3 storylines to keep an eye on during Braves Spring Training

February 12th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman's Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

When the Braves begin Spring Training on Thursday, they will be aiming for far more than a seventh straight National League East title. Consecutive 100-win seasons have ended with disappointing NL Division Series exits. So, manager Brian Snitker’s team might enter this season with added motivation to realize their goal to win the World Series for the second time in four seasons.

Here are three of the main storylines that will surround the Braves as they enter Spring Training:

1. Can upgrade a lineup that was one of the most productive in baseball history?
Kelenic will draw attention as the only newcomer to a record-setting lineup that drew comparisons to the 1927 Yankees last year. But it’s not like the spotlight will be shining on him as he joins a clubhouse that includes three MVP candidates (Ronald Acuña Jr., Austin Riley and Matt Olson) and a pair of top NL Cy Young Award candidates (Spencer Strider and Max Fried).

Being positioned near the bottom of this lineup should also take some pressure off Kelenic, who was ranked MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 prospect as recently as 2021. The 24-year-old outfielder struggled during his first two big league seasons and then seemed to be heading in the right direction last year. He was on pace for a 20-homer season before he fractured his left foot on July 19 when he kicked a dugout water cooler in frustration.

Kelenic can match the power the Braves received from Eddie Rosario last year, and he is a better defender than Rosario. His ability to gain further comfort with his new team during camp could go a long way toward him realizing the breakout season he and Atlanta are envisioning.

2. Why might this year be different for ?
Many of the Braves have already discussed how Sale’s competitive spirit will benefit the clubhouse. But the primary question is whether the veteran pitcher can finally avoid the injury woes that ended his reign as one of the best starting pitchers of his generation.

Sale finished within the top six in AL Cy Young Award balloting over seven consecutive seasons (2012-18), but he has totaled 151 innings over the past four seasons. He developed left elbow soreness during the second half of the 2019 season and underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020. He returned to Boston’s rotation near the end of '21 before dealing with a rib fracture and right wrist fracture in '22. The left-hander also missed time with a left scapula ailment last year.

When the Braves acquired Sale, they made it clear they viewed him as a potential difference-maker in the postseason. Now they have to spend the next seven months improving the odds of him being strong and healthy entering October.

Sale completed 102 2/3 innings over 20 starts last year. The Braves won’t put an innings limit on him, but they certainly know the 34-year-old's workload must be managed to create the chance for him to be effective in the playoffs. Atlanta plans to have him in the rotation at the start of the season, but it could limit his pitch counts during early-season starts, skip some side sessions and create extra rest between starts whenever possible.

The Braves’ rotation is headed by Fried and Strider. Sale doesn’t have to be the ace throughout the regular season, but if he’s capable of pitching like a frontline starter in October, Atlanta could have an enjoyable postseason.

3. How might top his historic 40-70 season?
Is it even wise to predict how Acuña could follow a season during which he hit 41 homers and tallied 73 stolen bases? Remember, nobody had previously collected more than 46 steals during a 40-homer season. Heck, nobody had swiped more than 52 bags during a 30-homer season.

Acuña went to a level only he seemingly could reach again. But how realistic is it to project he will even flirt with another 40-70 season? And shouldn’t we celebrate another incredible season if he falls short and ends up with just a 40-40 season? It would be just the sixth 40-40 season in MLB history, and he would be the only player who has accounted for more than one.

MLB.com’s Mike Petriello dug into the numbers to argue why Acuña’s numbers could be even more impressive this season.

As for Acuña, he certainly seems to understand it might not be wise to put a limit on his greatness.

“I’m not saying what’s going to happen next season,” Acuña said. “I’m not trying to predict anything. But as long as I’m healthy, I feel like anything is possible."