Can the Braves win the East?
The 2006 Braves excelled with the timber and given that the only significant offensive departee was LaRoche the expectation was that the Braves' prowess with the bat should continue this year. The data back this up. The team has the fourth highest runs per game on the junior circuit, behind Marlins, Mets and Phillies (though the Phils do play in a band-box).
The only player to disappoint is Andruw Jones with his anaemic .230/.340/.444 line, although in the last seven days his OPS has been north of 1.000, which is certainly encouraging. Chipper is his rampaging self, though unfortunately has wound up on the DL, Frenchy is more disciplined at the plater, Renteria is continuing his great 2006 form and KJ has great on base skills and also some pomp batting lead-off.
There are a couple of concerns in the 7 and 8 spots with too may at-bats going to journeymen like Woodward, Prado and Orr. However, barring serious injuries there is no reason to expect the Braves offensive Juggernaut to dry up any time soon.
Let's move on to the pitching.
The Braves rotation doesn't suck, that's for sure. The staff as a whole has an ERA of 4.45, which is bang on league average. Although nowhere near the 1990s dominance it is a huge improvement over last year's debacle and is the primary reason why the Braves are nearly 10 games over .500.
With Smoltz, Hudson and James the Braves has three reliable starters. Smoltz and Hudson have been positively ace-like so far this year, although Hudson has gone a little backwards over hist last couple of games -- his ERA has crept up to 2.77, which, let's face it, would be a dramatic improvement on his 4.8 something he posted last year. My hunch is that he won't keep up his early season form but should be able to finish with an ERA in the 3s.
Smoltz has recently inked a three year extension to his contract which will place him at the heart of the Braves rotation for some time. His 2.82 ERA, and the fact that the contract is laden with options, speaks to some good business by JS and the front-office.† James continues his good work from last year although his form has been quite streaky. His ERA sits at 3.8, which I expect to be at the top end of expectations.
The rest of the rotation leaves plenty to be desired. Davies has never lived up to his early career promise and seems destined to be a #4 starter at absolute best. Cormier, although showing good spring form, is never going to win you more than a dozen ball games a season. And outside that the options are few and far between. Villarreal? No thanks. Lerew? Okay, he pitched injured but never look that hot on the mound.
I suspect that if the Braves fall short of October it will be because the rotation has failed to deliver, especially at numbers 4 and 5.
The pen has seen a stark improvement over the last 12 months. The addition of Wickman, Soriano and Gonzalez gave the Braves three genuine options at closer, and although Gonzo has succumbed to Tommy John, Soriano and Wickman remain top-draw.
Behind that the picture is mixed. Moylan has done well, Oscar has done well in fits and spurts in long relief and Tyler Yates is outperforming. That aside the other relivers have been poor. Paronto has been disappointing as has McBride, who get sent back to AAA Richmond to refine his mechanics. There isn't too much depth on the farm, apart, possibly from Devine who seems to have recovered from his junk ball tendencies.
The outcome of the Braves season probably depends on two things. One, whether the rotation can hold up, particularly the back end. And two,† whether Soriano and Wickman retain their current form.† If both hold the Braves could pip the Mets for the division but are probably more likely to win the Wild Card. The good news, if that happens is that we wouldn't meet the Mets until the NLCS, and given our record against them so far this we would feel confident.
It all looked so good at the end of April as the Braves were matching the Mets hit for hit while the Phillies were languishing a distant third in the division.
However, in recent weeks the Braves have stumbled with a bad series loss to the Nats and a sweep by the Phils, and at one point allowed the Mets to open up a five game lead. Although a couple of good wins against the self-destructing Cubs has allowed them to claw the gap back to 3.5 games many Braves fans feel that it won't take too much for the Mets to slip out of sight.
So, based on the evidence of the first couple of months of the season can the Braves oust the Mets from their perch at the top? Let's take a look at the batting, rotation and bullpen in turn and see where the weaknesses are: