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Handicapping the divisions: NL East

Examining a two-way battle between the Braves and Phillies

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In this series previewing the end of the season, we’re going to take a look at the divisions and their playoff odds, and then handicapping them based on our subjective analysis of these teams’ trajectories. This time we’ll try to disentangle the two-horse race in the NL East. Here are the updated FanGraphs Playoffs Odds for winning the division.

The first takeaway is that they need to use different colors for the Nationals and Phillies. That would make it a lot easier to read.

The second takeaway is that this was NOT supposed to be a close race. The Nationals were the favorites as recently as July 23rd. This was based off their strong preseason projections more than their underwhelming on-field performance. They still have an 8 percent chance of winning the division, but after the mini fire sale of Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams, those odds should be trending even lower.

Technically, the Mets and Marlins are also baseball teams that play in the NL East. I feel like I should at least mention them once. Mission accomplished, let’s move along.

The Braves and Phillies have traded-off the top spot with one another every few days for the last couple of weeks now. This should be a searing hot race all the way to the finish. Atlanta is on top at the moment, but it’s unlikely that either team will pull away.

The Braves are one of the youngest teams in baseball. That’s not a surprise; some team has to be the youngest, and the Braves had the #1 farm system heading into the season. What’s amazing is how awesome all of these youngsters seem to be.

Braves 25 and Under

Pitchers Age fWAR Hitters Age fWAR
Pitchers Age fWAR Hitters Age fWAR
Sean Newcomb 25 1.6 Ozzie Albies 21 3.3
Michael Soroka 20 0.6 Ronald Acuña 20 2.2
Max Fried 24 0.5 Johan Camargo 24 2.2
Matt Wisler 25 0.2 Dansby Swanson 24 1.4
Four other age 20-22 pitchers have started one game each.

Acuña deservedly gets much of the attention, but Freddie Freeman continues to quietly lead the team in wins, and is in the recent NL MVP discussion. His 5.1 fWAR leads all NL position players, even though he receives less hype than Matt Carpenter and Javier Baez. Batting .321/.404/.530, he really is a legitimate MVP candidate.

On the pitching side, Mike Foltynewicz has bloomed into an ace. His 28.2 percent K-rate and 3.38 FIP are both eighth best in the NL. Kevin Gausman has also pitched well since his trade from the Orioles. The aforementioned young starters have all contributed with aplomb, and the Braves could have a good problem going forward regarding who to use in the rotation.

The bullpen is also a big part of their success. Arodys Vizcaino, Shane Carle, Dan Winkler, and A.J. Minter have all been phenomenal all year. Deadline acquisitions Brad Brach and the irrepressable Johnny Venters have allowed just one run in their 18 combined innings.

On to the Phillies, whose offense is one of those greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts situations. The three best position players on the team are Rhys Hoskins (2.5 fWAR), Cesar Hernandez (2.1 fWAR), and Maikel Franco (1.8 fWAR). Each contributes in different way, but with their own major flaws. Hoskins can absolutely mash but is a whale in left field. His -20 DRS is tied for the second worst in baseball, regardless of position. Hernandez brings an impressive .365 on base percentage to the table, but with only .104 isolated power. Franco is just the opposite of Hernandez. He’s slugged 20 home runs, but has only a 6.0 percent walk rate.

The team tried to boost their offensive production at the deadline with several acquisitions, but many of them further endanger their precarious defense. Adding Wilson Ramos at catcher is a likely upgrade over Jorge Alfaro, but Asdrubal Cabrera is now the regular shortstop. The only upside to that is he makes Hoskins’ range look less pathetic by comparison. They also added Justin Bour, which gives them three players who really ought to play first base, including Hoskins and Carlos Santana. It’s going to be impossible to get them all in the same lineup without doing something crazy like playing Santana at third base or Bour in the outfield.

Pitching is the real reason the Phillies are playoff contenders. Aaron Nola has become one of the unqualified best pitchers in baseball. He belongs in both the Cy Young and MVP conversations along with Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. Big free agent signing Jake Arrieta has pitched pretty well, but the real surprises have been Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin. All of them could eclipse 3.0 fWAR by the end of the season, and each is controllable for several more seasons. The bullpen has been solid as well, led by Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano.

Prediction time.

Anyone who says they know for sure what will happen down the stretch is either crazy or a liar. The Braves appear to have a clear advantage on offense and especially defense, as well as a seemingly inexhaustible fountain of youth in the minors. They also have a two game lead as of this writing, which also helps. Whichever team loses the division will be in a dogfight for the wild card spots. Behind the three NL division leaders, there are five teams that each have between 57-60 losses. The best bet for the playoffs is to win the division, as always, and the Phillies and Braves should keep it interesting down to the wire.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Off the Bench Baseball. Tweets @depstein1983