Braves seeking sixth straight NL East title

March 27th, 2023

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- When wondering how the Braves might be even better than they were last year, it’s important to remember Atlanta won 101 games and its fifth straight National League East title with a limited and a mostly absent .

With Acuña and Albies now back to full health, the Braves certainly have the firepower to once again win what might be baseball’s strongest division. With a potentially potent lineup and a rotation that includes two Cy Young Award-caliber hurlers ( and ), Atlanta has the pieces necessary to subdue the World Series hopes held by its NL East rivals, the Phillies and Mets.

Despite losing Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson within the past two offseasons, the Braves have remained one of the game’s strongest teams. They have significantly benefited from the emergence of and Strider, who finished first and second, respectively, in balloting for last year’s NL Rookie of the Year Award. They also gained the game’s best catching duo this winter, when they acquired Sean Murphy to team up with All-Star backstop .

Acuña, and will form one of the game’s most intimidating trios as they fill the top three spots in Atlanta’s lineup. Each of them is capable of a 40-homer season. The bottom of the lineup will include Harris and , who both have the potential to hit 30 homers. This powerful offense will support a rotation that starts with Fried and Strider and also includes Kyle Wright, who was MLB’s only 20-game winner last year. And there is also Charlie Morton, who has been one of the game’s elite starters over the past five years. If lives up to the expectations produced this spring, he will capably hold the rotation’s fifth spot and become a NL Rookie of the Year candidate.

What needs to go right?
Health is always a significant variable, as the Braves witnessed last year when Fried (virus) and Strider (oblique) were limited during the 2022 NL Division Series against the Phillies. The only concerning ailment entering the season is the sore right shoulder that will force closer Raisel Iglesias to begin the first two weeks of the season on the injured list. With , and other potential closers already in the bullpen though, this may not be a significant issue. Atlanta persevered last year -- while Acuña continued to battle the lingering effects of the torn right ACL that cost him the second half of '21, and while Albies missed more than half the season with a broken left foot and then a fractured right pinkie finger. The dynamics Acuña and Albies bring when healthy could make an already powerful lineup the game’s most lethal lineup.

Great unknown
was the Brewers’ starting shortstop from 2017-20, and he will begin the ‘23 season in that same role for the Braves. But if he starts to show the tendencies that led many to view him better utilized as a role player, the job could be given to Braden Shewmake, Atlanta's No. 6 prospect, a slick fielder who could benefit from another month or two of Minor League at-bats. Vaughn Grissom could also potentially earn the shortstop role, but there is a concern with his range. It will be hard for any of these candidates to compensate for the loss of Swanson, who easily led all MLB shortstops in outs above average last year.

Team MVP will be ... Acuña
There aren’t many players who can consistently impact games to the level of a healthy Acuña. Blessed with a great arm, tremendous power and speed, this true five-tool outfielder will be vying for a 40-40 season -- or even possibly the first 50-50 season. It may seem ridiculous to predict a player might hit 50 homers and swipe 50 bags in the same season, but it’s more ridiculous to put limits on Acuña.

Team Cy Young will be ... Fried
The left-hander finished second in last year’s Cy Young Award balloting and could prove to be even better this year. After producing a 3.31 ERA through his first eight starts, he constructed a 2.18 ERA over the final 22 regular-season starts that followed. After producing a 4.71 ERA through his first 14 starts of 2021, he produced a MLB-best 1.74 ERA after the All-Star break. A good start to this season could position him to become the Braves’ first NL Cy Young Award winner since Tom Glavine in 1998.

Bold prediction
Acuña, Olson and Riley will become just the fourth trio of teammates to each hit 40 homers in the same season. Hank Aaron, Davey Johnson and Darrell Evans became MLB’s first trio to do this while playing for the 1973 Braves.