Are we leaving anything out?
Let’s not overstate things. The Atlanta Braves, the NL East’s defending champs, are still a formidable team, with the second-best record in the league, and you would gladly take their playoff chances over those of the teams chasing them in the East — namely, the Washington Nationals (5½ games back after Atlanta’s 11-8 win at Nationals Park on Tuesday night) and Philadelphia Phillies (six games back). If you believe in such things, FanGraphs had their odds of winning the division at 68.8 percent and of making the playoffs at 96.2 entering play Tuesday.
But the unmistakable sense around the Braves is of a team feeling the heat of a tightening playoff race, understanding its biggest tests are still to come and casting furtive glances at the front office in hopes it will procure some reinforcements before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline.
“This is the stretch, right now,” all-star first baseman Freddie Freeman said Monday, as the Braves opened their three-game series in Washington. “If you’re going to pick one critical spot in every team’s season, this is ours right now — see how you respond. If the front office goes and gets anything more, great. But this is it right now.”
To that end, reports Tuesday night had Atlanta acquiring Texas Rangers right-hander Chris Martin for a Class AAA starter. Martin has 43 strikeouts and just four walks in 38 innings.
Asked before the deal if he felt he had enough pitching to carry the Braves to October and beyond, Manager Brian Snitker replied: “You can always get better. But yeah, we have it — if we can hold up, and if we’re strong enough.
Referring to General Manager Alex Anthopoulos, Snitker said: “If Alex can bring us a guy or two that’d be great. If not, we’re all prepared to do this thing right here with what we’ve got.”
Until recently, the Braves’ biggest needs at the trade deadline were clear: one or more high-leverage relievers to add to a bullpen unit anchored by closer-by-default Luke Jackson (3.60 ERA, 1.380 WHIP, 17 saves in 24 chances) and — perhaps less urgently — an extra starting pitcher to bolster a rotation headlined by 21-year-old ace Mike Soroka (1.38 ERA through June 7, 4.10 since) and June signee Dallas Keuchel (3-4 with a 3.86 ERA after losing to the Nationals on Monday).
Martin’s arrival will help, but last week’s loss of right fielder, clubhouse leader and No. 5 hitter Nick Markakis — who suffered a broken wrist and could miss most or all of the final two months of the regular season — gave the Braves an additional need to consider. Shortstop and No. 2 hitter Dansby Swanson also went on the injured list with a heel injury but is expected back in a matter of days.
Adam Duvall, a former all-star in Cincinnati who hit 29 homers for the Braves’ Class AAA team this season, has proved a capable fill-in for Markakis in right field, but that hasn’t stopped the Braves from being linked to available outfield bats, from Detroit’s Nicholas Castellanos to Cincinnati’s Yasiel Puig (who was reportedly traded to Cleveland on Tuesday night) to Arizona’s David Peralta, in recent trade rumors.
“Losing Markakis for pretty much the rest of the season is going to be huge,” Freeman said. “That’s .285 with 10 homers and Gold Glove defense in right field — and playing every single game. He gives you something in [the clubhouse] you can’t replace. Losing someone like that is huge.”
A bigger question for the Braves might be: Even if they make the playoffs again, can they improve upon last year’s showing, when they won the East by eight games but were destroyed in the Division Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who outscored them by an aggregate score of 20-8 in winning the series in four games? After all, last year’s division title may have been a surprise, given the Braves’ extreme youth, but this year’s team had its eyes set on bigger goals.
“We’re a complete team,” Freeman said. “Last year it was more like, ‘This is what we have — we’re going with it.’ We didn’t really have much else. … This team is better than last year’s by far. We haven’t won a postseason series since 2001 in this organization. We would like to change that.”
Realistically, the Braves can look at the NL landscape and understand their road to the World Series would necessarily go through Los Angeles, with the Dodgers on a 104-win pace. Having already been swept at Dodger Stadium in May, the Braves have a measuring stick series against the Dodgers in Atlanta looming in mid-August. “Everybody knows the Dodgers are playing unbelievable,” Freeman said, “and you’re going to have to go through them unless they go cold as ice.”
But before the Braves can look ahead to an October rematch against the Dodgers, they are going to have to hold off the surging Nationals in the East for two more months, a task that grows more difficult with each game they drop in the standings.
With the time until the trade deadline now measured in hours, not weeks or days, honest self-evaluation appears to come easy for the Braves. If last year showed them what it takes to reach the top, this year is showing them what it takes to stay there. And now is the time to ask whether they possess all the pieces to do that.
“We’re stronger than last year,” Snitker said. “That was the thing I worried about a year ago at this time — are we strong enough to keep fighting this fight and hold on? And we were. And that experience did a lot for these young guys. … We’ve taken a big step forward. Can we hold on? We don’t know. We hope so. That club over there [the Nationals] is really, really good, too, and they’re playing like they’re capable now. And they were built for this. We’re building for this.”