Braves: Top bounce-back candidates for 2021

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Last Wednesday, I looked at potential regression candidates among the Braves for the upcoming season. Today I’ll go in the opposite direction and look at who I believe has the best shot at turning things around in 2021. 

Let’s get started.

 

Ozzie Albies 

You knew he’d be listed first. I knew it before I even started researching for this post. A bone bruise on his right wrist caused Ozzie to miss most of August last season, though even before his ailment, he struggled mightily at the plate, starting the 2020 campaign with a .159/.196/.273 slash-line in the 11 games leading up to his IL stint. 

A solid September helped Albies get back to around average for the season as he finished the year with a .271 AVG and 6 home runs (103 wRC+) in 29 total games, but his WAR total (0.6) still fell rather far behind what’s expected. His 2.9-WAR pace (over a full season) wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been in 2020, though it’s a far cry from the 4-WAR player ZiPS believes Albies will be this coming season. That balky wrist should be fully healed by now, which will allow him to get back to his normal ways. I expect a continuation of what Albies accomplished in 2019 when he posted 4.6 WAR. He is still one of baseball’s best at the keystone. 

 

Austin Riley

A breakout candidate perhaps more because we desperately want him to be, Riley is slated to get his chance to shine in 2021, even after Atlanta recently signed veteran third baseman Jake Lamb. The potential for Riley’s big year has already been documented this offseason as he was the one Braves player chosen by MLB.com to breakout in 2021, thanks to the largest drop in K rate among qualified hitters last season (a 12.6% drop). 

And it wasn’t just an improvement in regards to strikeouts. In 2020 Riley also suddenly learned to hit breaking balls as well, jumping from a .269 wOBA versus the pitch in 2019 to a .365 wOBA last year, including — despite seeing 104 fewer breaking balls — just as many home runs, with 5. ZiPS has Riley pegged as nearly a 1-WAR player this coming season while slugging 26 homers and knocking in 87 runs, but just a .239 AVG (90 wRC+). We know the power is there, but if he continues to punch out less and starts trading those strikeouts for a bit better contact, I could see Riley blowing by that 0.8 WAR projection. 

 

Essentially the entire starting rotation 

Because of Max Fried‘s magical powers regarding his incredible home run suppression and Ian Anderson‘s top-three-pitcher-in-MLB WAR pace last season, I listed both as regression candidates on Wednesday. Although, the rest of the Braves starting staff makes for a good breakout story. Mike Soroka is “on his usual schedule for side sessions to begin Spring Training,” per the AJC’s Gabe Burns, and we know he’s capable of pitching like a Cy Young after he posted a 2.68 ERA across 174.2 innings two years ago. 

Then there’s this past November’s signings, Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton — a pair of vets who showed some promise in 2020 (hence each of them earning $10+ million contracts for this season). Smyly is coming off a 2020 in which he struck out 14.35 batters per nine over a 26.1-inning stretch, and like Fried, kept the ball inside the ballpark at an impressive rate (0.68 HR/9). Morton’s performance last season was less flashy, though his ceiling is much higher given he’s just two years removed from a 6.1-WAR campaign with the Rays when he finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young vote. 

And while there’s a possibility that in 2021 one of Soroka, Smyly or Morton will put together a Fried or Anderson-like performance over a full season, we also can’t overlook the fact that injuries will most likely occur, setting up a possible big year out of one of the team’s depth starters. Two primed candidates are Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson, who each seemed to have turned the corner in 2020. Wright put together a strong showing in his final two starts last season (1.38 ERA during that stint). At the same time, Wilson impressed both in a September 22nd outing against Miami in the regular season and a beauty in Game 4 of the NLCS versus the Dodgers. We’ve been talking about Wright and Wilson’s potential for stardom for several years, but maybe this is the season one of them finds a groove. 

 

Will Smith

After tallying 3.3 WAR combined while with the Giants from 2018-19, including 48 saves and a 2.65 ERA, Smith contracted COVID last spring and never seemed to get right on the mound. Across 16 innings, the lefty allowed seven home runs and finished 2020 with the second-highest ERA of his career (4.50). 

As a below replacement-level player last year (-0.6 WAR), Smith should welcome any improvement, although if he can get his infamous slider back on track, the sky’s the limit. In 2019, as San Francisco’s primary closer, Smith held opponents to just a .124 AVG with the slide piece, a far cry from the .263 AVG he allowed with the same pitch in Atlanta in 2020. If he even comes close to matching what ZiPS has him projected for this coming season — highlighted by 12.87 K/9 and a 3.40 ERA across roughly 50 innings — it should be considered a breakout. 

 

 

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