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The Braves are the National League’s Best Team

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Two teams in baseball have sported a longer losing streak than the eight games the Houston Astros dropped to start the season.  Neither are the Kansas City Royals, who topped out this year at seven consecutive losses.

The Milwaukee Brewers struggled in the middle of May, and were swept out of three straight series against the Braves, Phillies, and Reds to polish off a nine game losing streak that is tied for the longest streak in baseball.  The Brewers have had their struggles this year — the pitching has been horrendous — but they aren’t a notably bad team.  Their nine game losing streak is notable, because the only other team in baseball to lose that many games in a row is, in my mind, the favorite to take the NL pennant this year: the dangerous Atlanta Braves.

The Braves offense struggled mightily between April 21st and April 29th, and not to excuse a week long sub par offensive performance, but if you’re trying to determine whether the April nine game losing streak was a fluke, or the May winning streaks of 4, 5, and now 7 are fluky, the pitcher matchups faced by the Braves do paint a clear pattern.  They faced Roy Halladay on April 21st, and lost 2-0.  They faced Mike Pelfrey on April 25th, and lost 1-0.  They faced Chris Carpenter on April 27th, losing 5-4. The next day, Jaime Garcia beat them 6-0, and the day after that, former Atlanta farmhand Adam Wainwright won a 10-4 decision to extend the Braves’ losing streak to 9.  They clearly struggled after the Pelfrey-Hanson duel, but that would have normally been a four game losing streak, which happens to every team every year.  It’s the shutouts that had Braves fans and league observers worried.

That’s it for “the Bad” for this team, because the offense is no longer of concern.  There are non-contributors who might need to be upgraded before the trade deadline if things turn around, but all the “problems” are coming from established professionals who have worked through slumps before, among them: SS Yunel Escobar, OF Melky Cabrera, and OF Nate McClouth, none of whom is younger than 25 or older than 28.  When your biggest offensive issue is that established players in their prime are performing below expectation/replacement level, waiting them out is always a reasonable solution.  But the Braves also have the option to increase the playing time of someone like Eric Hinske, or trade for one of many available outfielders, including Royals OF David DeJesus, or White Sox OF Andruw Jones…who I hear was a pretty good OF for the Braves back in the day.

The Braves always pitch well, and this year, they are accounting for a struggling back-end of the rotation with a fantastic bullpen, led by two guys in right-hander Takashi Saito and left-hander Billy Wagner who are nearly 80 years old combined, and who more than a handful of teams gave up on before the Braves had an opportunity to sign either.  Neither Saito nor Wagner is showing a meaningful drop in velocity, and the Braves certainly aren’t stressing finesse; both pitchers are throwing a higher percentage of fastballs than at any point in the last five years.  Also featuring great bullpen depth from the left side (the rotation is five right handers), the Braves are going to hold a very high percentage of late inning leads.

24-year old RHP Jair Jurrjens hasn’t pitched great — and is stranding an obscenely low 50% of baserunners (in part due to the league slugging .440 against him) — but he’s generally keeping guys off the bases (at least in part due to an unsustainable .260 BABIP).  Jurrjens is a power-arm who has kept the ball in the park rather well over his career, and when his strikeout rate rises, he’ll do a lot better.  The weakness in the Braves’ rotation is Kenshin Kawakami.  They, like everyone else, got caught up in the late aughts Japanese pitcher craze, and on the whole, pitching imports from Japan have turned out to be pretty overpaid (Saito may be one of a few exceptions to this rule).  The Braves still owe Kawakami more than 10 million through 2011, according to Cot’s.  Kawakami’s line is right in line with both his FIP and his xFIP, and at this point, we can conclude that he’s somewhere between a replacement level pitcher and a league average pitcher.  Still, it’s possible that a year from now, his contract will look better on the Braves’ books than rotation-mate Derek Lowe.

Still, beyond the troublesome half of the rotation, the Braves are in first due to two players who are costing the team not quite $1 million this year, combined.  RHP Tommy Hanson is one of the games best young starters and features three devastating pitches: fastball, slider, curveball.  You don’t hear much about Hanson, who figures to make his first of many all-star teams this year, because RF Jason Heyward is threatening to make baseball fans forget that Chipper Jones ever existed.  Heyward, who will play in the same division as Nats phenom Steven Strasburg by weeks end, will probably not fail to make an all-star team in this decade.  And then he’ll be 29, and in the prime of his career at the end of it.  The 20-year old is walking in 15% of all plate appearances, and homers once every 20.  If his K rate ever progresses towards what he established in the minor leagues (one season), he could destroy ALL of baseball records, and do it in an era that is beginning to lean towards pitching.

For all of the above reasons, I’m looking at the Braves as a candidate to destroy the National League this year.  The Phillies, yes, figure to be there at the end and in the playoffs, and the Rockies are a well rounded team that could cause the Braves trouble in the post season if they can figure out a way out of the NL West, but the most complete team is once again, in Atlanta.  Furthermore, they are young, supremely talented baseball players, and ten years from now, this period of second, third, and fourth place finishes for the Braves from 2006-2009 will probably just look fluky.  Major League Baseball seems more…correct when the Braves are looking down on the rest of the division, and with this latest hot streak, the Braves have established a lead in the NL East that I don’t expect them to give up at any point the rest of the way.

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