The Atlanta Braves head into the 2019 season coming off a surprising National League East championship, though most projections have them finishing third or fourth in a drastically improved division. Here are five key questions regarding the team as the season starts:
1. Did the Braves do enough in the offseason to defend the NL East title?
Considering how much the Phillies, Nationals and Mets added, the answer is probably not. The Braves made a huge early splash by signing former American League MVP Josh Donaldson, giving fans reason to believe offseason comments suggesting an aggressive approach were true.
The rest of the offseason, however, was quiet. The opening in right field was filled by Nick Markakis, who is coming off an All-Star season and is hugely popular with teammates (and apparently the front office). His numbers in the second half were well below major league average, and unless he puts up first-half 2018 numbers, this is clearly a downgrade.
Most projections had Atlanta as the favorite to land Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto. But after letting Kurt Suzuki walk, the Braves added veteran Brian McCann back to the fold.
There was much talk of adding a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, but it hasn't happened, even after injuries beset the staff this spring. The bullpen also has the same set of characters (though fans, at least, won't have to suffer through the recently cut Sam Freeman).
Bottom line, the lineup will be largely dependent on a surge by Ozzie Albies, some consistency by Dansby Swanson and pre-All-Star break Markakis numbers to get close to matching the Phillies offensively. The starting staff is arguably only better than the Marlins and well behind the Nats and Mets. The pen is considered one of the weakest in the National League.
An ESPN national writer said the Braves, despite huge seasons from Ronald Acuna Jr. and Donaldson, will finish more than 10 games out of first due to pitching concerns. It's easy to see why fans are frustrated by the offseason.
2. Which young players not named Ronald Acuna will impact the lineup the most?
As mentioned above, it has to be Albies and Swanson. The Braves don't need Albies to hit 20-plus homers. They need him to make contact and use his speed, lace doubles and triples and make himself a pest to opposing pitchers instead of flailing away at anything that's remotely close to the plate.
Swanson was affected by a bad wrist last year, and it's not a positive sign that he missed time this spring with the same issue. Like Albies, it's all about making contact with Swanson. His defense is such a plus that he doesn't have to hit .300, but he can't hit .220 in a bottom part of the lineup that doesn't scare a lot of teams.
Don't forget about Johan Camargo just because of Donaldson's arrival. He likely still will get four or five starts a week, spelling Donaldson, Swanson and maybe even iron man Markakis, who has promised to take a few days off this season. Camargo is a huge key to the season.
3. As it currently stands, how does the rotation hold up?
The fact that Julio Teheran is starting yet another opening day speaks to the status of this staff. Ace Mike Foltynewicz is out with injury. So is Kevin Gausman. Ditto Luiz Gohara. Mike Soroka is still not over whatever is ailing his shoulder. Touki Toussaint can't find the strike zone often enough and will start in the minors.
The rotation that will face Bryce Harper, Realmuto and the Phillies this weekend? Rookies Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, two talented pitchers who have shown great promise this spring, will follow Teheran. Neither would be breaking camp with the big-league club if not for injuries.
Sean Newcomb will start the home opener after a spring that mirrored his 2018 season — decent moments surrounded by way too many walks. Max Fried, who had a strong spring, will start when the team needs a fifth starter.
Gausmen is apparently close to returning, though the jury is still out on Soroka and Gohara. Get all three back and the rotation is decent and deep. If not, and the rookies struggle and Teheran continues his descent into mediocrity, well, not going after free agents Dallas Keuchel (still available, by the way), Patrick Corbin, Charlie Marton, J.A. Happ, Wade Miley, etc. is going to look even worse.
4. What happens if the Braves get off to a slow start?
The early schedule is tough with series over the first three weeks against the Phillies, Cubs, Rockies and Mets. A poor start — given the pitching situation — is more than likely, so what happens in that case?
This isn't a management that usually panics, but a disastrous start could cause early fan apathy, which is likely the only way significant moves would come (Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, trade?). If the past few months are any indication, though, this is a team that is saving its assets for next offseason. Or next decade.
This isn't the same NL East the Braves won last season. Sitting at .500 at midseason this year likely means you're out of it, though the wild-card race could keep things interesting. The thought is, if the front office believes a key pickup near the trade deadline might put the team in contention, it can be made.
If they are out of it, though, the Braves might try to recoup something for Donaldson or veteran pitchers Teheran, Gausman or (still injured reliever) Darren O'Day.
5. What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic?
A full season of Acuna, for one. The young superstar has toyed with pitchers this spring and will start the season in the cleanup spot. He's part of a top of the batting order with Ender Inciarte, Donaldson and Freddie Freeman that could cause some early pain for pitchers.
If Albies progresses he could move to the leadoff spot, further lengthening the lineup. Seeing McCann's influence on the younger guys will be worth watching.
On the subject of young players, expect to see Austin Riley later in the year. The powerful third baseman had a good spring and should be ready for full-time action in 2020. Outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters may not be ready for full-time status next year, but they could see time in Atlanta at some point this season.
And, as usual, there's the plethora of talented young pitchers. Soroka, Gohara, Wilson, Wright, Patrick Weigel, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson, Toussaint, Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller are among the team's top prospects, and any or all could see time in Atlanta this year.
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com