Previewing the 2021 Atlanta Braves

2021 Atlanta Braves
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The 2021 Atlanta Braves exist as something of an anomaly. On the one hand, their depth and power should make them feared. On the other, as of this writing, they still have a few questions. The offseason left many fans scratching their heads. The signings of some veterans right out of the gate was intriguing. However, the Braves were also one of the quietest teams on the trade market. In seasons past, the team has been able to succeed with this model of silent strength. The question is if they can do so again this season. Certain factors have emerged throughout the spring that could help answer that. Let’s dive in and examine some of them.

2021 Atlanta Braves Season Preview

Catcher

Behind the plate, the Braves are experiencing a small shift in personnel. Tyler Flowers is gone after a five-year stint with the team. However, this is no major loss. Travis d’Arnaud has placed his hand firmly on the starting job. One year into his tenure in Atlanta, he’s back in the circle of the league’s best backstops. His .321 average and 53 hits last season attest to that. He also posted a career high 136 OPS+. It’s not difficult to deduce that he’ll remain the starter.

When it comes to potential backups, the Braves are spoiled for choice. A farm system rich in catching depth should supply them for years to come. Alex Jackson, Shea Langeliers, William Contreras, and Jonathan Morales are names to watch. The odds-on favorite to win the backup job is Jackson. He’s the only one with true big league experience. However, the battle has proven that the Braves have no need for catching help. This should be an exciting group to watch for a long time.

First Base

Reigning National League MVP Freddie Freeman has his sights set on taking the team back to the postseason. His statistics last season more than proved his value to the team and the league. He slashed .341/.462/.640 with an OPS of 1.102. His 23 doubles led the league. He also walked 45 times while striking out 37 times. Add in an OPS+ of 182 and it becomes easy to see why he won the award. The only query surrounding him is if he can repeat it. If so, he’ll be the first Brave since Dale Murphy to win back-to-back MVP Awards. His reputation more than precedes him. How far he goes all depends on his ability to stay healthy and consistent.

Second Base

Ozzie Albies is looking to rebound from a somewhat disappointing 2020. His statistics were respectable yet nowhere near what they were in 2019. He hit .295 with 24 homers and 189 hits that season. Despite the shortened season, there was no denying the small dip in both his offense and his defense. His oWAR fell from 4.3 to 0.8. His dWAR went from 1.4 to 0.0. That being said, this was partially due to an injury, as he was limited to only 29 of the 60 games played. If he can come back and remain healthy, he’s a very potent switch-hitting weapon. However, his left-handed statistics far outweigh his right handed. Last season, he hit .289 as a southpaw. All six of his home runs came from there as well. If he can adjust on the right side of the plate, the Braves could have something special.

Shortstop

Dansby Swanson had his best overall season in 2020. He had career highs in average (.274) and slugging (.464). He hit 10 homers, drove in 35 runs, and had 65 hits. His OPS+ of 108 was his best since his rookie season. His on-base percentage (.345) remains a bit rickety, but overall, it was a vast improvement. Meanwhile, his WAR went from 1.5 in 2019 to 2.7 in 2020. He’s also having a solid spring (.353 avg, 12 H, 4 2B, .559 slugging). He has entrenched himself at shortstop. It will be very interesting to see how he builds on this success. If he can show a little more patience at the plate, Swanson could prove quite valuable this season.

Third Base

If nothing else changes, Austin Riley should hold down this position. His powerful bat has been well known since his days in the minors. It’s also well-known that he struggles hitting breaking balls. Last season, over 24% of the pitches he saw were sliders. He swung at over 30% of pitches that wound up outside the strike zone. This was an improvement yet still remains an issue. If he can remedy this problem, the Braves should have a solid third baseman.

Aside from Riley, there’s Johan Camargo. He hit a meager .200 in 2020 (24-for-120) with four homers and nine RBI. His oWAR of -0.2 was 19th on the team. His spring statistics to date aren’t impressive, either. He’s a mere 8-for-42 (.190) at the plate with a homer and three RBI. Since some of the new players are steadily impressing, Camargo may be the odd man out. If he can retool his swing and regain his form, he could stand to win a spot on the bench.

Outfield

Ronald Acuña, Jr’s status as a young superstar has already been entrenched, and for good reason. His statistics rival some of the greatest Braves of all time. He was limited to 46 games last season, but still managed to crack 14 homers with 29 RBI. His overall WAR did fall from 5.7 to 2.2. However, as with Albies, this should not be a concern. If he can remain healthy, 2021 should be another big step on his career path.

Another major factor here is Marcell Ozuna. His powerful bat came to life last year, hitting .338 and leading the league with 18 homers. His 56 RBI also led the league, and he notched 145 total bases. All in all, he won a Silver Slugger award and finished sixth in MVP voting. However, his defense remains a staunch issue. His dWAR from last season was -0.6 and his fielding percentage was .955. That being said, he has won a Gold Glove before. If he can return to that form, the Braves will have another MVP candidate.

Bench

The Braves signed multiple former superstars to try and bolster the bench. Jason Kipnis, Jake Lamb, and Pablo Sandoval were all battling for backup roles with varied success. In fact, due to low production, both Kipnis and Lamb have been released. Sandoval, on the other hand, is hitting .432 with 16 hits and three doubles. He has earned a bench spot and could prove very potent. However, nobody has opened more eyes than Ehire Adrianza. The longtime utility player his hitting .429 (15-for-35) with 12 RBI, five doubles, and six walks. He, too, has earned a bench spot. If he can transfer this success into the regular season, the Braves would have a huge weapon off the bench. Not only that, but he could potentially help in the outfield and as a backup shortstop.

Pitching

The starting pitching has taken shape dramatically during the spring. Young stars like Max Fried and Ian Anderson are expected to heavily impact the rotation this season. During the offseason, Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly were added for depth. Morton, a former Braves prospect, is looking to build on recent success. Smyly is coming off of a solid season with the San Francisco Giants. These two signings are key to the rotation’s ultimate success this year.

Mike Soroka is continuing to rehabilitate following his torn Achilles. This has opened up a terrific opportunity for some young arms to claim a spot in the rotation. The competition has been fierce, but it appears that Bryse Wilson might have won. Having him in the rotation would be a bit of a gamble. He pitched very well in the postseason last year, yet his career isn’t anything to speak of. However, until Soroka returns, he could be a viable replacement.

The bullpen has lost a couple of major components in Mark Melancon and Shane Greene. However, this does not leave them vulnerable. Will Smith is still in good shape. He’s posted a spring ERA of 1.59 and struck out 11 batters in 5 2/3 innings. However, the most eye-popping stat is that he’s only given up two hits. He’ll be joined by returning pieces Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter, both looking to build on successful seasons. Newcomer Nate Jones has done well this spring, pitching to a 1.23 ERA. Overall, this is a strongcore. The team just needs one or two more pieces.

Outlook

The 2021 Atlanta Braves are a very good team capable of winning another division title. Their ability to hit for power and contact should concern opposing pitchers. The starting rotation is already terrific and will be even more so once Soroka returns. However, there are still one or two questions remaining. The biggest one surrounds the bench. If Adrianza and Sandoval can keep their torrid paces, the bench should be fine. However, if they slump, the depth evaporates. Finally, the team is still searching for the final piece in the bullpen. After tightening these things, the franchise has all the makings of another great season.

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Players mentioned:
Tyler Flowers, Travis d’Arnaud, Alex Jackson, Shea Langeliers, William Contreras, Jonathan Morales, Freddie Freeman, Dale Murphy, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, Johan Camargo, Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuña, Jr, Jason Kipnis, Jake Lamb, Pablo Sandoval, Ehire Adrianza, Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Mike Soroka, Bryse Wilson, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Nate Jones