• Exclusives

    Braves now the favorites in the NL East

    With a 3-game road sweep of the defending National League East champion Washington Nationals, the 11-1 Atlanta Braves are now the favorites to win the NL East.

    Overreaction to declare this just 2 weeks into the season? Not at all.

    The slumping BJ Upton was 3-for-5 with 2 doubles Sunday

    First, please note that I said the Braves are now the favorites to win the East. I did not hand them the division. I don’t expect the Nationals to go away. They have one of the most talented rosters in baseball and they still have a very real chance to repeat in the NL East. But as things stand today, if you had to put money on one team or the other, it would be better placed with the Braves.

    Why should Atlanta be favored in the NL East?

    Heading into the season, most analysts felt the Nats were the class of the division. And I agreed that, on paper, they should be considered the favorites, primarily because their starting pitching made their success more predictable than Atlanta’s. It was easier to comfortably project what we might see out of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Co. than it was to predict what the Braves would get from the young arms in their rotation. After all, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran combined have fewer than 100 total career starts.

    Mid-April is far too early to make any pronouncements, but so far it appears the Braves pitching staff will remain among baseball’s best.

    Offensively, the Braves have more than held their own to this point, despite more than half the lineup either mired in an early slump or on the disabled list. When healthy and firing on all–or even most–cylinders, this has a chance to be the best Braves offense in at least a decade.

    My point is this: I have been quick to point out all along that if both the Braves and Nats play up to their potential, there’s not a lot of daylight between these two clubs in terms of overall ability. And in fact, while the Nats’ success appeared more predictable, the Braves roster may be slightly more talented.

    But the better team won’t be determined for at least 5 long months.

    Are the Nats still the class of the East? Maybe. They still have plenty of time to prove all the sports writers right. But with a 4-game deficit, the Nats cannot merely be better than the Braves. They must be at least 5 wins better from here out.

    Here’s a disquieting thought for Nats fans: Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Johnny Venters are all on the shelf. The batting averages of Jason Heyward, BJ Upton and Dan Uggla are on the wrong side of the “Mendoza Line”. And don’t forget that the Braves are still without Brandon Beachy (do back from “Tommy John” surgery rehab in 2-3 months), who led Major League Baseball with a 2.00 ERA when he went down last June.

    When you consider all of the early season adversity in Atlanta, this team has no business whatsoever going 11-1 through the first 2 weeks of the season.

    Any team can reel off an impressive win streak with a good stiff breeze at their back and most everything rolling their way. This team has done it with gale force winds needling them in the face.

    Twelve games are behind us. A 150-game season begins Tuesday for the Braves and Nationals. But with two teams so evenly matched, a 4-game margin is enough to swing the fragile balance of power in the NL East.

    A 4-game edge over the Nats in the month of April is the furthest thing in the world from a comfortable lead. Expect a dogfight. But as of now: Advantage Braves.

    Kent Covington is a national radio news reporter and BravesWire Editor. Follow Kent on Twitter: @FriedbasballATL