Two weeks to the start of the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) season and I guess it's time to do a little forecasting. At least until the coronavirus pandemic throws a second wrench into MLB's plans and forces another suspension, if not cancellation for this season.

But I am optimistic by nature so, lets start thinking this 60-game season is going to happen. What do we make of the Atlanta Braves' chances of capturing a third-straight National League East Division title? Well, before last week, I liked the offseason additions of Marcell Ozuna in the outfield and Cole Hamels in the starting rotation. I really liked the fact that Anthony Rendon left the Washington Nationals to continue his career in the American League with the Los Angeles Angels.

But then COVID-19 did what COVID-19 does. It struck with a vengeance. Four Braves players tested positive, including team leader and all-star first baseman Freddie Freeman. While some players are asymptomatic, showing no symptoms at all, that's not been the case with Freeman. Manager Brian Snitker said it would be a while before Freeman joins the team. Who knows when we'll see him in 2020, which takes a huge bat and presence out of the Braves' lineup.

Not long after that, outfielder Nick Markakis announced he would opt out of this year. While he is not a superstar, Markakis is a dependable, professional hitter and provides a veteran presence, which is suddenly lacking in the Braves' clubhouse.

On the bright side, the Braves still have, I think, the best the player in the National League in Ronald Acuna Jr., an all-star second baseman in Ozzie Albies and an ace in the making in starting pitcher Mike Soroka.

The Braves are still good but at this point they are not better than the Washington Nationals. The defending World Series champions still sport the best 1-2 punch at the top of any NL rotation in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. They still have outfielder Juan Soto, a 34-homer, 110-RBI presence in the lineup last year. Most importantly, the Nationals now have that championship pedigree that the Braves haven't been able to attain. Two straight duds in the postseason points to evidence that the Braves still have work to do to get where they want to be.

This was supposed to be the year the Braves take that next step in the playoffs and become bonafide World Series contenders. That was before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything and knocked Freeman out of the lineup and forced Markakis to back out of this season.

As for now, the Nationals are still the team to beat. But I could be wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.

—Clint Thompson is a special contributor to The Union-Recorder.

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