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Braves' 1-4 hitters packed with potential

Acuna, Freeman, Donaldson, Albies could each record 30-HR seasons
MLB.com @mlbbowman

ATLANTA -- An optimist might say that each of the first four hitters in Atlanta's projected lineup is capable of producing a 30-homer season. A realist might suggest that it's accurate to project this mark for three of the players and a 25-homer season for the fourth.

However you cut it, the Braves -- just four seasons removed from barely reaching the century mark with their homer total -- suddenly have the potential for one of baseball's most intimidating top-of-the-lineup foursomes -- third baseman Josh Donaldson, first baseman Freddie Freeman, outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and second baseman Ozzie Albies.

ATLANTA -- An optimist might say that each of the first four hitters in Atlanta's projected lineup is capable of producing a 30-homer season. A realist might suggest that it's accurate to project this mark for three of the players and a 25-homer season for the fourth.

However you cut it, the Braves -- just four seasons removed from barely reaching the century mark with their homer total -- suddenly have the potential for one of baseball's most intimidating top-of-the-lineup foursomes -- third baseman Josh Donaldson, first baseman Freddie Freeman, outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and second baseman Ozzie Albies.

By signing Donaldson last week, general manager Alex Anthopoulos satisfied his need to add power. There's no longer a need to target power potential while searching for an outfielder to fill the void created by Nick Markakis' presence on the free-agent market. But adding a little more pop would certainly legitimize Atlanta's bid for the National League's best lineup.

When Donaldson was introduced last week, Anthopoulos spoke about how he could strengthen the middle of the lineup. There's no doubt the former American League MVP Award winner could enhance Freeman's MVP-caliber talents, just as Matt Kemp did when he was healthy and batting cleanup for Atlanta.

Video: Josh Donaldson discusses signing with Atlanta

But the Braves could also use Donaldson to fill the second spot in the order. Such a move may be influenced by the desire to move Acuna to the cleanup spot and once again give leadoff duties to either Ender Inciarte or Albies, who wouldn't be given the role before proving that his second-half decline was just a bump in the road.

No matter how the Braves structure their lineup, their first four hitters could comprise these four threats:

Acuna: The 20-year-old outfielder tallied 26 homers in just 111 games during his Rookie of the Year season. His ratio of 16.6 at-bats per homer gives reason to believe he's capable of flirting with a 40-homer season in 2019.

Video: Washington on Acuna Jr.'s NL ROY Award, special year

Albies: The 21-year-old switch-hitting second baseman hit 24 homers in his first full Major League season, but his struggles from the left side of the plate led to a frustration-filled second half. Given that he homered four times after the All-Star break, it's hard to project him to match his 2018 total, but the first half of 2018 showed he could add to the lineup's power potential.

Freeman: The 17.32 AB/HR ratio Freeman produced while belting a career-high 34 homers in 2016 was bested by the 15.71 AB/HR mark he put up when he recorded 28 homers in just 117 games during an injury-shortened 2017 season. His 12.89 AB/HR ratio from June 15, 2016, to May 17, 2017 (the day he fractured his left wrist) was third in the Majors. Donaldson's presence will provide much-welcomed protection for Freeman, who led MLB with a 10.97 AB/HR ratio from Aug. 2, 2016 (Kemp's Braves debut) through May 17, 2017.

Donaldson: Donaldson hit MLB's fourth-most homers (140) from 2014-17, despite being limited to 113 games during the last of those four seasons. In 2018, his bid for a fourth consecutive 30-homer season was erased by the calf strain that limited him to 52 games. The veteran third baseman appears healthy, and he'll certainly be motivated as he attempts to re-establish himself with his one-year deal.

Video: Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos joins High Heat

The bottom half of the projected lineup is filled with health-related uncertainty. Inciarte struggled throughout the first half of 2018 before he began hitting left-handed pitchers as consistently as he had during his 200-hit season of 2017. Dansby Swanson's surgically repaired left wrist has nearly healed, and he should resume hitting exercises within the next week. He will attempt to avoid the post-surgery decline Tyler Flowers experienced last season. Flowers' catching partner, Brian McCann, will be attempting to prove he has regained some of the power he lost while dealing with a torn meniscus in 2018.

As for the outfield, Anthopoulos' desire to place a significant value on defense will certainly influence his search. The optimal fit might be the version of Adam Duvall that was seen before 2018, or at least ahead of his late-season arrival to the organization.

The Braves gambled on Duvall last week, when they opted to tender him a contract. The 30-year-old was a Gold Glove-caliber defender in 2017, when he had a .782 OPS and notched his second straight 30-homer season for Cincinnati. But he was an offensive liability and nothing more than an average defender over the two months that proceeded him being left off Atlanta's postseason roster.

So although Duvall is an option to fill the outfield void, he shouldn't be viewed as anything more than bench depth. It's probably most accurate to view him as a fallback option if there is a greater need to use available funds and resources to fill needs in the rotation and bullpen.

One of the more attractive options would be Mitch Haniger if the Mariners are willing to continue dealing their top assets. In 2018, Haniger posted a .859 OPS as he belted a career-high 26 homers and was credited with 9 Defensive Runs Saved as a right fielder. The Braves certainly have the prospect resources necessary to get a deal done if Seattle is willing to deal the multi-tool outfielder.

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

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