The Braves are off to one of their better starts in recent memory, winning 20 of their first 30 games and building a nice little 3.5-game cushion in the NL East. There’s a long way to go, but this is a team that not only looks like the class of their division but the class of the National League as well.
However, winning the division or even the NL is not the Braves ultimate goal. There’s way too much talent on this team to be satisfied with second place. For the foreseeable future, it is World Series or bust in Atlanta, and if the Braves want to make that happen, these questions must be answered.
Who will step up in left field/DH?
This was arguably the biggest concern coming into the season, and so far, there’s no reason to feel better about it. Marcell Ozuna was putrid in April and only just recently started hitting over .100. There’s a bit more hope for Eddie Rosario, but he hasn’t exactly played inspiring baseball.
So far, the Braves best option in left field has been Sam Hilliard. Although, it’s fair to wonder if his production is sustainable. He can hit the hell out of the ball, steal bases, and play good defense, but he’s striking out over 40% of the time. At best, Hilliard is a platoon option.
As far as the DH spot, the Braves should be alright once Travis d’Arnaud returns from the concussion IL. He and Sean Murphy, who has been hitting the hell out of the ball in a Braves uniform, will be able to serve as the designated hitter on most nights. However, Brian Snitker isn’t going to play those two everyday. The Braves really need Rosario and Ozuna to step up, or they will have to make a move at the trade deadline.
Where does Vaughn Grissom slot in?
I’m convinced Vaughn Grissom is a major-league ready offensive player. He hasn’t provided much pop early on at the plate, but he’s still hitting .283 and coming up with timely hits. The real question is his defense. He can’t play shortstop right now, and it’s fair to question if he will ever be able to handle the position.
I’m not sure he possesses enough power to be valuable as a left fielder or a DH. Grissom will only be a valuable piece to the Braves if he can eventually take over as the starting shortstop. I’m starting to wonder what his role with this team will be this season when Orlando Arcia returns and in the future. There’s a possibility Grissom spends most of the year in Gwinnett working on his defense, and if the Braves don’t ever think he will work out at shortstop, there’s a chance they could even use him as trade bait.
Will Austin Riley and Michael Harris II provide All-Star production?
The Braves offense has been one of the best in the league, and two of their best players from a year ago haven’t even performed up to their capabilities. Austin Riley, who has finished inside the top-seven in NL MVP voting in each of the last two seasons, is mired in a nasty slump, hitting just .143 with three extra-base hits over his last 13 games. What’s even more concerning is his results against the fastball this season.
Austin Riley against fastballs this season:
… Riley has seen a fastball more than any other pitch this season and this is by far the worst he’s ever looked against them. pic.twitter.com/h1oXWBi3wC
— Kevin Keneely (@KevinKeneely1) May 3, 2023
Riley’s still managed to be an average offensive player through 30 games, and given the small sample size, I’m willing to chalk it up to some early season struggles. These kind of things happen in baseball, but it’s something worth monitoring moving forward. The Braves didn’t hand him a contract extension north of $200 million last year for this type of production.
Harris is also off to a sluggish start, but he’s only played in 11 games because of injury. I’m bringing him up here because of his groundball rate. Despite all of the success Harris had last year, he had a groundball rate of 56.2%, suggesting some regression could be in line. And so far, that number is up to 65.2% this season. Again, the sample size is small, and Harris has had a high groundball rate at every level and experienced success, but it’s another thing worth monitoring as the season continues.
Photo: John Adams/Icon Sportswire
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