This year’s NL East was supposed to be a Washington Nationals walkover. But when the Nats—or the Syracuse Sky Chiefs, as Bryce Harper put it—stumbled out of the gate, it created a power vacuum atop the division. The New York Mets, the last non-Washington team to win the division, started 11-1. Meanwhile, the Phillies had put together an exciting homegrown lineup, and announced their intention to contend by signing free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta in March. After a rocky first week, the Phillies ripped off an 11-2 streak of their own in mid-April.
So, naturally, the Braves are in first place.
Sure, it’s early. We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of the Phillies storming out to a 24-17 start and looking a lot like the Braves are now. Philadelphia finished that season 20 games under .500, with a Pythagorean record of 62-100, so there’s no guarantee that the magic will last in north Georgia.
But any magic is worth celebrating, particularly since Atlanta wasn’t supposed to be close to contention this year. Moreover, it marks a refreshing change for a club that for the past few years has had no choice but to sell fans on some hopeful but nebulous future while upper management fought off scandal after scandal.
The Braves spent the mid-2010s tearing up a competitive young core to go tanking. They abandoned their 20-year-old downtown ballpark for a taxpayer-funded suburban boondoggle miles from public transit in the middle of a strip mall—though an admittedly very nice-looking strip mall. Last offseason, their GM, John Coppolella, resigned after MLB investigated him for circumventing rules regarding signing Latin American free agents. Not that corruption in local government or amateur-player recruitment are unique to the Braves—they’re as much a part of baseball as peanuts and Cracker Jack. But the Braves were particularly brazen and slimy about it—in Coppolella’s case, so much so that he was banned for life.
But even after Atlanta suffered sanctions for Coppolella’s misdeeds, including having numerous prospects declared free agents, the future looked promising. The Braves entered the season with the third-best farm system in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus, despite “graduat[ing] Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and Sean Newcomb as well, so it’s actually kind of amazing they are still in the top tier.”
But while Swanson and outfielder Ronald Acuña were both top-two global prospects and Albies cracked the top 15 on the MLB.com and Baseball America lists headed into 2017, the big guns from this year’s crop were supposed to be a ways off.
Atlanta restocked its farm system through the conventional established-player-for-prospects trades—lefty Max Fried came back from San Diego for Justin Upton; Swanson and center fielder Ender Inciarte came over from Arizona for Shelby Miller, who came over from St. Louis for Jason Heyward. But the Braves have also benefited greatly from a few cunning but relatively low-profile trades. The “my garbage for your trash” deal turned into the “my garbage for your trash, and also this former first-round pick who’s lost a little bit of his shine but still has lots of talent” trade.
One of the other players the Braves got for Upton was outfielder Mallex Smith. Last January, they traded him and reliever Shae Simmons to Seattle for a package that included Luiz Gohara, who now ranks third on the Braves’ organizational prospect ranking on FanGraphs. While Gohara has his flaws, he’s a lefty who throws in the upper 90s. Minor league catcher/outfielder Alex Jackson (no. 15 on that list), who drew comparisons to a poor man’s Bryce Harper when he was drafted no. 6 overall in 2014, ahead of Aaron Nola, Michael Conforto, and Trea Turner, came over in a separate deal with Seattle for pitchers Rob Whalen and Max Povse. The nicest thing to be said about either is that BP ranked Povse the fourth-best prospect in the worst farm system in baseball this year, and that if everything goes well he could be a no. 4 starter. No. 8 prospect Touki Toussaint, a former no. 16 overall pick, was part of the famous Bronson Arroyo salary dump with Arizona in 2015.
The Braves’ other consistent strategy has been targeting talented high school pitchers in the draft. Since 2015, Atlanta has made six first-round picks, five of them on pitchers—and four of those have been high schoolers. In addition to big Kansan left-hander Joey Wentz (no. 40 overall, 2016), the Braves took Kolby Allard (no. 14 overall, 2015), who is on the small side and has a history of back problems. Mike Soroka (no. 28 overall, 2015) and Ian Anderson (no. 3 overall, 2016) are cold-weather prospects who were untested against top-level competition at the time they were drafted.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to go for relatively safe college prospects in the first round—and this is my preference—the past few Braves drafts would probably give you heartburn. But between their clever trades and shoot-the-moon draft strategy, the Braves now have so many high-ceiling arms in their system that you figure at least some of them have to pan out.
But they were all supposed to pan out in the future. Even older prospects like Jackson, Toussaint, and Kyle Wright, the Vanderbilt right-hander Atlanta drafted last year, haven’t reached the majors. Fried’s been up and down, and Gohara got a cup of coffee in Atlanta last year but returned to the minor leagues in 2018 after suffering an injury in spring training. Allard, Anderson, and Wentz aren’t due in the big leagues for another year or more.
So how are the Braves sitting at 19-11?
Well, some of it is fluky. That’s always the case when a young team comes out of the gate this hot. Third baseman Ryan Flaherty (career .293 OBP) is hitting .310/.406/.437. Left fielder Preston Tucker (.219/.274/.403 in two seasons with the Astros) has a 112 OPS+. And no matter what Ryan O’Hanlon tells you, Kurt Suzuki isn’t going to keep hitting like this all year. The last two catchers to put up Suzuki’s current OPS+ (145) over a full season were Buster Posey in 2012 and Joe Mauer in 2009—both won the MVP that year. Even the Braves veterans you’d expect to hit, like Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman, are playing a little bit over their heads. Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz is currently beating his career high in K/9 by more than two strikeouts per nine innings, and his current ERA, 2.53, is just over half his career average.
But it’s not all smoke; some of it is the dust cloud of the charging cavalry coming over the horizon. We’ve been spoiled recently by rookies like Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant dropping straight into MLB lineups without needing any time to adjust. Most rookies struggle, even Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. Well, that sainted Braves trio of Albies, Swanson, and Acuña is up and raking. Once a good-hit/no-power type of prospect (as you’d assume by looking at his 5-foot-8, 165-pound frame), Albies discovered a power stroke and hit .286/.354/.456 as a 20-year-old rookie last year. This year, he’s slugging .603 and leading the NL in runs scored. Swanson struggled as a sophomore last year, but this season his numbers are back in line with expectations: .289/.336/.430. And Acuña, the top non-Shohei Ohtani prospect in the game coming into this season, doesn’t seem to have needed any adjustment period at all. On Thursday, he played his part in an 11-0 rout of the Mets by taking Jason Vargas out to the second deck.
RONALD ACUÑA JR CRUSHED! 451 feet for his 2nd career home run— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) May 3, 2018
via @FOXSportsBraves pic.twitter.com/tZLuuhGP0f
And as for those young pitchers, well, they’re starting to arrive in the big leagues. Soroka, all of 20 years old, made his MLB debut on Tuesday, striking out five in six innings of one-run ball.
With the baby-faced Canadian on the mound, the Braves had the distinction of putting the three youngest players in MLB in their lineup: Acuña, Albies, and Soroka. That’s a nice piece of trivia that illustrates how quickly the Braves’ top prospects have progressed, but there’s a deeper meaning to it.
Acuña’s debut inspired FanGraphs writer and Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe to explore the correlation between age and Hall of Fame trajectory. Most big leaguers, even good ones, were in college or the low minors at age 20, while 20-year-olds who are good enough to even sniff the big leagues have a better shot than you’d think of making the Hall of Fame. According to Jaffe, 9 percent of position players, excluding active players, who get even one MLB plate appearance in their age-20 season make the Hall of Fame. For players who record 100 PA or more, like Albies did last year and Acuña almost certainly will this year, their Hall of Fame chances go up to 19 percent, regardless of whether they were any good. That’s not to say that Acuña and Albies will never struggle, but even after just a brief exposure to the big leagues, they look like building blocks.
Unfortunately for the Braves, this year’s NL East doesn’t look like one of those divisions you can win in April. Hot as the Braves are, the Mets and Phillies have also gone on spells just as hot, and we’re only five weeks into the season, to say nothing of the foundering Nationals who are still just four games adrift of the division lead.
If the payoff doesn’t come this year, it will come in 2019 or 2020, when some combination of Allard, Anderson, Toussaint, Gohara, Wentz, and Wright joins the big league roster full-time, giving the Braves a core of young pitching talent to match their young position players. That the present is better than expected shouldn’t take anything away from the promise of the future.
Stats current through Wednesday’s games.