Shuffling through all the photos of yesterday’s game between Atlanta and Arizona, I came across a photo of Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips with the widest smile I’ve seen associated with the club by either a fan, player or coach in a long time. The photo perfectly captured the mood around the suddenly surging franchise.
Sunday’s win over the Diamondbacks capped a three-game sweep over a playoff contender and put the Braves back at .500 for the season for the first time since they were 6-6 just 12 games into the season. Of course, depending on the result of Monday’s game against the Cubs, it may be just a brief break without a losing record.
Still, the Braves have performed well beyond any reasonable expectation entering the season, especially considering they played nearly half of those games without their best player. First baseman Freddie Freeman was a legitimate MVP candidate until he went out with a broken wrist on May 17. The next day the Braves lost 9-0, and truth be told, I gave up on expecting much out of them the rest of the way.
The players, though, never gave up. Acquiring Matt Adams from St. Louis to fill in for Freeman turned out to be the low-key move of the season so far. Adams is slashing .291/.335/.609 (that’s batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage for the uninitiated) since joining the lineup.
The Braves were 16-22 after dropping the 9-0 game to Toronto after Freeman’s injury. When Freeman returned to the lineup against Houston on July Fourth, Atlanta was 40-41. They were swept pretty badly by the best team in baseball, but managed to split a series at Washington just before the All-Star break.
The Arizona sweep got them back to even for the season, but are they playoff contenders? I don’t think so — yet.
Despite turning over a new leaf on the season, the Braves are still 10 games behind a very good Washington team in the NL East and six games behind Colorado for the last wild card spot entering Monday’s game. Even with the sweep, the Diamondbacks still lead the wild card race by seven games over the Braves.
The valley may be too deep for Atlanta to climb out. Still, the task they face is not completely impossible. For inspiration, they should look to the 2012 Oakland A’s.
That edition of the A’s got off to a less than ideal start, 22-29 entering July, but the team of young, developing players started to shine in the summer. Oakland climbed back to even by the All-Star break, but still trailed Texas by nine games in the American League West.
The A’s finished July with a 19-5 record and reduced the lead to less than five games. Texas had just a two-game lead entering the final series of the season, which was at Oakland. The A’s swept the series and won the division. Oakland was in first place for one day, but it was the only day that mattered.
The Braves have more talent than that Oakland team in the field. The only area where I think that A’s team was better was on the mound with a mix of veteran and emerging starters and a bullpen that seemed 99.99 percent effective.
Atlanta could use another starting pitcher if they’re going to make a playoff push. Veterans Julio Teheran, R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia and Mike Foltynewicz have been solid, but only Folty has an ERA under 4.00. Fifth starter Sean Newcomb has flashed potential since being called up from Triple-A Gwinnett with 30 strikeouts in just over 31 innings, but is a hard-luck 1-4 with a 4.26 ERA.
There’s just something missing from the rotation. If Newcomb continues to develop, a trade may be unnecessary. But the staff needs either some new life or its current arms to find their next gears to chase down a playoff spot.
That brings us to an important philosophical question with which the Braves’ front-office is no doubt wrestling. Do they chase the playoff spot and deal away some of the talent in their farm system, or do they keep the rebuilding process going in-house?
Atlanta has plenty of names that could draw them a top-flight pitcher like Oakland’s Sonny Gray. But an acquisition is going to cost Atlanta some of the blue-chip talent they have amassed in the minors. Do you trade potential superstars like outfielder Ronald Acuna, second baseman Ozzie Albies or the plethora of arm talent for a young, controllable pitcher the caliber of Gray?
The answer to that depends on what the front office thinks the Braves chances are of making the playoffs this year. With a rigorous schedule before the July 31 trade deadline, the answer may go down to the wire.