Two things can be true: the Atlanta Braves signing free agent starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel is good move and the Atlanta Braves signing free agent starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel does not mean they are the team to beat in the NL East. Had the Braves signed free agent closer Craig Kimbrel the Braves should not have been seen as the favorites in the NL East, but it would have inched them closer than Keuchel. No, the only type of move that would have accurately placed the Braves in the “Favorites to win the NL East” category had to occur during the offseason when superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper were available for the taking. Instead, the Braves shopped at Lucille Bluth’s least-favorite store, Quantity Plus, and inked Josh Donaldson and Nick Markakis to one-year, cheap-as-hell deals hoping that this inexcusable follow-up to a 90-win season would result in something close to another 90-win season.
And they’ll probably be close.
According to Fangraphs’ playoff odds, the Braves have the highest playoff odds of any team in the NL East as of this writing. Cool. If I were a betting man, I would bet on both the Braves and Phillies making the playoffs this season fall -- the Phils winning the division, the Braves winning one of the wild card spots. While the Phillies’ outfield has been ravaged by injuries and off-the-field matters, the Braves have seen Josh Donaldson play in 60 games, Austin Riley scorch the earth with his obscene power, and Luke Jackson emerge as a “He just might be OK for this season” guy in the closer spot. If there was ever a time to make the case that the Braves, not the Phillies, should be considered the favorites to win the NL East, that time is now.
But the baseball season is a long one. As painful as it was for Philadelphia to lose Andrew McCutchen after the season he was having, there was a Adam Haseley waiting in the wings. Haseley, of course, was the team’s 2017 first-round pick who, because June is clearly not the Phillies’ month, immediately got injured himself. Throw in the Odubel Herrera awfulness, and suddenly that super Philly outfield doesn’t look so superb. This is why you don’t just sign McCutchen and call it an offseason like the Braves did with Nick Markakis. The Phillies traded for JT Realmuto, who is tied with Freddie Freeman in WAR at 2.5; the Phillies traded for Jean Segura, who, you guessed it, has been better than Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson this season; the Phillies even signed this cat named Bryce Harper just because their owner wanted to spend “stupid money” and did just that. (Spending money to ensure your on-field product is good? Quite the novel concept.)
On the flip side, the Braves’ key contributors have stayed healthy. Freeman is having another MVP-like season at first base; Ronald Acuna Jr. is back in the leadoff spot and is going to be awesome for the next decade; like previously mentioned, Donaldson has played in 60 games and already has more plate appearances than he did in all of 2018. But Donaldson is 33-years-old and has seen his games-played number drop in each of the last three seasons. Then you have Dr. Thunder in human form, Nick Markakis, who, early in the season had certain Atlanta sports radio hosts celebrating his return and laughing at Harper’s rough start in Philly. Because Harper is a superstar in his prime and Markakis most certainly is not, this was always a foolish take. Flash forward to June 9 and Harper has a WAR of 1.9, a WRC+ of 116 while Markakis has a 0.3 WAR and painfully average WRC+ of 100. But it could be worse; he could be in the disastrous Ender Inciarte zone, where you have 140 plate appearances and a 63 WRC+. (Do we get into Swanson and Albies quietly regressing back to average hitters? No? OK, another piece on another day, perhaps.
Maybe the most frustrating thing about looking at this Philadelphia team if you’re a Braves fan is that the former’s two best hitters, Realmuto and Harper, could have easily been Braves. If you’d like to see what a NL East favorite looks like, not even for just this season, it’s that Atlanta lineup with one or both of Realmuto and Harper. Acuna and Freeman and Riley sounds like a dangerous wild card team; Acuna and Freeman and Harper and Realmuto -- Riley is wearing a Marlins jersey right now if the latter is a Brave -- sounds like a NL East juggernaut for the next several years. Perhaps the most frustrating part of this dream scenario for Atlanta fans is how feasible it was this offseason. Atlanta could have trumped Philadelphia’s offer for Realmuto, and Atlanta could have signed Harper or even Machado to what they ended up signing for if the Braves weren’t a real-estate first endeavor for Liberty Media. So, tell me again why the team that showed a commitment to winning this offseason and currently resides in first place is no longer the favorite in the NL East because of the addition of a player who isn’t in the lineup everyday?
Right now, the Phillies are down. Right now, the Braves are up. But according to MLB.com’s Jon Morosi, the Phillies will be “in on everything” ahead of July 31’s MLB Trade Deadline. If the Braves were in a similar spot, with Markakis and Donaldson going down with injuries, would you expect to read that same kind of piece on MLB.com? And if you would, would you believe it? Would you believe this team would go get Starling Marte like the Phillies might? Would you believe this team would continue adding payroll to ensure on-field success? Or would you expect them to go the way of the Cleveland Indians and take the “Thoughts And Prayers” route?
Had the Phillies not been aggressive this offseason, I could understand the skepticism about this club being the favorites in the NL East in 2019. I mean, this is an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011. But this team said they would spend and they did. By acquiring Realmuto and Segura and by signing Harper, the Phillies earned the benefit of the doubt were things ever to go awry in 2019. Things have started go awry. To fend off a healthy Braves team, they will have to be proactive. Are we really betting on the team that signed Harper and traded for Realmuto and Segura in the same offseason isn’t going to continue being aggressive?
I can’t do it. I can’t bank on the team that banked on Donaldson and Markakis over Realmuto and Harper. I can’t bank on a team that won 90 games a season ago and saw their payroll decrease in the following season. I can’t bank on a team that operates more like the Indians than the Red Sox or Yankees.
I just can’t.