One third of the way through the season, the Atlanta Braves sit in first place in the National League East, albeit with the worst record (31-25) of all the division leaders. Boy, talk about first-world problems.
They can be a bit maddening to watch. They have swept four series -- against the Cubs, the Marlins, the Nationals and the Reds. But they've also been swept four times -- by the Marlins, the Giants and then home-and-home two-game series by the Red Sox.
One week, they look like they might run away with the division. The next week, they look like they won't make the playoffs.
Watching these sudden swings has led me to some observations:
The Braves are still very young. With second baseman Tommy La Stella's promotion to Atlanta, four of the starting eight are 24 years old -- La Stella, first baseman Freddie Freeman, right fielder Jason Heyward and shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Catcher Evan Gattis is 27 but only in his second year in the big leagues. Even Justin Upton is only 26.
No, that's not a baby. But look at Andrew McCutcheon and Michael Cuddyer, last year's National League MVP and the batting champion, respectively. Until McCutcheon's breakthrough season in 2012, his career highs were 23 homers, 89 RBI and .286 batting average -- solid, but hardly MVP numbers. As for Cuddyer, before last season his career-high batting average was .284. Angel Pagan and Yadier Molina are two others who have steadily improved from being above average to All-Stars.
Sure, it sounds like an excuse. And there's no guarantee that any of these players will hit a statistical growth spurt. But experience does matter. Maturity can't be rushed.
The pitching staff is also young. Julio Teheran, who has emerged as the staff ace, is just 23. This time two years ago he was pitching in the minors, his confidence shaken by a rough early experience in the big leagues.
Six of the seven active relievers spent all or part of 2012 in the minor leagues, Craig Kimbrel being the lone exception. That doesn't include Jordan Walden, who is on the disabled list.
BJ Upton might be salvageable yet. Let's temper this with perspective. By "salvageable," we really mean "serviceable." Chances are, Upton will never return to being the player who average 23 home home runs and 36 stolen bases over his last three years with Tampa Bay. That might not be all bad. His highest batting average over that stretch was .246 in 2012. He was also routinely among the top 10 in the American League in caught stealing. (Pause to ask again: What in the world were they thinking when they signed him?)
But over the last 11 games entering Tuesday night, Upton was hitting a respectable .286. Throw in the five walks and his on-base percentage is .362 over 47 plate appearances with only seven strikeouts. That's actually better than serviceable. It's pretty good.
The scouting department is the strength of the organization. This is timely because the draft begins Thursday. The Braves surrendered their first pick by signing Ervin Santana, but history says that won't matter much. Heyward and Minor are the only two players on the active roster who were drafted in the first round by the Braves. Justin Upton was drafted first overall in 2005 by Arizona, and BJ was drafted second overall in 2002 by Tampa Bay.
For all of their big contract mistakes (BJ, Dan Uggla, Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami) the Braves have thrived on player development. That and some key veteran additions such as Aaron Harang, Gavin Floyd and Walden point to the good work of the scouting department.
The season is still young. The All-Star break is still six weeks away. A team's regular season will be defined by how it plays in the second half. If they were playing .700 ball right now, they would be assured of nothing.
Their season as a whole will be defined largely by the postseason. They don't have to beat the Giants, Cardinals and Red Sox in the regular season. Yeah, it would be handy. They just have to beat them (or whomever) in the postseason, assuming they get their.
The fact that they do still lead the NL East reminds us that everyone else in the division has their problems, too. There are worse things than having the worst record among first-place teams.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org