The Atlanta Braves finished 35-25 in last year’s 60-game sprint. While a .583 winning percentage is nothing exceptional, it did put them atop the National League East and into the playoffs. The club made a run all the way to the NLCS before losing to the eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games.
Travis d’Arnaud (.321/.386/.533), Freddie Freeman (.341/.462/.640), Marcell Ozuna (.338/.431/.636), Ronald Acuña Jr. (14 home runs), Adam Duvall (16 home runs), and Dansby Swanson (10 home runs) all had major impacts offensively. Meanwhile, starter Max Fried was dominant on the mound, going 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA. Ian Anderson, the team’s No. 3 starter, also impressed with a 1.95 ERA over six outings. Finally, the bullpen was strong as seven different pitchers posted sub-2.80 ERAs (minimum 18 appearances).
Josh Tomlin, Mark Melancon (11 saves), and Adam Duvall all departed the team in free agency after being key members of the organization last year. Cole Hamels, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day are among members of Atlanta’s free-agent class that have yet to sign. Meanwhile, Nick Markakis announced his retirement, putting an end to a storied career.
As for gains, Atlanta did make a splash by re-signing Marcell Ozuna. The powerful slugger seemed destined to land in the American League due to the designated hitter situation but ultimately re-upped in Atlanta after the Braves saw how much value he provided. Starters Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton also joined the team on big-league contracts. The two veterans’ upside and stability in the rotation will be much-welcomed after Atlanta entered the offseason in need of starting pitching.
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d’Arnaud was terrific at the plate in 2020, posting positive fWAR for the second time in his career. His defense was a different story as he finished the year with -7.0 DRS and just three runners caught stealing.
At first base rests the reigning National League MVP. Freeman went on a tear in 2020, posting a career-best .341/.462/.640 slash line along with 3.3 fWAR. To his left, Albies will align at second base. The 24-year-old resembles a very bright future in Atlanta, and he showed signs of his future value by posting 19 RBI and 1.8 oWAR over just 29 games. Most of his defensive metrics (DRS and dWAR) were down, though he did post 3.9 UZR/150, which was more than twice as much as his number from 2019.
On the left side of the infield, Swanson is set to patrol shortstop. He had an incredible year, setting career-highs in oWAR (9.5), total fWAR (1.9), DRS (9.0), and fielding percentage (.991). Finally, Riley will handle duties at the hot corner. He went on a tear in the early portion of his rookie year in 2019 before settling into a slump. He made some progress in 2020 but still finished with negative WAR. With that in mind, Atlanta took a flier on Jake Lamb this offseason and should feel comfortable playing him over Riley when the opposing pitcher is a right-hander.
LF: Marcell Ozuna
CF: Cristian Pache
RF: Ronald Acuña Jr.
The starting duties in the Atlanta outfield are clear as day. Ozuna made his presence felt last year with 2.5 fWAR and a whopping 26.7 oWAR, leading to his return on a four-year, $65 million deal. Shifting over to center, Pache debuted last year and saw just four at-bats. The team feels that, despite some offensive concerns, he can be a franchise outfielder. With that in mind, there is no reason to hold him back. The starting center field job belongs to Pache. As for Acuña, there is no question at all. He, too, is locked into a starting job for quite some time. He had a down year relative to past campaigns, but his name continues to rank near the top of the list when it comes to 2021 NL MVP odds.
Starting Rotation Projections
This is what the rotation is expected to look like until Mike Soroka returns in mid-to-late April. The top four spots are set in stone. Fried dazzled last year, Morton and Smyly were among Atlanta’s earliest signings in free agency, and Anderson has proven himself to be more than capable of earning a job throughout the rotation. That leaves the fifth spot to Wilson. Throughout March, there has been plenty of debate about whether the job would go to Wilson, a 23-year-old, or Kyle Wright, 25. However, all arguments were settled when the Braves demoted the latter off the Spring Training roster on Wednesday.
The Braves will have some interesting roster decisions in the waning days of Spring Training. Smith is the team’s clear-cut closer while Minter and Matzek provide a pair of reliable left-handed setup options. Martin, a right-hander, will also work as a setup man. Tomlin is a veteran whose job is safe, and Newcomb has impressed enough through camp to likely earn a job.
That leaves Jackson and Grant Dayton, both of whom are out of options. If Atlanta carries nine relievers into the season, both will have a job. However, it seems likely that Atlanta picks 12 position players and five starters, leaving room for just eight bullpen arms. Dayton is older than Jackson and carries slightly worse projections. Plus, Dayton is a southpaw, of which Atlanta has enough. Thus, he’s the odd man out.
Players to Watch For
Given his small sample size, the Braves likely won’t start Pache for more than 150 games. Still, the everyday starter role is his. After impressing in the minors, Pache will look to build on that success in his first full season in the majors. If he succeeds, he’ll complete a jaw-dropping trio that also includes Ozuna and Acuña. If not, he could see the bench and forfeit a significant amount of playing time to Inciarte. April will be a critical month for the youngster.
Austin Riley and Jake Lamb
Given his youth and experience on the Braves’ roster, Riley will break camp as the starting third baseman. However, Lamb has flair and power of his own, so he should see plenty of playing time as early as the first week of April. Riley isn’t on a very short leash, but if he’s struggling, Lamb could take more at-bats. All it takes is a hot or cold streak for one or the other to prompt a shift in Atlanta’s third base dynamic.
Fried took on a larger role in the Atlanta rotation two years ago. However, he truly thrived in 2020. In addition to his 7-0 record and 2.25 ERA, the right-hander finished fifth in Cy Young award voting, won the Gold Glove award, and even received an MVP vote. He likely won’t exceed these numbers in 2021, but if he can post relatively similar results, the Braves could be deploying a very strong rotation.
The NL East is a tricky division. The Braves are the early favorite, with New York not far behind. However, even the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies have gained steam as a sleeper pick to win the division. This could lead to a scenario where all four (sorry, Pittsburgh) finish several games above .500 and in a neck-and-neck race for the AL East title. Atlanta may be the favorite right now, but they could lose such status by faltering early in the year. The Braves will need to play crisp baseball in order to win their fourth consecutive division title.
Record: 97-65 (first place in NL East)
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