The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone leaving many in Braves Nation wondering, does this team have the horses to be legitimate contenders for a playoff spot heading down the stretch?
Before Monday night’s game against the San Diego Padres, the Braves find themselves in third place in the National League East, seven games behind first place Philadelphia. While the division remains a lofty goal for Atlanta, it is certainly not out of reach.
The Braves have dominated the defending champions this season winning seven of nine games against them. The Bravos overwhelming success against the Fightin’ Phils coupled with the fact that the two rivals are still scheduled to meet nine more times before the season concludes, offers a definite sense of hope.
Still, Philadelphia has been riding a hot streak since the All-Star Break and with the addition of a bona fide ace to their rotation in Cliff Lee, the division does appear to be a long shot.
That means Atlanta’s best chance of playing October baseball will likely be if the team nabs the National League Wild Card.
The Braves are only five games out of the Wild Card spot but are chasing four teams, including the Florida Marlins, another divisional foe.
So, are the Braves contenders or pretenders?
With a starting rotation that ranked third in the National League heading into Sunday night’s game against the Dodgers, and a revamped line-up which has improved on the dearth of power that has plagued the team all season long, the Braves seem poised to make a run.
In July, the Braves manufactured an NL-best .828 OPS and ranked third in both runs (139) and home runs (32). That production is a stark contrast from an inconsistent and often shoddy offensive showing from the team in the season’s first three months.
The Braves also feel their mid-season acquisitions of Nate McLouth and Adam LaRoche give the club a more potent offensive punch going forward.
McLouth has been a stabilizing force in the lead-off spot, allowing the rest of the line-up to gel and settle into their roles.
LaRoche, who played for Atlanta through the 2006 season, knows the organization well and has statistically performed big in the second half of the season.
While LaRoche’s career .252 batting average leaves something to be desired, his .295 average after the All-Star break combined with his impending free agency, are reasons why the Braves decided to re-acquire their former slick fielding first baseman.
The improved offense stands to benefit what has been a solid, but often under-appreciated Braves pitching staff.
A rotation comprised of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami, and rookie sensation Tommy Hanson could go up against any rotation in baseball.
And, in the coming weeks, the Braves staff looks to get that much stronger and deeper with the return of Tim Hudson from Tommy John surgery.
The Braves bullpen boasts three relievers in the top six in appearances in Peter Moylan (58), Mike Gonzalez (53) and Eric O’Flaherty (43).
While the back of the bullpen has held up thus far, the team wouldn’t mind adding another arm to the mix for the stretch run.
Any reliever acquired would have to pass through waivers, sometimes making it harder for a team to complete a deal, although the Braves are still exploring any and all options.
If the Braves could indeed bolster their bullpen, that fresh arm could provide added security to what could otherwise become an overexposed relief corps.
So, again, the question looms… contenders or pretenders?
The Braves have given every indication, on the field and off, that they are poised, confident and ready to compete for a playoff spot.
It was the team’s consistently strong starting pitching that has kept them afloat early in the season and it will be the team’s starting pitching that will give them their best shot at October.
One can never have enough pitching. Good pitching beats good hitting. These age old adages have been proven true time and time again and are the main reason why the Braves were able to win fourteen consecutive division titles.
With that being said… do the Braves still have holes?
But, so does every team.
And, this team’s holes have become increasingly less glaring.
So, buckle up Braves fans. It’s going to be a wild ride to the finish.