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Starting Nine: Gauntlet of a schedule, but short season well-suited for Freeman MVP push

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Plus, what’s realistic for Ronald Acuña Jr. in 60 games, the designated hitter solution to lineup problems and a bullpen that was built for this situation 

MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves
Built for a sprint? The past three seasons, the only players with better wRC+ than Freddie Freeman over the first three months of the season are Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. 
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is back, or at least some bizarro world version of it that’s as if someone who didn’t want to commit to a full season of MLB The Show set the schedule. But 60 games, even with its flaws — ahem, runner on second to start extra innings — is better than the bickering between the owners and players union that dominated the past few weeks.

Now that we have a July 1 start date for MLB Summer Camp (aka Spring Training, Take 2), with the season itself to follow July 23 or 24, the Starting Nine dives into nine storylines, thoughts and questions for what lies ahead.

1. No expanded playoffs and difficult schedule make for a challenging slate for Braves

Why the players forced commissioner Rob Manfred’s hand knowing there would be no expanded postseason remains a mystery, and the very nature of this sprint means someone’s missing out on a playoff push. It may not be the Braves, but there’s no denying the schedule is doing them no favors. With 10 games each vs. the Marlins, Mets, Nationals and Phillies, that’s 30 games vs. three teams with Las Vegas projecting at 31 or more wins — Washington is at 33 1/2, New York 32 1/2 and Philadelphia at 31 1/2. With Atlanta tied with Washington at 33 1/2, that makes the NL East the only division with three teams forecasted at 32 1/2 wins or more, and add in four games against each American League East team and you’ve got matchups vs. that circuit’s top team in the Yankees (38 1/2), Rays (33 1/2) and Red Sox (31 1/2). The Blue Jays (29 1/2) and their young core figure to be improved, meaning Atlanta best take advantage of 10 vs. Miami (24 1/2) and the Orioles (21 1/2) if it’s going to return to the postseason for a third consecutive year. “The NL East, obviously, I’m biased, is the only division that had four teams that were above .500 and above and those teams are obviously still there and still well intact,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said during a conference call Wednesday, “and now you add in the AL East ... that’s an incredible challenge as well.”

2. A season suited for Freeman MVP push

It’s no surprise that Ronald Acuña Jr. has the best odds of any Braves player at NL MVP, sitting at +600 via BETMGM and second to only the DodgersMookie Betts (+500). But based on track record — and Acuña’s May slumps of 81 and 96 in his first two seasons — Freddie Freeman (+2500) may be the best choice on Atlanta’s roster in this truncated season. The past three years, the All-Star first baseman has ripped off wRC+s of 220, 160 and 141 in the first month of the season, averaged 158 in May since 2017 and 162 in the third month since 2015. Across baseball the past three seasons, the only players who have been better than Freeman March/April-June are Mike Trout (190 wRC+) and Aaron Judge (172). The kind of start that has become standard for Freeman could have him well-positioned to make a run at the Braves’ first MVP since Chipper Jones in 1999.

3. What’s realistic for Acuna?

It seems like eons ago that Ozzie Albies was bypassing 40/40 and jumping all the way to 50/50 for The Pheñom’s next trick. That’s a pipe dream now, but what is realistic for the now 22-year-old? Acuña had a strong start to 2019, below-league-average May aside, as he hit .280/.474/.839 over 266 plate appearances in the first 60 games with 117 wRC+ and .355 wOBA. But he stole just eight bases to go with his 12 home runs and in the last 60, swiped 21 and homered 18 times. That 60-game sample from ‘19 was in line with what Acuña did during his NL Rookie of the Year 2018 from a home run (12) and steals (seven) standpoint, but given the way he ended ‘19, it’s not outside the realm of reason to think that he could make a run at 20/20 even in 2020. It would be impressive nonetheless given they are playing just 60 games, but consider that in a full season, Andruw Jones (2000) and Jason Heyward (2012) were the only two Braves this century to reach 20/20 year before Acuña’s run at 40/40 last season.

4. Universal DH clears up a number of issues with lineup

It was really anybody’s guess who had the leg up in the third base battle when camp was halted on March 13. Johan Camargo was hitting .286/.333/.464 with a home run and two doubles and while Austin Riley had batter overall numbers — .357/.438/.643 with two homers, two doubles and a strikeout rate that was down to 17 percent (it was at 36 percent in ‘19) — Camargo had the experience of a strong 2018 when he took over the job after Jose Bautista’s exit. Who mans the position still matters going into late July’s start and will be a continued storyline in Spring Training 2.0, but both are bound to see more trips to the plate given the adoption of the universal designated hitter. The same can be said in an outfield where Brian Snitker had a juggling act on his hands with Adam Duvall, Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis vying for time amid regulars Acuña and Marcell Ozuna. With Duvall (178 wRC+) and Riley (135) the top options vs. left-handers from ‘19, while Adeiny Hechavarria (140 wRC+), Markakis (112) and Tyler Flowers (111) all above league average against righties, the Braves have a glutton of contenders if they want to play matchups at DH. As Anthopoulos said during a conference call Wednesday: “DH-wise I think we’re very well-positioned. We talked a lot about our depth in the past, trying to find enough playing time before the DH was even going to be a factor to get guys at-bats and playing time. So that’s going to open up playing time for guys that are well-deserving. We think we’re in a good spot there.”

5. Who has the shortest leash in lineup?

Ender Inciarte is a notoriously slow starter, coming close to hitting near league average just once — a 97 wRC+ in 2017 — in his six big-league seasons, averaging 75 wRC+. That’s tied with Yan Gomes for the third lowest average in the majors since 2014 and ahead of only Alcides Escobar (65) and former Braves outfielder Billy Hamilton (71). Then on the flip side, second half Ender’s 115 wRC+ average the past six seasons has him equal to Marcus Semien and just behind the likes of Charlie Blackmon, Manny Machado and Miguel Sano at 118 and Eric Hosmer (117). But what Inciarte are the Braves going to get: the one that heats up with the weather or will July provide Inciarte in his traditional second-half form? The depth of the outfield will help if the answer is the former, but with the limited games the process of figuring it out has to mean the leash is shorter than normal.

6. Given track record, Ozuna’s gamble could well pay off

Marcell Ozuna figured to be one of the most interesting watches this year on the Braves roster regardless turning down multi-year deals to come to the Braves for one season at $18 million, but now he becomes that much more intriguing. Keep in mind that Ozuna, now more than two seasons removed from a 143 wRC+, has largely been a better player in the first half of the season, with an average wRC+ of 124 the past five seasons compared to 108 in the second half in that stretch, and last season hit 18 percent above league average before the break, and was at 117 wRC+ in Games 1-60, hitting 17 homers with an .849 OPS. The only season Ozuna sustained better production that that for the entire year was in that All-Star/Gold Glove/Silver Slugger season of 2017 when he had a.924 OPS with the Marlins ... which is entirely what he and Scott Boras as banking on in 2020. Call 60 games a small sample size, but his track record tells us it may be the perfect situation for Ozuna before he hits the market again.

7. This is what the bullpen was built for

Shane Greene. Luke Jackson. Mark Melancon. Chris Martin. Darren O’Day. Will Smith. The Braves have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to closing experience in the bullpen and the monster that will be 60 games in 66 days (plus a postseason if the Braves get there or if a potential second wave of the coronavirus doesn’t keep it from happening). It’s not going to help fantasy players in trying to sort out the best choice in the group — and if we were talking about the marathon of 162, the odds would be on Smith to eventually take the reins from Melancon, who manager Brian Snitker has said would get the first crack at the job — but with a sprint of a second spring training meaning shorter outings for starters, this deep bullpen has plenty of options and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this blossom more into a closer-by-committee situation given the number of games being crammed into 66 days. The Braves, at least, are toying with this group taking on a bigger workload early on. “Once concept we’ve talked about is — because of the short spring training and guys have been staying in shape and throwing and so on — is how much do we push our starters the in the rotation the first time through, the first two times through?” Anthopoulos said. “Because we feel like we have so much depth and with the expanded rosters in the beginning, do we limit our starters early on. Just to be overly cautious ... We’re not going to try and push our starters.”

8. Will Pache and Waters make their debuts?

There has been no official announcement on the state of the minor-league season, but with the expectation that it won’t be played, what does that mean for wunderkind prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters? With a 30-man active roster — which will be trimmed down to 28 players after two weeks and 26 after four — teams will also utilize a taxi squad that pushes the pool of available players to 60. Anthopoulos broached the subject Wednesday, explaining of making up the 30-man and the taxi squad, “Where do we consider guys that are going to be depth and can impact us in Atlanta in 2020?” Anthopoulos said. “Also, do we leave some spots open for some of our top prospects to continue to get the development time?” Barring an injury, it wouldn’t seem the opportune time for either Pache or Waters to get into the mix given the depth in the outfield, but if there’s no minor-league season does it force the organization’s hand in terms of their developments? Don’t they have to keep them among that group of 30 in Gwinnett? As Anthopoulos noted, the Braves used 50 players last year and 58 in 2018, so if the coveted outfielders are among that group of 60, there’s a strong likelihood we see one if not both in 2020.

9. Can Markakis hit his milestones?

As previously stated, Markakis could be one of the benefactors of a universal designated hitter, providing more at-bats for a player who doesn’t figure to be an everyday option in the field in his Age-36 season. Regardless, with the games and the ABs limited it will certainly inhibit Markakis’ chances of chasing down both the milestones he’s nearing in his 15th MLB season. He’s just four doubles from 500, which is more than obtainable, but he’s 60 hits from 2,400 — only 59 players have done both, and only two to wear a Braves uniform in Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones — which may not be so doable if he’s not in the lineup on a consistent basis. Markakis had 56 hits in the first 60 games of 2019 and started all but four of them. In a platoon situation with Adam Duvall and plenty of options at DH, that’s not going to happen, making it hard to see Markakis reaching both of those career achievements in this abbreviated season.