clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Starting Nine: The biggest obstacle to Braves’ repeat bid? Burning questions for 2022 season

Will Matt Olson replace Freddie Freeman’s production? Who will be Atlanta’s breakout star?

The Braves’ division rivals spent over $570 million on the free-agent market, the National League East welcoming in likes of Max Scherzer and Starling Marte (Mets), Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber (Phillies), Avisail Garcia and Jorge Soler (Marlins) and Nelson Cruz (Nationals). They were moves to try and close the gap, and one that perplexed (you can sort those categories out for yourself).

But Atlanta, the reigning, defending, undisputed world champs, didn’t exactly stand pat.

As the Braves open the season against the Reds on Thursday night at Truist Park, the answer to these questions will decide whether they make it five straight East crowns, and whether they’ll also be in the running for another Commissioners Trophy.

1. What is the biggest obstacle to a repeat?

History. No team has repeated as World Series champions since the Yankees made it three straight from 1998-2000, and they’re also the last team to play in consecutive Fall Classics in the last 23 years, appearing in four in a row. Among the last 10 champs, six missed the postseason entirely the following year, and while three of the last five did make it to October, they were bounced in the League Championship Series. The expanded postseason should alleviate any fears of the Braves not at least reaching the playoffs even if their East streak comes to an end. They don’t have Vegas in their corner, with BetMGM having the Braves with the seventh-best odds of winning the World Series at +1200, behind the Dodgers (+500), Blue Jays (+900), Astros (+1000), Mets (+1000), White Sox (+1100) and Yankees (+1100) and PointsBet is the only sportsbook to have Atlanta among its top three. As Max Fried said, the Braves “Still feel hungry. You can still see that guys want to go out there and play and win games. There’s no complacency.” There was no complacency in the front office either, with general manager Alex Anthopoulos trading for All-Star Matt Olson (and locking him up), returning Eddie Rosario, adding catching depth with Manny Piña and bolstering the bullpen by signing Kenley Jansen and Collin McHugh. History may not be on the Braves’ side, but with key pieces who missed the Series run (Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna), those additions and the potential of a Mike Soroka return, that hunger Fried spoke of may trump what’s befell the 20 champions.

2. Who stands as the top threat to the East streak?

It should be the Mets, right? As part of that aforementioned offseason spending, they doled out $285.5 million on six players, led by Scherzer’s three-year, $130 million deal. They also added Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar and Starling Marte to what was a mid-tier offense last season, ranking 17th in fWAR and 16th in wRC+ and 21st in wOBA. It’s going to be helped by Marte and his .841 OPS in 2021, while Escobar is coming off a .786 season and Canha at .746, as New York had five players with OPS’ better than that trio last year. But already, the biggest strength of this group was dealt a blow with Jacob deGrom shut down with a shoulder issue. The Phillies, meanwhile, spent $204 million to help reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper and have five players projected for 23 or more homers and four forecasted for 30-plus seasons. But do they have enough pitching beyond Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, and how horrendous is that outfield defense going to be? The Marlins are still building around their young core, and the Nationals, despite Juan Soto’s presence, seem destined for a 90-loss season. While the Mets are the most logical choice to challenge the Braves, given their aggressiveness and the expectation that Francisco Lindor return to his elite ways, their Murphy’s Law approach to baseball always seems to derail things. Expect one of, if not the best, three-team race in the game between the Braves, Mets and Phillies.

3. Will Olson replace Freeman’s production?

Put all the emotions of Freddie Freeman’s exit aside, and the Braves have an All-Star and multi-time Gold Glove winner who is locked up at first base for up to nine years. But this isn’t about the life of Matt Olson’s extension, which could reach $188 million through 2030, it’s about whether Olson can replace Freeman’s production in 2022. Olson, who is coming off a career year in which he hit 39 homers with a .379 wOBA, 146 wRC+ and 5.0 fWAR is projected for around those same numbers, with highs of 44 HRs, 142 wRC+ and a 5.1 fWAR across the projection services. Freeman, meanwhile, is expected to hit 34 HRs, hit 47 percent above league average with a 5.1 fWAR. Basically, there shouldn’t be any change from No. 5 to No. 28 at the plate, and while Freeman was himself a Gold Glove winner, it’s defensively where Olson will give the Braves a truly premium player at the position. The past three years, Olson has a combined 21 defensive runs saved to two by Freeman. In two of the past three seasons, Freeman had a negative UZR, while in that same stretch, no first baseman has a better UZR (22.0) than Olson.

4. What will Acuña and Ozuna’s returns mean to the offense?

It remains one of the more stunning aspects of the Braves’ championship run that they won without one of the top five players in the lineup, and let’s not forget, they also did so with 2020’s NL home run and RBI king out as well. Ronald Acuña Jr. is expected back in the first week of May — returning as an outfielder/designated hitter initially — and Marcell Ozuna — with his domestic violence issues having played themselves out (at least in MLB and the Braves’ eyes, though the reaction in the court of public opinion figures to be ongoing) — will be in the lineup on Opening Day. Steamer is projecting a career-best 6.1 fWAR season out of Acuña, despite that service having him missing 28 games, with 40 home runs, 28 steals and 154 wRC+; Steamer has Ozuna forecasted for 28 homers, 114 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR. They’ll give the Braves six players projected to hit 28 or more homers, but also consider the value of when they hit in the order. With Acuña, the Braves were second overall in wRC+ (143) out of the leadoff spot and 16th at 99 wRC+ without him. Expect one of the best players in the game to be on a mission to remind everyone he’s one of the best players in the game. Ozuna is expected to hit fifth, a spot where — with Dansby Swanson getting the brunt of the games in 2021 — the Braves were 12th in wRC+ (101) and hit nine home runs. The returns of these two bats figure to make this lineup a headache for opposing pitchers.

5. Is there enough starting pitching?

In Max Fried, the Braves have the majors’ second-half ERA leader (1.74). Charlie Morton was eighth in the NL in fWAR (4.6) on the season and Ian Anderson spun a 1.59 ERA in the postseason, including five no-hit innings in the World Series. They figure to be in the upper echelon of 1-3s, but after that trio, the Braves have ... questions. Kyle Wright came up with 4 2/3 one-run innings in the Series, but has posted regular-season ERAs of 8.69, 5.21 and 9.95 in 14 starts and 21 appearances in all; Huascar Ynoa had a 2.62 ERA in six starters from April-May before breaking his hand, and a 5.05 ERA after his return, allowing four homers in his last two outings combined. But the Braves will be relying on them, along with Tucker Davidson — who had eight strikeouts in five spring innings but has just 20 big-league innings to his credit — in April with 14 straight games before an off day. For all the moves the Braves made this offseason, not adding to this rotation was the most surprising and most perplexing. At some point they’re going to have to find out what they have in the young arms in the system, and it’s likely to be a trial by fire for Wright and Ynoa, in particular.

6. What does Dansby Swanson have in store in contract year?

Last season, Dansby Swanson hit 26 home runs, which was a franchise record for a shortstop, but it left the Braves shy of another piece of history. Had Swanson reached 30 HRs, Atlanta would have had the first infield in history in which every member had reached that 30-HR plateau, as Austin Riley hit 33, Freddie Freeman had 31 and Ozzie Albies 30. Steamer’s projections have the Braves pegged to make another run at that record, pegging Olson for 44, Riley with 35, Albies with 29 and Swanson with 21. The latter’s production in 2022 is going to be intriguing, and it goes beyond whether he can help this infield make history, as the 28-year-old former No. 1 pick is in a contract year. Headed toward an arbitration hearing after Opening Day, there’s the potential he and the Braves could work out a multi-year deal to keep him in his hometown, but the reality is that he’s never posted a league average 100 wRC+ or better in a 162-game season. With another potential star-studded shortstop class this winter — should Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts opt out and join Trea Turner — barring a long-term deal materializing, the pressure is going to be on Swanson to put up another productive and healthy season.

7. Who is the key to this dominant bullpen?

Before he became an All-Star closer with the Giants, Will Smith had some of his finest seasons in Milwaukee — remember the whole rosin/sunscreen incident with Fredi Gonzalez? — as a setup man. In 2015, he posted a 2.70 ERA and 147 ERA+, striking out 12.9 per nine, pitching 32 2/3 of his innings in the eighth. He’s poised to largely go back to that role with Kenley Jansen, one of the most accomplished closers of this generation, getting the brunt of the save opportunities — and Smith and Atlanta’s bullpen figure to be the better for it. Smith saved 37 games last season, but across his career, he has a 3.19 ERA in the ninth compared to 2.59 in the eighth. From 2015-18, Smith pitched in the eighth 80 times and opponents hit .154. He may not always pitch in the eighth with the left-hander in a crowded group with Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter and new arrival Collin McHugh, but as a primary closer, Smith never had a single season of an opponent average below .191. He’s had multiple innings within that average threshold pitching in the sixth, seventh and eighth. Within the retooled relief corps, Smith’s new/old role could make him the true key to this group living up to their sky-high potential.

8. Does d’Arnaud rebound?

A Silver Slugger winner in the pandemic-shortened 2020, in which he posted a career-high 144 wRC+ and .919 OPS, injury and struggle spoiled Travis d’Arnaud’s 2021. He appeared in just 60 games with a thumb injury, and when he was in the lineup, he hit 22 percent below league average with a .671 OPS. The Braves added reinforcements, pairing him with veteran Manny Piña, but the new guy’s value comes in his defense, including throwing runners out at a career 21 percent clip. Piña hit a career-best 13 homers last season but has never hit at or above league average playing in more than 33 games. We may just need to consider D’Arnaud’s 2020 a career outlier, as he hit above his norms in terms of hard-hit rate and barrel percentage. The projections of 13 homers, a .735 OPS, 95 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR would still be a solid upgrade from last season, and frankly, given his place in an extremely deep lineup, D’Arnaud doesn’t have to be the force he teased in 2020. Rebounding for him within this offense is just going to mean avoiding the paltry .226 average and 30 percent strikeout rate he posted with runners in scoring position last year.

9. Who has breakout potential?

Offensively, it’s a collection of household names, so there’s no real breakout candidate there. Categorizing Ian Anderson as an option in the rotation after his last two postseasons wouldn’t be fair to the historic work, he’s done so far in October ... but Kyle Wright is another story. Let’s dream on his work in the playoffs as the start of his finally living up to being a top-five pick. Wright allowed five hits and one run over 5 2/3 innings in two World Series appearances, striking out six — among them some of the Astros’ most dangerous hitters in Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez — with three walks. While Wright has a 6.56 ERA at the MLB level, he’s made just 14 starts and hasn’t been given a long run of turns in the rotation. The last time he did was in September 2020, when Wright had a 2.37 ERA over three starts. He should finally get that chance in what figures to be a make-or-break season, that could make him this team’s breakout player.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Battery Power Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Atlanta Braves news from Battery Power