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Braves hope to exceed expectations in 2018

Top prospect Acuna's debut, Freeman's production among questions ahead of season
MLB.com @mlbbowman

ATLANTA -- As the Braves enter the fourth season of their rebuild, they will do so under the direction of their new leader, general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who has already created reason to be excited about what may transpire over the new year.

Atlanta will have the financial means necessary to be a significant player in next year's free-agent market, but before that, the Braves are hoping to exceed expectations during the 2018 season and prove they are capable of being legit postseason contenders a year earlier than many are projecting.

ATLANTA -- As the Braves enter the fourth season of their rebuild, they will do so under the direction of their new leader, general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who has already created reason to be excited about what may transpire over the new year.

Atlanta will have the financial means necessary to be a significant player in next year's free-agent market, but before that, the Braves are hoping to exceed expectations during the 2018 season and prove they are capable of being legit postseason contenders a year earlier than many are projecting.

Over the next year, Atlanta will introduce top prospect Ronald Acuna to the Major Leagues and gain a better feel for the value in its crop of young starting pitchers, who will significantly influence how successful this season proves to be.

Below are the five primary questions the Braves will face in 2018:

When will Acuna make his MLB debut?
While Acuna appears to be MLB-ready and could force the Braves to make a tough decision during Spring Training, it seems like the club is leaning toward delaying his service clock by keeping him off the Opening Day roster. This might create some disdain among those looking forward to seeing the 20-year-old phenom.

But by delaying Acuna's arrival by a few weeks or a couple of months, the Braves would have an opportunity to stall his arbitration eligibility and could gain an additional season of control. If the team was in position to be a postseason threat in 2018, there would seemingly be more reason to anticipate Acuna earning a spot on the Opening Day roster.

How will the starting rotation be filled throughout the season?
With the recent addition of Brandon McCarthy, the Braves gained an experienced starter to add to a rotation that will likely include Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran, Luiz Gohara and Sean Newcomb. There is a chance Teheran could eventually be moved to create a spot for Max Fried, Lucas Sims or a member of the next wave of pitching prospects who could reach Atlanta this summer.

If Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Kyle Wright -- the Braves' 2017 first-round Draft selection -- continue living up to their potential, there is a chance each of them could be deemed MLB-ready at some point this summer. Their respective arrivals will be influenced by the strides made this year by Foltynewicz, Gohara and Newcomb.

The rotation is the most intriguing component of the 2018 Braves. The development and evolution of this group will influence this season's success and provide a better feel for whether this club will indeed be legit contenders in '19.

Can Freddie Freeman duplicate the success he had before he fractured his wrist?
Freeman was fashioning what might have been the most impressive season in Atlanta history before his MVP-caliber production was halted when he fractured his left wrist on May 17. When he began his seven-week stint on the disabled list, he had a 1.210 OPS and was on pace to hit 60-plus homers. During the 80 games played after returning, he posted an .890 OPS with a pace that would have equated to something closer to a 25-homer season.

Instead of being concerned about the drop in production and power, Braves fans should have been encouraged that Freeman was able to continue providing impressive production after missing significant time.

Video: Freeman joins Jones, Blauser in rare company

Before Freeman was injured, he produced an average exit velocity of 92.3 mph with the 104 balls put in play, per Statcast™. After returning from the DL, he produced an average exit velocity of 88.5 mph with 243 balls in play. This drop seemingly had more to do with the fatigue that developed in August than any potential lingering structural concerns.

After missing significant time in 2015 because of a wrist ailment, Freeman did not feel strong enough to begin taking swings until the end of January. He began his tee work a few weeks ago, and he did not seem bothered by any lingering effects.

Who will serve as the closer and primary setup men?
While Anthopoulos may add some experience to the depth of his young bullpen, there's certainly reason for him to pass on the cost of signing a closer or top setup man. So it seems wise to project Arodys Vizcaino as the closer at the beginning of the season, and A.J. Minter will be waiting in the wings. Jose Ramirez faded as he seemingly fatigued late this past season, but he too has shown he can provide some late-inning value.

Minter struck out 17 of the final 31 batters faced, and he certainly has the stuff to be a closer. But the Braves would be wise to show some caution with the talented young southpaw, who has just two months of big league experience and some recent ailments that developed as he distanced himself from Tommy John surgery.

Video: SEA@ATL: Minter earns his first Major League K

Will Johan Camargo spend most of the season as the primary third baseman?
Atlanta hasn't ruled out adding a third baseman this offseason, but it has limited funds and arguably a greater need to add experience to the bullpen. Now with the addition of Charlie Culberson to the bench mix, there is greater reason to think Camargo will be given a chance to fill the hot corner on a regular basis during the upcoming season.

Video: TEX@ATL: Camargo makes a slick play on the run

Camargo might be best suited to serve as a utility player throughout most of his career, but he has earned a shot to prove himself, and this seems to be a good year for the Braves to get a better feel for his potential to be an everyday player. He's the best defensive infielder in the system, and he could end up back at shortstop if Dansby Swanson's struggles extend into this season.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

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