Braves won NL East but few picked them to repeat, and that's how they like it (2024)

The Braves are fully aware that few pundits — very few — believe they will repeat as champions in the National League East, a division that’s the most improved and arguably will be the most competitive in baseball. But most of those Atlanta players also realize that even fewer folks picked the team to win the division a year ago, when the Braves captured their first division title and playoff berth since 2013.


They say they like being underdogs, and it seems they are just that. Even after winning the division by eight games in 2018, they are getting picked again to finish third or fourth in the difficult NL East by those who opine that Atlanta got passed by big-spending rivals while it stood pat the past several months after a couple of November free-agent signings.

The Braves haven’t increased payroll, didn’t make a flurry of offseason moves like the “stupid cash” Philadelphia Phillies, didn’t add a front-line starter like the Washington Nationals (Patrick Corbin) or a dominant closer like the New York Mets (Edwin Diaz).

But the Braves still believe they are improved and are where they need to be.

“I think we’ve got a much better team than we did last year,” said right fielder Nick Markakis, 35, who re-signed in January after not getting much interest from other teams despite winning Gold Gold and Silver Slugger awards and making the All-Star team last year.

The Braves welcomed back the stoic leader after not finding better options that fit their budget and desire for short-term deals.

Their big additions: the potent bat and swagger of former American League MVP Josh Donaldson — “Check the back of my baseball card; that’s what I can bring” — and the gravitas and leadership of veteran catcher Brian McCann, a seven-time All-Star during his first nine major-league seasons with the Braves through 2014.

The Braves were already strong offensively and outstanding defensively and should remain that way. The other improvement that players and team officials are counting on is organic — the natural development of the many young players and prospects who contributed to last year’s success.

“Lot of talent,” McCann said when asked what he liked about the Braves and their NL East outlook. “We’ve got all phases covered. We’re athletic. We can beat you in a lot of different ways. Whichever style we need to play, we can play that style. We’ve got guys that can hit homers, guys that can steal bags, guys that can score from first, we’ve got good arms.”


Still, there is this reality: The pitching staff has big question marks, and the Braves hope that talented youngsters can provide answers. If not, this thing could go sideways in a hurry, particularly with No. 1 starter Mike Foltynewicz out until at least the second half of April after missing much of spring training with a sore elbow that might be a bigger concern than has been portrayed.

There were questions about the pitching staff even before spring injuries to two of the only proven returning starters, Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman, along with heralded rookie starter Mike Soroka and co-closer A.J. Minter. All missed parts of spring training with elbow or shoulder soreness — none considered serious, but all enough to warrant at least a brief shutdown and a stint on the injured list to start the season.

Despite the lack of experience in the rotation and a suspect bullpen that struggled for much of 2018 and wasn’t strengthened through any big offseason additions, the Braves believe they have what it takes to return to the playoffs. And possibly to advance beyond the first round, something Atlanta hasn’t done in 17 seasons since its last postseason series win in 2001.

“We’ve got all the confidence that came with winning the division — obviously that’s something that we take coming into this season,” said Julio Teheran, a two-time former All-Star who steps in for would-be Opening Day starter Foltynewicz to make what will be Teheran’s Atlanta-record sixth consecutive opening start, longest active streak in the majors.

“We’ve got our rivals, our division is strong, but we focus on what we can do,” Teheran said. “I believe in my team. As I’ve said before, I believe in each one. I know we have a couple of new pieces, and I think it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Those are words — “confidence” and “fun” — that that crop up consistently in conversations with and about the Braves, who cite team chemistry as one of their biggest strengths last season and who believe it will be again this year.


“Confidence and experience can take you a long ways in this game,” said Markakis, who hit .297 with 43 doubles, 14 homers and an .806 OPS despite fading during the final six weeks and the postseason. “It’s good those (young) guys got their feet wet a lot sooner than I did, as far as postseason-wise. It’s good for them to get the experience at such a young age.

“It makes them that much more hungry to get back to therebecause the postseason is a whole different world. It’s ultimately your goal at the beginning of the season to get there. Once you do get there, each year after that you want to get back there as much as you can. And for these young guys to have experienced it and gone through it, they know what to expect now.”

The Braves believe that Donaldson and McCann added to the team’s returning core featuring Freddie Freeman, NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, and coupled with the improvement of other young players and the maturation of top pitching prospects, they feel it is enough to offset concern on the pitching side.

After giving Donaldson a $23 million contract that was the largest one-year free-agent deal in baseball history, the Braves need him to avoid the type of health issues that caused him to miss nearly 50 games with Toronto in 2017 and limited him to 52 total games played last season with Toronto and Cleveland.

Donaldson was a beast from 2013 through 2017, hitting .282 with a .377 OBP and .901 OPS while averaging 33 homers and 98 RBIs in that five-year span. His analytical stats in that period ranked ahead of everyone in the majors other than Mike Trout.

But he’s 33 now and coming off a season that featured long IL stints for recurring calf strains and a sore shoulder. He had a career-low 219 plate appearances and hit just .246 with a career-low eight homers, although Donaldson posted a .280 average and .920 OPS in 16 late-season games for Cleveland after being traded from Toronto for the Indians’ playoff drive.

The Braves were careful with him all spring and held him back in the early games while Donaldson worked on running technique in an effort to land lighter on his heels and ease the pounding he puts on his enormous calves. He said this week he’s fit and ready for games that count.


“Like I’ve said all spring training, I feel excited to be able to go out there and be able to take the training wheels off again and go full speed,” Donaldson said. “Last year was kind of a lost year for me. The year before that I still had a formidable year where I hit 33 homers in around 500 plate appearances. Obviously, I got injured a little bit. But I think people have short-term memories when it comes to things like that.

“I don’t think it’ll take long for them to be reminded that, as I said, check the back of my baseball card; those numbers speak for themselves.”

Center fielder Ender Inciarte said, “Josh is going to be really important. He can hit for power, and he can be on base, too. He’s always been that type of player. He’s done it all. So we’re putting our trust in him, too, what he can do.”

In addition to keeping key hitters healthy, there’s the matter of inexperience in the starting rotation and an erratic bullpen. The Braves are hoping that veteran reliever Darren O’Day can provide some stability, but he’ll begin the season in the same place he finished 2018 — on the IL. This time, it’s a sore forearm flexor that caused O’Day to miss almost the entire Grapefruit League schedule. The Braves hope to activate him by late April or early May, but he’s 36, and they know there are no guarantees.

That’s a lot of early aches and pains for the Braves, who can ill afford to have any other major contributors go down early to injuries. They need key position players healthy and productive because it’ll probably take plenty of runs and outstanding defense for Atlanta to compete with the improved teams in a division that figures to have only one expected non-competitive team, the rebuilding Miami Marlins.

Braves veterans and team officials hope that those young players who were part of the division-series roster will remember what it was like to play in the postseason and use that to fuel their ambition during the six-month regular season so that they can get back and win in October.

“The most important thing is that the young players got a taste of what it’s like to be in the playoffs, and the experience is going to be a key factor in what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Inciarte, a three-time Gold Glove winner and a big reason the Braves’ team defense is among the best in baseball. “Hopefully, we’re going to continue to get better, but I already like what we have. Our offense is really good, and a lot of the young pitchers that we’ve seen in spring training have been doing a good job.

“Both parts of the game — the offense and pitching — are going to be important. Hopefully, we’re going to be consistent all year long and be able to compete until the end.”

Braves won NL East but few picked them to repeat, and that's how they like it (1)

Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 2018. (Aaron Doster / USA Today)

The Braves led or tied for the division lead for all but 28 days after May 1 and had sole possession of first place for good after Aug. 12, stretching that lead to five games or more for the final three weeks of the season. After three consecutive seasons with at least 90 losses during their rebuilding period, the Braves improved by 18 wins to 90-72, eight games ahead of the Nationals and 10 ahead of the Phillies, who battled the Braves for the division lead in early September but collapsed in the final weeks.


“I think people made those moves because of what we did last year, and obviously that speaks volumes about this team,” said Minter, who said his shoulder soreness resulted from an early spring-training automobile accident. He’s aiming for a mid-April return. “We had a chip on our shoulder, and we’re still going to, but we want to be in that situation. We want to make teams think about us, and obviously, we did that this offseason.”

The Phillies have replaced the Nationals as the trendy choice to win the division. Philadelphia traded for a pair of All-Stars, catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura, signed former MVP Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson and then topped it off at the end of February by signing former Nationals slugger Bryce Harper to a record-breaking 13-year, $330 million free-agent contract. Harper is a Teheran nemesis and a villain to Braves fans who remember how he once purposefully dragged his foot across the team’s logo behind home plate at Turner Field.

As fate would have it, the Braves open the season Thursday at Philadelphia, where the city is buzzing about its team and about Harper. The Braves’ three starters for that series: Teheran and rookies Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, whose first career start comes in a spotlight game on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. Wilson and Wright said they were “shocked” when told last week that they had made the team and would be starting in the opening series.

The Braves opted to go with all right-handers for the series against the right-leaning Philly lineup, then face the Chicago Cubs in the second series with Teheran and lefties Sean Newcomb and Max Fried, who’ll make his 10th start and 24th appearance.

Before last season, 29 ESPN baseball staffers were unanimous in picking the Nationals to win the NL East. This year of the 31 who voted, 13 picked the Phillies, 11 chose the Nationals, five went with the Braves and two with the Mets. did composite preseason divisional standings from projections by Baseball Prospectus, Davenport and FanGraphs. The Braves were fourth in the East in that composite, but only six wins separated the first-place Nationals (89-73), Phillies (87-75), Mets (86-76) and Braves (83-79) before a plunge to the Marlins (66-96), who are projected to be five games worse than any other NL team.

In that composite projection, the NL East was the only division in either league projected to have four teams with winning records.


“Yeah, the division is going to be tougher,” Minter said. “But at the same time, we got better too this offseason, even if we didn’t make any moves. We got better with a year of experience, and these young guys just getting their feet wet and getting a whole year of experience is going to do a lot for this team.”

In their division-series loss to the Dodgers, the Braves’ shortcomings were exposed as they were out-hit and out-pitched, undermining their cause by issuing 27 walks in four games — the most ever in a division series of fewer than five games. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez was the only Braves coach fired after the 2018 season, replaced by Rick Kranitz, the Phillies’ former pitching coach, also let go after the season.

Walks were an issue all season for the Braves and were a point of emphasis in roster decisions this spring. Young pitchers, including Wright, Wilson and Fried, made the roster after strong spring performances that featured low walks totals. So did rookie Wes Parsons, who earned a spot in the Opening Day bullpen after totaling 17 strikeouts with one walk and posting a 0.00 ERA in 15 innings at spring training.

The bullpen wasn’t bolstered with any major offseason additions, to the dismay of many Braves fans who hoped — and still hold out hope — that the team would sign former Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel. But the Braves believe they have the pieces in place, and that if they are in contention, the front office has assured that it has the funds and prospect capital to make trades that could put the team over the top.

Winning a division title and then dropping three of four games in the playoffs only left the Braves hungry for more, players say.

“Absolutely,” Markakis said. “We’re looking to build on that. We know our division is going to be tough, but at the same time, it’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be competitive, and I know we’re all looking forward to it.”

(Top photo of Josh Donaldson: Kim Klement/USA Today)

Braves won NL East but few picked them to repeat, and that's how they like it (2024)
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