Braves relying on youth to capture 6th straight NL East title

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The Braves have had a shockingly quiet offseason, with their only splash coming in another trade with the Athletics for Sean Murphy. They understandably let Dansby Swanson walk, who signed a lucrative extension with the Cubs worth $177 million, but what not many people expected is they didn’t bring in anyone else to replace him. The club seems confident in what they have in Vaughn Grissom, who they hope can become the next young star in Atlanta.

If things break in the Braves favor next season, they should cruise to their sixth consecutive NL East title, even in an ultra-competitive NL East. But there are a lot of things that are up in the air. Can Ronald Acuña Jr. return to the 2021 version of himself? Will Ozzie Albies look like an All-Star again? Can Austin Riley continue to produce at an MVP rate? Who will provide production for the Braves in left field? But the success of this season will lie on the shoulders of the three newest members: Michael Harris II, Spencer Strider, and Vaughn Grissom — can they repeat the success they had in 2022?

Everything turned around for the Braves when the club called up Michael Harris II just before the calendar turned to June. He immediately took over as the starting centerfielder, and it didn’t take long for everyone to realize he was here to stay. Like most Braves fans, I kept waiting for a cold stretch to test his confidence. There were blips on the radar, but Harris always seemed to bounce back even stronger, and even when he did find himself in a funk at the plate, his defense in centerfield was enough to bring plenty of value to the team.

Harris II finished the season with 5.3 WAR in just 114 games. That’s a nearly 8-WAR pace over the course of the entire season. The term five-tool prospect is often overused, but Harris II does everything at an elite level. He hit nearly .300, smashed 19 homers, stole 20 bags, all while making nightly highlight plays in the field with both his glove and his arm. This man was a spectacle as a rookie, which is why he took home the NL Rookie of the Year award, but progression in baseball is not always linear. The Braves need Harris to be an All-Star in 2023 to achieve their goals.

As unbelievable as Harris was in his first year, I would argue what Strider accomplished was even more eye-popping. Once the Braves inserted him into the rotation, he was pitching like the best pitcher in baseball. Strider became the fastest pitcher in MLB history to reach 200 strikeouts, breaking a record set by Randy Johnson. In just 131.2 innings, he punched out 202 batters — good for a 13.8 K/9. Strider also became the first pitcher in MLB history to record 200 strikeouts without allowing 100 hits. He was Jacob deGrom-Esque, and he was doing it as a rookie.

The reason the Braves were much better in 2022 than they were in 2021 is because of their pitching, particularly their starting rotation. Kyle Wright came into his own, but Strider might have won the Cy Young had he been used as a starting pitcher the entire season. Having those two atop the rotation, along with Max Fried and Charlie Morton, makes it much easier to win series after series. I’m not necessarily worried about Strider performing, but I am worried about his health. Losing him late in the season was a huge blow in the playoffs. They need him healthy for the entirety of 2023.

When the season begins, all eyes will be on 22-year-old Vaughn Grissom, who will compete with Orlando Arcia for the role as the starting shortstop. I don’t want to give Grissom the job yet; he’ll have to earn it in Spring Training, but the Braves are hoping that’s what happens. If not, they’ve made a mistake by ignoring the position this offseason.

Grissom was forced into action last season when both Arcia and Albies suffered injuries, but the team didn’t miss a beat with him at second base. He began his major-league career on fire, hitting .420 with a 1.123 OPS in his first 14 games. However, he slumped to end the season, hitting just .220 with a .613 OPS over his last 27 games.

I’m not as worried about Grissom at the plate as I am with him in the field. He’s hit for a high average at every level at the minors. I’m expecting him to hit .280+ with 15 homers, which is more than enough for the position. What frightens me is the unknown of his glove at shortstop.

Grissom’s defense was questioned in the minors, and he was unspectacular at second base for the Braves in 2022. Now, the team is asking him to fill the shoes of one of the best defensive shortstops in the game in Dansby Swanson. That’s a tall task, and while Ron Washington has given Grissom his signature of approval, I’m still anxious about what to expect come Opening Day.

The Braves have churned out superstars better than any other organization in recent years, but they are asking a lot of these three young men entering 2023, and they’ll all have to live up to the billing if Atlanta wants to take home their sixth consecutive NL East title.

Photographer: Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire

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