ATLANTA -- It took the Braves a little more than four months to produce their first winning record of the 2021 season. But two months later, they are entering the postseason with the confidence they have what it takes to win the World Series.
“I think you can stack our team up against any other playoff team,” Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said.
The Braves finished one win from reaching the World Series last year. Here is a look at what needs to happen for them to take at least one additional step this year.
How do they advance past the National League Division Series?
With right-hander Charlie Morton and lefty Max Fried, the Braves have a pair of front-line starters who are capable of trading punches with Brewers righties Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff in the first two games of the best-of-five NLDS. Atlanta also has enough power in its lineup to overcome the fact that Burnes and Woodruff aren’t the types of pitchers against which you find much success with a station-to-station approach.
Even without righty Devin Williams, the Brewers still have the edge in the bullpen department. With lefty Josh Hader, they possess arguably the game’s top closer. The Braves have a definite middle-inning weapon in lefty Tyler Matzek, who is assigned to handle high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings. Matzek and righty Luke Jackson are the top setup men for Atlanta closer Will Smith, who needs to avoid the long-ball woes that frustrated him near the end of August.
For the Braves to advance to the NL Championship Series for a second straight season, they will need to subdue the Brewers' lineup and attempt to get sufficient production from a lineup that has six players who hit at least 25 homers in the regular season.
What does the blueprint for a championship run look like?
From a rotation standpoint, the blueprint has to look different than it did for the Braves in 2019, when home/road splits led to the decision to give Mike Soroka only one start in the NLDS. Morton and Fried will start the first two games of this year’s NLDS, and then one of them would start a potential Game 5.
It seems unlikely the Braves would bring Morton back on short rest, like they did Dallas Keuchel for NLDS Game 4 in 2019. So the depth of the pitching staff will be tested, as righty Huascar Ynoa could draw a start in Game 4 of the NLDS and potentially more in subsequent rounds.
Ynoa would likely be used as an opener. So a member or two of the Braves' relief corps may need to fill an unfamiliar role, much like A.J. Minter did when he was used as an opener in Game 5 of last year’s NLCS against the Dodgers.
From an offensive standpoint, the Braves have to try to get as much instant offense as possible from their power. Freeman, Austin Riley and Adam Duvall are all 30-homer guys who have shown the willingness to slap the ball the other way in run-producing situations. But stringing base hits together is a challenge in the postseason.
What is one area of concern?
There’s no doubt Smith has created drama while closing out a few recent games. The left-hander allowed homers to five of the last 50 batters he faced in August, then walked nearly 15 percent of the batters he faced in September. But he has still managed to get the job done more often than not.
Jackson and Matzek created some late-inning stability with the success they had during the second half. Matzek has been used in any high-leverage setup situation, while Jackson has primarily served as the eighth-inning setup man.
Right-hander Jacob Webb’s growth as a reliever has added valuable depth to the bullpen, and Minter has been a consistent asset since returning to the Majors in August. But righty Richard Rodriguez has struggled since being acquired from the Pirates at the Trade Deadline, and former top setup man Chris Martin hasn’t been too reliable over the past few months.
Maybe the off-days throughout the postseason will prove beneficial as the Braves lean heavily on Jackson, Matzek and Smith. But there will be concern about this relief corps until it proves itself during baseball’s most important month.