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Starting Nine: Most important player? Will Strider be ready? Burning questions for Braves in postseason

Setting the stage as the Braves vie to become the first repeat World Series champions since 2000.

And now, they wait.

After a remarkable, sometimes improbable run at a fifth straight National League East title, the Atlanta Braves will be just like the rest of us, sitting and watching the Wild Card round play out.

It’s a much-needed break for the No. 2 seed, with three Braves in the top nine games played — including Matt Olson and Dansby Swanson, the only players to appear in all 162 games — and rookie phenom Spencer Strider working his way back from an oblique injury.

But will five days off until the NL Division Series begins Oct. 11, essentially pumping the breaks after being in postseason mode for weeks in having to chase down the New York Mets, do more harm than good?

Rest vs. rust is going to be talking point, and while it can slow momentum it does benefit the Braves in working to get the optimum version of their rotation ready for the winner of the Central-champion St. Louis Cardinals and wild-card Philadelphia Phillies in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup.

As the Braves sit back and relax, here are nine burning questions as they prepare for their repeat bid.

1. Who is the most important player on the roster?

If pitching rules in the postseason, Max Fried looms large after making the ascent of Ace Mountain last October when he silenced the Astros to deliver the Braves’ championship, but the mere presence of Ronald Acuña Jr. after missing last year’s playoffs makes him the focus here.

He isn’t the same player he was before tearing his ACL in July 2021, though that doesn’t mean he won’t eventually get back there and that he hasn’t shown more than a few flashes of it this season. His 114 wRC+ is 41 percent below his average over the past three seasons, and he hit 15 home runs, 11 fewer than he had in his 2018 Rookie of the Year campaign, when he played in just eight more games than the 119 he suited up for this regular season.

The knee may not be entirely healed until he’s able to rest this offseason, but it bodes well that after being in the designated hitter role for 12 games before Sept. 14, Acuña manned right field in 15 of the last 16.

After missing last year’s run to the championship, he figures to be a man on a mission this October, and as obvious as it is, the Braves are simply better when Acuña’s in the lineup. They went 83-36 when Acuña played (a 112-win pace) and were below .500 (19-24) when he was out. In games in which Acuña drove in at least one run, they were 25-9.

2. How will Dansby Swanson follow up his career year?

Swanson set a franchise shortstop record and led the team with 6.4 fWAR and had 116 wRC+, while slashing .277/.329/.448 and stuffing his stat line with 25 home runs, 32 doubles, a triple, 96 RBI and 18 stolen bases.

It was a statement kind of year as he prepares to enter free agency, but first, Swanson will try to back it up with consistent level of production that was missing last postseason. While he homered twice in the World Series, Swanson hit just .224 with a .607 OPS across the playoffs.

Despite his great overall numbers, you had to wonder if the workload was catching up with him, as Swanson had 87 wRC+ in August and 75 in September before the final weekend of the regular season, and then he went and homered off the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt in consecutive days.

3. Will Spencer Strider be ready for the NLDS?

General manager Alex Anthopoulos said amid Tuesday’s East title celebration that rookie right-hander Spencer Strider is in “in play” for the NLDS after dealing with an oblique injury and clarified more during a Wednesday appearance on 92.9 The Game, saying “the next four days are going to be huge for him.”

On the injured list since Sept. 18, Strider threw again Wednesday, but he’s only done so on flat ground. Getting him throwing off a mound is the real test, but the oblique will be a storyline even if he does return as those injuries can be tricky and easily aggravated.

Fried will no doubt start the NLDS opener, and while Kyle Wright was the MLB wins leader with 21, Strider — who had a 2.67 ERA, .180 average against and finished second only to Fried with a 4.9 fWAR — could start Game 2 if he’s available, with Wright to follow. With one off day in the LDs, the Braves could need four starters, which would mean Charlie Morton if Strider’s in the mix or Bryce Elder or Jake Odorizzi if he’s not. They’ll almost certainly need four should they advance to the League Championship Series, where there’s — again — only one off day over the seven-game series.

Elder had a 1.75 ERA in his last four starts, while Odorizzi posted a 5.24 ERA since the Braves acquired him at the trade deadline. Neither is ideal, and the extra time until Atlanta takes the field Oct. 11 will be critical in getting the NL Rookie of the Year candidate Strider back in the fold.

4. If Ozzie Albies can’t go, what production will Braves get at second base?

Along with updating on Strider’s potential for the Division Series, Anthopoulos said second baseman Ozzie Albies is less likely to make his return with a fractured right pinky finger that has kept him out since Sept. 17, halting his return from an 81-game absence to a mere two games.

Albies wasn’t having the type of season we’ve come to expect from him, with career lows in wRC+ (93) and average (.247), but there’s still hope of getting two-time All-Star back should this turn into a deeper postseason run. He’s been fitted with a slimmer cast and is doing fielding work pregame but has yet to start hitting.

In the meantime, what level of production are the Braves going to get at second? Vaughn Grissom cooled off considerably, hitting .200 with a .538 OPS and one extra-base hit over his last 12 games, while Orlando Arcia appeared in each of the last 10 games at second, hitting .250 with a .794 OPS.

Arcia is the more likely to start, with Grissom struggling vs. both of the Braves’ potential opponents (he hit .077 in 13 at-bats vs. the Cardinals and .167 in 18 against the Phillies), and the veteran has been steady when called upon after Grissom faded. He hit nine percent above league average over the last month after returning from a 40-game absence with a hamstring injury.

5. Can Charlie Morton flush a roller coaster regular season?

The status of Strider figures to weigh heavily on Morton’s role, but if he doesn’t factor into the LDS rotation, he’s certain to by the LCS and, potentially, beyond.

Morton’s second half has included a 4.57 ERA, and 6.53 over his last five outings. On the season, he gave up 28 home runs, 12 more than last season. Morton also allowed 63 walks, one away from the most he’d yielded since 2011, and he hit 18 batters, second-most in his career. That’s a lot of traffic on the bases paths that is Morton’s alone to control.

The Cardinals did get to him for four runs in five innings on Aug. 27, and he had a 5.47 ERA in five starts vs. the Phillies, but Morton has been able to dial things up in the postseason in the past. The 38-year-old has dialed it up in the postseason, including a 2.51 ERA the past three Octobers. That’s something the Braves are going to hope he can replicate after his lowest ERA+ (94) over a 162-game season since 2015.

6. Will the remade bullpen core live up to its predecessor?

The Night Crew became the stuff of Braves lore last fall, with the collective of Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, and Will Smith combined for a 2.28 ERA over 47 1/3 innings. Only Matzek and Minter remain, as Jackson is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Smith was dealt to the Houston Astros, though Matzek hasn’t been the same, dealing a shoulder injury and watching his ERA more than double to 3.50.

The core has been remade, and it has a chance to be as good if not better than last year’s group.

Atlanta finished tied for second overall with a 7.6 fWAR, third in strikeouts per nine (10.17) and fourth in ERA (3.03) and boasts five relievers in the top 16 in the league in fWAR in Minter (fourth at 2.1), Raisel Iglesias (eighth at 1.6), Collin McHugh (12th at 1.4) and Kenley Jansen and rookie Dylan Lee, who are tied for 16th at 1.1 fWAR.

A year ago, they only had two relievers in the top 20 in fWAR and went into the postseason collectively 14th in fWAR and 10th in ERA.

That regular season success doesn’t guarantee postseason domination, just as last year’s regular season didn’t forecast what was to come, but this group is undeniably deeper.

Say Jansen has been more bend than break in the second half — he went from a 2.50 FIP before the All-Star break to 4.10 after it and he blew seven saves, including three over his last 15 chances — but he still led the NL with 41 saves. If things do get dicey, Iglesias was the NL’s best reliever after the trade deadline, allowing a mere .205 wOBA and a 0.34 in 26 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Minter and McHugh are fifth (70) and sixth (69 1/3), respectively, in the NL in innings pitched and Jackson Stephens was 12th in fewest homers per nine (0.53).

7. Built to win in the postseason? These Braves meet the formula

Last postseason, teams that outhomered their opponents went 20-2, and delivering the long ball, and limiting them, are standard operating procedures for these Braves.

They led the NL with 243 homers, second overall to only the New York Yankees’ 254. The staff allowed the fourth fewest homers with 148 — third among all postseason teams behind the Astros (134) and Cardinals (146) — with the starters ranking sixth (95) and the relievers tied for fifth (53).

The ability to bash proved key in the regular season, with the Braves going 91-34 when they hit at least one home run and 59-11 when they went deep two or more homers. In those games in which they didn’t homer — which was the fewest of any team in the majors — they were 10-26.

In 152 games in which the Braves held opponents to two or fewer homers the Braves were 97-55, the third most wins in such games. Only the Dodgers with 110 wins, Astros with 104 and Mets with 98 had more.

8. What is the best NLDS matchup?

They went 4-3 vs. the Cardinals and 11-8 against the Phillies, outscoring both during those regular-season series, though St Louis did win two of three in their Aug. 26-28 series, and the Phillies held a 19-16 edge in splitting their most recent series with the Braves on Aug. 22-5.

So, which is the ideal matchup?

The Cardinals had the third most wins in the NL after the All-Star break behind the Dodgers and Braves. Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt were Nos. 2 and 3, respectively in the NL in fWAR, and there’s the fairytale element of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina’s swan song that its own obstacle.

The rotation was bolstered by the trade deadline acquisitions of Jose Quintana (2.01 ERA) and Jordan Montgomery (3.11), and a bullpen anchored by Ryan Helsley (1.25 ERA) just returned Jordan Hicks, who proceeded to touch 100 mph eight times in his return from the injured list Wednesday.

The Phillies, though, have the better pitching staff. Their starters were better on the season (an NL-best 17.5 fWAR to 10.5), better in the second half (7.6 to 6.7) and better since St. Louis got those reinforcements at deadline (6.9 to 5.9). The bullpen isn’t the problem it used to be, ranking fifth in the NL (tied for fourth at 2.6). Plus, their built around the long ball behind Kyle Schwarber — the NL leader with 46 homers — as one of three Phillies with 20 or more homers.

All that being said, the Cardinals are hot at the right time, something the Braves have been all too familiar with on this stage. Atlanta would rather have the Phillies — the enemy you know, an all that — but they’re likely facing St. Louis.

9. Biggest key to a repeat is ...

Form Sept. 1-29, when Swanson, Matt Olson and Austin Riley were all in the midst of their worst months of the season, the Braves were 10th in fWAR and 10th in runs. Collectively, across the majors in those Nos. 2-4 spots they all largely man in the lineup, Atlanta ranked 29th in wRC+ at a mere 68 wRC+. From Opening Day through August, they helped the Braves rank fifth (129)

Now, Olson ended his season on an absolute tear, homering six times in his last nine games in earning the final NL Player of the Week honors. He came up big when it mattered most, as did Swanson, who had a 1.164 OPS with three homers in the last six games. Riley didn’t quite as strong but homered off Jacob deGrom to kickstart that key series vs. the New York Mets and ended September above league average (101 wRC+).

All three may not be hot, and all three may not be cold, but it’s hard to imagine the Braves making a real challenge to equaling the Yankees in 2000 as the last team to repeat as World Series champions without this part of the order creating some magical moments.

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