2018 was a truly magical season for our Atlanta Braves. They defied all expectations that were placed upon them to soar to the top of the National League East. The season was filled with improbable comebacks, production from unlikely sources, and the emergence of young stars that could feasibly be the face of the franchise for years to come. All of these things are good and it was a joy to watch.
However, we are now faced with the reality that is 2019. The Braves are not going to surprise anyone and if you think that teams across the league are not dissecting ways to try and beat them right now, you are fooling yourself. Combine that with the fact that the rest of the National League East (except for the Marlins, because...well, they are the Marlins) improved to varying degrees and you have a tougher road for the Bravos. Remember, the Braves feasted on NL East opponents last year and that is not going to be a small task in 2019.
Below are five things that are going to be really important for the Braves in order to repeat as division champions this year. No, I am not going to include things like “Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. need to not miss the season” because those are obvious. Instead, these are areas where the Braves are either going to need to see continued development or need to improve in order to capture the crown again. Are there other paths to glory? Sure, but these stick out as being important, so we are going to roll with it.
Continued emergence of Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies
There is a certain amount of obviousness to this one, but it is worth mentioning simply because of how important it is for these two guys to continue to come into their own. We know what Acuna is capable of as we saw him go on a torrid second half run last season where he was one of the absolute best hitters in baseball on his way to a National League Rookie of the Year award. He is going to be asked to carry a lot of the load offensively and that is a lot to ask of any second year player. Sophomore slumps do happen quite a bit in this league as teams adjust their game plans and have more data to work with in terms of scouting Ronnie. Acuna won’t have to completely replicate his scorching hot months over an entire season..that just isn’t sustainable (probably). However, the Braves are going to need All-Star type production out of him in 2019 given the question marks that exist elsewhere in their lineup. Fortunately, if you have been watching Spring Training so far, it looks like he could be up to this task.
Arguably more important for the Braves chances is the development of Ozzie Albies at the plate simply because he is more of a wild card. Ozzie was nearly a 4 fWAR player last year and a lot of that value was buoyed by an unexpected power surge out of him early in the season which was quite welcome. However, he also disappeared for much of the second half at the plate and his walk rate was pretty bad for the entire season. Ozzie is a guy with real tools and he needs to get on base more to be able to utilize his game-changing speed, especially if his power output last year does not return. He has to get better against right-handed pitching as well given that the majority of his plate appearances are going to be against righties. Still, this is a guy that was recognized as having one of the best hit tools in the minors and his work ethic is beyond reproach, so I wouldn’t bet against him being a much better all-around hitter this year even if we see the power numbers drop off. If he is, lineup construction for the Braves becomes a lot more interesting as a switch hitter with a bit of pop and a ton of speed and on-base potential can wreak havoc.
The pitching staff must decrease their walk rate, especially in the bullpen
It is not fair to say that the Braves pitching staff last year was bad, because it absolutely was not. However, one thing that they were definitely not good at last year was limiting free passes. The starting pitching staff was third worst in all of baseball last season in allowing 3.62 walks per 9 innings and the bullpen was dead last amongst other relief corps with a staggering 4.41 walks per 9 innings. It is possible to hide some of these crimes with really strong defense and getting a bit lucky in the BABIP department, but that is a way to flirt with disaster more than a way to have sustained success.
Real, pronounced improvement wouldn’t require the Braves to just chuck strikes on every pitch. The league average for walks per nine amongst starting staffs was right at 3.00 and the league average for bullpens was around 3.5. If the Braves could approach those numbers in 2019, it would likely mean a very significant increase in their production and far less heartburn-inducing moments where back to back walks led to far too many do or die at-bats. On top of that, decreasing the number of walks is likely to help preserve the Braves arms more (shorter at-bats, shorter innings, less pitches thrown overall) which proved relevant last year as several guys were running on fumes as September and October rolled around.
The emergence of at least one starting pitching prospect, if not more
There is loads of potential in the Braves rotation and amongst their starting pitching prospects....there is no question about that. However, the 2019 season is less about potential and more about results. The Braves have a gaggle of options for the rotation and it is going to be important to see at least one of these guys latch on to a spot in the rotation. Mike Foltynewicz did that last year with an outstanding season, but he is dinged up at the moment. Julio Teheran was very lucky to have the year he had last season and even that was meh at best. He is most certainly on the decline and asking for much production out of him isn’t the smartest bet. Kevin Gausman has had a rough spring so far and has been dinged up himself and we still don’t know how much of the Sean Newcomb we saw in the first half last year will show up in 2019.
It is hard to be predictive here as there are genuinely a lot of options and the Braves are likely to explore most of them. If he is healthy, Mike Soroka has the stuff and composure to be a really good starter, but he already had his shoulder act up on him a bit this spring. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, and others have all had their moments in the major leagues and/or this spring and Ian Anderson is lurking on the horizon as well. The Braves have loads of young options on the 40 man roster, but they are going to need one or more of these guys to cement themselves as meaningful producers in the rotation if the Braves are going to have a shot at contention. Having a collection of talent in the minor leagues is nice, but that talent at some point has to translate on the field.
Injured Braves must come back healthy and, more importantly, good
This isn’t about keeping key contributors on the roster healthy, but instead about guys who had issues last year coming back healthy. The Braves didn’t sign Josh Donaldson to a $23 million contract to play 50 games. He was signed to give the team big-time offensive production and help carry the load that Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. were going to have to carry otherwise. Dansby Swanson has battled wrist issues off and on over the last two seasons now, but with his surgery this offseason....this could be a make or break season for him as he is going to run out of excuses for sub-par offensive production. Darren O’Day isn’t that far removed from being a top notch reliever, but a hamstring injury robbed him of most of his 2018 season.
It isn’t as simple as these guys get healthy and we are good to go. While there are plenty of good players on the Braves roster, it is hard to say that their roster is deep especially if these guys who were hurt don’t come back and perform. Having Johan Camargo as a jack of all trades that gets a bunch of at-bats all over the place is great in theory, but becomes less great if Donaldson or Dansby can’t stay on the field and/or see their production drop-off precipitously. Grant Dayton and Darren O’Day being healthy could give the Braves a lot of really interesting options in the bullpen to carry the load, but that doesn’t work if you can only realistically run them out there when you are up or down by eight runs. Roster depth is at an absolute premium in the game of baseball right now and the Braves only real shot at that in 2019 is if the guys who were dinged up last year come back and healthy and, more importantly, good.
Front office is going to have to be willing AND able to get this team some help during the season
Yes, yes....I can see the comments section now. Go ahead and get it out of your systems and then come back.
Okay, welcome back. Look....not everything is going to go right for the Braves in 2019. Baseball is weird and unfortunate things happen all the time. Someone is going to get hurt and miss significant time or someone is going to see their production take a nose-drive. What is going to matter is how the front office responds to those obstacles. Sure, you can solve some of that in-house by calling up prospects, but picking the right guys to call up at the right times and putting them in a position to succeed is no small task and getting that right is going to be important.
Moreover, there is likely going to be needs that will not be able to addressed in-house. Prospects may not be ready to fill in at positions of need or there will just not be options that are good enough to represent an upgrade that the team may need. We have heard the pitch from the front office enough at this point....that they like to save some payroll for in-season moves, that they can shop in any aisle, and that they will make the moves that are in the best interest of the club. This offseason outside of Donaldson’s one year deal fell short of fan expectations, but if this team is in contention...the front office has to be willing to be bold and go get the help they will inevitably need. If that happens and the Braves are winning, no one is going to care that the offseason was quieter than they wanted it to be.