NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Having been part of both the success and struggles the Braves have experienced over the past decade, Freddie Freeman arrived at Spring Training knowing there is only one way this year’s journey will end in satisfactory fashion.
“Every year, I talk about, ‘Well, at least we got some experience in the playoffs with these young guys,’” Freeman said. “That’s no more. We’ve got a good team. We were one win away from the World Series. I think that is everyone’s goal, to get to the World Series this year.”
Freeman is coming off his first National League Most Valuable Player Award and looking forward to teaming up with Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, a pair of veterans who were added to the rotation this past winter. Marcell Ozuna will be back in a lineup that will once again be led by the tremendous talents of Ronald Acuña Jr.
Here is a look at what the Braves must accomplish to win a fourth straight NL East title and return to the World Series for the first time since 1999.
What needs to go right?
In Morton, Max Fried and Mike Soroka, the Braves have three starters who have drawn down-ballot Cy Young Award consideration during one of the past two seasons. Ian Anderson has shown the potential to one day rank among the game’s top starters. It’s important that the offense proves to be as potent as it was the past two years, but complementing a strong lineup with a great rotation may be what allows the Braves to survive the challenging NL East race and possibly win the NL pennant.
Given that Smyly totaled just 26 1/3 innings (21 1/3 innings as a starter) last year, there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding him as he enters a one-year, $11 million contract. But the club’s starting pitching depth can overcome any struggles he might have. So, the more influential unknown might be Austin Riley, who needs to more consistently create value with his tremendous power. Riley reduced his strikeout rate last year, and he has become far less susceptible to sliders. If he lives up to his potential, this lineup will have the depth necessary to once again be one of the game’s best.
Team MVP will be…
Acuña. When he finished three stolen bases shy of 40 in 2019, Acuña showed he has the potential to produce what would be just the fifth 40-40 season in MLB history. If he realizes this rare achievement, he will have been the catalyst the Braves need in a lineup that will include two other legitimate MVP candidates -- Freeman and Ozuna. Acuña led the NL with 11.43 at-bats per home run last year. This might be the year he joins Andruw Jones as the only players in franchise history with a 50-homer season.
Team Cy Young will be…
Fried. Morton facing NL lineups makes him a very intriguing choice, especially now that it appears he won’t be dealing with last year’s early-season velocity issues. But it’s hard to bet against Fried after watching him over the past few weeks. The young lefty looks very confident and focused while attempting to match last year’s success. A realist can say he had just one dominant month last year, but what he did during the postseason -- including after allowing the Dodgers three first-inning runs in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series -- combined with the determination he’s shown this spring, creates reason to believe he’ll be the ace of Atlanta’s staff.
Anderson and Cristian Pache will finish first and second in balloting for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
It’s not too often you find a Rookie of the Year Award candidate who was in the starting lineup for Game 7 of an LCS game the previous year. But that’s what we have with both Anderson and Pache. Anderson produced a 1.95 ERA over six regular-season starts and worked 17 2/3 scoreless innings during the postseason before finally allowing a run in the third inning of Game 7 of the NLCS. He possesses one of the game’s best changeups and has the potential to rival Soroka’s 2019 rookie season. Pache will instantly become an NL Gold Glove Award candidate, and after some initial struggles, the center fielder will hit enough in the second half to draw strong consideration for this award.