The Atlanta Braves are beginning to emerge from what's looking like a successful teardown. According to most estimations of their timeline, the Braves were expected to return to relevance and contention in 2019 or perhaps '20. That, though, undersells the strength of the current roster, especially with regard to the remainder of the NL. The Braves, it turns out, are ready to contend right now.
No, this is not an overreaction to what has happened in the early weeks of the 2018 season, but let's talk about that anyway. On Thursday, the Braves spanked the Mets in the opener of their four-game set in SunTrust Park, and in doing so Atlanta moved to 11-7 on the young season -- a record backed up by an NL-best plus-35 run differential. Now consider the Braves' schedule to date in 2018 ...
- Phillies (three games)
- Nationals (three games)
- @ Rockies (three games)
- @ Nationals (three games)
- @ Cubs (two games)
- Phillies (three games)
- Mets (one game)
So that's 11 games against 2017 playoff teams and seven more against potential 2018 contenders (the Mets and Phillies). That is to say, the Braves have played .611 ball and put up the NL's top run differential against a pretty tough docket. Framed another way, 40 of their remaining 144 games come against the Marlins, Reds, Padres, Rays and Orioles.
Mostly, though, it's about the roster. Freddie Freeman remains one of the best hitters in all of baseball. Ozzie Albies looks like a potential All-Star at second base. Dansby Swanson -- not so long ago the top prospect in all of baseball -- appears to be leveling up in his age-24 campaign after struggling badly in 2017. There's a mix of youth and mid-career upside in the rotation alongside veteran Brandon McCarthy. The bullpen has been excellent, save for that one-off meltdown in Chicago.
Oh, and let's not forget about outfielder Ronald Acuna, this year's top prospect in baseball. He didn't crack the Opening Day roster because the Braves chose to manipulate his service time. When he does arrive, though, he figures to provide a major boost (Preston Tucker has, fortunately for the Braves, played well over his head in place of Acuna). When rotation reinforcements/upgrades are needed, the Braves have plenty of high-ceiling arms in the upper rungs of the system. At the Triple-A level, the Braves have Max Fried, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka -- top-100 prospects, all. Another top-100 guy, Kyle Wright, is in the Double-A rotation. Yet another top-100 prospect, Luiz Gohara, is recovering from an ankle sprain. Most or all of those names should be ready for the highest level at some point during the 2018 season.
Elsewhere, Tyler Flowers, perhaps the most underrated catcher in baseball right now, is sidelined with an oblique strain but could begin a minor-league rehab assignment as early as this weekend. Ender Inciarte will almost certainly be in for better days at the plate. While third base remains a concern, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has at least shown an awareness of the problem. (On that front, third baseman Austin Riley -- yet another consensus top-100er -- is off to a sizzling start at Double-A.)
To be sure, the Braves aren't going to win at such a clip over the entire season, and the NL East projects as a tough division. Still, the pieces are in place or will soon be in place for a contending run in 2018. There's also so much young pitching depth that the Braves can be major players leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline if they choose to go that route. The future remains bright in Atlanta, yes, but that doesn't mean we should forget about the present. An ahead-of-schedule playoff berth for the Braves might be more of a possibility than you think.