It’s looking like the Braves are going to head into September with a decent lead atop the NL East. If you have checked out since the All-Star break and you’re checking back in so you can join the rest of us for the stretch run, you’re probably thinking “Yeah, of course they’re going into September with the divisional lead.” However, this could have gone sideways during August and a huge injury bug would have been the cause.
Nick Markakis was set to miss all of August and some of September due to a fractured wrist. Ender Inciarte returned from injury and then got injured again only a few days after making it back. Austin Riley came crashing back down to Earth after an amazing start to his career and then got injured, himself. Dansby Swanson sat out a game due to “precautionary” reasons and wound up missing over a month due to his heel. Brian McCann had to do a stint on the Injured List solely because they couldn't afford to have him at anything but full strength after he tweaked his hamstring.
If you’re counting along, that’s five players who were considered to be lineup regulars who went down for an extended period of time due to injury and all of this happened in short order. While the Braves were (and still are) extremely fortunate to not lose any of either Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and (amazingly) Josh Donaldson due to injury, it was still huge to miss all of those other players. The lower part of the lineup was thrown into a major state of flux and it seemed like if there was going to be any time for the Braves to wobble and potentially fall into an intense battle with the Nationals in the standings, this would be the time.
Amazingly, the Braves just kept on humming along. The Nationals once again went on one of those crazy runs where it seemed like they couldn’t lose and were inevitably going to rise to the top of the division. Once again, the Braves matched them on that hot streak and Washington hasn’t made up too much ground on the Braves while that has gone on. Atlanta really hasn’t missed a beat despite the injuries and it’s due to the fact that nearly every single move that Alex Anthopoulos and the front office has made has been a hit for them.
In recent days we’ve seen Adeiny Hechavarria, Billy Hamilton, and Francisco Cervelli added to the roster in order to paper over some of the major holes that may have temporarily formed due to all of the injuries. While it’s impossible to fully recoup the production that the lineup regulars provide when they’re healthy, they have done an admirable job of coming in and making sure that things didn’t fall off too hard. Each of those guys have had their own individual moments where they’ve either had a direct hand in winning a game for the Braves or they at least proved that they were capable of producing. Combined, they’ve already been worth 0.7 fWAR and they have only 15 games and 29 plate appearances between the three of them.
However, one of the biggest developments has been the fact that the bullpen has improved. While they’re still not perfect, the guys who were brought in to be reliable have been, well, reliable. Ever since the bullpen hit rock bottom earlier this month and Sean Newcomb sent a fire extinguisher to fire extinguisher heaven by kicking a trash bin into it, they’ve been perfectly fine. They have a 3.66 ERA and a 3.73 FIP as a unit since August 11 and they’ve actually come up big in a couple of spots since then. After an extremely shaky start from the new additions, they have finally done their job and helped to stabilize a bullpen that badly needed it.
The best part of all of these pieces coming together is that it’s going to make the team that much better during the stretch run and any potential postseason run. These are the type of additions that you make when you want to fortify the back end of your roster and it’s been a formula that’s worked for successful postseason teams over the years. How many times have you seen one of these teams who play deep in the posteason get a big hit from a fringe player who they picked up on a whim?
Additionally, there have also been plenty of situations in recent postseasons where the bullpen had to play a major role in carrying a team to the finish line of any particular game — whether it was for the majority of the game or just by clinging onto a lead at the end. You need a deep bench and a reliable bullpen to compete in September and October and the Braves may have found the character to fill those roles for the 2019 run.
Alex Anthopoulos has to be commended for the work that he’s done during the regular season. The offseason was absolutely underwhelming and worthy of the criticism that was sent his way and towards the organization as a whole, as well. However, they’ve made up for it by doing what it takes to make sure that any opportunity at another divisional title and something more than that won’t be wasted. The Braves aren’t a perfect team, but they’re going to be extremely tough to knock out once we get to the “money” stages of the baseball calendar.