Originally written on BravesWire  |  Last updated 5/16/12
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By Kent Covington

OF Michael Bourn is putting up all-star numbers in'12.

The first-place Atlanta Braves are currently 23-14, having played.622 baseball to this point. Projected over a 162 games, that equates to a 101-61 record.

And at 22-14 (.611), the second-place Washing Nationals are on track to post a 99-63 record.

Could either or both of these teams really win 100 games–or something close to it?  Glad you asked.

When you ask that question, what you’re really asking is “Have the Braves and/or the Nationals overachieved thus far?” That’s a good question. Let’s tackle it.

The Braves are second in the NL in runs scored. They’re scoring approximately 5.3 runs per game. To put that in context, last year the St. Louis Cardinals led the league in scoring with 4.7 runs per game. The Braves have a loaded lineup and a solid bench, so their offensive success is no fluke.

Jason Heyward and Martin Prado appear to be rebounding nicely from their disappointing ’11 seasons and the team is benefiting greatly from a full season of Michael Bourn at the top of the lineup. However, it is unlikely that they will continue to score well over 5 runs per game. I would estimate that their run production will drop by about 10-12% between now and the end of the season. So it would be fair to say the Braves have performed slightly above their heads, offensively.

On the other hand, Atlanta is just 13th in the NL in team ERA (4.09). Given the quality and depth of this pitching staff, it is reasonable to assume it has fallen short of its potential so far this season. Jair Jurrjens, who struggled mightily in April (since demoted to triple-A Gwinnett), has been replaced veteran Ace Tim Hudson, who started his season late after rehabbing from offseason back surgery. That represents a huge upgrade in the starting rotation.

Also, Mike Minor’s stratospheric 6.59 ERA is bound to come down considerably as will, one would think, the ERA’s of relievers Eric O’Flaherty (5.14) and Chad Durbin (7.62). Conversely, the white-hot Brandon Beachy cannot possibly maintain a 1.60 ERA over 30+ starts. But overall, it appears the Braves’ pitching staff has underachieved in the run prevention category. I estimate a 12-15% improvement in Atlanta’s team ERA, inching closer to the 3.48 earned run average the Atlanta staff posted last year.

To summarize, the Braves run production is likely to drop 10-12%. However their ERA should improve 12-15%. Therefore, on balance, it is hard to make a strong case that the Braves have overachieved to this point. I see no reason to believe their success is not sustainable.  A win total in the mid-90’s or better appears well within reach.

Okay, so what about the Nats?

The Washington Nationals have struggled to score runs so far in 2012. They score 3.6 runs per game and are 14th in the NL in run production. That’s not entirely surprising. This is a flawed lineup. However, it is reasonable to expect the power numbers of OF Jayson Werth (3 HR) and 3B Ryan Zimmerman (1 HR) to improve. The Nats are also awaiting the return of 1B/OF slugger Michael Morse. On the flip side, Adam LaRoche, who boasts a .325 avg and a .975 OPS is likely fall back to earth in the not-too-distant future. Ultimately, I believe the Nats will score more runs, but they will remain a middle-of-the-pack ballclub, offensively. I look for a 12-13% increase in run production.

Former Brave, 1B Adam LaRoche is carrying the Nats' offense

Pitching is the Nationals’ strength. They lead the NL with a 2.86 team ERA, and there’s nothing phony about Washington’s pitching prowess. Their rotation is formidable and their bullpen is solid. But while their pitching success is legitimate, it’s also inflated. At the end of April, the Nats’ ERA stood at an impressive 2.33. That ERA has jumped up by a half-run over the past couple of weeks, and not coincidentally, they are just 5-5 over their last 10 games. They are where they are in the standings because, through the first month of the season, their pitching staff performed roughly 50% better than it can possible perform over the course of 162 games.

In short, while the Nats’ offense is likely to improve a bit, their team ERA is on the rise, and it still has at least another half-run or so to climb before reaching a sustainable level.  The Nationals aren’t likely to stick the Braves into late September. However, they could cross the 90-win threshold for the first time since relocating to Washington, which would certainly be a proud accomplishment for the former division laughingstock.

Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

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