When I was a kid, the Atlanta Braves were a juggernaut. Yes, they only won one World Series during that time, and I don’t even remember it (it is the most recent World Series I do not remember at all), but every year, they were in contention. In 1990, the Braves finished in last place, and in 1991, they finished in first place…and then they finished in first place in every completed season through 2005.
Somehow, during that stretch, they didn’t even lead teams in their division in World Series titles (that would be the 1997 and 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins), but they had an iconic, loaded roster. The team’s trio of aces–Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz–are all deservedly in Cooperstown, and each won at least one Cy Young Award while teammates with the other two. For those of you too young to remember these Braves teams but old enough to remember the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies triple-threat of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels–this was basically that but for a decade. Chipper Jones was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Andruw Jones was, by the numbers, the greatest defensive center fielder of all-time. And that’s not even to mention players like Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, or David Justice, none of whom are Hall of Famers but all of whom struck fear in the hearts of opponents.
At the conclusion of the division-winning run, the Braves spent a few years in the wildnerness, but re-emerged in the early 2010s to become a legitimate contender. They made the postseason in 2010, infamously squandered a huge Wild Card lead in 2011, and hosted (and lost) the first Wild Card Game in 2012. Yeah, yeah, that one. You know the one. 2013 was the peak of that run, however, as the Braves won 96 games and their first NL East crown in eight years. Despite a truly dreadful season from center fielder B.J. Upton, the rest of the lineup carried the team–Andrelton Simmons was such a great defensive shortstop that he overcame below-average offense to post a 7 WAR season, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton held down the corner outfield spots to great success, and first baseman Freddie Freeman was the team’s best hitter. The rotation, led by Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran, was solid, and closer Craig Kimbrel was lights-out.
On July 20, 2014, the Braves held a division lead, but after a poor final two months of the season, they finished with a disappointing 79-83 record. And then they cleaned house. And they started to build what is now looking like a dynasty.
The Braves probably didn’t “need” to rebuild, but it is hard to deny how well they executed it. They traded Jason Heyward for Shelby Miller, whom the Braves traded the next off-season for a fourth of their 2018 starting lineup, center fielder Ender Inciarte and shortstop Dansby Swanson (as well as since-released pitcher Aaron Blair). They traded Justin Upton to the San Diego Padres for four prospects, including Max Fried, a promising pitching prospect who has had some success in MLB, and Mallex Smith, who in retrospect the Braves should have held onto for longer. The Braves later dealt with the Padres again, sending Craig Kimbrel and the man now known as Melvin Upton Jr. west. They sent Evan Gattis to Houston for a package which included current Braves ace Mike Foltynewicz.
But more than anything, the Braves have built themselves on international amateur signings. Ronald Acuna Jr., who is separating himself from the pack in his quest to be NL Rookie of the Year, second baseman Ozzie Albies, and third baseman Johan Camargo were signed for a combined $492,000. This trio has followed the lead of Julio Teheran, a carryover from the previous Braves run of contention.
These youngsters represent the future of the Braves, no question, but this is an all-around, fundamentally solid baseball team. Freddie Freeman, the most notable carryover from the early 2010s teams, remains one of the game’s best hitters. By any measure, catching combo Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers have been effective, but by Baseball Prospectus’s measure (one which incorporates advanced catching defensive metrics beyond player value measurements from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs), their otherworldly pitch framing has them worth a combined 5.1 wins. Veteran right fielder Nick Markakis, long an Effectively Wild meme for being among the best players in history without an All-Star Game appearance nor MVP vote, ended that streak by starting the All-Star Game this season. The rotation has been maintained by the aforementioned Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb (acquired in the Andrelton Simmons trade), and a late-career resurgence from Anibal Sanchez. In the bullpen, closer Arodys Vizcaino has a sub-2 ERA (though his 3+ FIP suggests some luck).
Anyway the Braves are going to be terrifying for a while but the Cardinals should still go ahead and sweep them.
Because of the Braves’ increasingly growing lead in the NL East, their rotation is subject to change to such a degree that as of the moment I wrote this, ESPN.com doesn’t even list starters for this weekend. But the Cardinals are expected to start their two most consistent starters during this series, so that may allow the Cardinals to steal a few games here. Tonight (6:35 p.m. Central), the Cardinals will throw Miles Mikolas (15-4, 2.99 ERA); on Tuesday (6:30), it’ll be Austin Gomber (5-1, 3.78 ERA), and on Wednesday, at 11:10 for some reason, Jack Flaherty (8-7, 2.86 ERA) will take the mound.