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The National League is wide open and it’s okay to dream big about the Atlanta Braves

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Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

With 32 games remaining, the Atlanta Braves are in great shape. Every major statistical projection system indicates that the Braves are more likely to make the playoffs than they are to sit out the postseason and, by nature of a 3.5-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East, Atlanta is in the driver’s seat for a division title.

Nothing about the paragraph above is particularly insightful, as Braves fans have been closely monitoring the standings for some time. In April, it would have felt (very) silly to believe Atlanta would have the inside track at a playoff spot, much less a division title, and those same statistical projections told a rather bleak story concerning the team’s 2018 outlook. Still, things have gone quite well for Brian Snitker’s team and that leads us to a particularly odd sentiment.

Why not the Braves?

Hear me out.

The American League is absolutely stacked this season. Two teams (Boston and Houston) have outscored opponents by more than 200 (!) runs and two others (Cleveland and New York) would arguably represent the best teams in the National League if they migrated for no apparent reason. Elsewhere, Oakland has been a fantastic story and, much like Atlanta, fans of the A’s are likely dreaming big at this moment.

With that said, the sledding will be very difficult to make the World Series on that side of the bracket and, with all respect to the A’s, it probably won’t be Oakland representing the American League as a Cinderella story. In the National League, though, things are wide open at this juncture.

As of the morning of Aug. 28, the Chicago Cubs are considered the betting favorites to win the NL, with BetOnline.ag (a leading off-shore sportsbook) placing the team’s odds at 3-to-1. The Cubs currently own the best record in the NL and, with a run differential of +117, there is nothing fluky about the team’s overall outlook. Chicago is loaded with offensive talent and depth that is unmatched in the NL and, even with pitching question marks, it is easy to see why the smart folks in the handicapping industry like the Cubs.

Outside of Chicago, though, things get interesting in a hurry. The Los Angeles Dodgers are currently sitting in the No. 2 spot on the NL odds list, with 4-to-1 odds to reach the World Series. However, the Dodgers wouldn’t make the NL playoffs if the season ended today, as they trail the Arizona Diamondbacks by two games in the NL West and sit 2.5 games outside of the second Wild Card spot.

It is fair to say that it would be mild surprise if the Dodgers didn’t reach the postseason (FiveThirtyEight has Los Angeles with a 53 percent chance to play in October, for instance) but it isn’t crazy to envision a world in which the team with the NL’s best run differential has an early vacation. Given the recent history of the Dodgers in the postseason, that would be good news for the rest of the National League, including the Braves.

Chicago and Los Angeles are currently the only teams in the NL with better run differentials than Atlanta. While that isn’t the only factor that matters, it is a good indication of overall team strength and, well, the Braves are pretty good at baseball in 2018.

The arrival of Kevin Gausman and the bounce-back of Julio Teheran (everyone hold your breath) provide optimism with the pitching staff and the offense has enough firepower to be intriguing. Throw in an improved bullpen and you might have the makings of a dangerous playoff team.

Obviously, this isn’t the space for a deep dive into the current state of the Braves but I promise you can find that elsewhere on Talking Chop in the (very) recent archives. With that said, it is really okay to start dreaming big about Atlanta.

Trust me, I understand any hesitance you might feel. I’ve been an Atlanta sports fan since arriving with my family in 1991 and, for all intents and purposes, the city is all I know in my conscious life. The Braves claimed the city’s only title among the major professional sports but, before and after 1995, things haven’t always gone well.

Beyond that, this wasn’t supposed to be “the year” for the Braves, who have arrived early by any objective measure. Given the context of the National League, though, it might not be crazy to suggest that the Braves have a live chance at a World Series run in 2018.

Make no mistake, Atlanta would be heavy underdogs against Boston, New York, Cleveland or Houston in a playoff series and the Braves wouldn’t be favored over the Cubs or Dodgers in the NL either. With that said, there are teams that theoretically stand in Atlanta’s way (Cardinals, Brewers, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Phillies) that shouldn’t objectively scare anyone.

Could the Braves lose a playoff series to any of the teams listed above? Absolutely. Could the Braves miss the playoffs entirely? Absolutely.

If the “take care of business” between now and the end of September, though, Atlanta will have a puncher’s chance at a World Series berth and, at this moment, there are exactly two teams in the National League that would be soundly favored over the Braves in a series. Oh, and one of those teams may not make it to October at all.

It’s been a fun and borderline magical ride in 2018, as many in Braves Country have seen their fandom refreshed by a team that wasn’t supposed to be doing this when Spring Training convened. You don’t have to enter September (or October) with overwhelming optimism and I would understand skepticism based on the overall history of this franchise and the city’s professional sports exploits.

It’s also okay to look at the landscape and potentially draw up a scenario in which the Braves make the World Series without anything wildly out of the ordinary taking place.

That is a fun situation to be in.