The Atlanta Braves won 97 games in 2019. When the St. Louis Cardinals won this many games in 2013, it was considered a sign of a team that was dominant (and also historically lucky with runners in scoring position, but that’s a separate matter). When the Braves did it, it makes them an afterthought compared to the four 100-win teams of this era of the superteam and of egregious, extreme tanking. But make no mistake about it: the Atlanta Braves are not an easy team for the Cardinals to be facing in the NLDS.
Behind the plate, like the Cardinals, the Braves have a veteran defensive wizard starter, but in the form of two players: Brian McCann, on his second run with Atlanta, and Tyler Flowers. Although McCann has lost a step or three, he is a serviceable veteran. Unlike Yadier Molina, one of the more famous baseball players alive and somebody who will at the very minimum receive Hall of Fame consideration, the 33 year-old Flowers has spent most of his career as a backup. But he is one of the major beneficiaries of the framing revolution, and his ability to get extra strike calls for his pitchers has made him a prized asset. Neither is a great hitter, though, so the Braves count on others to lead the offense. Fortunately for them, they have plenty of offensive options.
At first base for the Braves is the team’s veteran leader, Freddie Freeman. Per usual, he was the team’s best hitter in 2019. But the team’s most valuable player, by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, patrols the other corner—Josh Donaldson, on a one-year contract following successful stints with the Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, and a brief time with the Cleveland Indians, bounced back from a slightly subpar 2018, combining excellence on both sides of the ball. He may not top his $23 million salary next year, but he will surely sign a multi-year deal if he wants one.
Up the middle, the Braves aren’t quite as potent, but they are certainly still young and talented. At second base, the Braves have 22 year-old Ozzie Albies. While the controversy surrounding the extension he signed last off-season has muddied much of the discourse surrounding Albies, his talent is undeniable—for the third consecutive season, he was an above-average hitter and solid fielder who, despite a modest 5’8”, 165 pound frame, belted 24 home runs. And while shortstop Dansby Swanson may not quite live up to the expectations one might have for a number one overall pick, he is a passable hitter for being a good defensive shortstop, and he’s still only 25. I liken him a bit to Russell Maryland, the defensive tackle who went number-one overall to the Dallas Cowboys in 1991—by sheer talent and production, he wasn’t as impactful as many top picks, and perhaps with a heaping helping of hindsight the Cowboys would’ve preferred to draft future Hall of Fame cornerback Aeneas Williams, but Maryland was a rock-solid component of championship teams and he filled a need admirably.
Last season, Ronald Acuna Jr. was the National League Rookie of the Year as a left fielder, while Ender Inciarte patrolled center field on his way to a third consecutive Gold Glove. But Inciarte has missed most of 2019 due to injury (and will miss the NLDS), and Acuna has filled in adequately in center field while remaining a premium offensive threat. He’s no Inciarte defensively, but Acuna does allow others to handle the corners. Nick Markakis, who still has a chance to become the most hilarious player in MLB history to reach 3,000 career hits, was merely league average-ish in right field, while left field has been a mix-and-match between Adam Duvall and Austin Riley. Duvall has been better; Riley, the team’s top prospect entering 2019, has more upside.
The team’s most prominent bench player not yet mentioned is infielder Johan Camargo, but the former starter will miss the NLDS due to injury. The Braves have Billy Hamilton, the potent speedster most known for his time with the Cincinnati Reds, but given the presence of Yadier Molina patrolling the bases, Hamilton as a pinch-runner may be more dangerous; he is, however, an intriguing potential late-inning defensive replacement. Adeiny Hechavarria has been excellent for the Braves, but notably, this has only been in 70 plate appearances and while still being Adeiny Hechavarria.
The Braves have a fairly deep but arguably lacking in star power starting rotation. The team’s most effective starter in 2019 was rookie Mike Soroka, but the team has already publicly conceded that he will only be starting one game, Game 3, this series. Beyond Soroka, their best pitcher by any measure, the Braves have two players with ERAs in the threes who look less favorable by advanced metrics: longtime Brave Julio Teheran (likely to be omitted from the NLDS roster) and mid-season free agent acquisition Dallas Keuchel (who will start Game 1). They have two additional pitchers with higher ERAs but more robust fielding-independent metrics: Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz. Preference between the camps is largely ideological, but it’s hard to argue any of these four pitchers is far and away superior to the others. They’ve all been merely Fine. Of course, one can argue the same is true for the Cardinals minus Flaherty.
But the weakest point for the Braves is an aspect with an outsized influence in the postseason—relief pitching. The Braves ranked 21st by FanGraphs WAR accumulated by the bullpen, second-worst among playoff teams to the Washington Nationals (every other playoff team ranked in the top ten). Righty Luke Jackson was the team’s best reliever on the season, though his 3.84 ERA and 3.24 FIP, while certainly being good enough to be in a playoff bullpen, aren’t exactly world-beating. Mark Melancon, a trade deadline acquisition, and journeyman Chris Martin, have been revelations by FIP, with each falling under two, but the wide gap between their ERAs and FIPs—each is allowing more than two more runs than their pitcher-independent numbers indicate—point to the lack of data on the two. The bullpen has been characterized more by the mediocrity of its innings leader, Josh Tomlin, than a Yankees-like core. Additionally, the team’s de facto lefty reliever of choice, Jerry Blevins, is in the midst of his second consecutive season of abject mediocrity.
To be fair, the Atlanta Braves are a dangerous team. Every playoff team is. But I see a favorable matchup for the Cardinals. At this point, I would bet all of my worldly possessions on Jack Flaherty in a do-or-die Game 5 (note: I don’t own that many things) against any Braves starter, but the Cardinals have to get there first. I think the Cardinals take Game 2 and the Braves take Game 3, each on the road. I firmly believe that if the Braves can’t finish off the Cardinals in 4 (which they totally can), they can’t finish them off. I stand by what I said yesterday: I don’t think the Cardinals are any kind of postseason sleeping giant waiting to emerge, but I think the Braves are still a year or two away from emerging from good team to potential juggernaut.