The Atlanta Braves are better than almost anyone thought. Could they steal the NL East?

You keep waiting for the Atlanta Braves to fade away, don’t you? We all do. This is not their year. Don’t believe me? Go look it up.

Some of us declared them dead about the third day of Spring Training. They’d simply gotten rid of too much talent and too much payroll to compete with the Nationals, Mets and Marlins in the NL East.

And yet…

After 60 games, they’re flirting with .500.

And first place.

The Braves arrive at Citi Field tonight with a 29-31 record and a mere 2 1/2-game deficit in the NL East.

Sure, some of that 29-31 record can be explained by their division being not exactly the powerhouse it was expected to be. But the Braves shouldn’t be apologizing for any of that.

All they’ve done is play competitive baseball. And so, after 60 games, is it fair to ask: Why can’t the Braves win the NL East? Are the Nationals and Mets really that much better than Atlanta?

The Braves play the Mets and Nationals 12 times over the next three weeks, so we could get some clarity. Or not.

The Braves are seventh in the NL in runs and 11th in ERA. Their rotation is 19-17 with a 3.91 ERA. Those numbers put them in the upper half of the NL.

Meanwhile, their bullpen has been terrible. Its 4.75 ERA is the worst in the majors and possibly the only thing keeping the Braves from a serious postseason run.

But one of the things President of Baseball Operations John Hart did during his first months on the job was replenish the farm system. So he has young arms to either deal or to rotate through the roster in a search for answers.

The Braves are so close to first place that it’s reasonable to assume Hart is shopping for bullpen help even if it means surrendering a prospect or two.

Regardless, the Braves are in a good place. In a whirlwind few weeks, Hart unloaded payroll and acquired all kinds of young talent.

Even if the Braves were lousy in 2015, Hart could live with it because he had at least changed the larger direction of the franchise. In dealing Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr. and Craig Kimbrel, Hart gave the franchise a dramatically different look.

But the Braves never once said this was a total reconstruction project. Even as they shipped one player after another out of town, they emphasized that they still believed they could be competitive in 2015.

But teams always say that even when their actions indicate otherwise. If you thought the Braves were working toward Opening Day 2017 in a new ballpark, that would have been reasonable.

Here’s what has gone right:

  • Shelby Miller (5-2, 1.84), who arrived in the Heyward deal with the Cardinals, has been a tremendous pickup. Along with Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Williams Perez, Atlanta has a rotation that is playoff worthy.
  • CF Cameron Maybin has jump-started his career. Long a highly regarded prospect with the Marlins and Padres, Maybin has a .787 OPS, second-best among Atlanta regulars.
  • Hart’s signing of three veterans–Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomez and A.J. Pierzynski–has been smart both in timers of production and leadership.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine the Braves going to the postseason without that bullpen getting some major work. This isn’t a good time to be adding pieces via trade.

But the NL East looks dramatically different than it did on Opening Day, and contrary to what a lot of us thought, the Braves are very much in the conversation.

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