Braves-Nationals-Marlins rivalry heats up

I’m not sure if Atlanta Braves fans have a chip on their shoulder, but I will say that it appears they don’t like the attention the Washington Nationals get. It comes up in my chat sessions every week; of course, it could be the same guy, so maybe I’m reading too much into this. But Braves fans didn't like that everyone picked the Nationals last year as a World Series favorite, only to see the Braves cruise to a division title. They didn't like that a lot of so-called experts once again picked the Nationals this year, and once again the Nationals are playing uninspiring baseball, with a below .500 record entering Saturday's action.

It’s fair to repeat what my chatter suggested: Where is this dynasty that everyone predicted would happen after the 2012 Nationals won 98 games? Where is the team that the front office was so confident would be returning to the playoffs for the foreseeable future that it benched Stephen Strasburg for the postseason? In fact, it’s easy to argue that the Braves now have the better base of young talent, and the Nationals are now just scrambling to keep pace with the Marlins. (Not that the Braves have taken control of the NL East.)

What’s the future of this rivalry? Let’s run through some questions -- and let’s bring the Marlins into the discussion.

Have we just overrated the Nationals?

Yes, that’s certainly possible. They've been hit by injuries this year, but that’s hardly a good excuse, considering the Braves had two projected starting pitchers go down for the year in spring training.

In looking back at the 2012 club, a couple of things stand out to me:

1. That team won more with depth than superstar players. Bryce Harper led the club with 5.1 rWAR, in part due to some good defensive metrics in center field. The team's best hitter was 32-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche in a career year. They had five regulars with an OPS+ of 118 or higher, but none above 130. The expectation, of course, was that the 19-year-old Harper would develop into a superstar hitter. That hasn't yet happened, in part due to injuries. The point is the team had many good players but not an MVP-type anchor to help carry the rest of the lineup. The Nationals were fifth in runs in 2012, sixth last year and ninth this year heading into the weekend. After scoring 731 runs in 2012, they're on pace to score 632 this year.

2. The bench was excellent in 2012, as guys such as Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi were terrific; awful last year; and mostly awful again this year.

3. The club's top starters in 2012 were Gio Gonzalez (4.9 rWAR) and Jordan Zimmermann (4.7 WAR). They ranked fourth and fifth among NL pitchers in WAR with the shut-down Strasburg 21st. It was assumed the big three would get even better, with Strasburg taking over as staff ace. In 2013, those three ranked 13th (Zimmermann), 24th (Strasburg) and 25th (Gonzalez). Good, but there were a lot of good starters. So far in 2014, those three rank 60th (Strasburg), 99th (Gonzalez) and 104th (Zimmermann). To be fair, Strasburg (fifth) and Zimmermann (19th) rank much better in FanGraphs WAR, which puts a greater emphasis on peripherals than actual run prevention, but this bigger point: There's no evidence those three are better than they were in 2012, and now Gonzalez is hurt, as well.

The 2012 Nationals were young -- they had the second-youngest lineup in the NL and youngest pitching staff. That's why long-term greatness was predicted. It was a fair analysis to make. Now they're not as young, and that greatness hasn't been realized.

Would you take Strasburg or Julio Teheran?

Two years ago, Strasburg looked like a future Cy Young winner and Teheran was getting killed in Triple-A. Now it's more of a 50/50 proposition as to which guy you'd take. Factor in Jose Fernandez, even injured, and Strasburg may be third of those three.

Which young franchise player would you want?

Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman or Giancarlo Stanton? Obviously, Harper doesn't look good right now sitting on the disabled list, but keep in mind that he's three years younger than the other two. Still, Stanton is playing like an MVP and Freeman has become a solid team leader and All-Star. The other advantage the Braves have is Freeman is now signed long-term, which Harper and Stanton are not.

Who has the best supporting core of under-27 players?

The Marlins have Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Derek Dietrich and Adeiny Hechavarria as the primary under-27 supporting cast behind Stanton and Fernandez. I like that group, particularly if Yelich and Ozuna develop into quality outfielders, which I believe they will. The Nationals have Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos and ... even Tanner Roark is 27. I love Rendon, but Ramos can't stay healthy. The Braves, meanwhile, have Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, Mike Minor, Craig Kimbrel and Alex Wood behind Freeman and Teheran. Which group are you going to take?

Which team will be the best over the next five years? There's too much not known, of course, but it seems clear to me that the Nationals' dynasty is not the sure thing it appeared to be back in September 2012 when Strasburg was sat down. In baseball, the future can change in a hurry.