Braves: Five things we’ve learned from the 2021 regular season

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As I’m beginning this post, the Braves have just beaten the Mets in the season finale, in which the outcome is completely irrelevant. Whether Atlanta won or lost on Sunday, the team has already punched its ticket to what should be an exciting NLDS next week versus Milwaukee, which seemed like a rather unrealistic outcome as recent as early August.

The truth is, this has been one roller coaster of a regular season, and one that’s primarily been salvaged from a second-half surge by the Braves, including a 50-32 record since July. So with these last six months of regular-season baseball behind us, it’s time to discuss what we’ve learned.

 

#1. Austin Riley will win an MVP award one day

Essentially the Braves entire young offensive core put together career years this season. Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Ronald Acuna Jr, if he would’ve stayed healthy, and then Austin Riley. It really is amazing how all of these guys were able to make such huge strides this year.

But I was amazed most by Riley’s body of work. The 24-year-old really came into his own in 2021, not only continuing to show his above-average power but also his ability to hit for a high average. As of Sunday (before the team’s game against the Mets), Riley was sitting at 33 home runs, 105 RBI and a .302 AVG — good for 4.1 fWAR. Now obviously, there are those that will argue this was simply an outlier performance by Riley — coming after two seasons in which he managed to combine for just a .232 AVG and 86 wRC+. But there’s also a solid case to be made that this is just the beginning for the Braves young third baseman, shown by the fact that he not only over-performed his xwOBA in 2021, but he also hit the ball harder than he ever has AND barreled the ball more. Sure, Riley sort of came out of nowhere this year, but it also looks like there’s a good chance his improvements at the plate stick. Now in the middle of his prime, an MVP award is in his future.

 

#2. If done right, the Trade Deadline is a game-changer

I know this isn’t really something we necessarily learned, but boy did the Braves play the Trade Deadline perfectly this season. Chase already discussed the deadline acquisitions from 2021, but hitters Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall have provided a huge boost for the Atlanta offense, and reliever Richard Rodriguez has been a stable arm in the bullpen. Some of those July wins came before GM Alex Anthopoulos made his deadline deals, but obviously, a lot of the Braves success following that came directly from those savvy trades.

When it’s all said and done, the late-July moves Anthopoulos made this year could have an impact on the Braves not just this year but the following seasons as well. Joc Pederson has already turned into a fan favorite in Atlanta, and after what Duvall did to the Braves while a Marlin, I’d bet money he’s offered some type of deal. And then again, it could be Soler that winds up being the most attractive from Atlanta’s mid-season additions. Defensively, he is a liability, but it’s really difficult to look past what he’s managed to do during his short time as a Brave. One thing’s for sure: it’s very likely one of those players is retained for at least 2022.

 

#3. Depth matters… ALOT

Only getting a half-season from Ronald Acuna Jr., and hell, nothing from Mike Soroka, was a huge blow in 2021, and very easily could’ve spoiled the Braves chances at a fourth-straight NL East title. But offensive contributions from players like Guillermo Heredia, Ehire Adrianza and Abraham Almonte, to go along with stretches of dominance on the mound from the likes of prospect starter Kyle Muller, 29-year-old reliever Edgar Santana and veteran Jesse Chavez, really kept Atlanta floating above water, and at least gave the team a fighting chance. Looking back now, this team certainly wouldn’t be where it is today without the help of those guys. And it’s interesting, because as the 2021 campaign got started roughly six months ago, many of us believed the Braves depth was a real weakness. Little did we know that it would wind up being one of the team’s strengths.

 

#4. We should be more patient with Cristian Pache

It would be unfair to call the 2021 season a complete loss for Pache. The prospect outfielder labored through a slow start to the year, hitting just .133 through the first month or so of games before suffering an injury that knocked him out for several weeks. The Braves tried to insert the kid back into the regular lineup, but a 3 for 33 stretch over an 11-game stretch following his return resulted in him being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he spent the remainder of the year. Overall, in 22 games with Atlanta this season, Pache hit just .111 as he struck out in nearly 37% of his PA.

Naturally, many of us may now have our doubts about Pache. Posting those type of numbers in your first MLB showing will do that. But I think it’s important we remember the kid is only 22-years-old and that big league stardom simply isn’t going to come overnight. Pache obviously still has some plate discipline issues to hash out, and if he’s as talented as we’ve claimed him to be, he’ll most likely adjust his approach as he gets more PA in the majors. So for me at least, I’ve learned that I’m just going to have to adjust my expectations a bit when it comes to Pache, and perhaps for any other Braves prospect that debuts in the coming years. Not all of these kids hit the ground running and compete for MVPs. Hell, consider Riley, who I just discussed above. So perhaps next season we should be a bit more patient when it comes to Pache’s development.

 

#5. Freddie Freeman must be extended

I’ll end this little exercise by making perhaps the most obvious point of the entire post: The Braves must extend Freeman! I know at this current juncture, contract talks aren’t going to happen. But once the playoffs end, Anthopoulos needs to get this taken care of.

What more do the Braves need to see? In his age-31 season, Freddie was nearly a 4.5-fWAR player in 2021, once again crushing 30+ homers and hitting .300. I know, I know… now into his 30s, the first baseman is bound to begin his decline any year now. But at what point will the Braves realize that that point just isn’t happening anytime soon. Star players like Freeman only come around every once and awhile, and if he was anyone else I would say sure, go ahead and let him walk before he starts losing it. But by now it’s obvious, like Chipper Jones before him, Freeman will not only be a productive player on into his mid-to-late-30s, but he’ll be an above-average one. Give the man his damn contract!

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