Monday, April 26, 2021

Grading On a Curve

It's been a bit of a slow start for the 2021 New York Mets, but the same could be said for the entire National League East. Expected to be one of the strongest divisions in baseball, the Mets are in the only Eastern Division team with a record above the .500 mark. The Mets are indeed rather fortunate that they have the opportunity to right their ship without worrying about a division rival getting off to a hot start and putting them into a deep early hole.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that the Braves had a rough day yesterday. They had been shut out in both games of a doubleheader, being no-hit in the second game by a past-prime Madison Bumgarner. (Kind of hard to believe that guy is only 31, but he's been pitching in the majors since he was 19.) I didn't find out until later that the Braves only had one hit in the first game. I wonder how the New York area papers would handle it if the Mets played a doubleheader and only managed a single hit and no runs over 14 innings. It would probably read like coverage of Armageddon.

The Mets encounter a fair amount of skepticism for anything they do, based mostly on the dismal track record of the Wilpon regime. The Braves, meanwhile, always seem to get the benefit of the doubt. The Braves certainly have been much better run over the years, but there were an awful lot of folks in the media who were going way out on a limb with rosy optimism for Atlanta this season.

I thought that the Braves didn't have a great offseason at all this year. I thought they put an inordinate amount of faith in Drew Smiley, who hasn't been a really good starter since 2015 in Tampa Bay. He missed all of 2017 and 2018, then had 140 combined innings over the last two seasons. Even Charlie Morton at age 37 is a significant gamble.

The Braves got significantly outsized contributions from Marcell Ozuna and former Met Travis d'Arnaud in last year's 60-game miniseason. They're not getting that at all from those guys early on in 2021. Their bench leaves something to be desired, too. An injury to Cristian Pache has forced them to use the immortal Guillermo Heredia quite a bit as of late. Pablo Sandoval has been a good story for them early on, but the guy is morbidly obese, will turn 35 in August, and hasn't been an outstanding hitter in a very long time.

I'm not trying to say that the Braves suck or anything silly like that. But it's amazing to me how everything is magnified in New York and mostly glossed over in Atlanta. The Braves enjoy some of the most sycophantic coverage in all of baseball. The "professional" press that covers them has read more like fanboy bloggers than journalists for as long as I can remember. Even the national guys maintain a level of deference to the Braves that I find astounding.

I read a piece in the New York Post by Joel Sherman today that made me shake my head. I generally enjoy Sherman's writing. I think he's by far the best baseball writer in the New York press and better than many national writers. But I thought today's contribution missed the boat in a couple of different ways.

Sherman pointed out the mediocre-to-bad records in the NL East and compared that to the current state of the NL West, where only the Colorado Rockies sit below .500. But a chunk of Sherman's evidence of the superiority of the Western Division seemed a bit shaky to my eyes:
The National League goes through California — did you notice the Giants are in a golden state, nestled between the Dodgers and Padres in the NL West with the league’s second-best record (14-8)? San Francisco begins a revelatory 22-game stretch Thursday in which it faces the Padres or Dodgers 10 times. But the Giants' strong start should reinforce that after all the offseason wreaths thrown at the NL East for trying in a time of inertia that the NL West might be better (even with Colorado) and that in a return to the standard playoff format of five teams per league, the only sure route into the postseason is by winning a division.

Now, I'll concede that no team in the NL East has shown themselves to be in the same league with the Dodgers and the Padres right now. But if your claim to Western Division superiority also rests on the 14-8 record of the San Francisco Giants, you kind of lost me.

When I look at the Giants' current roster, I see a bunch of older guys, a few of whom seem to be overperforming in the early going. Evan Longoria has been a below-league average hitter by OPS+ since his last year with Tampa Bay in 2017. His current stratospheric OPS+ of 174 is not sustainable. Buster Posey has 4 HR but only 4 RBI. Kevin Gausman looks great in 5 starts, but his track record hasn't been that great before that. The rest of the rotation consists of oft-injured and/or MLB journeyman flotsam and jetsom.

I've rooted for Mets teams over the years who got off to a fast start that I knew was an illusion. That's what the Giants look like to me. They have to maintain a winning record for a couple of months before I would even begin to reconsider my opinion of them. The Arizona Diamondbacks have been a bit up and down, but, to my eyes, they're a much better candidate to finish third in the NL West than San Francisco. The Giants have some work ahead of them to build a true competitor to the Dodgers and Padres, and it's probably going to take a teardown to accomplish that feat.

Sherman is correct that the Mets are experiencing some good fortune in the slow starts of some of the other NL East teams while they're still trying to build a winning identity. Sherman also, of course, has to show some deference to the Braves and their "pedigree, culture and depth" while admitting they might not be as good as people thought this season.

I have kind of a different take on things here. The Braves were widely seen as the greatest threat to the Dodgers over the past couple of seasons. If I were a Braves fan, I'd be absolutely furious at the club's offseason when clearly some upgrading was required to really contend with Los Angeles. Instead, they invested in 37-year-old Charlie Morton and spent $11 million on Drew Smiley and his incredibly fragile left arm. They populated their bench with cheap investments like Heredia and Sandoval. They placed a lot of hopes on very young players who sometimes just don't work out.

Atlanta had a golden opportunity to push for a championship. But they also face a threat from a Mets team that finally shed the yoke of Wilpon ownership and a Phillies club that spent big on Dave Dombrowski to try to win. The Miami Marlins may not be a season-long contender this year, but they have lots of young talent and ownership that finally seems willing to spend some money. Instead of going hard in on this season, the Braves are trying to cheap it out and hope for the best. If it doesn't work out for them this year, it's only going to get a little harder.

Instead of being stingy, what if the Braves took some of that "new ballpark" revenue and outbid the Cardinals for Nolan Arenado? That would have been one hell of a lineup. What if they built a super bullpen by keeping Mark Melancon and maybe even signing a Brad Hand or another top reliever? What if they were as aggressive as the small market Padres in going after Yu Darvish?

Talk about "pedigree, culture, and depth" all you want, but it seems to me that the Braves might be the team missing a golden opportunity. Even if they wind up prevailing in the NL East this year, the Braves just don't look like the club to knock the Dodgers off their pedestal. But nobody who covers baseball ever seems to call them on their frugal ways. Go figure.

That will do it for today. Thanks for stopping by. Please stay safe, be well, and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

1 comment:

  1. No one is as good as they look when they're winning and no one is as bad as they look when they're losing (unless they're managed by Terry Collins). Every team has its ups and downs. It's about time for the balance to hit the Braves after an awful lot of ups.


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