Well, this was familiar, wasn’t it? Braves vs. Phillies, season opener, Atlanta’s Julio Teheran matched up with Philadephia’s Aaron Nola.
Teheran pitches fairly decent for a man trying to prove he still belongs in the starting rotation. But Nola is virtually unhittable. Teheran turns a five-run deficit over to the bullpen, which commences to issue more free passes than Bernie Sanders.
Ah, but this is where the tale of two season openers has an entirely different ending. Last year, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies ignited a comeback, sealed by Nick Markakis’ three-run walk-off blast.
This time was much different, beginning with Phillies manager Gabe Kapler leaving his best pitcher in the game long enough to blunt any comeback. Meanwhile, the Braves’ bullpen picked up where it left off last season, turning winnable games into full-blown routes.
Instead of an 8-5 win, the Braves opened the season with a 10-4 loss — and that was without Bryce Harper doing a thing.
Just one game, yes. The Boston Red Sox, the defending world champs and best team in baseball until someone else proves otherwise, looked equally inept in their opener, losing 12-4 to the Mariners. This isn’t football, where a single game — or even a week — will define a season.
It’s hard not to get concerned when the team’s top two starting pitchers — Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman — are on the injured list and the bullpen is a succession of guys who throw really, really hard. If only they knew where the ball was going.
Maybe the Braves spoiled us last season. Maybe their 90 wins and National League East title were the bi-product of the Phillies’ collapse and the Washington Nationals’ general underachievement. They can’t count on either of those, let alone both, happening again. They can’t even count on winning 14 of 19 against the Miami Marlins as they did last year.
That’s not to be pessimistic about 2019 or to overreact to a single game. But it’s simply being realistic that this organizational rebuild is far from a completed project. The future remains extremely bright. The depth of quality pitching prospects is very much legitimate.
The Braves are the only playoff contender that will be starting two rookies in their opening series rotation — Bryse Wilson going Saturday and Kyle Wright on Sunday. Max Fried could get some spot starts, as could Touki Toussaint. It’s almost certain that Mike Soroka would be in the rotation if not for the shoulder stiffness that set him back. Ian Anderson is soaring up the minor league depth chart. Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller are two lefties that could be in Atlanta sooner rather than later.
It’s hard to preach patience, especially after making the playoffs and with revenue flowing from the move to SunTrust Park. But this team is simply not a finished product.
The Braves, however, remain a solid team and one that’s fun to watch. They will grind out dramatic wins as they did last year and will contend unless an injury plague sweeps through the clubhouse.
The starting rotation, once Foltynewicz and Gausman return, will consistently give them competitive starts. The bullpen can be dominant at times, but remains far too inconsistent to elicit high hopes.
Signing Craig Kimbrel would give the bullpen a significant boost. Allowing him to sign with a National League contender — say, the Phillies or the Brewers — would be a travesty. Their reluctance to sign a 30-year-old reliever to a long-term contract is understandable. Even defensible. But if the issue really is that the Braves don’t want to part with a draft pick to get two or three years out of Kimbrel, that tells you management is more concerned about saving money or stocking up meaningless minor league awards than winning.
We’ll see. The bigger and more comforting picture is that baseball is back, and the Braves should at least hold our interest until football season kicks off.