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Starting Nine: Burning questions for Braves at each position

Freddie Freeman’s MVP repeat bid, whether Ronald Acuña Jr. can reach 40/40 and what’s next for Marcell Ozuna as Braves prep for 2021

MLB: NLCS-Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers
After coming up three stolen bases shy of a 40/40 season in 2019, can Ronald Acuña Jr. make another run at it in 2021? The major projection services have him getting the homers, but not the steals. 
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

USA Today loves the Braves; PECOTA doesn’t and FanGraphs is somewhere in the middle.

Those predictions have Atlanta running the spectrum of claiming a fourth straight National League East title (USA Today), coming in second behind the Mets (FanGraphs) or, finishing a distant fourth and flirting with .500 (FanGraphs).

Take those forecasts for what you will, as PECOTA picked the Braves to come in third in 2020 and ‘19 and fourth in ‘18, all of which ended with division crowns, but there are some questions surrounding this team as things get real with pitchers and catchers hitting the North Port complex for Thursday’s first workout of the spring.

With that, this week’s Starting Nine takes a trip around the diamond, with a burning question at each position as the Braves put in that work to prep for the start of the 2021 season.

1. How long until Mike Soroka returns?

Per manager Brian Snitker during Thursday’s availability, there is no current timetable on Mike Soroka’s return from a torn Achilles, and he doesn’t expect an answer from that end for at least three weeks, but there remains the possibility that the Braves place Soroka on the injured list to start the season. There’s no reason to rush back the 23-year-old, and the absence of a designated hitter in the National League means Soroka would be asking for more from his surgically repaired tendon as he plants on it while at the plate, along with running on the base paths. Form that end, the arm may be ready for camp or even Opening Day, but it would be surprising for the team to push that hard, even if the player and medical staff believe he’s physically back to full health. But this is partly why Atlanta ponied up a combined $26 million for Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, to provide more stability alongside Max Fried and Ian Anderson, and add that to the depth with the likes of Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright and the Braves have enough pitching to weather whatever weight there is until Soroka regains his rotation spot.

2. Is Travis d’Arnaud elite?

Last season would certainly make you think there’s the potential that the Braves nabbed an upper-echelon catcher at a bargain of price of $8 million per on a two-year deal. A first-time Silver Slugger winner when he slashed .321/.386/.533 and had a 1.6 fWAR that was 0.1 behind the Phillies’ $150-million-man J.T. Realmuto and 0.1 ahead of James McCann, who scored a four-year, $40 million payday from the Mets. D’Arnaud’s 144 wRC+ was also better than both of those backstops and behind only the Dodgers’ Will Smith (163) and Royals’ Salvador Perez (162) at the position. It’s difficult to gauge “elite” after a 60-game season, though d’Arnaud did back that up by setting the NL Division Series against the Marlins on fire when he posted a .2092 OPS with two home runs and two doubles as part of an .856 OPS Postseason. That all bodes very well for d’Arnaud, who just two years ago was bouncing around after his release by the Mets. But so much of 2020 was so off-the-charts that it’s bound to lead to a regression, headlined by that .411 BABIP and a slugging percentage (.533) that was nearly 50 points better than in d’Arnaud’s 3.4 fWAR season of 2015. The track record since 2016 paints the picture of 1.2 fWAR catcher hitting just at or near league average, or basically what Steamer and ZiPS are forecasting for ‘21. Not elite, even if ‘21 did make those — Anthopoulos included — who were high on the offensive potential of d’Arnaud when he was a first-round pick in 2007.

3. Can Freddie Freeman repeat?

Since Dale Murphy claimed two straight NL MVP awards in 1982-83, only four players have won repeat MVPs, with Barry Bonds doing it in 1992-93 before winning four straight from 2001-04, Frank Thomas in 1993 and ‘94, Albert Pujols in 2008-09 and, most recently, Miguel Cabrera in 2012-13. Mike Trout came close, finishing second in ‘15 after his ‘14 win, fourth in ‘17 after claiming the AL MVP the year before and coming in fifth last year following his third MVP in ‘19. That’s the history facing Freddie Freeman as he tries to follow last year’s awards tour with another (and does so with a lack of love from MLB’s expects as David O’Brien’s above tweet illustrates). The odds are long, backed up by Draft Kings sports book, which has Freeman tied with new Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado at +1200, the fifth highest odds in the NL behind the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and Nationals’ Juan Soto at +750, Los Angeles’ Cody Bellinger (+800), the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (+850) and Freeman’s fellow Brave Ronald Acuña Jr. at +1000. It’s Acuña, and a returning Marcell Ozuna, who was sixth last season, that are at the center of the Freeman repeat discussion. When Thomas repeated, the highest any teammate finished in the voting was eighth, Bonds never had a fellow Pirate or Giant finish higher than sixth, the next closest Cardinal to Pujols as 14th and Cabrera was trailed by a Tiger in 12th in ‘13. It’s difficult to see imagine a Braves season going well enough that Freeman is making a run at another MVP and Acuña or Ozuna aren’t making similar pushes of their own and pulling attention their way. The logical move after an MVP season is to hold the returning award winner at a higher standard, and on a team with this much star power, it’s entirely plausible to see voters’ attention turn elsewhere.

4. Will Ozzie Albies bounce back?

Last season the Braves led the majors in wOBA (.355), were second in home runs (103), ranked third in wRC+ (120), fourth overall in fWAR (11.1), all while one of their most productive bats from 2019 was in the midst of an injury-shortened year that stands as the worst of his short MLB career. While playing in just 29 games, Ozzie Albies slashed .271/.306/.466 with just six home runs, while hitting a mere three percent over league average and racking up a whopping 24.2 percent strikeout rate as a 0.6 fWAR player. That was a 13 percent drop year over year in terms of wRC+ by the All-Star second baseman as his on-base percentage dropped by nearly 50 points, and take it for what it is, but led to him coming in 72nd in MLB’s ranking of the game’s top 100 players. The good news is it can’t possibly be that bad again for a player who had 3.8 and 4.6 fWARs in 2018 and ‘19, respectively in putting up 24 home runs in each season. Even if Albies can’t live up to that ‘19 slash line of .295/.352/.500, the projections of an .819 OPS will return the 24-year-old back to elite status at the position and make the top half of the Braves’ lineup with Albies hitting behind Acuña with Freeman and Ozuna to follow among the best in the game.

5. Does Austin Riley put it all together?

A bold prediction of finding a new starting third baseman was meant to be bold for a reason. It’s more likely that the Braves still want to find out what exactly they have in the 23-year-old Riley, who has shown glimpses of being an above average major league hitter — posting a 116 wRC+ in the first half of 2019 and 128 last August — while chasing it with struggles — hitting 21 percent below league average last September. To his credit, Riley has decreased his strikeout rate in going from 36.45 percent in ‘19 to 23.8 last year and those slider issues of his first year (-5.4 wSL) became a strength in ‘20 (2.2 wSL). He also dealt with a tight right quad that hampered him over the last weeks of the regular season, a major reason why a .782 OPS on Sep. 4 dipped to .716 by season’s end. The Braves do have some built-in insurance with Johan Camargo still on the roster, but this feels like a defining year in trying to figure out whether Riley is the long-term answer with the likes of Kris Bryant on the free-agent market.

6. Was 2020 the beginning of the REAL Dansby Swanson?

Like a trip to Costco, baseball in 2020 was all about the small samples and you can read into them however you want. In the case of Dansby Swanson, his 60-game “full” season represented the first year in which he had hit above league average (116 wRC+) and every point of his slash line (.274/.345/.464) were a high in any season in which he’s played more than 38 games. It gave Swanson an fWAR of 1.9 that was equal to the Dodgers’ Corey Seager and just ahead of Mets acquisition Francisco Lindor (1.8). But he’s also the same player that had never played more than 144 games before in a regular season before that as he dealt with injuries. So, who is the real Dansby Swanson? The fact that we’re even answering that had to play a part in the Braves beating the 27-year-old shortstop in arbitration, with Swanson making $6 million instead of the $6.7 million he requested for the season. Like d’Arnaud, Swanson benefitted from an elevated BABIP (.350) in that small sample size of 2020 that was behind only Ozuna (.391) and Freeman (.366) among Braves and the fifth highest of any qualified shortstop. The brunt of those players at the position ahead of him in BABIP (the White Sox’s Tim Anderson, Rockies’ Trevor Story and Nationals’ Trae Turner) will get leeway on those elevated numbers because they’re already established among the game’s best shortstops, and while Swanson has been trending toward a level of play in line with a former No. 1 pick, judgement has to be reserved until he can do it over multiple healthy seasons. A regression may be in the cards, but it’s more than realistic to forecast a 20-home run season with a 2-plus fWAR.

7. Marcell Ozuna’s gamble paid off, so what’s next?

Ozuna’s first season in Atlanta was a resounding success on every level. He came in with the intention of building up his value to reenter the free-agent market and delivered the finest season of his eight-year career in hitting .338/.431/.636 with an NL-leading 18 homers and 56 RBI and 179 wRC+, earning a Silver Slugger, sixth place in the MVP voting. Most importantly to Ozuna’s bank account, he was rewarded with a four-year, $65 million deal with an option year that can push it to $80 million over five years. So now what? As spectacular as Ozuna was in 2020, and as fitting as he seems as lineup protection for Freeman, it’s fair to have some questions as to what he’ll deliver in 2021. A run at a 30-HR season seems likely, though it is worth noting that Ozuna has hit over nine percent above average two other times (116 in 2014 and 143 in ‘17) and followed each season with a setback (92 wRC+ in ‘15 and 107 in ‘18). Projected at 122 wRC+ by Steamer and 127 by ZiPS, Ozuna may be every bit the bat he was in 2020, but with him now needing to man a spot in the outfield — something he did just 21 times last year with the benefit of the designated hitter — more will be asked of the 30-year-old in ‘21.

8. Can Cristian Pache deliver at the plate?

The glove is spectacular. There’s no denying that. Among the ever-growing list of those enamored with Pache’s work in center field, MLB.com’s Jim Callis recently wrote the 80-game D makes Pache the best defensive player of any system and “could make a run at Andruw Jones’ Braves record of 10 Gold Gloves.” The expectations have just become insane for the 22-year-old, and no one has any reservations about what he’ll do in the field — but will he hit? Not that we’re already putting Pache in this camp after four regular-season plate appearances and 25 more after he was thrust into the postseason, but Atlanta already has a strong defensive outfielder on its roster who has been a question mark at the plate. As previously discussed, the power numbers have continued to grow since 2018 and since moving out of Class A in 2018 he’s shown progress every year at the plate. He went from a .630 OPS in Double-A in 29 games in ‘18 to .815 at that level then next season, then posted a respectable .747 OPS in 26 games to end ‘19 in Triple-A before the pandemic led to the cancellation of the minor league season in 2020. While he had his moments in the postseason, it’s basically been since Sept. 2019 that Pache was getting consistent at-bats, which will make this spring, as he tries to win the job over Ender Inciarte and prove the bat is ready, very intriguing.

9. Does Ronald Acuña Jr. make another run at 40/40?

That we had baseball in 2020 that it all culminated in a world champion was a feat unto itself given COVID-19 and the battle between the union and owners. From that end, it’s hard to get too down about anything from last year, but selfishly, we were all robbed at seeing if Acuña could make another go at a 40/40 season after coming up three stolen bases shy in ‘19. The homers feel like a given — and he’s projected to have 43 by ZiPS and 41 by Steamer — and it’s within reason to forecast a high 20s to 30-steal season, especially at Acuna’s age of 23. History is stacked against him as among the 12 players who have had seasons with 40 or more home runs and 30 or more steals, just one — Barry Bonds in 1997 — has followed it up with another year of 30-plus SBs. But, just maybe, that 14-year, $340 million extension the Padres locked Fernando Tatis Jr. up with will be some added fuel for that fire.

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