The N.L. East's new favorites

Scott Cunningham

So you've probably heard the Braves are 12-1.

Maybe this isn't all that surprising, considering their star catcher and their star first baseman are batting 289/349/658 and 415/442/537. You know, those stars Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman.

Wait, what?

The catcher is Evan Gattis, who just recently took off a few years from baseball for a spiritual journey? The first baseman is Chris Johnson, who got traded last summer for someone named Bobby Borchering?

Well, yeah. McCann's been out with an injury, and Freeman's played in only five games this season (granted, Freeman's knocked home seven runs in those five games). It's just odd to see Gattis and Johnson in those spots on this page, with those statistics.

Here's something that is perhaps more odd ... You've probably heard that Justin Upton, who struggled through most of last season with the Diamondbacks, is leading Planet Earth in hitting baseballs really hard. And so you might naturally think that Justin Upton is merely one-third of Atlanta's Amazing Outfield, with the other two-thirds consisting of Justin's big brother and Jason Heyward. Those guys must be amazing, right?

Those guys have been horrible. Bossman Junior's driving in two runs in a dozen games, and J-Hey's got five hits in April. As brilliant as Gattis and Johnson and Little Brother Upton have been, the rest of the regulars have been so-so or worse. And so the Braves are just sixth in the National League in scoring.

But, O! The pitching! In 13 games, the Braves have given up 26 runs.

Paul Maholm? You know, The Afterthought? He's started three games and hasn't given up any runs at all. Kris Medlen and Mike Minor have been great, and Tim Hudson continues to be Tim Hudson. Only young Julio Teheran has struggled, but there's hope even for him.

The entire bullpen has given up six runs, even with Jonny Venters out of action. There's Craig Kimbrel (0.00), of course. There are also some no-names, and so we must reserve a bit of skepticism in this area; the Braves have demonstrated the ability to cobble together strong relief corps, but nobody's perfect and only Kimbrel and Eric O'Flaherty might be regarded as near-sure things.

The Braves have outscored their opponents 68-26 and out-homered them 25-7. In every important phase of the games, they have simply destroyed everybody. Which has led to suggestions that the Braves, and not the Nationals, are the best team in the National League and quite probably the best in the majors.

They might be. Three weeks ago, I had the Nationals winning 95 games and the Braves 90. The difference between winning 95 baseball games and winning 90 baseball games is ... well, nothing. Or if it's something, it's not something you can really identify before the season. A couple of serious injuries or a few half-inches over the course of six months, and you've wiped out that five-game difference. So while the Braves might have looked like underdogs on Opening Day, they really were not. They were, in most of the ways that matter, co-favorites in the National League East, and for that matter in the National League generally.

The Nationals are now 8-6, despite having been outscored by 14 runs; in a sense they're lucky to trail the Braves by only 4½ games in the middle of April. But considering everything, I don't see any reason to think today that the Braves will win 95 games and the Nationals 90, except that the Braves now have a real head start.

Head starts aren't nothing. But they're just a little bit of something. Fundamentally the Braves and the Nationals are still co-favorites, except now if you absolutely have to pick one of them, you have to pick the Braves.

So that much has changed since Opening Day, anyway.

For much more about the Braves, please visit SB Nation's Talking Chop.

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