Guerry Clegg commentary: Are the Nationals really better off than the Braves?

sportsledger-enquirer.comMarch 30, 2013 

The lineup is loaded with young, athletic players with power and immense potential. The starting rotation has no weak link, and should receive a mid-season boost. The bullpen, already among the best in baseball, may be even better.

There's only one reason why the Atlanta Braves are not projected to win the National League East.

The Washington Nationals are better.

Or so they seem. Better starting pitching, equally solid lineup and improved bullpen with Rafael Soriano added as a closer.

A headline in Newsday -- which admittedly doesn't often understate matters -- expressed the prevailing sentiment.

NL East Preview 2013: A Race For Second

Oh, really?

Are the Nationals really better than the Braves? Yes, they finished four games ahead of Atlanta last year and won the season series 10-8. But on June 2, after Stephen Strasburg beat Brandon Beachy 2-0, the Nationals were four games ahead of the Braves in the loss column (21 losses for the Nationals, 25 for the Braves). The Braves played 109 more games and essentially did not lose any ground to the team that finished with the best record in the majors.

They did this with Beachy missing the last two-thirds of the season after elbow surgery and starter Tommy Hanson battling nagging injuries.

Both teams appear improved. The Nationals added a center fielder and lead off hitter, Denard Span. If Drew Storen, the team's closer in 2011, regains form, he could be one of the best set-up men in baseball. Bryce Harper should be better, and he was already pretty good. Strasburg won't be shut down in the pennant race as he was last season. They might finally get a full, productive season out of Jayson Werth.

The Braves added B.J. and Justin Upton. Andrelton Simmons started last season in the minors. He starts this season as one of the best young shortstops in the game. Mike Minor and Kris Medlen combined for 21 wins, most of them in the second half. Paul Maholm won 13 games last year with the Cubs and Braves and had an excellent spring. Julio Teheran was sensational in the spring and appears ready to hold down a starting job. Beachy is expected to return in mid-season.

In sum, there doesn't appear to be much difference, if any at all, between the Nationals and the Braves. The biggest difference is starting pitching -- specifically, the top of the rotation. The Nationals have two legitimate Cy Young Award contenders in Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, who had a career season last year going 21-8. They could easily win 40 between them. The Braves don't have anyone who's likely to win 20 games. Even so, Tim Hudson and Medlen, Atlanta's top two starters, should win 30, maybe even 35 games.

The bottom of the rotation might actually favor the Braves. If Teheran is for real, he could give the Braves the edge over Washington's Dan Haren, who slipped last year and had a poor spring.

Many games are won in the late innings, and the Braves are better than the Nationals.

Besides, the Braves don't need to worry about the Nationals. All they need to do is take care of their own business. They won 94 games last season with the aforementioned issues with their starting pitching, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla having their worst seasons ever, inconsistent play at shortstop, first baseman Freddie Freeman playing hurt much of the season, Michael Bourn slumping terribly after the All-Star break, and set-up men Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters battling inconsistencies.

There are legitimate questions, however. Who will provide the leadership with Chipper Jones retired and Martin Prado traded? Can Simmons handle batting leadoff in his first full season in the big leagues? Is Venters' elbow healthy? Was Medlen's spotty spring training an aberration? Will the Uptons grow complacent now that they've accomplished their dream of playing together? Will a strikeout-heavy lineup be prone to prolonged blackouts and slumps?

But there's no team without concerns, not even the Nationals.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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