Braves: Eight players make ESPN’s Top 100 rankings for 2021

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The Braves have had their fair share of exposure to top 100 rankings, although, in recent seasons, it’s primarily been because of their superior farm system. Well, several of those top-tier prospects are now helping to prop up the big league club as Atlanta did extremely well in ESPN‘s annual Top 100 player rankings, a three-day series that concluded on Wednesday.

A whopping eight Braves made ESPN’s Top 100, including four inside the top 40.

Below is the list of Atlanta’s representatives for the 2021 season. Further down, I’ve included each player’s rank this year as well as in 2020. I’ve also included the excerpts straight from ESPN’s list, featuring opinions from the site’s MLB experts. Of course, I’ve added my own commentary for each player as well.

Let’s get to it…

  • #99, Ian Anderson, P
  • #80, Dansby Swanson, SS
  • #78, Mike Soroka, P
  • #62, Max Fried, P
  • #40, Marcell Ozuna, OF
  • #35, Ozzie Albies, 2B
  • #7, Freddie Freeman, 1B
  • #4, Ronald Acuna Jr., OF

 

#99. Ian Anderson, P

2020 rank — NR

ESPN’s thoughts: “The third pick of the 2016 draft, Anderson burst on the scene during his first exposure to the big leagues late in the 2020 season. Including the playoffs, Anderson went 5-2 over 10 starts with a minuscule 1.59 ERA. It won’t always be that easy for the dazzling righty, but with excellent command and a possibly elite changeup, Anderson has given Braves fans plenty of reasons to believe he’s the real deal”  — Bradford Doolittle

My thoughts: I am a little surprised Anderson isn’t ranked higher, especially given what he was able to do during last year’s postseason when he started four games for the Braves and dazzled with a 0.96 ERA to go with 24 strikeouts in 18.2 innings. Anderson wasn’t as crisp as usual in his Grapefruit outing on Wednesday versus the Pirates (4 ER), but up until then, he’s looked just as sharp as he was in 2020.

Bad starts are going to happen… no matter who you are. Having said all of that, I do somewhat understand Anderson just barely cracking the list. A 32.1-inning sample in the majors isn’t a lot to judge from, so it’s fitting to show a little conservatism towards Anderson. However, if he manages to pitch even somewhat close to how he did last season, the young Atlanta hurler will no doubt rise drastically in next year’s rankings. 

 

#80. Dansby Swanson, SS

2020 rank — NR

ESPN’s thoughts: “Swanson was traded to the Braves in December of 2015, just six months after the Diamondbacks took him No. 1 overall in the draft. Last season was his fourth as Atlanta’s everyday shortstop, but it was the first in which Swanson’s production reflected his lofty draft status. He became a full-field line-drive hitter last season while also managing to tack on some power. Swanson’s evolution has set him up nicely for the prime of his career.” — Doolittle

My thoughts: Doolittle is mostly right about Swanson in that 2020 was the first season in which his production “reflected his lofty draft status.” But Swanson really began turning things around in 2019, when he wrapped up the campaign with a .375/.400/.458 slash-line during Atlanta’s final five games of the season — not to mention the obvious changes in his approach at the plate throughout the entire year (more specifically against secondary pitches).

It’s truly remarkable how much he has improved as he essentially went from a below-average player to one of the top shortstops in the National League in a span of just two seasons. I wasn’t naive to believe that Swanson’s top-three FanGraphs WAR total (1.9) among MLB shortstops in the shortened 2020 campaign would immediately make him a top 50 or so player, but I was hoping he’d receive a little more credit for his breakout performance. 

 

#78. Mike Soroka, P

2020 rank — 42nd

ESPN’s thoughts: “After going 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA as a 21-year-old rookie in 2019, Soroka made just three starts in 2020 before tearing his right Achilles. He might not be ready for Opening Day but should return early in the season. The Calgary native relies on a sinker, slider and changeup, a precocious feel for pitching, and keeping the ball on the ground.” — Schoenfield

My thoughts: Many in Braves Country may argue with Soroka’s fall in the rankings this year, but it’s hard to stay within the top 50 when you only pitch 13.2 innings in a given season, even if it’s not necessarily his fault. However, I don’t believe anyone doubts Soroka’s talent.

So far, in 37 big league starts that span 214 frames (essentially one full season), the 23-year-old has been an All-Star, an NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, and a sixth-place finisher in the NL MVP race — thanks to a career 2.86 ERA to go along with 7.2 K/9 and just 2.3 BB/9. With him slated to return at the end of April or the start of May, look for Soroka to soar up ESPN’s list come 2022. 

 

#62. Max Fried, P

2020 rank — NR

ESPN’s thoughts: “After a breakout 17-win season in 2019, Fried was even better in 2020, going 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He doesn’t have the big strikeout rates of some other top starters and instead relies on inducing soft contact, ranking in the 98th percentile in hard-hit rate and allowing just two home runs in 56 innings.” — Schoenfield

My thoughts: Among starters that tallied at least 50 innings in 2020, Fried’s 1.5 fWAR tied for 13th-most in the majors. Given there’s such a log jam of solid pitchers in the big leagues — there are 25 starters between Shane Bieber at no. 1 and Fried on the MLB leaderboard — I’d say Fried’s rank here is probably appropriate, especially when accounting for all the position-player talent. However, there is a case to be made he should be inside the top 50, though.

Fried has displayed top-end starter stuff for two seasons now, after leading Atlanta in wins (17) in 2019 and posting a respectable 4.02 ERA across 30 starts and three relief appearances. Fried also struck out 9.4 batters per nine two years ago, showing he has more strikeout stuff than his rotation-mate Soroka. Either way, like basically every Braves player on the back-end of this Top 100, a continuation of Fried’s success should result in a much higher rank next year.

 

#40. Marcell Ozuna, OF

2020 rank — NR

ESPN’s thoughts: “The Braves love him so much at the plate, they don’t mind sending him out to left field — at least until the DH returns to the NL. He thrived in 2020 and is likely to do so again simply because he’s one of those professional hitters whose slumps don’t last very long. Plus, the Braves’ lineup is dynamic, meaning he doesn’t have to carry the team at the plate. A big contract received this past winter will allow Ozuna to relax and do what he does best: rake.” — Rogers

My thoughts: The fact that Ozuna is ranked this high shows just how dangerous he is at the plate, considering defensively the trending narrative makes him out to be a complete butcher in the outfield. Also, it was noted later in ESPN’s reaction piece regarding the site’s rankings that the list is meant to weigh future performance more heavily, so it’s rather notable that, even into his 30s, Ozuna is looked at as a long-term star.

He led the NL in home runs last season (17), he averaged 28 homers per season during the four years leading up to 2020, and ZiPS projects him to mash 34 dingers while maintaining a .287 AVG this coming season. That, folks, is a top 50 player every day of the week. 

 

#35. Ozzie Albies, 2B

2020 rank — 46th

ESPN’s thoughts: “Still just 24, Albies was an All-Star in 2018 and the NL hits leader in 2019. His 10.4 WAR since 2018 ranks third among second basemen, even though he missed time in 2020 with a wrist injury. The switch-hitter was improved from the left side in 2020, a sign that he might raise his game to an even higher level.” — Schoenfield

My thoughts: Before you freak out, consider this as a bit of perspective: only the Yankees DJ LeMahieu ranked better than Albies in terms of second basemen on ESPN’s list, coming in at no. 19. And that’s quite understandable, given LeMahieu has back-to-back top-five MVP seasons, to go with an MLB-leading .364 AVG and American League-best .421 OBP in 2020. Meanwhile, our man Albies struggled last year, primarily due to an injury but also because… well, he just didn’t perform well.

Given all of that, I applaud ESPN for not just simply giving up on the 24-year-old Atlanta second baseman. In a very short time, he will become the best to play the position in Braves franchise history and could one day soon headline all MLB players at the keystone. The improvements against southpaws, which Schoenfield rightly mentioned, have been huge for Ozzie. 

 

#7. Freddie Freeman, 1B

2020 rank — 17th

ESPN’s thoughts: “It’s going to be almost impossible for Freeman to match the .341/.462/.640 line that won him MVP honors in 2020, but maybe he can do it again. He had more walks than strikeouts in 2020, with career-best rates in both categories. Having fewer strikeouts leads to a higher average and OBP, and he didn’t sacrifice any power in cutting down the K’s.” — Schoenfield

My thoughts: The top first baseman in the rankings and the fifth-best hitter, all I can say to ESPN is just watch… because I certainly wouldn’t bet against Freeman regarding him repeating or besting his .341/.462/.640 slash-line from 2020. This man is the absolute definition of consistency, and even though Freeman’s now into his age-31 campaign, I still believe he has nearly another decade left in the tank. I’m fine with the ranking, as a top 10 spot essentially means he’s a player that’ll compete for the MVP in 2021. Too bad Freeman is scuffling a bit in camp, though; he’s hitting just .154 with no XBH in 12 Grapefruit games. 

 

#4. Ronald Acuna Jr., OF

2020 rank — 8th

ESPN’s thoughts: “It’s so easy to forget that Acuña is still just 23 years old, given how quickly he has established himself as one of the sport’s most feared hitters, belting 14 homers and posting a .250/.406/.581 line in 46 games last year. Given the astronomical 14-year, $340 million contract given to Fernando Tatis Jr., Braves fans should feel lucky that the team has locked up the superstar outfielder to an eight-year, $100 million deal.” — Lee

My thoughts: This year’s ESPN Top 100 features four outfielders in the top 5, with Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Juan Soto, Acuna, and pitcher Gerrit Cole — in that order — making up the five best players going into this season. I will never understand why some in the industry continue to put Washington’s Soto over Acuna. Sure, Soto is a bit better at getting on base as he has an incredible eye at the plate, and his career 16.9% walk-rate has propped up his impressive 152 wRC+; but Acuna simply offers more as a player.

Through the same amount of big-league games in their career (313), albeit with him having logged 55 more PA, Acuna has 11 more home runs, 38 more stolen bases, has played much better defense in the outfield, and is currently worth nearly 1 WAR more (11.7 compared to 11.0). And it’s not as if Soto’s contact abilities are much higher than Acuna’s either, for the former is out-hitting the latter by just 14 points in AVG (.295 versus .281) so far in their respective careers.

I don’t know about you, but I’d take the guy that can do everything with the bat AND steal bases AND play Gold Glove defense over the guy that simply hits well and has great plate discipline. Oh well, Acuna’s one of the best in MLB any way you slice it, and ESPN at least has that general fact correct pegging him inside the top-five in its Top 100.

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