The Atlanta Braves have a real chance to win it all much sooner than fans expected. Their hitting is becoming predictably reliable, and their pitching—while not yet the best in the league—has the potential to take the team to the World Series if it plays to its potential.
The team’s hitting took off with the addition of Rookie Austin Riley, whose average stands at .288. Freddie Freeman has returned to beast form, with 95 hits, 21 home runs, and a .318 batting average. Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. are showing that last year was no fluke, and Josh Donaldson is slashing .263/.366/.500.
But going deep in the playoff requires a pitching staff that can go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Los Angeles and the Chicago Cubs. The Braves’ rotation currently sits at 12th in Batting Average Against and sixth in ERA, at 3.88. The addition of Dallas Keuchel, however, provides them just enough potential to become the top-tier rotation they will have to be to compete at that level.
Rookie Mike Soroka is leading a stellar breakout year, and Max Fried has kept his FIP below 4.0. Then, there’s Julio Teheran. The Braves’ staple during their rebuilding years shows no sign of slumping. With an ERA of 3.40 and a 4.35 FIP, Teheran has arguably not yet left his prime.
Keuchel will probably never pitch as well as he did in 2015 when he won the American League Cy Young Award, but his debut against the Nationals on Friday showed that he has what it takes to improve this rotation. Although his fastball, hovering in the upper 80s, is slower than most, Keuchel’s ability to baffle batters with his slider, sinker, and changeup add the value of someone throwing 96 mph. Some sluggers will inevitably learn to read him. The average hitter, though, will always find an accurate Keuchel tough to hit.
It will likely take him another month to reach his full potential, considering before Friday he hadn’t pitched in an MLB game in eight months. But with a 58.7 percent ground ball rate, he gives the Braves’ solid infield the perfect tool to frustrate hard-hitting teams like the Cubs and Dodgers.
Uncertainty abounds regarding the replacement of Mike Foltynewicz. After an abysmal performance against the Nationals on Saturday in which he gave up eight runs on eight hits and swole his ERA to 6.37—causing “Folty” to trend on Twitter—the Braves sent him down to Triple A Gwinnett. They brought up right-hander Chad Sobotka, but it remains to be seen who will get the fifth slot in the rotation. Sobotka has an 8.25 ERA in 13 relief appearances this season. Hs struggles, though, came before going on the Injured List on April 29 with an abdominal strain. He put up a 1.88 ERA in 14 appearances late last season and holds a 5.87 at Gwinnett.
Sean Newcomb returns on Tuesday after getting drilled in the head last week against the Phillies during his first start after being promoted. He is expected to join the bullpen. If he can prove himself there, the team will likely give him another shot as a starter.
The bullpen showed Sunday against the Nationals that it is capable of protecting a lead and hopefully, put to rest some of the concerns Braves fans have justifiably developed toward it. If the Braves do move Newcomb back, they may look to aquire another reliever before the trade deadline.
If the Braves stay hot at the plate, they’re guaranteed another division title, with only the Cubs or Dodgers standing in the way of their first trip to the National League Championship Series in 18 years.
Braves fans have had to develop agonizing patience. With the Keuchel trade and their hitting explosion, it looks like that patience may finally pay off in 2019.