If it feels close, that’s because it is close. The Braves 2021 season is set to begin next Thursday at Citizens Bank Ballpark against the Phillies, as they attempt to bounce-back from the dreadful end to their 2020 campaign. Most of the group from last season remains intact. As such, they are rightfully the favorites to win the NL East for the fourth straight year. However, there are some questions that need to be answered for that to happen.
Who will backup Travis d’Arnaud?
I imagine the Braves will give Alex Jackson the opportunity to begin the season in Atlanta as d’Arnaud’s backup. But I’m not going to beat around the bush, he’s been awful with the stick in the majors. If he continues to hit below the Mendoza without much power against big league pitching, I don’t know how long the Braves can stick with him. And while I love the potential of William Contreras — the kid has only logged 10 at-bats in the majors and NONE in AAA. Who knows what to expect out of him in 2021. This situation gets a whole lot messier if d’Arnaud goes down with any type of injury, which he’s been none to do throughout his career.
How will the Braves shape out?
I’m not necessarily worried about the Braves bullpen. Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day were solid last season, but they were all in line for some serious regression had the season been longer. I don’t think Atlanta will miss them nearly as much as some might think. However, it will be interesting to see how the bullpen take shape throughout the season. As of now, Will Smith looks to be in line to be the closer, but that might not be the case in September. Also, I’m curious to see which young arms establish themselves in relief roles. The Braves have a ton of options, and I think the bullpen will look a lot different at the end of the season than many expect.
Can Dansby Swanson become an All-Star?
At least for me, I’m done with asking, “which Swanson are we going to get.” He’s proven over the last two seasons that — at the very least — he’s a well above replacement-level shortstop. However, last year, he played like an All-Star, and I firmly believe we will see more of that in 2021. However, my opinion doesn’t matter; Swanson needs to prove it over a full 162-game campaign.
Will Bryse Wilson or Kyle Wright overtake Drew Smyly in the rotation?
There’s sort of a universal assumption that once Mike Soroka returns Wilson will return to Gwinnett; however, I’m not so sure that’s the case. This first few weeks will be the perfect competition between Wilson and Smyly for the final spot in the rotation, and I might even be favoring Wilson. I like the way he’s trending, and the Braves have a lot more invested in him than they do Smyly. Plus, Smyly has plenty of experience coming out of the bullpen. I also wouldn’t count out Wright cementing his name in the rotation if he can ever find some consistency; the stuff is certainly there.
Can Austin Riley thrive in a make it or break it season?
I don’t think the Braves will totally give up on Riley if he struggles this season; however, he might find himself back in Gwinnett working things out. I’m not sure where the Braves would turn, but Jason Kipnis, Jake Lamb, and Pablo Sandoval all have substantial MLB experience. If Riley is hitting under the Mendoza Line with a ridiculously high K%, I have no doubt Atlanta will make a change and attempt to upgrade at third base before the trade deadline. With that being said, this could also be the year Riley figures it out and it’s 40 homers.
What will Cristian Pache provide offensively?
We all know what Pache will provide the Braves defensively. I personally believe he will win the Gold Glove as a rookie, but what about offensively. It’s been ugly in Spring Training, but if he can put up numbers similar to what he was able to do in AAA, or even better — the Braves will have another budding superstar on their hands.
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