National League East
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Last year’s record: 88-73
When the trade deadline hit in 2021, the Atlanta Braves were three games under .500. Even more to the point — and this really is quite stunning — they literally had not been above .500 all season long, not even for a single day. They started the year 0-4 and then teetered around the break-even mark for months without ever going over it.
They hit .500 on May 9, again on May 25, again on June 8, again on July 10, but they lost the next day every single time. And in that July 10 game, they lost more than a game. Their most dynamic player, Ronald Acuña Jr., suffered that awful season-ending knee injury. This was not a team destined for anything at all.
But here was the thing that the Braves realized: Nobody wanted to win the National League East. On trade deadline day, the Mets were the only team in the division with a winning record, and that team seemed pretty flimsy.
So Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos and the rest, to their everlasting credit, decided: What the heck? After Acuña went down, they got Joc Pederson. At the trade deadline, they picked up Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario.
Oh, if only more general managers — and team owners — decided: What the heck?
And “what the heck” turned magical. It doesn’t usually work that way, but as the Reds legendary broadcaster Joe Nuxhall used to say every night, “If you swing the bat, you’re dangerous.” The Braves swung the bat and went 36-19 over the last two months of the season.
They followed up that run with relatively drama-free playoff glory over the Brewers, Dodgers and, finally, the Astros. Soler was named World Series MVP. The Dodgers couldn’t get Rosario out in the NLCS. Pederson not only smashed two homers in the Brewers series but got the entire city to wear pearls in one of those weird baseball manias no one will ever be able to explain.
If you swing the bat, you’re dangerous. Words to live by.
Max Fried is 28 years old, which is older than I thought. He was drafted seventh overall out of high school a decade ago but basically missed two full years after having Tommy John surgery. I like him a lot because he has some crafty lefthander* vibes about him. I mean, no, he’s not a crafty lefthander — no crafty lefthander throws mid-90s fastballs the way Fried does. But he’s not a big strikeout guy (at least by today’s standards). Instead, he throws five pitches, relies on one of baseball’s best curveballs, and gets a ton of ground balls.
Five craftiest lefthanders of the last 50 years:
With special recognition for Jerry Reuss, Kenny Rogers, the later edition Frank Tanana, and Jimmy Key.
How many different lives has Charlie Morton lived in his 14-year big league career? Remember the time in Pittsburgh when he decided to be an exact, frame-by-frame replica of Roy Halladay? That was more than 10 years ago. Then there was the Philadelphia season when he blew out his hamstring, the Astros garbage can seasons, the Rays World Series season, when he finished third in the Cy Young voting, and then he was terrific for Atlanta at age 37 last year, striking out 216 in 185 innings and posting a superb 1.045 WHIP.
Huascar Ynoa throws a blazing, upper-90s fastball that hitters thoroughly enjoy turning around, Ynoa’s lack of success with such a hot pitch gives you some idea how good hitters are these days. But in 2021 he found some command with his wipeout slider and that gave Atlanta some hope that he can emerge as a top-end starter.
Mike Soroka tore his Achilles TWICE in a year span, which just stinks, but he might be ready to pitch around the All-Star break. Atlanta will need to patch together the rest of its rotation with some Touki Toussaints and Tucker Davidsons and Kyle Mullers and so on.
GRADE (max 10): 5.5
The acquisition of Kenley Jansen after he spent so many years as Dodgers closer was a bit of a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Many Dodgers fans had given up on the guy years ago. Anyway, it really does make sense for Atlanta — with him and Will Smith at the back end, to go along with 2021 standouts Tyler Matzek and Luke Jackson, this projects to be a pretty deep bullpen.
GRADE (max 10): 6.0
Travis d’Arnaud, in addition to having a name of French Royalty, has a decent enough bat when he’s not injured (he had a thumb problem in 2021). Newly acquired Manny Piña has been the guy-behind-the-guy for more than a decade now, and he has a reputation for deftly handling pitchers. As a combo, they won’t make any magazine covers, but they’re solid enough.
GRADE (max 10): 5.5
One thing that will be worth watching all year is how Atlanta’s new first baseman, Matt Olson, compares with Atlanta’s old first baseman, Freddie Freeman. The Braves made a pretty coldhearted calculation on that one, jettisoning the team icon for an Atlanta native who is 4 1/2 years younger.
Olson is a very good first baseman, and he cut his strikeouts way back in 2021 while walking a lot more — very promising signs. Now that he’s released from the hitting dungeon that is Oakland’s ballpark, he might very well put up Freeman-like, MVP numbers.
Ozzie Albies is right out of the Joe Morgan, Jose Altuve, Dustin Pedroia mold of players who seem much too small to hit the ball as hard as they do. Albies sells out for his power much more than any of those guys did; he strikes out quite a lot and doesn’t see much use in walking. But the guy hit 30 homers in 2021, smashed 40 doubles, stole 20 bases, continued to play good defense and got MVP votes. His contract is one of the worst for a player in recent baseball history — the Braves have him locked up for the next six years without ever paying him more than $7 million per season. By FanGraphs calculations, he was worth $33.7 million in 2021.
I have written this before — I cannot for the life of me figure out Dansby Swanson. Is he good? Is he OK? Is he disappointing? No idea. He has been an elite defensive shortstop and a subpar one. He hit 33 doubles and 27 homers in 2021, but he also struck out 167 times and had a .311 on-base percentage. He plays with energy every day, but he also has a career 89 OPS+. I guess at the end of the day he might never be an All-Star but, as we’ve seen, you can certainly win with him.
Probably the biggest thing to happen to Atlanta in 2021 was the emergence of Austin Riley into stardom. It’s hard to say it was surprising because Riley was one of baseball’s biggest prospects in 2019 and scouts could not stop talking about his power potential. Still, for him to hit .300, bang 33 homers, raise his on-base percentage to .367 and play Gold Glove-level defense at third base, well, that might have caught some people off-guard.
GRADE (max 10): 9.0
Outfield and DH
So much of Atlanta’s success in 2022 will rely on a healthy return from Ronald Acuña Jr. He came to spring training and boldly pronounced, “I’m ready,” but sadly he’s not: He’s still recovering from that torn ACL, and it seems likely that he will miss at least a month to start the season. Assuming he can get healthy, he’s one of the game’s great talents — he seemed on his way to a 40-40 season before he got hurt.
Without Acuña, this outfield is a mishmash. Eddie Rosario was Babe Ruth in the NLCS against the Dodgers, but he has proven pretty conclusively that he’s generally not Babe Ruth. Adam Duvall won a Gold Glove in 2021; at the plate he’s a two-outcome hitter — he hit 38 home runs and struck out 174 times in 146 games. Marcell Ozuna is back after police witnessed him assaulting his wife.
Atlanta added 32-year-old Alex Dickerson, who proved a useful left-handed bat for the Giants. He is probably the main DH with a cast of thousands filling in.
GRADE (max 10): 5.5 BUT HIGHER WITH A HEALTHY ACUNA
Brian Snitker is fun. He’s 66 years old and a baseball lifer. The guy has been in the Braves organization since he was released as player more than 40 years ago. Through the years, he managed in Anderson, S.C., Durham, N.C., Sumter, S.C., Macon, Ga., Danville, Va., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Greensville, S.C., Jackson, Miss., Richmond, Va., and Gwinnett County, Ga. That looks more like a dirt track circuit than a baseball life. He was brought on as Atlanta’s interim manager in 2016, and I suspect nobody thought he would last. But he did last, he made it to the finish line, won a World Series, and how can you not love a story like that?
As for the front office, well, you can’t charge them with sentimentality. They do not hold on to any players — not even Atlanta legend Freddie Freeman — out of nostalgia. They deserve a lot of credit for not giving up on 2021, and they definitively go after what they want.
GRADE (max 10): 6.5
The Farm Report
Keep an eye on Michael Harris II. He’s a left-handed hitter who showed five-tool potential in high-Class A ball at age 20. He was also quite inconsistent so it could take some time. But his arm is good enough that scouts wanted to draft him as a pitcher. And at the plate, some scouts liken him at the plate to Michael Brantley — imagine a Michael Brantley who is also an above-average centerfielder. Exciting, right? He’ll start in Class AA and is at least one and, more likely, two years away.
The Final Word
There are some holes in the rotation, and things are a bit up in the air until we can get a real feel for Acuña’s health. And you would have to think that after everything went right for them in the second half of 2022, things might bounce the other way.