The tale of the National League East race in 2013 was told early on, maybe in an early April showdown in Washington. The Nationals entered with a 7-2 record, while the Braves came to town at 8-1. It was only April 12, but it was a statement series. In the first game, Drew Storen was trying to close out a 4-2 lead in the ninth. Chris Johnson singled and Ramiro Pena reached on a bunt hit. Justin Upton would later tie it with a two-out, two-run single and then Pena hit a two-run homer in the 10th off Craig Stammen. The next night, Tim Hudson beat Stephen Strasburg 3-1 with seven strong innings as Evan Gattis hit a two-run homer. In the finale, Paul Maholm pitched great and the Braves battered Gio Gonzalez in a 9-0 win.
The Braves led the division the rest of the way, fueled by a 12-1 start. They sputtered only for a time in mid-May when the Nationals clawed to a half-game behind, but then the Braves went on a 15-4 run -- taking two of three over the Nationals -- and the race was over. The Braves finished 96-66, and only a strong September got the Nationals to 86-76.
Despite that 10-game difference in the win column and the fact that the Braves had a run differential of 110 runs better than the Nationals, if I had to pick a 2014 division winner right now, I'd go with the Nationals.
Here are a few reasons why:
The Braves will allow more runs
Atlanta's pitching and defense was phenomenal in 2013, with the fifth-lowest runs allowed total in the National League in the past 30 years (not including the strike-shortened 1994 season). They allowed fewer runs than any of the famous Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz pitching staffs. Here are the 10 lowest totals in the NL since 1984, and how many runs those teams allowed the following season:
1. 2011 Phillies: 529 runs (+151)
2. 1988 Mets: 532 runs (+63)
3. 1989 Dodgers: 539 runs (+149)
4. 1988 Dodgers: 544 runs (-5)
5. 2013 Braves: 548 runs (??)
6. 2003 Dodgers: 556 runs (+128)
7. 1993 Braves: 559 runs (+78, prorated to 162 games)
8. 1991 Dodgers: 565 runs (+71)
9. 2002 Braves: 565 runs (+175)
10. 1984 Pirates: 567 runs (+141)
Only the 1988-89 Dodgers allowed fewer runs the next year while the others all had a sizable increase. It's what Bill James once termed the Plexiglas Principle. James was referring to teams in general, but the theory states that teams that improve one season tend to decline the next. Stretching that theory to the Braves' pitching staff, it allowed 52 fewer runs than it had in 2012.
The Braves may have lacked an ace and only Mike Minor pitched 200 innings, but they had depth throughout the staff and the bullpen -- where Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter combined for a 1.50 ERA in nearly 200 innings -- was lights out, the best in the majors. Kimbrel should still be unhittable, but the rest of the pen will be hard-pressed to repeat. The Braves also lost 47 starts from Maholm and Hudson, and while they were their two worst starters, manager Fredi Gonzalez will now rely on Brandon Beachy being healthy for the fourth spot and some combination of Gavin Floyd, Alex Wood or David Hale for the fifth spot.
The optimistic Braves supporter could argue that the team's run prevention may actually go down -- hey, Minor is young, Julio Teheran was a rookie and Kris Medlen had a 2.38 ERA in the second half. Plus, Beachy was leading the NL in ERA when he went down with Tommy John surgery in 2012. Sure, that could happen, but the Plexiglas Principle suggests it won't.
If the pitching regresses, that means the offense will have to improve. Right now, the Braves have Uggla and Upton in key roles, two players who hit under .185 last season. Again, maybe that's a good sign: They won 96 games even though two regulars were abysmal (with Upton being much more abysmal than Uggla, who at least hit 22 home runs and drew 77 walks).
But even if those two bounce back, the Braves are likely to see regression from third baseman Johnson, who hit .321 while contending for the batting crown, plus at catcher, where Gattis will replace seven-time All-Star Brian McCann. Johnson is a .289 career hitter and Gattis wasn't nearly as good in the second half after his hot start. Both have poor strikeout-to-walk ratios.
Again, there's an optimistic view, namely that Jason Heyward, who played just 104 games, will perform better and remain healthy, and that Justin Upton, who was inconsistent after a monster April, will improve as well. Freddie Freeman also improved his batting average 60 points; maybe the 24-year-old first baseman becomes a 30-homer guy this year while maintaining his high average. It appears, however, that any potential gains will be wiped out by regression from other players.
The Nationals added Doug Fister to an already strong rotation
A season ago, the two rotations were nearly identical:
Braves: 3.50 ERA, .700 OPS, 3.20 SO/BB ratio
Nationals: 3.61 ERA, .685 OPS, 3.31 SO/BB ratio
But the Nationals have added what should be a sizable upgrade, replacing Dan Haren (4.67 ERA) with Fister (3.67 ERA in the American League). Based on the Steamer projection system, that's a 21-run upgrade over 170 innings. Plus, the Nationals have better depth.
The Braves are counting on two pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery; for the fifth spot, the Nationals can choose from Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, Nate Karns and Ross Ohlendorf. Their ability to withstand a pitcher injury appears much stronger than Atlanta's.
The Nationals' bench will be much improved
One primary reason the Nationals scored 75 fewer runs than 2012 was they had maybe the worst bench in the majors. Tyler Moore had an OPS+ of 64, Steve Lombardozzi 69, Kurt Suzuki 64, Roger Bernadina 43, Chad Tracy 55. Danny Espinosa, who began the year as the starting second baseman, hit .158/.193/.272. That's 1,236 plate appearances with totals that even B.J. Upton would have been embarrassed to have.
The Nationals will get better production here. They signed Nate McLouth as a fourth outfielder, a solid-average regular for the Orioles in 2013. Moore should be better. Espinosa is still around, but now a backup to Anthony Rendon. Again, the Plexiglas Principle: The bench can't conceivably be as awful.
The Braves, on the other hand, could have a much weaker bench. Gattis is now a starter. Jordan Schafer, you'll remember, had a big first half filling in for Heyward and B.J. Upton, but then hit .170 in the second half. Pena slugged .443 in 107 plate appearances. Reed Johnson is gone. (Update: The Braves did just acquire backup catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit from the Twins, adding a much-needed bat to their bench.)
Bryce Harper: Breakout candidate
Harper had a fine sophomore campaign, hitting .274/.368/.486, but played just 118 games while battling nagging injuries and had the bursa sac in his left knee repaired after the season. Harper hit .344 with nine home runs in April before running into an outfield wall on May 13. If he stays away from walls, the 21-year-old is poised for a big season. Maybe an MVP-type season.
Last year, the Nationals were a popular World Series pick. Maybe everyone was just a year early. They made the trade to acquire Fister without giving up anything significant. The Braves have lost Hudson and McCann without making any significant additions, hamstrung by the bad B.J. Upton contract and impending raises they'll have to give players such as Kimbrel, Freeman and Heyward.
I'm picking the Nationals to win the NL East.