The start of a new baseball season, or any sports season for that matter, is a time for optimism. Atlanta Braves fans have every reason to feel all shiny as the 2021 season begins. After all, the team is coming off three consecutive National League East titles and has, by nearly every expert analysis, the best of its Brian Snitker-managed squads.
Still, MLB seasons are marathons full of smooth climbs and rocky descents. Like any team that doesn't have an unlimited budget (you know who you are Dodgers), the Braves have concerns that could derail their title hopes.
Here are three reasons to be excited about the team (the other side, should you want to skip ahead to the bad stuff, will follow).
1. The Acuna Show. There has never been any question concerning Ronald Acuna's skill set. He's been must-see TV since he first showed up in Atlanta. What's really whetting Braves fans appetite's is it seems Acuna is taking his status with the team more seriously this year.
He came to camp in tremendous shape, something that can't be taken lightly. A young superstar like Acuna can cruise through an offseason, go to camp and work his way into playing shape and go from there. This edition of Acuna suggests he's ready to take full advantage of his gifts and create havoc all over the field all the time. If so a 40-40 (and 150 runs scored) season is well within reach. Enjoy.
2. Postseason-ready rotation. If — and this is something that will be discussed later — Mike Soroka returns to form and there is no regression, Atlanta's playoff starting rotation is championship worthy. As close as the team was to reaching the World Series last year, the starting pitching was a ticking time bomb.
However, a group of Max Fried, Soroka, Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton sounds pretty salty. Getting to the postseason, especially in a stacked NL East, isn't a given, but should they make it the Braves will be well armed.
3. Offensive potential. Consider the Braves were second only to the Dodgers in runs scored (by one run) and homers (Dodgers Stadium has become a ridiculously hitter-friendly park) and did this with only Freddie Freeman, Marcel Ozuna and Travis d'Arnaud having above-average seasons.
Even if those three regress a bit, it's hard to envision Acuna hitting .250 and Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley barely edging Nick Markakis in OPS percentage. Throw in what should be another progression from Dansby Swanson and an infusion of athleticism in the bottom of the order from rookie Christian Pache and it's not a reach to say the Braves have the most dangerous lineup in the NL.
1. A perilous pen? There is an awful lot riding on the return of Will Smith to all-star form after the team let Mark Melancon and Shane Green walk. Smith allowed an alarming seven home runs in just 16 innings last year. It's said he's healthy and has made some mechanical changes, but the concern here is real.
Chris Martin (1.00 ERA, 0.66 WHIP in 18 innings) is a nice option, but Snitker would prefer to have him in a setup role. Beyond that, though, the hope is the A.J. Minter we saw will show up and that maybe Sean Newcomb will settle in as a reliever. Well, there's always Luke Jackson.
2. Not much in reserve. Snitker apparently plans to play his eight regulars 150 games each because the Braves have perhaps the weakest bench in memory. In fact, we're looking at fan favorite (sarcasm mode inserted) Ender Inciarte, journeyman utility player Ehire Adrianza, past-his-prime Pablo Sandoval and light-hitting catcher Alex Jackson as the entire bench.
Offseason signees Jason Kipnis and Jake Lamb couldn't even make the squad due to horrible springs. Johan Camargo played himself out of a spot as well and the team, for whatever reason, let Adam Duvall go to the division rival Marlins at a cheap price.
Without a DH this year getting a solid-hitting bench should have been a priority. The scariest part? What happens if one of the regulars gets injured. It's baseball. It happens a lot.
3. What's the plan? Every team faces the same issue regarding pitching, as in how to get the most out of a staff without risking injury after an abbreviated season?
To think five or six guys will start all a team's games is fantasy, which is why starting pitching depth may be the most valuable commodity in the game this year. This might be a problem for the Braves, who are likely to take a cautious approach with their young pitchers. Can guys like Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, Huascar Ynoa, Touki Toussaint, Josh Tomlin and Newcomb step in when needed and keep the team afloat?
Again, it's a problem every team will have to deal with but it doesn't bode well if the Braves have to get too many starts from outside the hopeful five regulars.