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The return of the Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves won their first NL East title since 2013 Saturday with a 5-3 win over the Phillies. The title completes what has been an ahead of schedule rebuild for the Braves. But how did the Braves go from last place in the NL East last season to first this season?

The growth of the young core

Atlanta Braves
Ronald Acuna is the next big thing in Atlanta. (Sporting News)

The Atlanta Braves boast one of the best young cores in all of baseball. Four of their regular starters are under 25 years old, and all four have at least 2.5 WAR or higher this season. Those four are Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Johan Camargo.

While all four have been solid producers for the Braves, Ronald Acuna Jr. has been the most efficient. He is second on the team with a 3.9 WAR and has stolen 14 bases.

His 26 home runs and .290 batting average fuel his 146 OPS+, making him one of the most prolific offensive players in baseball this season. But it’s not just a one-man show in Cobb County.

Ozzie Albies has been right up there near the top of the team WAR leaderboard all season long, currently ranking just behind Acuna Jr. with 3.7 WAR.

He has shown impressive power for his diminutive stature as he has blasted 23 home runs this season. Albies is also a crafty baserunner, with 13 steals.

Johan Camargo has also been a key component of the Braves offense. He posted an unimpressive 103 OPS+ last season, and was largely overlooked entering the 2018 season.

But just like the Braves themselves, Camargo flipped the script. He has produced a respectable 117 OPS+  to go along with 18 home runs. He has also solidified the hot corner for the Braves, who struggled to fill the position last season.

Steady veteran presence

Like many recent successful rebuilds, the Atlanta Braves have a number of veterans to help guide the younger players. While many believed their main role would be to mentor the young prospects, they have done an excellent job of providing support on the field as well.

Ender Inciarte has been with the Braves throughout the majority of the rebuild. After being acquired in 2016, the veteran outfielder finally has had the chance to play on a playoff caliber team. And he has not disappointed. He is fourth on the team with 3.5 WAR this season, and has hit ten home runs.

Nick Markakis has also been a solid producer for the Braves. After a lackluster 2017, the outfielder has found the fountain of youth, hitting .303 with 14 home runs and 93 RBIs. All that put together gets you a 121 OPS+ and a surprising amount of production.

One veteran that hasn’t surprised this season is Freddie Freeman. The career Brave has hit at his typical rate, putting up MVP level numbers. He has hit 23 home runs and stolen a career-high ten bases.

His .311/.391/.508 slash line has helped him produce a 141 OPS+ and 6.1 WAR. As the face of the franchise, Freeman has been the driving force behind the Braves return to relevance. But the Braves have also had solid producers on the mound as well.

Strong pitching staff

Anibal Sanchez has been an animal for the Braves (

The Braves pitching staff has been one of the best in baseball. Their team 3.79 ERA is good for tenth in the majors. They also have the tenth most strikeouts with 1351 as a team.

But their pitching staff doesn’t boast a true ace. The Braves rely on a number of above-average starters to carry their staff.

While Mike Foltynewicz has been good this season, he is not considered an ace. Even so, he fills the role for the Braves, and does an impressive impersonation of one.

He has won 11 games and pitched to a 2.90 ERA this season. Foltynewicz has also been a steady presence in the rotation, making 29 starts this season.

Before Foltynewicz filled the ace slot, the Braves relied on Julio Teheran. And while he hasn’t been close to his past form, Teheran has still been a solid option for the Braves.

Although he posts a relatively high 4.04 ERA, Teheran has done a good job of limiting base runners. His 1.19 WHIP and 157 strikeouts proves him a tough opponent for hitters.

One surprise contributor on the mound has been Anibal Sanchez. The former Detroit Tiger pitched to a dreadful 6.41 ERA last season in 105.1 innings.

He has definitely turned it around this season, posting an impressive 3.01 ERA. He also has 127 strikeouts in 125.1 innings this season. As one of the few pitchers with playoff experience on the roster, Sanchez could be a vital part of the Braves’ playoff run.

The Braves are already ahead of schedule, making the playoffs one year after finishing last in the NL East. And with a young core, strong veteran presence and ample supply of quality pitchers, the Braves could make some noise in the National League playoffs.

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