It would take an improbable series of improbable events. And, quite frankly, stranger things have not happened, not even the Atlanta Braves’ worst-to-first season of 1991 or their dramatic over-taking of the San Francisco Giants in ’93, or Auburn’s surreal run to the BCS Championship Game in 2013. OK, that probably was stranger.
But let me just put this out there now.
The Braves can win the National League East.
Yes, this year.
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Today’s game at Oakland is the 81st for the Braves, meaning the season will be exactly halfway completed when they return home to face Houston for two games starting Tuesday. Then they had to Washington for four games against the Nationals, possible with Freddie Freeman back in the lineup – and at third base.
What happens in that series will determine whether the Braves have a chance. At the absolute worst, they need to split the series. But let’s say they do win two or three games against the Nats, distinctly possible given that they’ve won the past two series against Washington.
If that happens, they could head into the All-Star break with a plausible chance of contending in the second half.
Sure, it would take the perfect storm of good fortune. That begins with two things mostly out of their control. The Nationals must cooperate. They could play mediocre baseball and still win the division. They entered Saturday’s game with a 47-33 record. They would win 88 games if they just play .500 ball the rest of the way.
But that’s not as much of a given as it may seem. Who would have thought the Chicago Cubs would be a .500 season the first half of this season, or that the St. Louis Cardinals would have a losing record?
The other thing out of their control is having neither the New York Mets nor the Miami Marlins jump in front of them. The Mets would seem to be the greater threat, if they can avoid injuries.
Even if all of that happens, the math isn’t in their favor. The Braves went into Saturday’s game with a 38-41 record. Let’s say it will take 90 wins to win the division. That means they would have to go 52-31. That’s a .626 winning percentage, pretty steep for any team.
That could happen only if the starting pitching improves. Dumping Bartolo Colon was a positive step. Mike Foltynewicz keeps getting better. Sean Newcomb has proved his stuff can be dominant when he throws strikes.
That leaves Julio Teheran, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia, all of whom have pitched exceptionally well at times this season. Other times they have looked only slightly better than Colon. Dickey is a 42-year-old knuckleball pitcher. Sometimes his knuckleball cooperates, sometimes it betrays him. Garcia relies on precise command, so he’s going to have those days – or even just an inning – where batters tee off.
Teheran’s inconstancy is more perplexing. He was on the verge of looking like one of the better starters in baseball. He still has those games from time to time. But he can also look completely lost.
For the Braves to have a chance, Teheran is going to have to pitch like he did last year when he made the NL All-Star team. Trading for a starting pitcher seems unlikely for two reasons. One reason is the market is thin. The other reason is the Braves don’t have much to offer in return. They probably would be willing to deal Teheran, but his market value has plummeted. He’s under contract to make $31 million over the next three seasons.
A trade package that includes prized prospect Ozzie Albies could be attractive. It’s doubtful the Braves would deal Albies, but they should. Johan Camargo’s emergence gives them another option at second base for the future. Meanwhile, Brandon Phillips seems rejuvenated playing in Atlanta. Dansby Swanson is set at shortstop. So there might not even be a place for Albies to play.
But who knows what Braves general manager John Coppollela might pull off, especially if the front office believes they are just one or two players away from contending. The second half could get interesting.