NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Though Freddie Freeman is gone, the Braves are entering the 2022 season intent on repeating and once again benefiting from Ronald Acuña Jr.’s greatness.
With Matt Olson set to replace Freeman at first base and Acuña targeted to return from a torn right ACL in early May, the Braves will feature at least two MVP-caliber players. Back too are Austin Riley, Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, who will team with Olson to give Atlanta one of the game’s best infield groups. Before Acuña returns, the outfield will include Marcell Ozuna, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall, each of whom has had at least one 30-homer season within the past three seasons.
This high-powered lineup is more than capable of creating necessary support for a pitching staff that was bolstered over the offseason. Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson anchor a rotation that will also include Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa. The March additions of closer Kenley Jansen and Collin McHugh give Braves fans more reason to be excited about the Night Shift, the name given to the bullpen as it rolled through last year’s postseason.
Here is a brief look at what to expect from the Braves this season:
What needs to go right
Atlanta needs Riley to build on his great 2021 season and the club needs Olson to make a smooth transition from Oakland to his hometown. But for this lineup to truly live up to its tremendous potential, the World Series champs need Ozuna to be as productive as he was during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Ozuna is returning from the domestic violence arrest and suspension that led to him missing last year’s final four months. Ozuna’s defense will be a concern as he spends most of April serving as the left fielder. But once Acuña returns to daily action, Ozuna can fill the more suitable designated hitter role.
This is the most complete team the Braves have had entering a season since the early 2000s. But there are definite questions about the back end of the rotation. Ynoa had some success when healthy last year. But the primary concern centers on Wright’s attempt to prove he can be consistent at the Major League level. He made just two regular-season starts for Atlanta last year, but he benefited from the chance to spend a few uninterrupted months developing at the Triple-A level. Wright quieted his critics with 4 2/3 valuable relief innings in Game 4 of the World Series. But he has a lot to prove as he has completed five innings in just five of his 14 career starts. This will be a big season for the right-hander, who Atlanta took with the fifth overall selection in the 2017 MLB Draft.
It would be easy to select Acuña, who remains one of the game’s elite talents. But with him set to miss at least three weeks while returning from a significant injury, Olson gets the nod as the team’s preseason MVP. Olson is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner who has hit at least 29 homers each of the past three full seasons. His pace during the 2020 COVID-shortened season would have led to 37 homers in a 162-game season. Now as the left-handed slugger moves from Oakland to the more offense-friendly confines of Truist Park, there’s reason to believe he could hit 40-plus homers on a consistent basis.
Team Cy Young
Coming off a tremendous 2021 season, Fried has a chance to be the Braves’ first National League Cy Young Award winner since Tom Glavine in 1998. Fried struggled during the early portion of last year, found his stride in June and produced an MLB-best 1.74 ERA after the All-Star break. There has always been a lot to like about Fried, who was taken with the seventh overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. His ascension to becoming an ace began when he added a slider to his repertoire in '19. His ability to baffle hitters with a vertical breaking ball (curveball), and one that moves horizontally (slider), has helped him yield one of the game’s lowest exit velocities over the previous two seasons.
The Mets made some big offseason moves and the Phillies added even more power to their softball league lineup. But even without Freeman, the Braves should once again be the class of the NL East. In fact, I’m going to predict Atlanta will win a fifth consecutive division crown and enjoy a 100-win season for the first time since 2003. The outfield defense may be a problem without Acuña. But with the Reds, Nationals, Marlins, Cubs and Rangers on the schedule while Acuña remains sidelined, the team should still be in position for a triple-digit win total when the superstar returns.