• Exclusives

    Braves are NL East champs

    It may have taken a few extra games and a little help from the Miami Marlins, but as Craig Kimbrel struck out his third batter to close out Sunday’s game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the Atlanta Braves became the champions of the National League East for the first time since 2005. According the Major League Baseball, the Braves since joining the NL East for the 1994 season, have the second best winning percentage (.576) in baseball.

    Brian McCann is the only remaining position player from the NL East champion 2005 Atlanta Braves.

    Brian McCann is the only remaining position player from the NL East champion 2005 Atlanta Braves.

    Much has changed since that 2005 team clinched the NL East. The only remaining players on the roster from that team are veteran Tim Hudson and soon-to-be free agent Brian McCann (then a rookie). In 2005, current manager Fredi Gonzalez was the bench coach for the great Bobby Cox. Also on that roster, as a player, was current bullpen coach Eddie Perez. John Smoltz, Brian Jordan and Chipper Jones played on that 2005 team, as did Andruw Jones and Adam LaRoche. But that team would lose the NLDS in a heartbreaking 4th game that lasted 18 innings, nearly 6 hours at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

    The 2013 team has similarities to the last team to win the NL East. It is stacked with impressive young rookies including Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, David Hale, David Carpenter, Evan Gattis, Joey Terdoslavich and Jose Constanza. Only time will tell if they have successful careers ahead of them like the rookies of 2005, guys like McCann, Jeff Francouer, Kelly Johnson, Brayan Pena and Kyle Davies. The 2013 team has a dynamic young shortstop in Andrelton Simmons, not unlike the shortstop on that 2005 team–Rafael Furcal. The 2005 Atlanta Braves had an MVP candidate in Andruw Jones and the 2013 Braves could presumably be given multiple MVP votes with Freeman, Chris Johnson and Simmons all contending. In 2005, Andruw Jones won a Gold Glove in the outfield. In 2013, it’s plausible that Heyward, Freeman and Simmons all win hardware. It will be a travesty if the latter does not. There is also the possibility that either Kris Medlen or Julio Teheran win the Gold Glove for their incredible defense while on the mound. In 2005, only Andruw Jones won a Silver Slugger award. In 2013, Freeman and Johnson certainly stand a chance of winning the award.

    Though the 2005 and 2013 clubs have their similarities, there are differences between the teams that bode well for the postseason chances of the current club.

    The 2013 Atlanta Braves have weathered more than their share of adversity. When you consider that at season’s start, the Braves had a healthy Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Tim Hudson and anticipated getting back young ace Brandon Beachy, it is stunning that their postseason hopes were able to survive those losses alone. Then consider the talent that has spent quality time on the disabled list this season. Brian McCann began the season on the disabled list. Outfielders Reed Johnson, Jason Heyward, Jordan Schafer, Evan Gattis, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton all had stints, some of them multiple stints, on the DL. The Braves lost Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky and Cristhian Martinez during the year to season-ending surgeries. Dan Uggla and Paul Maholm were the most recent DL-destined players. And the bullpen was mired with injuries this season. Luis Ayala, Jordan Walden and Scott Downs all suffered injuries. Any other team would have crumbled with this luck, but not the 2013 Braves. In fact, they seemed to thrive amidst the adversity.

    Injuries were not the only battle the Braves waged throughout the season. The huge signings of the Upton brothers didn’t bring the results everyone expected, but in the place of big numbers from Justin and B.J., other players (like “throw-in” Chris Johnson) stepped up in big ways. Two starters for the Braves will finish the season below .200, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Even rookie pitcher Julio Teheran has a higher batting average than Upton and Uggla. Perinneal all-star and silver slugger Brian McCann will finish the season lower than expectations around .261. Despite his hot start to the season, Evan Gattis will finish the regular season around the .233 mark. And Jason Heyward, who has always been touted as a player who should be able to hit for average, will end up around the .250 mark. But in the face of these unusual numbers and below average seasons, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, MVP contenders, will finish above .300 at around .314 and .330, respectively.

    SS Andrelton Simmons and RF Jason Heyward

    SS Andrelton Simmons and RF Jason Heyward

    Going into the postseason there will be much talk about the youth of Braves’ pitching. Perhaps this, more than anything, will be where pundits and analysts say the Braves are not built for the playoffs. However, don’t count the pitching staff out. Go back up and read about the major blows to Braves’ pitching this season and then consider just how strong Atlanta’s pitching was despite huge losses to the staff. Alex Wood stepped up in a huge way when Paul Maholm went on the disabled list and Tim Hudson had his season ended on the first base bag in New York. Mike Minor has taken on a role not unlike that of most veterans with this young staff. And Kris Medlen, despite an upside down first half, has returned to the dominant pitcher we saw when he joined the starting rotation last season and set the baseball world aflame.

    Let’s not discount one other thing that bodes well for the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs: The 2012 Wild Card debacle and loss at Turner Field. Some may scoff at this, but for a team with little playoff experience collectively, that experience may turn out to be the thing that gets this team deep into the postseason. Their stunning loss to the Cardinals last year provided a group of young guys with all the experience that is necessary going into a postseason. When you suffer a loss like that one, it’s hard not to internalize what it felt like, how it went wrong and how it could have been avoided.

    With 7 games to play in the regular season, the Braves have one goal in mind: Home-field advantage via the best record in the National League. The Braves currently hold a 92-63 record going into a 3-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals currently have a 92-65 record in the NL Central and the Dodgers hold a 90-66 record in the NL West. The next 7 games are crucial to giving the Braves every possible advantage in a postseason that looks to be a dog fight.

    The pitching match-ups for the next 3 games: Monday will feature Estrada (6-4, 4.26) vs. Minor (13-7, 3.19); Tuesday will pit Thornburg (3-1, 1.96) vs. Garcia (1-2, 1.31.); and, the series finale and final regular season game at the Ted will feature Lohse (10-10, 3.51) vs. Maholm (10-10, 4.44).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.