The Braves began the 2021 season about as painfully as one could have imagined. Not only did they lose their first four games, but they lost three of them by just one run and blew two late leads. However, they were able to right the ship yesterday by sweeping their doubleheader against the Nationals and winning their first series of the season. Six games is still way too small of a sample size to draw many concrete conclusions, but some obvious things will remain true throughout the 162-game grind, and other things still need some answering.
What we know
Ronald Acuña is going to be tough to beat for the NL MVP
In my bold predictions for the 2021 season, I went ahead and tabbed Acuña as the NL MVP, and after one week, he’s making me look pretty good, smacking a couple of homers and hitting .304 with an OPS over 1.000. Acuña also added a couple of steals as he embarks on his journey to become just the 6th player in MLB history to join the 40/40 club. If he stays healthy the entire season, I think he gets there easily, which means somebody will have to have quite the year to beat out Acuña for MVP.
The starting rotation will be significantly better than last year
Almost by default, whoever the Braves sent out to start this season would be better than last year — that’s how piss-poor Atlanta’s rotation was in 2020. However, Alex Anthopoulos went out and spent some money in this area, adding Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, and the results are already paying off. Outside of one bad outing from Max Fried yesterday, the Braves starters have made it at least five innings in each outing. The team received some unfortunate news regarding Mike Soroka yesterday; he will be shut down for at least the next two weeks with shoulder inflammation. However, Huascar Ynoa proved he might be more than capable of filling in until Soroka is 100% healthy.
Sean Newcomb belongs in the bullpen
I’m not sure if Newcomb will ever get a chance to start again in his big league career. I’m almost positive it won’t happen with the Braves, but he may not need to in order to carve out quite a career for himself. The lefty was asked to close Game 2 of yesterday’s doubleheader and looked almost unhittable, striking out the side and pumping 98-99 consistently. If he can continue to do that from the left side, he may end up being a closer in the future.
What we don’t know
Who will be the Braves closer this season?
Speaking of closers: who will be the closer for the Braves this season? It looked like Will Smith would handle the duties after a masterful Spring Training, but he’s been terrible to start the year — just goes to show how meaningless Spring Training stats really are. The good thing is the Braves have some options. I mentioned Sean Newcomb above, but Brian Snitker could also turn to Tyler Matzek or A.J. Minter. Smith will probably get a few more opportunities, but he needs to tighten up significantly.
Can Austin Riley and Cristian Pache do enough offensively at the bottom of the order?
Everyone knew this coming into the season — the Braves have one of the best lineups in baseball 1-6, but if they want to compete with the likes of the Dodgers offensively, Riley and Pache will have to step up. We’ve been waiting patiently for a breakout from Riley for a while, and it could be just around the corner. He went 4-19 in the first two series, with all four of his hits being singles. On the other hand, we don’t really know what to expect offensively from the rookie Pache. He only has two hits in 16 at-bats thus far; however, he was inches from a couple of clutch hits that could have won the Braves a couple of more games.
What reliever can be relied on from the right-side in high-leverage situations?
In two out of the three games against the Nationals, Brian Snitker turned to Luke Jackson and Josh Tomlin with the game on the line. Fortunately, it didn’t bite the Braves, but those are two arms that don’t exactly inspire much confidence in high-leverage situations. The Braves have to find another right-handed relief option to pair with Chris Martin. Perhaps that guy is Nate Jones; he’s had plenty of experience finishing games. Maybe it is Luke Jackson if he can get his 2019 mojo back, or perhaps it’s somebody not currently with the team. This is a question the Braves need to answer quickly, and I imagine Alex Anthopoulos is presently working the phones to evaluate his external options.
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