The Braves have the fourth-best record in the National League, the second-best run differential and are 1.5 games back in the East, as I write this Thursday night. The Philadelphia Phillies are at .500 (13-13) with a rather unimpressive +2 run differential and are 3.5 games back in the East. The Phillies are the team to beat in the East.
No matter what you’ve heard about the up-and-coming Nationals. No matter how much money the Marlins spent in the off-season and how fiery their new manager. No matter that the Braves’ new hitting coaches have improved their hitters’ approaches or the strides made by Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor. No matter that the Phillies are playing maybe a less-than-fringe secondbaseman and the corpse of Juan Pierre in left (okay, so he hasn’t been terrible), and Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are all injured. The Phillies are still the team to be in the East.
We could have written this before the Phillies took two out of three from the Braves in Atlanta. Twenty-three games is just not enough. It’s impossible to overstate that 23 or 25 or 26 games is not enough. If you are changing your preseason expectations and predictions after a month, the joke will be on you come July, August and September. But with the Phillies taking two games in Atlanta, it’s a great time to remind folks that the Phillies still have the most talented pitching staff in the game and enough offense to support it. Any hopes that they would go away is false.
The Phillies won 102 games last season. They did it with a league-average offense. Their offense wasn’t much better than the Braves’ in 2011. The Phillies posted a .323 OBP and a .395 SLG while the Braves posted a .308 OBP and a .387 SLG. But the Phillies play their home games in a very hitter-friendly ballpark. But the Phillies allowed the fewest runs in the league while playing half their home games in that hitter-friendly home park.
Sure, it’s unlikely Shane Victorino will repeat their 2011 performances. Ryan Howard was solid last season and they almost certainly won’t get the same value out of firstbase this season. I wouldn’t bet on Jimmy Rollins or Hunter Pence having the same types of seasons they had in 2011. And Chase Utley may not even play. And I don’t expect the pitching staff to be quite as dominant as it was last season. But 102 wins with the run differential of a 103-win team means they can afford to take some steps back. And they still have Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee will return at some point. They still have Carlos Ruiz, and Victorino, Rollins and Pence still provide plenty of value to keep the offense afloat.
Does this means that Braves can’t win the division? Absolutely not. The Braves truly have the offensive potential to be a top-5-in-the-league offense, especially if they can find a way to pull of a trade for one more bat at some point. And clearly their pitching staff is just a notch below the Phillies, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Phillies’ run prevention take a step back enough for the Braves to hang close. Certainly the Phillies stranglehold on the NL East is less of a sure thing than in previous seasons, even with the high expectations of the Braves coming in to 2010 and 2011.
But just because the Braves can win the East doesn’t mean that’s the most likely scenario. That was true on April 4th and is still true on May 4th. It doesn’t matter much what has happened between now and then. It doesn’t matter what happened when the Phillies played the Braves this week. Even if the Braves had swept the series, it wouldn’t have mattered. The Phillies are good. They aren’t going away. We’re in for a race.