Barring a catastrophic event or an unfortunate nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, the 2020 MLB regular season will begin at the end of next month, with Spring Training 2.0 set to kick off roughly a week from now. There are still numerous hurdles to jump through but with a unanimous vote by MLB owners earlier this week, and a report on Tuesday evening that the MLBPA is on board with a 60-game season… baseball is FINALLY on its way back.
But with over three months since the Braves were active, it can be difficult to recall exactly what it was we were all so excited about entering the 2020 season. Here are several storylines worth discussing again as the Braves return to the field:
Just how dominant will the bullpen be…?
That $55 million+ GM Alex Anthopoulos invested in the team’s bullpen this past winter was the talk of the offseason in Braves Country. However, it appears to be a worthy gamble given the already-paid-off trades made previously (netting Chris Martin, Mark Melancon, and Shane Greene at the 2019 trade deadline).
The Braves’ relief core could’ve easily ruined the team’s season in 2019, but after a strong second half, the group concluded the year as an average relief core in terms of its collective ERA (4.21). Just think of how much better the Braves’ record could’ve been had the bullpen pitched lights out for a full season. Now, they enter 2020 with one of the top units in the league on paper.
The inevitable debut of Cristian Pache
In normal circumstances and a full 162-game season, the expectation was that at some point in 2020, top-prospect Cristian Pache would make his highly anticipated MLB debut for the Braves. Well, circumstances are no longer normal, and now we’re looking at a 60-game season, but expectations should remain the same as well as the excitement level regarding Pache’s debut in Atlanta.
We’re still awaiting an official verdict on the minor league season, but anything remotely traditional in size appears impossible at this point. There was also talk awhile back that the Arizona Fall League could be expanded, as well as a similar league in Florida, but with COVID-19 cases rising in those particular states, discussions have since halted. The Braves can’t allow Pache’s development to spoil, so his chances of wearing a Braves uniform in 2020 certainly shouldn’t be impacted… even in a shortened season.
The Braves third-base battle
The tale of the tape is about as close as possible regarding the competition between Austin Riley and Johan Camargo. Both players flourished during Spring Training this year — thanks to the former’s swing change and the latter’s newfound determination to get back in shape. With 12 at-bats apiece between Riley (.357 AVG) and Camargo (.286 AVG), both were enjoying strong numbers in Florida, making the Braves’ third-base decision a tough one.
Fortunately, their fight this spring to become the team’s starter at the hot corner wasn’t for nothing, and Riley and Camargo will again face off when ST 2.0 cranks back up, but with a universal DH in place, both will receive plenty of every day at-bats.
The growth of Dansby Swanson
Entering Year 4 as the Braves shortstop, there’s still quite a debate about whether or not Dansby Swanson has lived up to the expectations of a first overall pick (by the Diamondbacks). Even so, last season Swanson recorded career-highs in home runs (17), runs (77), RBI (65), ISO (.172), and hard-hit rate (42.5%) as he seemed much more comfortable at the plate. However, the question remains: is this Swanson’s ceiling?… or can he become something more?
Only time will tell, but it’s evident Swanson has improved offensively since his 2016 debut. He’s hitting the ball harder and in the air more, all while maintaining strong plate discipline. Overall, the Vandy product has become more of a complete player, and thankfully he won’t have to wait until 2021 to build off another promising season.
Cole Hamels and Marcell Ozuna in a Braves uniform
One’s a 29-year-old with seven years in the majors as an above-average power hitter (Marcell Ozuna), and one is 36-years-old and has put together a fringe Hall of Fame career (Cole Hamels), but both will get their first chance to play meaningful games for the Braves this season.
Ozuna and Hamels signed identical one-year deals worth $18 million, and they each offer their own set of skills that will be crucial to the Braves’ success. The former has averaged 28 home runs per season over the last four years as one of the league’s hardest hitters, while the latter has taken his filthy changeup and revitalized his career with a 3.74 ERA in that same span. It would’ve been unfortunate to have never watched Ozuna and Hamels play for the Braves… but now we’re only days away until they’re competing in exhibition games.
Will Mike Foltynewicz and Tyler Flowers bounce back…?
After a career year in 2018, featuring 3.8 WAR and 202 strikeouts, Folty dealt with an injury and a decline in performance last season. Before a strong second-half, the Braves’ longest-tenured starter posted a horrible 6.37 ERA in 11 outings, resulting in a 2019 season to forget. As a potential extension candidate, he must put together a complete season in 2020.
Flowers’ play-time will undoubtedly see a bit of a decline, given the Braves went out and signed themselves a more skilled hitter in catcher Travis d’Arnaud. d’Arnaud received a two-year pact, and Flowers is only signed for the 2020 campaign, but it would help a lot if the latter’s performance at the plate were to improve. As a career. 238 hitter, Flowers has never been prolific with the bat, but his .229 AVG in 2019 hurt what was another strong year behind the plate. Even if it’s his final season in Atlanta, a bounce-back for Flowers on offense would be great.
Anticipating just how great Ronald Acuna’s numbers will be
A 40/40 season is a bit far fetched, but Ronald Acuna can still post some crazy stats in 2020… maybe a 20/10 or 20/20 year? It’s doable, considering Acuna was able to manage 12 home runs and eight stolen bases last season through his first 60 games while slashing .280/.365/.474. It’s a shame that the game’s top players are forced to take such a drastic hit to their career numbers, but at least they’ll get to play. It could be worse…
Will Mike Soroka produce an encore performance…?
His first All-Star bid, a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year, and a top-10 finish in the league’s Cy Young vote — those are just a few of Soroka’s accomplishments from last season when he finished 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA and the NL’s lowest home run rate.
After pitching just 25.2 innings (5 starts) the year before, Soroka stayed healthy and tallied 174.2 frames (29 starts) in 2019. Will the massive increase in workload from last year impact Soroka in 2020?… or is he just getting started?
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