The Atlanta Braves have been a top-15 team in the ESPN Power Rankings for most of the season, but lately they have cemented themselves in the top 10. This week marks their fourth straight in the top 10, and they have climbed back into the top five for the first time since June 11. The Braves continue to overcome injuries to their pitching staff and are poised to leapfrog the Washington Nationals in the final two months of the season.
The Braves have had to scramble a bit in regard to their starting rotation. Brandon Beachy blowing out his arm wasn't part of the plan, nor was Jair Jurrjens' continued regression into oblivion. Tommy Hanson's injury problems could have be foreseen, but certainly the Braves were hopeful that he would be healthy this season. But each time someone falls, someone steps up.
Ben Sheets has a 1.46 ERA and 1.95 FIP in four starts for Atlanta. Sure, it's just four starts, but then again who thought that Sheets had even one more major league start left in him? Newly acquired Paul Maholm should fit in nicely as well as a league-average innings muncher who the team can count on every five days.
And then there's Kris Medlen. After compiling a 2.72 FIP in 54 1/3 innings out of the bullpen, the righty stepped back into the rotation this week for the first time in nearly two years and pitched effectively. He allowed just two runs in 10 1/3 innings and struck out nine batters. Time will tell if the 26-year-old Medlen needs to be a permanent part of the rotation mix -- much of that will depend on Hanson's health -- but he provides the Braves with a high-upside play in case Hanson misses extended time (as do Randall Delago and Julio Teheran).
The Nationals, on the other hand, have no such depth. Once Stephen Strasburg is shut down for the season, they will need to turn to John Lannan, which is an enormous downgrade by any metric. In addition, even with Drew Storen's return, the Nationals' bullpen has not been as invincible as it was early in the season.
After posting above-average numbers for the season's first three months, the bullpen posted a 4.66 ERA and 4.77 FIP in July, the latter of which was the third-worst in the game. The rotation has remained solid, but with Strasburg potentially being removed from the picture by the end of September's first week and the bullpen reeling just a little bit, Washington may not finish the season with the same dominant pitching with which it started.
Aside from Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward, the Atlana offense has gone in spurts. Early in the season, Michael Bourn, Martin Prado and Dan Uggla were hot while Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann started slowly. Recently, Freeman and McCann have come on as Bourn, Prado and Uggla have struggled. Pile up the whole season, though, and the Braves have a deep unit capable of supporting its pitching staff -- Atlanta is tied for 10th in wRC+ this season, and it should be even better once Andrelton Simmons returns from his broken right pinkie finger. At the time of his injury, the rookie shortstop was pairing above-average contact skills and a decent batting eye with superb defense.
The Nationals should improve offensively once they get shortstop Ian Desmond back. This week welcomed Jayson Werth back to the Nats' outfield, and he shook off the rust quickly, notching at least one hit in each of his first three games back. But even with Werth, Washington's outfield play leaves something to be desired. For the season, the Nationals' outfield has a minus-5.8 UZR. That should tick up slightly with Werth back roaming the green pastures, but he is not the elite defender that he used to be -- in the past four seasons, his cumulative defensive value is in the red. Contrast that with Atlanta, whose outfield trio of Bourn, Heyward and Prado is by far the best defensive unit in the game. In fact, Atlanta's only below-replacement defensive starter has been Freddie Freeman, and at minus-0.8, he is barely so.
Catcher is another consideration that points heavily in Atlanta's favor. While the Braves have a great backup in David Ross (136 wRC+ in 116 PA) to pair with the increasingly hot McCann, the Nationals have struggled to find a catching solution in the wake of Wilson Ramos' injury. Jesus Flores has been awful, and Sandy Leon hasn't been much better. This week, the Nats brought in Kurt Suzuki in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. While he still plays good defense, it's hard to see him as an upgrade offensively. Only five players have a worse BB/K than Suzuki this season (minimum 200 plate appearances), and his 44 wRC+ is even worse than Flores' 48 mark.
The Braves have heated up in the second half, and they have won 10 of their past 12 games. When the first half ended, the Nationals seemed like clear front-runners in the National League East, and though they have maintained a slim lead, it may not last.
There are cracks in Washington's facade, and those cracks will only widen once Strasburg is shut down. The Braves, meanwhile, have solidified their starting rotation, found hitters to help carry the team for stretches at a time and played great defense the entire season. Should the Nationals take their foot off the gas pedal, the Braves will be ready to speed past them.
<<<Power rankings you say? Well now. I had no idea. Start hanging that pennant now.>>>___________________________________________________________________
"Power rankings you say? Well now. I had no idea, with my overhyped Phils in the crapper. Start hanging that pennant now."
There, fixed it for ya.....
Of the top six teams in the power rankings there are two teams from the NL East and two teams from the NL Central.
Scroll waaaaaaaaaaay down and you will find the Phillies at #24.
Thanks for posting the article.
Yeah, I've been saying it for awhile now but the Nats are paper thin depth wise and have been one of the luckiest teams regarding their rotation health/durability. I don't think it will last coming into late August and September...
Zimmermann has been great, but he's never thrown over 160 innings. I called it weeks ago, and now he is having should inflammation and struggled in his last start giving up 5 earned runs. Let's see how he responds to his first poor outing in a while.
Nats are committed to shutting Strasburg down, despite being in the middle of a pennant race. We know this much and that is pretty huge.
Detwiler is another guy who has never thrown this many innings before. While he has been great for the Nats through 16 starts, you gotta wonder if he can keep pitching like this deep into the season.
Gio has like a 4.4+ ERA since June.
Their bullpen has started to collapse and has been bad in recent times.
They've been clutch and still winning a lot recently, but you gotta wonder how long that can really last after Strasburg is shut down and if the other starters begin to wear down a bit.
I was glad to see this article written. Too many news outlets are practically assuming it is a foregone conclusion that the Nats will win the NL East. I think the Braves will give them a run for the money.
I believe Wang is still on rehab. They could take a chance on Yunesky Maya. They also have Zach Duke, who was a minor league All Star this year.
I never said the Braves had more starting pitching depth, so I'm not sure why your panties are in a bunch.
Braves have had a lot to deal with and we've done a good job. Our best pitcher this season went down with TJ surgery. Hudson missed a month to begin the season. Jurrjens was very ineffective. Hanson has been too of late and now has an injury issues. Yet we've been winning by plugging in guys like Sheets, Medlen, now Maholm.
All I said is that the Nationals starting pitch depth hasn't been tested at all this season really. And it will be in the near future so... we'll see.
Lannan has a 5+ ERA in 19 starts in AAA.And seriously... Wang?
I never said the Braves had better starting pitching depth. Which was the entire point of your post so... you = fail
And yeah the Nats have paper thin pitching depth and the trade deadline has passed. You threw 2 names. Lannan has been terrible in AAA, Wang has been hurt all year and pretty much the past 5 years. And is sporting a 7+ ERA this season.
You = fail
But Lannan has been just fine in two ML starts.
No doubt, replacing Strasburg with Lannan is a significant drop, but then again, replacing Strasburg with anyone but another top five pitcher would be a drop. Lannan is more than capable of holding his own in a ML rotation. The Nationals could have some trouble if they lose another starter for any reason.
The Braves would have to turn to any number of young pitchers with nowhere near 200 IP in the majors to their credit. IMO, the Braves depth was thin coming out of ST. The addition of Sheets and Maholm has covered some of that. But the Braves have no better options than the Nationals if it gets past the sixth man.
"I'd rather have Lannan and Wang taking the mound for my team than Jair Jurrjens or Julio Teheran."
And everyone here cares so much what youd rather. Would you still rather Dominic Brown over Heyward too?