5 questions for the Braves as Spring Training approaches

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Spring Training is quickly approaching as Braves pitchers and catchers will report next week. It’s an exciting time for baseball fans as football season officially comes to a close this weekend. The Braves have a roster primed to win the NL East for a seventh consecutive season, but winning division titles is no longer the goal in Atlanta. It’s championship or bust, and everyone in and around the organization recognizes that heading into the season.

Can Ronald Acuña Jr become the first ever 50/50 player?

Ronald Acuña Jr made history last year, becoming the only member of the 40/7o club on his way to his first NL MVP award, but his improvements go way beyond his gaudy power and speed numbers. The game seemed to slow down for him in his sixth season. He was in complete control, no matter the situation, which can be illustrated by a ridiculous 402 OPS+ (402% above league average) when down 0-2 in the count.

There’s little doubt Acuña will be at the forefront of the MVP conversation again this year as long as he stays healthy, but can he make history for a second consecutive season and become the league’s first-ever 50/50 player?

I don’t think it’s so far-fetched. The steals won’t be an issue. Acuña swiped 73 of them in 2023, but 50 home runs would be nine higher than his current career high of 41, which he’s done twice. However, there’s no question it’s in the realm of possibilities. Nobody has more power than Acuña, and nobody hits it as hard as him on a consistent basis. It’s all about elevating the baseball. In his final 82 games of last year, Acuña blasted 25 homers. That’s just about on pace to challenge the 50 home run mark over a full season.

Who will take over the leadership role in the Braves clubhouse?

This is the most important question of the entire 2024 season. The Braves are more talented than any team in baseball, even the Dodgers after they spent over a billion dollars this offseason. It’s not even really that close, but when it comes to winning a World Series, it takes more than just talent.

The Braves have had something missing in the postseason in each of the last two seasons, and everyone in the organization seems to be pointing at the same thing — leadership. With Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson gone, the Braves have been dubbed as “a bunch of nice guys,” who lack the fiery personalities necessary to hold each other accountable when push comes to shove.

That has to change, or the results are going to be the same this year. Whether it’s someone who’s been on the roster for a while — like Austin Riley or Spencer Strider — or a new acquisition like Chris Sale, the vibes inside the clubhouse have to change for better results in October.

How much will the Braves new additions bring to the table?

The Braves offseason acqusitions have been met with mixed reviews, particularly Jarred Kelenic and Chris Sale.

Since being drafted 6th overall in the 2018 draft, Kelenic has had a tumultuous start to his career. He really struggled in his first two seasons with the Mariners, but last year, he flashed glimpses of why he was one of the most highly touted prospects in the Mets organization before he was traded. However, he still battled through inconsistencies. The Braves are betting on his upside. Given their track record, nobody should doubt what they are seeing, but until Kelenic starts performing, the critics are going to be heard loud and clear.

The questions about Sale surround his injury history. He said it himself following the trade that brought him to Atlanta; he hasn’t been healthy going into the offseason in several years. When he’s right, Sale still has the potential to be a frontline starter, but pitchers don’t often find it easier to stay healthy on the wrong side of 30.

Who will round out the Braves rotation?

Entering Spring Training, the Braves have a clear top four — Spencer Strider, Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Chris Sale. The fifth spot will be an open competition. The early nod will likely go to Bryce Elder, given his performance last year after stepping into the rotation for an injured Max Fried. The end of Elder’s 2023 campaign raises some concerns, but this is still a 24-year-old pitcher with a career 3.66 ERA over 40 starts. There are a lot worse options around the league for a fifth starter than a 2023 NL All-Star.

The job won’t just be handed to him, though. The organization is extremely high on 21-year-old AJ Smith-Shawver after he rocketed through the system last year, beginning the season in High-A Rome and reaching the majors. His arm is up there with the best in the organization, but can he put it all together so that the Braves trust him every fifth day?

Beyond those two, 2023 first-round pick Hurston Waldrep could also enter his name into the conversation sooner rather than later. He pitched to the tune of a 1.53 ERA and 12.6 K/9 over his first eight professional starts last season, ending the year in AAA Gwinnett. Like Smith-Shawver, there’s no questioning Waldrep’s arm talent. It’s only a matter of time before he’s a regular in Atlanta.

Can Spencer Strider put it all together?

Advanced analytics suggest that Spencer Strider is the best pitcher in baseball. Here’s a stat that’s tells the story of just how crazy the first two years of his career have been:

Some of that is luck; some of it is maturity, but there’s no doubt Strider is capable of turning in a dominant season worthy of the NL Cy Young award. Will that happen in 2024? The Braves certainly hope so.

Photo: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

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