In 2008, the Atlanta Braves bottomed out. Just three years removed from the end of their remarkable stretch of 14 consecutive division titles, the Braves stumbled to a 70-92 record and a fourth place finish in the N.L. East.
Since then, the Braves have put on a clinic in how to revive a ballclub and press all the right buttons at just the right time.
Young draft picks like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel all made the scouting department look like geniuses and well-timed moves such as utility man Martin Prado being traded away for power hitting Justin Upton and the best season of Chris Johnson’s career has Frank Wren considered one of the better general managers in the game.
Over the last five years, just about every decision the Braves have made (looking at you, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton) has put more and more distance in the rearview mirror from that low point in 2008.
Atlanta made it to the Wild Card game two years ago and was eliminated in the division series last year.
The 2014 campaign began with high hopes and big expectations. The Braves have held on to first place in the division for much of the first four months of the season and are even in the standings with the Washington Nationals as play resumes tonight, but there is still plenty of work to do if Atlanta wants to surpass last season’s achievements.
The Braves’ biggest problem — as it has been in so many seasons — is finding consistency. For every five or six-game winning streak that the team rattles off, a 1-5 stretch seems like it’s right around the corner. The inconsistency even appears at the individual level, with Freeman looking like an MVP one week and a mediocre hitter the next. The same has gone for pitchers like Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana, who are just as likely to pitch a shutout as they are to have the bullpen warming up in the first few innings.
And therein lies the Braves’ biggest hurdle between making a run at a World Series and merely settling for another playoff appearance. Atlanta’s starters should provide enough pitching to get through their relatively weak division, but would be heavy underdogs against the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rotation.
The bats will continue to launch enough home runs and come up with enough clutch hits to outscore rivals like the Phillies, Mets and Marlins, but teams like St. Louis and Milwaukee can keep up with anyone offensively.
The Braves boast one of the most untouchable closers in the game in Kimbrel, but the rest of the bullpen — that same bullpen that blew a lead and the season in last year’s playoffs — remains a big question mark.
So where does that leave the Braves’ hopes?
Right now, it seems like Atlanta is the exact same squad from 2013. Some of the faces have changed. Some of the fellow contenders in the playoff chase may be different, but the end result is looking like it might not change for the Braves.
They’re good at just about everything, yet great at very little.Seems like the recipe for another sad — and short — October.
Now, that’s not to say that the Braves can’t do something to improve their chances. But the problem is that they don’t have a ton of ways to do it.
Trading for an ace starter would give Atlanta its best chance to get through the divisional round. The trick is finding one of those aces.
David Price of Tampa Bay is available for the right price. The problem is that the price may be too much for the Braves. Even if they could put together the prospects to trade for Price, he will be a free agent following this season and — with long term deals given to Kimbrel, Freeman, Heyward, and Julio Teheran this spring — there wouldn’t be enough money left to keep him.
Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels might be available, but both currently play for the division rival Phillies and Philadelphia would likely look elsewhere for trades rather than facing the possibility of their top pitchers facing them a few times each year.
All of those shiny new contracts dealt out in the spring also leave the Braves a bit stuck in terms of moving position players. None of the newly extended players are going anywhere and bad contract have others stuck on the roster.
Of course, there’s always the option of just playing better, right?
That’s easier said than done, but simply getting more production out of the current roster is likely Atlanta’s best bet to make a playoff run.
It’s already down to a two-horse race in the N.L. East, but Washington is healthy this year and will likely battle the Braves all the way down to the wire.
The key will be winning the division and staying out of the dreaded Wild Card game. The one-game playoff is treacherous enough in that anything can happen in one game of baseball, but it would be a deathblow for the Braves, who — if they got through it — would likely be down one of their best starters while taking on the brutal rotation of the Cardinals or Dodgers.
But hey, anything can happen. That’s why they play the games. We’re just now entering the dog days of summer.
For a team like the Braves who are enjoying current success, but thirsty for more, things will only get hotter from here.