Guerry Clegg

Freddie Freeman was right: Braves are still the class of the division until proven otherwise

Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman prepares for an at-bat during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Saturday, June 22, 2019, in Washington.
Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman prepares for an at-bat during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Saturday, June 22, 2019, in Washington. AP

The Atlanta Braves reached the halfway mark of the season with a 48-33 record, which projects to a 96-66 record — a six-win improvement over last year’s NL East championship season and good enough for the second best record in the National League.

Who knew the club could do all this while the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets made splashy trades and free agent signings?

Freddie Freeman, that’s who.

Let’s go back to mid-February. Freeman had just reported to spring training — earlier than he was required to as a veteran position player — and met with reporters. He not only defended the team’s relatively quiet offseason — too quiet for many Braves’ fans liking — but made some bold statements about his club.

Namely, the Braves are still the class of the division until proven otherwise.

“I feel like everybody’s questioning it because the NL East is crazy,” Freeman said at the time. “It’s gonna be a fight to the end with the group of guys we got in the NL East. A lot of people are just talking about everybody else and they forgot that we won 90 games and got better. They all did that to catch up to us.”

And this was before the Phillies signed Bryce Harper and traded for Jay Bruce.

Freeman’s assessment has proved to be more than compulsory spring optimism. Granted, much can change in a week, let alone another 81 games. But Freeman’s overarching point remains accurate. Last year was no fluke. This team was (is) not going to fade.

Another point that Freeman made in that interview was that the Braves did more to strengthen themselves than many people acknowledged. They signed third baseman Josh Donaldson and brought back catcher Brian McCann to replace Kurt Suzuki.

They rebuffed other teams’ interest in trading for pitchers Mike Soroka and Max Fried among others.

Freeman said, “We had a 90-win team. Pretty much everyone came back. Adding Josh Donaldson and B-Mac. You lose Kurt and Anibal (Sanchez) but we have those young starters that I feel like are going to step up huge for us. So I felt like we have a 90-win team that got better.”

Indeed it is, even if some aspects of the team have disappointed. The most talked about has been the bullpen. It wasn’t exactly a strength of the team last year. But several relievers pitched respectably overall. Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle, A.J. Minter, Jonny Venters, Dan Winkler, Arodys Vizcaino and Chad Sobotka all produced earned run averages under 3.55.

Every single one of those relievers has struggled this season. Biddle and Vizcaino were packaged in a trade for Anthony Swanzak. Venters was released. Minter, Winkler and Sobotka were sent back to Triple-A to sort things out.

The projected top two starting pitchers, Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman, have been nothing short of awful.

But Soroka has established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Fried has been solid for the most part. Julio Teheran has been very good — again as Freeman predicted — in most of his starts. Yes, he has been very bad in a few starts. Overall, though, Teheran has been an asset.

Freeman was also right when he questioned the decision to bat Ronald Acuna fourth instead of leadoff. He referenced a conversation he had had with Ryan Howard, the Phillies’ cleanup hitter during their dominant seasons.

“He said hitting fourth is a whole different mentality,” Freeman said. “So I don’t know if you want to put a 21-year-old right into that spot yet. It’s very hard to take him out of the leadoff spot. What he did last year was amazing.”

The Braves were 19-20 with Acuna batting fourth and 29-13 since he was returned to the leadoff spot. They are on pace to win 96 games and they have done so for the most part without anyone playing over their heads. Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, Soroka and Fried are having breakthrough seasons, and McCann is rejuvenated. Swarzak has been a huge boost.

They’ve added Dallas Keuchel to stabilize the rotation. They may not win the division. The Phillies or the Nationals could sort things out and make a run. As for the postseason, it’s hard to see anybody getting past the Dodgers in the National League.

But Freeman was right in February. The Braves remain the team to beat in the NL East until proven otherwise.