What's been going on with the Braves since they last faced the Phillies?

What's been going on with the Braves since they last faced the Phillies?

When lefty Max Fried delivers the first pitch Friday night in Atlanta, 2½ months will have passed since the Phillies and Braves last met. The Phillies swept the Braves at home March 28-31, outscoring them 23-11 during the best week the Phils' offense has had all year.

It didn't take long for the Braves to recover from that opening series. After beginning 0-3, they won seven of the next eight. The first week of May, the Braves went to Dodger Stadium and were swept, just like the Phillies would be a few weeks later. Atlanta fell to 18-20 on that West Coast trip but has gone 21-9 since.

As a result, the Braves have sole possession of first place for the first time all season entering this weekend’s important three-game set. 

The Phillies and Braves have had markedly different schedules to this point. The Phils have played 14 games already against the Nationals and Mets. The Braves have played just six. Half of Atlanta's 18 divisional games so far this season have come against the Marlins and the Braves have beaten them down, going 8-1.

Almost half of a season has played out since that first Phillies-Braves series. Let's run through the key developments with Atlanta since then:

Acuna already elite

Asked earlier this season about teammate Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman said Acuna has a chance to be as good as Mike Trout. Lofty praise, but it's hard to argue with what Acuna has already accomplished.

After hitting .293/.366/.552 with 26 home runs as a 20-year-old rookie last season, Acuna is hitting .283/.365/.491 with 15 homers this season. He's on pace for 36 home runs and 22 steals and is the most dangerous leadoff man in the NL right now.

The Phillies have not yet felt the full impact of Acuna. He's played 16 games against them and never homered, hitting just .259 with a .688 OPS. 

The Phils are dabbling with the idea of using an opener in one of the games this weekend, but it's more challenging against the Braves than it was against a team as left-handed as the Dodgers. The top of the Braves' order goes Acuna (righty), Dansby Swanson (righty), Freeman (lefty), Josh Donaldson (righty), Nick Markakis (lefty).

Braves' evolving rotation

The Phillies opened the season with a starting pitching edge on the Braves, who had Mike Foltynewicz and a bunch of question marks. 

But the Braves' rotation has actually been better to this point. The rotation ERAs are both between 4.30 and 4.40 but Atlanta has a better WHIP, an opponents' batting average nine points lower and 22 fewer home runs allowed.

Surprisingly, the Braves' ace has been 21-year-old Mike Soroka, who is 7-1 with a 1.92 ERA in 70⅓ innings. Julio Teheran, who has alternated good and bad seasons the last six years, has had a good one so far, posting a 3.03 ERA in 14 starts. And Fried has been very impressive at times with swing-and-miss stuff. The Phillies will face him Friday night.

Foltynewicz has been the worst of the bunch, with a 6.02 ERA. He's too talented to falter much longer. And then there's the newly-signed Dallas Keuchel, who should be ready in a few weeks.

Braves' bullpen

Nobody has really seized the closer's role in Atlanta. Former closer Arodys Vizcaino suffered a season-ending injury and was traded along with Jesse Biddle to Seattle for Anthony Swarzak, who has really helped the Braves as a setup man.

Lefty A.J. Minter got the first crack at saves but struggled and was sent to the minors before being recalled this week.

Lately, save opportunities have gone to right-hander Luke Jackson, who has a 3.27 ERA with nine saves and 49 strikeouts in 33 innings but has also blown five saves.

Atlanta's late-inning formula includes Jackson, Swarzak and likely Minter.

Freddie being Freddie

Is there a more consistent hitter in the NL than Freeman? He's hitting .309/.401/.588, which you can pretty much pencil him in for at season's end. The guy does not have the peaks and valleys of most power hitters, instead hitting .300 seemingly every week with a few extra-base hits.

When the Phillies faced the Braves the first week of the season, they shifted against Freeman every time with the bases empty and he beat the shift more than once. He's just too good with the bat to defend like teams defend Carlos Santana or Bryce Harper. 

After that series, Gabe Kapler said the Phillies had some things to rethink with Freeman. We'll see this weekend what that means.

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Ray of light

The Phillies are again showing interest in Robbie Ray, according to Jon Morosi. We have mentioned Ray frequently here as a Phillies trade target dating back to last summer.

Ray would help any contender. He’s a 27-year-old lefty with an extremely high strikeout rate. He experiences bouts of wildness and does lead the National League with 56 walks, but he has also settled in to a mid-3.00s ERA the last three seasons.

The left-handedness and legit swing-and-miss stuff make Ray the type of pitcher the Phillies do not have.

Ray turns 28 on Oct. 1. Based on his age and remaining contract — 2020 is his final arbitration year before he becomes a free agent — he would be a great fit for the Phillies, even if they do continue to fall out of the playoff race. Ray would help them now and next season and would be a prime extension candidate if he pitches well.

The competition for his services via trade will be intense. The Astros (more on them below) are also in on Ray, and plenty of other clubs have expressed interest in the past. The Phillies would have to trade a player or two they don’t want to trade to acquire him.

Speedsters available

The Royals have made lightning-fast outfielders Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore available. Neither is much of a fit for the Phillies, who already have Roman Quinn in that role.

Hamilton and Gore could both help a contender in need of a late-inning defensive replacement/pinch-runner. They are both impactful defenders and baserunners who can't hit.

As for Whit Merrifield, it seems unlikely Kansas City would move him despite being 30 games under .500. Merrifield is such a good, multi-dimensional player that the Royals deserve a huge score for him. At 30 years old, he is enjoying by far his best season, hitting .309/.361/.500 with 26 doubles, eight triples, 11 homers, 45 RBI and 14 stolen bases. Merrifield's .861 OPS is 55 points higher than his previous career-high.

Merrifield's dynamic offense and positional versatility make him a fit anywhere. The Cubs would make a ton of sense. 

Astros after a starter?

The Astros have gotten huge production from their top three starters, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley. But the back of the rotation remains a question mark. Collin McHugh is pitching in a mop-up role, Brad Peacock is dealing with a sore shoulder, Framber Valdez has been lit up three starts in a row, and Corbin Martin underwent Tommy John surgery the first week of July.

The Astros are still maybe the deepest team in baseball. Anything less than a World Series win would represent disappointment in 2019. Madison Bumgarner would make a whole lot of sense for Houston, which is still rich in prospects after all of their graduations to the majors.

Trade season begins

A pair of solid but unspectacular starting pitchers were moved this past weekend to kick off trade deadline activity.

Remember, these next two weeks figure to be even more frenzied than usual in July because there is now a hard trade deadline of July 31. No more August trades, except those involving a swap of minor-leaguers.

The Orioles sent Andrew Cashner to the Red Sox for a pair of 17-year-old position player prospects who had been playing for Boston's Dominican Summer League team. 

The soon-to-be 33-year-old Cashner went 9-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 17 starts with the Orioles. Baltimore went 11-6 in his starts and 17-59 in all other games.

The Red Sox needed another starting pitcher with the Nate Eovaldi experiment going sideways. Eovaldi has missed much of the season and will shift to the bullpen upon his return later this month. 

As of Monday afternoon, the Red Sox were 2½ games out of the second AL wild-card spot.

The Royals, meanwhile, traded Homer Bailey to the A's for a fringy Double A infielder. Bailey has been just OK this season, with a 4.80 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. 

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