The Other Best Team in the NL East
In 2005 the Atlanta Braves won their 14th straight division title as the newly minted Washington Nationals stumbled down the stretch to finish 81-81 and in last place in the division. The following season the Atlanta Braves finished third in the division with a record of 79-83 while the Washington Nationals once again finished in last at 71-91. Both the Braves and Nationals were 70 win teams in 2006 and eight seasons later heading into 2014 they are expected to contend for the division title. How the Nationals got to this point is a common story. They stripped themselves of all assets, refused to dole out money to free agency, and hit it big on a couple first round picks. The Braves took a very different path, but ended up in virtually the same place. The Braves’ path back to contending for a division title had Atlanta fans dealing with a lot of mediocrity, but in the end it worked. The 2006 Braves were a team of veterans led by John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Marcus Giles. There were young players like Jeff Francoeur, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Langerhans and while 2006 was a decent year for Langerhans and a career year for LaRoche the Braves pitching just wasn't enough. Tim Hudson struggled in his second season in Atlanta while Chuck James, John Thomson, and Horacio Ramirez simply weren't able to give the Braves the production or innings a winning team needs out of its middle to back of the rotation. 2006 ended as a lost year for the Atlanta Braves, but remember the Braves were starting from a different place than the Nationals. While the Nationals were a team devoid of talent the Braves were an aging team coming off one of the most impressive runs in baseball history. They couldn't shed all assets and go for a full rebuild. They had to rebuild on the fly.
In 2007 the Braves once again finished third in the division with a record of 84-78 while Manny Acta led the surprising Nationals to a fourth place finish in the division at 73-89. It was a difference of eleven games but only one spot in the standings, and even at 73-89 no one had expected the Nationals to even be that good. Many had predicted they'd be the worst team of all time, and that is what the Nationals had wanted. The Braves on the other hand were still trying to contend, but both the Mets and Phillies had superior rosters. During the 2006 off-season the Braves had traded Adam LaRoche to the Pirates for closer Mike Gonzalez and the trade went about as well as any first baseman for closer trade can be expected. Scott Thorman bombed at the position and it led to the Braves making one of the worst trades in baseball history when they sent Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Beau Jones to the Texas Rangers for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. Mark Teixeira would help the Braves to win those 84 games in 2007 but in 2008 the Braves fortunes took a nose dive.
While the Nationals were busy executing their plan to be awful to perfection the Braves plan to remain contenders was failing. They ended up finishing in fourth in the NL East at 72-90 with Mark Teixeira, Chipper Jones, and Brian McCann pulling their weight in the line-up but no one else doing anything of significance. John Smoltz had since retired and a rotation of Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, Jorge Campillo, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Charlie Morton wasn't getting the job done. The Braves were trying to remain relevant, but had forgotten that good teams need good pitching, and a farm system that once churned out good starting pitchers like candy simply wasn't producing anymore. The Braves were stuck in the last years of Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox treading water. Stuck between the desire to remain relevant and the need to rebuild.
2009 was the second straight 100 loss season for the Nationals. 2008 netted them Stephen Strasburg and 2009 was about to net them Bryce Harper. The Braves were once again a winning team, but once again finished in third place behind the Phillies and Marlins. The Phillies were in the midst of their run of dominance through the NL East and the Marlins were a young talented team not yet at the point of entering their customary fire sale. 2009 was just a season for the Atlanta Braves. They did nothing overtly stupid. They rushed Jordan Schafer onto the opening day roster and ended up having to trade Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez to the Pirates for Nate McLouth, but that was just a trade. Nowhere near the level of desperation of the Teixeira deal from two seasons prior. The Braves may have failed to make the playoffs in 2009, but they were starting to get back to relevance as they remained in the wild card race until close to season's end when Matt Diaz was thrown out at third to end the Braves playoff hopes.
When talking about Braves recent collapses 2011 gets all the credit but 2010 was just as bad. The Braves led the NL East for most of the season. The roster had gotten reinforcements from within from Rookie of the Year runner-up, Jason Heyward, and pitching phenom Tommy Hanson. The Braves would lead the NL East for the majority of the season, and then fail to hold off the Phillies during the second half settling for the Wild Card. Back in the playoffs the Braves would do what they do best and lose in the first round to the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, but the Braves were back in the playoffs while the Nationals were still building towards their greatness.
The story of the Braves in 2011 and 2012 should be well known at this point. 2010 was the year they returned to being a great team and have won between 89-96 games in each of the last four seasons. Jason Heyward has been joined on the Braves roster by Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran, and Mike Minor giving the Braves one of the best young, home grown cores in baseball. The 2013 trade for Justin Upton worked out much better than the 2007 trade for Mark Teixeira and the Braves transition from the core of Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Jones, and Jones is complete. It was a much different path than the Nationals took to the top of the NL East, but as the dawn of the 2014 season readies to break both teams are at the same place and the race to the 2014 NL East Championship is about to begin. In the interest of competition may the best team full of home grown talent win.