JUPITER, Fla. -- The Braves being good is nothing new; the team has had only two losing seasons since 1990. The Braves being good and not the favorite in their division? That is unusual. For at least a decade, the AL East has been the consensus pick for Toughest Division In Baseball, but this year that's all changed.
The Braves, of course, have noticed. Manager Fredi Gonzalez says the division deserves the title -- and that it did last year, too. Now, he says, "Washington's gotten better, we've gotten better, the Phillies are healthy and they've gotten better, I think the Mets are always lingering, and I think this team here [the Marlins, the Braves' opponents on Wednesday] is better than what people are saying." (Many would disagree with that last assessment, though "lingering" seems like an apt description of the 2013 Mets.)
"Toughest Division" is something of an inexact science, a combination of top-heaviness and depth, and not significant anyway except as a fun point of debate. But for years there wasn't much debate at all: The Yankees and Red Sox were titans; after 2007 the Rays became a perennial contender; the Blue Jays were generally at least respectable (and often expected to be better). And if you were, say, Toronto, you had to play so many games against New York and Boston that collecting enough wins for the wild card, let alone the division, was a toweringly tall order. That division is certainly still no cakewalk … but it no longer has two near-certain heavyweight contenders. Whereas it would take a near-Biblical plague of injuries to keep the Nationals and Braves from playoff contention this year.
(Some will make a case for the AL West, but no division containing both the Mariners and Astros is currently eligible.)
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It's hard to remember now that not terribly much was expected from the Nationals last year. They never had even a .500 season before, but their sprint to 98 wins was so dazzling, and so convincing, that they immediately became almost everyone's pick to win the division, if not the entire series.
"That will take care of itself," says Gonzalez.
Washington, an enormously fun team to watch, deserves all of the accolades and respect. But they are overshadowing a Braves team that is poised to be extremely strong and, more than last year -- when they won 94 games anyway -- well-rounded.
"[The Nationals] won the division last year," said catcher Gerald Laird, "and until you can dethrone them, that's the team that they'll talk about … I think we're set to do something special. But that's why this game's so great, we gotta play the schedule." (Inarguably true: it really wouldn't be much of a game at all if they didn't.)
The Nationals won the East comfortably, with 98 wins, but Atlanta's 94 were nothing to sneeze at. They did not get particularly lucky, either: Their Pythagorean win-loss number, which estimates how many wins a team should have been expected to win based on runs scored and allowed, was 92-70 (Washington's was 96-66). In fact, Atlanta was unlucky. Any other year since the wild card was introduced they would have gotten to play a five-game NLDS, but instead, in the first year of the two-wild-card system they had one bad game against the Cardinals and went home.
The 2012 team was built on pitching, with a lineup was middle-of-the-pack in the NL by most measures. They got on base, but didn't hit for much power: sixth in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging, 11th in Baseball Reference's OPS+ (90). On the mound they were far more dominant, with the fourth-lowest team ERA, second-lowest WHIP and third-best ERA+.
Most of those dominant pitchers are back this season. The starting rotation is Tim Hudson (3.62 ERA last season), Kris Medlen (1.57), Mike Minor (4.12, but 145 strikeouts to 56 walks), Paul Maholm (3.54). It's a young group, which lends some uncertainty, but also plenty of promise. The fifth started will likely be Julio Teheran --- who, Gonzalez says is "a totally different guy" this year, throwing three or four pitches now, including a nasty two-seam fastball and a changeup, whereas last year he relied mainly on just his four-seamer.
The bullpen is one of the best in the majors, led by closer Craig Kimbrel, whose 2012 season was the best in non-Mariano Rivera recent history: 1.01 ERA, 116 strikeouts in just 62.2 innings (!) and 14 walks. (Kimbrel is currently off playing for Team USA, in games that Gonzalez says he watches sometimes, but is too nervous to enjoy).)
The Braves lost Chipper Jones to retirement, and he was that rare star who was productive until the last, but they still improved the lineup over the winter, adding both Justin and B.J. Upton. Both are coming off seasons that weren't their best, but they are also immensely talented, and would have to crash spectacularly to avoid improving Atlanta's lineup. And Jason Heyward, at age 22, took strides last year towards becoming the kind of monster talent fans had been wishing on for several years.
(You can, or at least should, never read too much into batting practice -- let along spring training batting practice -- but on Tuesday Heyward deposited balls over the center field fence … and well over the fence of the building next door).
In short, what we have in the NL East is two teams without obvious weaknesses, teams that won 98 and 94 games and then improved. The Braves have been good, with only occasional hiccups, for so long that it's easy to find your attention drawn to the Nationals -- whose success is newer, more exciting and premised on bigger stars and jaw-dropping young players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They earned it. But their edge was very small, and it hasn't gotten any bigger over the winter.
As Gonzalez said, that will all work itself out. And it will do so at the expense of the rest of the NL East. The "Toughest Division in Baseball" title doesn't come with a prize, but maybe it can come as some consolation to the unfortunate teams that now have to play the Braves and the Nationals 19 times each.