ATLANTA — After coming within a victory last season of reaching the World Series for the first time this century, the Atlanta Braves have only one goal in mind for 2021: Winning it all.
The Braves finally won a postseason series — two of them, in fact — for the first time since 2001, and they had the Los Angeles Dodgers on the ropes by winning three of the first four games in the National League Championship Series this past October.
Alas, the Dodgers won the final three games and went on to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the Fall Classic.
For the Braves, the agonizing finish to Major League Baseball's pandemic-shortened 2020 season merely fueled their determination to win the franchise's first World Series title since 1995 — the only such championship since moving to Atlanta in 1966.
The front office did its part to get the three-time reigning NL East Division winners over the hump, re-signing slugger Marcell Ozuna to a $65 million, four-year contract and bolstering a thin rotation by adding Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.
"Are we in a competitive championship window?" general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "Sure, there's no doubt about it."
Here are some things to watch for from the Braves in 2021:
Atlanta has one of the most dynamic 1-2 hitting punches in the big leagues with first baseman Freddie Freeman and Ozuna. Freeman was a runaway choice for the NL MVP award last year after bouncing back from a frightening bout with COVID-19 to hit .341 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs. His numbers were greatly helped by the guy hitting behind him. Ozuna nearly won the Triple Crown, leading the league in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while finishing third in average (.338). And don't forget Ronald Acuña Jr., who battled injuries but still had 14 homers and 29 RBIs in 46 games. The 23-year-old outfielder is just two years removed from a campaign of 41 homers, 101 RBIs and 37 stolen bases.
The Braves have three potential No. 1 starters for their pitching rotation — none older than 27 years old. Max Fried followed a 17-win season in 2019 by going 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He finished fifth in the NL Cy Young balloting. Mike Soroka was an All-Star in 2019 and started on opening day last season, but he went down with a torn Achilles' tendon in just his third appearance. Soroka will likely begin the season on the injured list to make sure he's fully recovered, but it won't be long before he rejoins the rotation. And then there's Ian Anderson, who dazzled in his rookie season by going 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in six regular-season starts before showing poise beyond his years in the playoffs.
The rotation was extremely thin last season, so the Braves made an aggressive push to add more depth. Postseason stalwart Morton, who spent the past two years with Tampa Bay, returned to the organization where he started his MLB career by signing a $15 million, one-year deal. Smyly joined Atlanta for one year at $11 million. Combined with the team's talented young starters, the rotation suddenly looks like one of the best in baseball. On the other hand, the bullpen is a bit of a question mark after being a huge strength in 2020. Closer Mark Melancon (11 saves) left in free agency, and there's no one else on the roster who had more than one save last season. Former San Francisco Giants closer Will Smith is an obvious candidate, but he surrendered seven homers in just 16 innings. Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter all have the potential to finish out games if manager Brian Snitker uses a committee approach.
Center fielder Cristian Pache impressed last year after a late-season call-up, starting six games in the NLCS. Even though he's got scant experience above Double-A, the Braves are confident the 22-year-old rookie is ready for the big leagues. He certainly showed off his enticing talents against the Dodgers with a second-deck homer and an above-the-wall catch. Pache is battling for the starting job against former All-Star outfielder Ender Inciarte, who has been plagued by injuries and is coming off the worst season of his career.
FANS IN STANDS
The Braves are planning to allow 33% capacity — about 13,500 fans per game — at Truist Park to start the season. Team officials will review the seating plan after each homestand and make adjustments as needed to ensure fan safety. No fans were allowed in MLB stadium during the 2020 regular season because of the pandemic, though hundreds of backers for the Braves gathered on a lawn outside their ballpark to watch the playoff run on a giant video board. Matzek looks forward to having them closer to the action in 2021: "We have great fans. I can't wait for them to be in the stadium with us this year."