If not for Bud, Braves would be World Series favorites

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Who’s with me?

The Nationals’ four projected starters are a combined 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA in the postseason, with that entire track record belonging to Edwin Jackson. They have one hitter in their lineup with a .350 OBP. They don’t have any big holes in their lineup, but they also don’t have anyone with an OPS over .850.

The Reds’ No. 1 starter, Johnny Cueto, has a history of fatiguing as the year goes on, something that seems to have manifested again this year. He’ll enter the postseason having already topped his career high in innings by about 20. Their best hitter has gone 41 at-bats without homering since returning from a seven-week injury. The team as a whole has hit .249/.309/.395 in road games this year. Their elite closer has been dealing with shoulder weakness. They’ll almost certainly be starting Bronson Arroyo in Game 3 of the NLDS.

The Giants have the worst run differential of any of the NL’s big four. Their offense has performed surprisingly well without the suspended NL batting champ, but there’s only one guy with an .800 OPS left in the lineup. Besides Buster Posey, there isn’t anyone on the team with even a dozen homers. And while the Giants have the best one-two rotation punch in the NL, it’s going to be hard to trust Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong or Barry Zito in Games 3 and 4. Also, they don’t have a closer.

The Braves have the game’s hottest pitcher in Kris Medlen, with Tim Hudson available to start Game 2. They’ll have to choose from the Paul Maholm, Mike Minor and Tommy Hanson trio after that, but the top two should be tough. They have an incredibly dominant force to pitch the ninth and a top notch lefty in front of him. With Michael Bourn and Martin Prado, they should be able to manufacture runs at the top of the lineup, and they have five guys behind them capable of delivering the long ball.

Atlanta isn’t about to make up 5 1/2 games on Washington to win the NL East. As a result, a one-game wild card playoff seems assured, and even if the Braves will be good bets to win that game with Medlen or Hudson starting, there’s still at least a 35-40 percent chance they come up short.

Under the old system, the Braves would be my pick to represent the NL in the World Series. The lack of home-field advantage would be a problem, but they look like the best team to me, particularly since they’d be able to get a little more out of Chipper Jones, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty with the additional days off in the postseason schedule.

As is, they’re a big underdog. Which is precisely what Bud Selig and the others wanted in agreeing to the new wild card format. The Braves are still capable of advancing, but I think I’d have to go with the Giants at the moment.

Meanwhile, on the cold, cold Hot Stove . . .

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It’s Hot Stove Season baby! You know what that means! Yep: time to watch some teams sign a few relievers to minor league deals and then wait everyone out until February while talking about the need to maintain financial flexibility! FEEL THE BURN.

In more specific news:

We’ve talked a lot about Betts this winter already, and that seems like madness. Bryant’s career with the Cubs began with business-side acrimony, it’s still simmering, and there is no sense that either side is amenable to a long-term deal before he hits free agency. The Indians have been signaling for some time that they have no interest in keeping Lindor long term.

It’s quite the thing when three teams who are supposed to be contending are, instead, looking to deal recent MVP award winners and candidates who are 27 and 26 years old, but these are the times in which we are living.

  • Joe Sheehan wrote an excellent column for Baseball America last week analyzing the attendance drop MLB experienced in 2019. Which is just the latest in a series of attendance drops. As Joe notes there is a very, very strong connection between teams (a) signaling to fans during the offseason that they are not interested in signing or retaining players or otherwise being competitive; and (b) teams suffering attendance losses.

As I wrote last offseason, there is an increasing disconnect between attendance and other proxies of broad fan interest and revenue. Which is to say that, as long as teams continue to get fat on long-term TV deals, side businesses like real estate development, and soaking a smaller and wealthier segment of the fan base with higher and higher prices, they really have no reason to care if several thousand common or casual fans become alienated by their teams’ lack of desire to compete.

Sullivan doesn’t offer ideas about how that can happen, but over the past couple of seasons we’ve seen a number of proposals, some broad, some specific, about how MLB can turn its free agency/trading period into frantic, 1-3 day scrambles-to-sign like we see in both the NBA and NFL. I’m sympathetic to that desire — it’s exciting! — but any attempt to do that in Major League Baseball, at least as things are currently set up, would be a disaster for the players.

In the NBA and NFL you have salary caps and floors and, in the NBA, you have max contracts. As a result, teams both have a set amount of money to spend and an incentive to spend that money. We can quibble with whether those incentives are the best ones or if they benefit the players as much as other systems might, but there’s at least something inherent in their systems which inspires teams to sign free agents.

In Major League Baseball, there is no such incentive. May teams want to keep payrolls as low as possible under the guise of rebuilding or tanking and there is no effective mechanism to keep them from doing so. Even nominal contenders — see the Cubs, Indians and Red sox in item 1 above — spend more time thinking about how to cut payroll rather than add talent. This is bolstered by the stuff in item 2 above in which attendance and even winning has less of an impact on the bottom line than it ever has.

So, why scramble to sign players by a set deadline? Under most of the scenarios I see floated — like the laughably horrible one MLB reportedly suggested to the MLBPA — teams would just wait out free agents until deadline day, give them crappy take-it-or-leave-it offers and then leave them all scrambling to sign one-year deals or to sit the season out.

For such a thing to happen — or for teams to want to keep their bright young stars or for the league to want to maintain fan interest and keep attendance from continuing to slide — there must be incentives put in place to make them want to sign and retain players. To make them want to win. To make them want to excite the fan base.

At present, such incentives are not there. And, as such, we are faced with yet another winter with a cold, cold stove.