When you consider that the Atlanta Braves beat the Houston Astros in six games to win their first world championship since 1995, it’s hard to remember that, heading into the penultimate series of the 2021 season, the Phillies stood just two games back as they entered a three-game series in Atlanta.
Had the Phillies swept the Braves, they would have been in first place by one game with three more to play in Miami. Had they won two out of three, they would have been just one back, with the Braves hosting the Mets for their final three games.
Alas, the Phils were swept away and watched the Braves clinch the NL East in front of them, their 4th-straight division title, before they were even able to leave town.
They had their chances. Atlanta lost MVP candidate Ronald Acuna for the season in early July and didn’t have one of their best young starters, Mike Soroka, for all of ‘21. They did not cross .500 until August 6, at 56-55, the latest in a season any world champion had ever crossed .500.
By a lot.
The Braves won just 88 games, and yet still won the division by 6 1⁄2 games over the 82-80 Phillies, but during most of the season, the Phils led them in the division, and were really close the whole way.
Now, with 2022 Opening Day just a few weeks away and rosters mostly finalized, we can take a look at the work both teams did this off-season and get an idea how these two rivals stack up. Both were very busy, adding key pieces to their flawed rosters, but it’s hard to argue that Atlanta doesn’t enter the ‘22 season as the superior team.
Key Braves Departures: Freddie Freeman (1B), Jorge Soler (OF), Joc Pederson (OF), Drew Smyly (SP), Chris Martin (RP), Johan Camargo (INF)
Braves fans are obviously disappointed to lose the future Hall of Famer and franchise icon Freeman, and losing two of the three outfielders that fueled their late-season run to the title is probably a bit unnerving, too. However, Freeman is the one truly big loss, and Atlanta did a pretty good job replacing him.
Key Braves Additions: Matt Olson (1B), Eddie Rosario (LF), Kenley Jansen (RP), Collin McHugh (RP), Kirby Yates (RP), Tyler Thornburg (RP), Alex Dickerson (LF), Orlando Arcia (INF), Manny Pina (C)
Olson is not Freddie Freeman, but he’s a really darn good player. In fact, Olson’s fWAR (5.0) was actually a half-win higher than Freeman’s (4.5) last year, and he’s also five years younger, locked up through 2027 at $24.7 million a season. While it initially seemed silly to let Freeman sign elsewhere and trade prospects for Olson, the player swap is a long-term upgrade in my book. They also added one of the best closers in baseball in Jansen, a pitcher who has lost his fastball but has learned to pitch differently, and they shored up the bullpen with a number of other quality additions.
Key Phillies Departures: Andrew McCutchen (LF), Hector Neris (RP), Brad Miller (INF), Ian Kennedy (RP), Archie Bradley (RP)
McCutchen was a great guy to have in the clubhouse and a player incredibly easy to root for. His Phils career got off to a fantastic start in the first two months of 2019, but that knee injury sapped the athleticism and production from him by the end of last year, paving the way for his departure. Neris, for all his flaws, was a consistently good relief pitcher and a decent, if unspectacular, closer, who will be missed. Brad Miller was a great bench bat who was forced to start too many games thanks to injuries last year, while Kennedy and Bradley were bullpen disappointments.
Key Phillies Additions: Nick Castellanos (LF/DH), Kyle Schwarber (LF/DH), Corey Knebel (RP), Brad Hand (RP), Jeurys Familia (RP), Johan Camargo (INF)
There’s no doubt Castellanos is a monster upgrade in left field, while the addition of Schwarber gives the team options at both left field and DH. After returning from injury late last year, Knebel was awesome for the Dodgers as a late-inning, high leverage reliever and will enter the season as the Phils’ new closer. In fact, the Phillies essentially swapped out Neris, Bradley and Kennedy for Knebel, Hand and Familia. Only time will tell if that was a positive move, but at the very least, they treaded water there.
After looking at the additions/departures, is it crazy to think the Phillies actually did more to improve themselves year-over-year than the Braves did?
Here is the Braves’ projected lineup, once Acuna returns from his ACL injury, presumably sometime in May, with Fangraphs’ projected 2022 statistics.
Atlanta Braves 2022 lineup
Philadelphia Phillies 2022 Lineup
Both offenses appear to be loaded in 2022, especially the 1-6 spots in the order. Neither team has a weakness there. However, Atlanta likely has the edge in the bottom third of the order, and that advantage is reflected in Fangraphs’ runs-per-game projections for this year.
The Phils are projected to score 4.88 runs per game, 5th-most in baseball and significantly better than last year’s 4.53, while the Braves are projected to score 5.03 runs per game, 3rd-most, up from 4.91 a year ago.
So the lineups are close, very close, but the edge probably still goes to Atlanta.
Atlanta Braves 2022 Rotation
Philadelphia Phillies 2022 Rotation
Again, these two rotations are really close, and if Ranger Suarez is the real deal and if the 2022 projections are correct, the Phillies should have the better top-three, and perhaps the better rotation entirely. Zack Wheeler should have won the Cy Young last year, although his late start to the season and shoulder soreness this off-season is concerning. He is now the No. 1 storyline in Clearwater, because an injury to Wheeler could likely make all the Phillies’ moves to strengthen the lineup moot. Expect a bounce back season for Aaron Nola, who once upon a time finished 3rd in the Cy Young vote (2018). Atlanta has the better Nos. 4 and 5 starters, and more depth in the minors in case of an emergency.
Based on runs allowed per game, the Phils are projected by Fangraphs to give up 4.43 runs per game, an improvement over last year’s 4.60, but still only good enough for 13th in MLB. The Braves, meanwhile, are 9th, at 4.35 runs per game, slightly more than last season’s 4.07.
For the Phillies, a good deal of those runs are going to be either unearned, or the result of slightly-harder-than-routine plays not made by one of the worst defenses in Major League Baseball. Phils pitchers may end up throwing more pitches and going fewer innings as a result of some difficult-to-quantifiably-project glovework.
Atlanta Braves 2022 Bullpen
Philadelphia Phillies 2022 Bullpen
Bullpens are always a crapshoot, but Atlanta appears to have more certainties in their ‘pen than the Phils do. Jansen is a more established closer, but Knebel has done it before and looked outstanding last season. There is very little certainty with the Phillies’ relievers, while guys like Matzek, McHugh and Smith are established, consistent veterans who have gotten it done in the biggest moments. Both teams should get reinforcements once the season begins, Jojo Romero for the Phils and Yates for Atlanta, but the Braves also have better options in the minors, too. Right now, it’s hard not to say the Braves have a big advantage in the ‘pen as we enter the 2022 season.
Atlanta Braves 2022 Bench
Philadelphia Phillies 2022 Bench
I think the Phils have a better bench than the Braves, for whatever that’s worth. Camargo is a guy who can play a number of spots and has been a solid offensive player in the past. Matt Vierling will split time in center with Odubel Herrera, and I think projections for him power-wise are low. There’s a lot of upside with him. Both teams brought in new back-up catchers this off-season, one really isn’t all that different than the other. But there is maybe a couple tenths of a win here in the Phils’ bench more than in Atlanta’s.
As of this writing, Fangraphs projects the Phillies to win one of the three wild card spots, the last team in these expanded National League playoffs.
The additions of Schwarber and Castellanos has pushed the Phils to 87.6 wins, still only good enough for 3rd in the NL East, but they have the 6th-highest postseason odds in the league. That said, Fangraphs projects 91.9 wins for Atlanta and a 39.0% shot of winning the division, better than the Phils’ 21.3%.
Looking at the rosters, it’s difficult to argue with that assessment. The Braves have put together, outside of the Dodgers, the best roster in the National League, and one of the 4-5 best teams in baseball. They should win their fifth straight division title and remain World Series contenders in 2022 and the years to come.
The Phillies are much improved, but need big seasons from Alec Bohm and Didi Gregorius or shortstop prospect Bryson Stott and better-than-expected results from their bullpen if they want to catch Atlanta in the very difficult NL East.