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Starting Nine: After busy deadline, do Braves have enough to win East?

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With Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, Richard Rodriguez and Jorge Soler in the fold, Atlanta now puts its focus on making a return to postseason

Wild Card Round - Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves - Game Two
The Braves added three outfielders Friday in Adam Duvall (right), Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler, while also adding a reliever in Richard Rodriguez.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

How quickly can you remodel a major-league outfield? Apparently, it’s a DIY project you can knock out in exactly 14 days.

That’s how long it took Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos to revamp an outfield that, due to injury, underperforming and the legal process, was left looking nothing like the one the three-time defending National League East champs broke camp with.

That was a key focus ahead of Friday’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline, as the Braves brought back Adam Duvall from the Marlins, acquired Eddie Rosario from Cleveland, and in the moments after the proverbial buzzer, came word that they also got Jorge Soler from the Royals.

For those screaming about the bullpen, help did come there in the form of Richard Rodriguez, but the outfield is an intriguing game plan. The Braves remade this group, which is without Ronald Acuña Jr., doing so with the understanding that they weren’t in position to swing a deal for a game-changing bat.

Instead, they went with depth, and now they’re heavy on it.

“Finding that superstar, everyday player right now was not available to us for a deal that we thought we made sense,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Friday. “If it’s a matter of looking at some platoons and things like that and just improving our bench, we’ve been in a lot of tight games, some low-scoring games. Any way we can improve our offense, sure you’d like to have the everyday player, but if it’s with platoons, that’s’ what we’re going to look to do.”

Today’s moves and the July 16 deal for Joc Pederson will give the Braves a whole new look in the defensive backfield, and while they may not be as splashy as the moves the Mets (Javier Baez and Trevor Williams) and Phillies (Ian Kennedy/Kyle Gibson) made, it’s hard to argue that Atlanta isn’t better than it was before this run of deals.

Moving on from Bryse Wilson, who two years ago was a top-six prospect, will draw its criticism, but the costs were, overall, palatable. Atlanta sent Miami catcher Alex Jackson, the former first-round pick, who has yet to live up to that draft slot for Duvall, who has a $7 million mutual option for 2022 that the Braves would seem unlikely to pick up after letting him walk last offseason. They also unloaded Sandoval, the April darling with three home runs in his first eight at-bats who is 0-for his last 20 and Cleveland is picking up part of what’s left of Rosario’s one-year $8 million deal. Kasey Kalich, the right-hander that went to Kansas City for Soler (a free agent this winter), is 21st in the organization’s top 30 prospects.

Now, the question is whether the Braves have enough to make a return to the postseason?

The past two weeks, they have scored the fourth most runs in the league (73), while three NL starting staffs have allowed fewer runs than Atlanta’s 28. But at four games back, as of this writing, and chasing wins and losses — seriously, Atlanta has not suffered consecutive victories or defeats since taking three in a row July 7-10 — FanGraphs has its playoff chance at 9.8 percent, with an 8.5 percent chance at winning another division title.

The wild card isn’t happening given the NL West’s stranglehold on both of those spots ... but the East? As Anthopoulos said “We’ve had our challenges. That’s probably a nice way to say it. ... The one thing fortunate for us in the NL East is that we’re playing in the NL East in 2021.”

The word that Mets ace Jacob deGrom has suffered a setback and is likely out until September only underscores the belief that the Braves or the Phillies could knock them out of the top spot.

But now that we know what Brian Snitker is working with, these are the nine players, trends and storylines will determine this club’s fate.

1. Freddie Freeman’s MVP sequel

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way. With Acuña Jr. out for the season after a complete ACL tear in his right knee, the pressure becomes that much greater on the reigning NL MVP to put this team on his back. Freddie Freeman has responded with 197 wRC+ since July 3, hitting .388/.490/.650 over 98 plate appearances and hit six home runs in that span. That it’s resulted in the Braves going 11-11 over that span has to be a point of frustration for the five-time All-Star, but if this team is going to make a run, it will be because Freeman is setting the stage. So far, he’s doing that and has vaulted into fourth in the latest NL MVP odds at +3000. It’s still Fernando Tatis Jr.’s world, as he’s now at -210, but the father of the Padres star’s biggest fan is on the rise, and if the Braves can somehow overtake the Mets and return to the postseason, those odds figure to get even better.

2. The new-look outfield delivers

Since Acuña’s injury, the Braves outfield is hitting a collective 29 percent below-league average. Bringing in Duvall, Rosario and Soler on Friday, and Pederson before them, make Atlanta better on paper, but it comes with its questions. Aside from when we’ll see Rosario (more on that later), who will play in center field? Pederson has the most career innings at the position with 3,161 2/3, but he’s only played there 17 2/3 since 2018, including 12 2/3 with the Cubs this season. Duvall has 53 innings under his belt in center this year for the Marlins and 54 in his career. Rosario also has center field experience (384 innings) and could see time there as well when available. As Anthopoulos mentioned, the Braves can eventually play matchups, with the righties Duvall and Soler and the lefties in Pederson and Rosario and have multiple options in center with either platoon. It’s a fun chess game — and figuring out how Abraham Almonte (0.3 fWAR), Guillermo Heredia (0.6), Ehire Adrianza (0.4) and Orlando Arcia (minus-0.1) factor is one wrinkle and prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are another — but three of the new acquisitions (Pederson at 95 wRC+, Rosario at 84 and Soler at 81) are all currently hitting below league average, with Duvall (104) the exception. They’re all known commodities, but collectively can the help the Braves get a little bit closer to what last season was a top-seven outfield in fWAR?

3. Austin Riley writes a new kind second-half script

Austin Riley is playing like a guy who’s royally ticked off that he was denied a trip to his first All-Star Game. The third baseman has come out of the gate hitting .373/.433/.843 with seven home runs and three doubles, generating the league’s ninth best woBA (.506) in that span. The 24-year-old has had his second-half struggles, hitting 79 percent below league average post-break in his first season, and last year, he was a 21 percent below average hitter in the second half. While Riley’s strikeout rate (24.5 percent) is still a tick above last year (23.8), he’s walking more than 10.1 percent of the time, is swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone (down 3.1 percent in that area to 29.2 percent) and he’s barreling more balls (88 percentile in MLB at 12.6 percent). Every peripheral says he’s putting it together in what many forecasted as a breakout season. Sans Acuña, Freeman is the foundation, but you can make that case that the Braves’ cleanup hitter — who is now the second most active player in this lineup at 133 wRC+ — is just as important.

4. Richard Rodriguez saves the bullpen

This may end up being the best deal that Anthopoulos swung Friday as he grabbed the 31-year-old Rodriguez, who is under club control through 2022. He’s been among the league’s best at limiting walks with 1.17 per nine, wielding a fastball that’s not eye-popping (93.1 mph), but he’s next level on spin, ranking in the 94th percentile. A closer with the Pirates, he’ll have more of a fluid role in Atlanta, with Anthopoulos saying today that the message to Rodriguez is to be ready to pitch in whatever situation or inning they need him. He’s run into some issues of late, with what stood as a 0.45 ERA on May 25 ballooning to 5.40 in the 18 games since, but he should provide more stability behind Will Smith and bolster what’s been a tired storyline for the Braves in 2021. Speaking of bolstering that bullpen.

5. Huascar Ynoa (also) saves the bullpen

The bullpen was a clear focus at the deadline, but if it didn’t happen, we would have certainly heard about the impending return of Huascar Ynoa as a reason why. The righty is on track to come back in August after fracturing his throwing hand and will try and recapture the buzz he created with a 3.02 ERA in nine games, including eight starts (and, yes, the Ohtani-esque batting, too). There’s been no determination on how the Braves figure to use Ynoa, but they have options. The effectiveness of Kyle Muller and Touki Toussaint and Ian Anderson returning sooner than late could push Ynoa and a slider that was at 5.0 wSL (just behind Blake Snell, German Marquez and Trevor Bauer among those with at least 40 innings pitched) would make for a tantalizing weapon.

6. Travis d’Arnaud is a Sliver Slugger again

Collectively the Braves have been awful at the catcher position. With William Contreras, Travis d’Arnaud, Alex Jackson, Jonathan Lucroy, Jeff Mathis, Kevan Smith and Stephen Vogt all seeing action, Atlanta is tied with the Orioles for last in fWAR at minus-1.0. D’Arnaud looking nothing like the 144 wRC+ he produced last season has played is part, as the veteran was hitting 43 percent below league average when he was knocked out May 1 with a thumb injury. He’ll begin a minor league assignment at Triple-A Gwinnett today, but Anthopoulos said that they’ll need the catcher to build up his innings and log multiple games in a row before they consider a return, which keeps with the expectation of an August timeline. Looking anything close to the .321/.386/.533 slash line he posted last season would be a boon, but D’Arnaud also has to get himself back on track. His hard-hit rate had dropped a whopping 21.3 percent to 36.5 percent. Among qualified hitters, that would be the biggest drop year-over-year in the majors by a very wide margin.

7. Joc Pederson keeps bucking the narrative

He hit his first home run against a left-hander since 2018 since being traded to the Braves, and Joc Pederson just keeps rewriting the narrative that has followed him throughout his eight MLB seasons. Over his career, he’s at 68 wRC+ against lefties compared to 124 vs. right-handers, but that’s jumped to 194 wRC+ vs. southpaws in 17 games with the Braves with a .400 average and 1.104 OPS. On the flip side, he’s been pretty bad against righties (62 wRC+, .235 average and .610 OPS), but he did show a surprising balance in getting a chance to play every day with the Cubs, posting a 96 wRC+ vs. lefties and 95 vs. righties. From that end, the small sample size in Atlanta figures to balance itself out, and whether the influx of options leads to Pederson finding himself in the occasional platoon situation, he has thus far been an above-average hitter (107 wRC+) out of the leadoff spot, regardless of pitcher splits.

8. Ian Anderson returns and returns to form

The last 30 days, the Braves’ rotation is tied for the game’s seventh best ERA (3.67) and is also tied for seventh in fWAR (2.1). That’s been bolstered by Touki Toussaint dazzling with 15 strikeouts and two walks over two starts, but Atlanta has been without a key part of that staff, with Ian Anderson out with right shoulder inflammation. He played long toss earlier this week after a brief shutdown and is going to need to build his workload back up before making at least one rehab start. His return will be the first of several returns that will be categorized “as good as a trade,” but how much are his innings going to be monitored? Anderson is already at 96 after throwing just 32 1/3 in the abbreviated 2020 and has gone over 119 1/3 once in six pro seasons. However much he pitches, of bigger focus is his finding consistency. Against teams at or above .500, Anderson has a 4.05 ERA and has a paltry 2.84 ERA vs. teams with losing records.

9. Eddie Rosario provides ... anything

His last four seasons with the Twins, Rosario averaged 111 wRC+ and had no fewer than 24 home runs over his final three full seasons before Minnesota non-tendered the 29-year-old. His stay in Cleveland was subpar, hitting a career-low 16 percent below league average and he hasn’t played since July 5, with the expectation that he could spend a few more weeks on the IL. He does represent versatility in the outfield and has played all three positions, though he’s been in left field for all 598 2/3 innings so far in 2021, but will when will he play, and at what level? Oblique injuries can be tricky and can easily pop up again. He saw increases in his exit velocities this year compared to last, which has to have the Braves thinking that he can look more like he did in Minnesota than this season. If the Braves brought back an above-average left-handed bat at the cost of struggling Sandoval, who has been a liability since his early heroics, it’s a win. If it’s ultimately a salary rearrangement, given the aggressiveness the Braves showed in giving themselves options in the outfield, it could still be a win.