The Washington Nationals were perceived as locks to win the National League East after another strong offseason. However, after the Atlanta Braves acquired Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks, there is now a debate as to which team is better.
Yet, despite the Braves' big splash, the Nationals are still the superior team.
Let’s start by looking at each team’s lineups. The Braves' top of the lineup will likely consist of Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. This group has a lot of potential and talent, but there will be questions about consistency.
The Nationals on the other hand, have Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman leading things off. These guys have a lot of experience, but Werth and Zimmerman have been declining over the past two years. Span gives the Nationals a true leadoff hitter they’ve sorely needed.
Freddie Freeman will be the cleanup hitter for the Braves, followed by B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. The problem here is that Upton and Uggla are low-contact, high-strikeout hitters. However, with all of the opportunities they will get with men on base, expect the duo to have bounce-back seasons.
The Nationals have Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond at the four, five and six spots. Washington chose LaRoche over Michael Morse, and for good reason. In each of his last two full seasons, LaRoche has had 100 RBI and over 60 extra-base hits.
Harper has the highest upside out of any National, and will look to follow a solid rookie year with an electric sophomore campaign. Desmond had his best season last year, but the Nationals have to be a little concerned about his injury problems.
The seventh spot in each team’s lineup is rather strong. Brian McCann is widely regarded as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, even if he had a disappointing season in 2012. Danny Espinosa strikes out a lot and has a low average, but he steals bases and has excellent power for a middle infielder.
Finally, the Braves have a below-average hitter in Juan Francisco batting before the pitcher, and the Nationals have a promising catcher in Wilson Ramos.
Both lineups are amongst the best in the league. But while Atlanta is more of a streaky hitting team, the evolution of Harper will make the Nationals' lineup a threat to every pitcher they face.
Additionally, both teams have elite bullpens. Craig Kimbrel is one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball and is more than a formidable option for the Braves in the ninth inning. Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty took a step back last year, but with the addition of fireballer Jordan Walden, the Braves' top relievers will be able to have more rest throughout the season.
The Nationals already had a late-inning combination of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard before they signed Rafael Soriano. Now they boast three great right-handed relievers.
The problem with the Nationals' bullpen is that they don’t have an effective left-handed reliever, unless you want to count Zach Duke. The Braves, on the other hand, have a good mix of relievers that can handle any situation presented.
However, the biggest advantage that either of these teams have on one another is the Nationals' starting pitching. Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are already one of the top duos in the MLB; adding Dan Haren and Jordan Zimmermann to the mix gives Washington arguably the best starting rotation in the majors.
The Braves have Tim Hudson as their ace. Hudson has injury concerns, but he’s been a reliable pitcher over the past couple of seasons. Kris Medlen was a force for the Braves down the stretch last year; if the Braves have any chance of winning the NL East, they’ll need Medlen to maintain a similar performance.
The rest of the Braves' rotation includes Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran. Those three certainly make the Braves' starting rotation weaker than the Nationals, even if Ross Detwiler is their fifth starter.
The Nationals simply have more talent and depth. Even though the Braves have a better bullpen, I think that Davey Johnson will manage his pen better than Fredi Gonzalez. This division race will be close, but the Nationals will pull away in the last few weeks of September.
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