soroka prospects aren’t ready to make the jump to the big league, as seems to be the case. At the forefront of the rental pack is Madison Bumgarner, who has a 3.87 ERA/3.97 FIP and wouldn’t command too high of a return. He won’t cost as much as Max Scherzer, for example, and comes with quite the postseason pedigree.
Bumgarner has a partial no-trade clause and could use it to prevent a trade to Atlanta, but that’s likely more for leverage and MadBum would probably be more than a little bit happy to move to the MLB team that’s closest to his hometown of Hickory, NC, not to mention moving to a team with slightly higher odds at making the postseason.
But while I wouldn’t argue with the Braves’ decision to add another starter, maybe one who has been pitching against MLB hitters recently, they really could use help in the bullpen. Atlanta relievers as a whole have -0.3 fWAR, good for 25th in MLB, and win-probability stats do not like the group either, as they come in 17th by WPA (-0.49) and 21st by RE24 (-18.42). Luke Jackson just blew his 6th save of the season and the closer position is far from locked down.
The good news is that there should be plenty of bullpen players hitting the market soon in our first year of a consolidated July 31 deadline. If the Braves are willing to cough up a little more in terms of prospect capital, and there’s every indication they could, given the state of their farm system, which is still one of the best in baseball, there are premium options likely to be available.
Pirates closer Felipe Vázquez is a 27-year-old lefty who is owed $18 million through the 2021 season and then has a couple of $10 million team options. Those numbers are clearly team-friendly, given that Vázquez is 3rd among all relievers by fWAR in MLB since 2017 and has a 2.05 ERA and 14.09 K/9 to go with his 17 saves this season. The cost for Vázquez is escalating every year, though, and this is the Pirates we’re talking about. It would cost a more premium prospect, but that’s what you do when you’re in a position to lock down your division and
If they want to go the rental route here, they should maybe just do a twofer with San Francisco and acquire Will Smith. Somehow Smith has 19 saves for a Giants team that I could swear hasn’t even won that many games, and he has a 2.12ERA/2.23 FIP and is striking out 13.35 batters per nine.
The Braves may have taken a bit of a lead in their division and they probably have an edge over their primary competitors in Philadelphia going forward. The Mets are, well, the Mets. The Nationals can’t catch a break. And I don’t really feel like talking about the Marlins. But, while the division has played out a little bit differently than many of us thought, but the Braves are likely going to need to make some sort of additions going forward if they’re going to take advantage of the position they find themselves in right now to make a deep run this year and not go out in the first round like they did in 2018.
The Braves’ offseason was basically bringing in Josh Donaldson and Nick Markakis on one-year deals and both of those moves have worked out so far. While you can’t blame GM Alex Anthopoulos for wanting to hold off on signing older pitchers when you have a stable full of promising, albeit unproven, young ones, you can blame him if those pitchers fail to develop and you don’t take advantage of your prospects to put yourself in the best possible position to win a World Series. I think Anthopoulos knows that and I’m fairly confident that we’re going to see Atlanta emerging as buyers before we know it.