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Braves enter '20 confident, hungry to win it all

@mlbbowman
February 27, 2020

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- As Marcell Ozuna attempts to prove he can once again be the fearsome force he was in the National League East with the 2017 Marlins, he’ll play a key role in a Braves’ lineup that, despite Josh Donaldson’s departure, still possesses two MVP candidates in Freddie

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- As Marcell Ozuna attempts to prove he can once again be the fearsome force he was in the National League East with the 2017 Marlins, he’ll play a key role in a Braves’ lineup that, despite Josh Donaldson’s departure, still possesses two MVP candidates in Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr..

Possessing a better bullpen and bench than they had while winning their past two NL East titles, the Braves feel good about their bid to win a third straight. Here’s a look at where they stand entering 2020.

What’s the goal?

After watching the division-rival Nationals win it all last year, the Braves have returned even hungrier to do more than just advance past the NL Division Series for the first time since 2001. Their aggressive offseason was highlighted by the additions of Ozuna, Cole Hamels and All-Star reliever Will Smith. Winning another division title might be part of the journey, but it won’t be enough to satisfy this team with aspirations of winning the World Series.

How do they get there?

Ozuna signed a one-year, $18 million deal in January because he is confident in his ability to restore the value he lost over the past two years with St. Louis. Batting behind Acuña, Ozzie Albies and Freeman should create many run-producing opportunities for Ozuna, whose production will influence whether this lineup proves to be more than top heavy.

Luke Jackson led the Braves with 18 saves last year, but he is now considered more of a sixth-inning option. With Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Smith, the Braves have three proven closers within a much-improved bullpen that should prove to be one of the team’s strengths.

The rotation will once again be headed by 22-year-old Mike Soroka, who has the potential to become an annual Cy Young Award candidate. But to have a solid rotation, the Braves need Mike Foltynewicz to find the consistency he had in 2018 and Max Fried to continue building on last year’s success.

Hamels, who is sidelined with left shoulder inflammation, could eventually add stability to the rotation. But the key to this season might be developing or acquiring a legit frontline starter to pair with Soroka.

What could go wrong?

Freeman needs to remain healthy throughout the season. The struggles he experienced as he spent last season’s final month dealing with right elbow inflammation -- which required surgery in October -- highlighted his importance to one of the game’s most potent lineups last season.

But the biggest concerns might focus on the rotation. Foltynewicz faltered in Game 5 of the NLDS, but he otherwise finished a frustration-filled season in impressive fashion. If he battles inconsistencies again, Hamels’ absence will be magnified and too much early pressure might be placed on Kyle Wright or any of the other prospects asked to fill the void.

Who could surprise?

One of the most influential pieces this year could be Dansby Swanson, who ended June with 15 homers and a .815 OPS. What had the makings of a strong season crumbled as he missed a month with a bruised heel, producing a .611 OPS over the season’s final three months. Per Statcast, the Braves shortstop hit 20 points lower than his Expected Batting Average (.271), and he slugged 58 points lower than his Expected Slugging Percentage (.480). He shined during last year’s NLDS and might be primed to live up to the expectations set when he was taken with the first overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft.

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