ATLANTA -- Here are the top five questions the Braves face as they enter 2021 with hopes of taking another step in pursuit of a World Series title.
Will the Braves find the big bat they had with Marcell Ozuna and Josh Donaldson the past two seasons?
Braves manager Brian Snitker said Ozuna had not been discussed during any recent conversations he’d had with president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos. This is understandable given we still don’t know whether the designated hitter will be used in the National League again in 2021. There’s an obvious preference to avoid needing to use Ozuna defensively. But more importantly, until a decision about the universal DH is in place, Ozuna won’t have a true feel for his market.
As things stand, re-signing Ozuna feels like a long shot. With that being said, Anthopoulos understands the potential value of adding a slugger who can enhance Freddie Freeman’s value like Ozuna and Donaldson did over the past two years. This might be an asset best found via trade this year. The club doesn’t have any interest in trading for one year of Kris Bryant, and trading for Nolan Arenado would seemingly lessen the likelihood of a Freeman extension. But coming off having finished a win shy of reaching the World Series, the Braves may be willing to make that big move in attempt to once again possess a dangerous lineup.
Coming off a shortened season, how will the Braves handle the workload of their starting pitchers, especially the younger ones?
The Braves spent the final weeks of the 2019 season determined to protect Max Fried and Mike Soroka by giving them extra days of rest as they reached career-high innings totals before the postseason began. Including the '19 playoffs, Soroka completed 181 2/3 innings and Fried completed 169 2/3 innings. Both could have aimed for 200-plus innings in 2020 had it been a 162-game season. Soroka’s season-ending Achilles tendon injury limited him to just three starts, while Fried totaled 89 2/3 innings over 11 starts.
The season’s length in 2021 will obviously determine the plan. But, expect the Braves to be cognizant of the need to pace each of their starters, especially early in the season. This approach will add value to the starting-pitching depth, which was enhanced with the additions of veterans Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.
When will Soroka be ready and what should be expected of him?
The good news is the Braves have said Soroka could be ready by the start of the season. The better news is that their rotation depth allows them to avoid the potential pitfalls of rushing his return. It would be nice for the young right-hander to get a second straight Opening Day start. But there will be plenty of those left in a future that will be influenced by his current rehab.
When the season begins, eight months will have passed since Soroka tore his right Achilles tendon. Given that the Braves will be carefully monitoring the post-2020 workloads of their starters, there will be even more reason to give the talented hurler all the time he needs to recover.
Who will serve as the Braves' closer this year?
When Snitker recently said he believes he has at least three closer options in his bullpen, the assumption was he was referring to Will Smith, Chris Martin and Tyler Matzek. Or maybe he was including former closer A.J. Minter, who bounced back in 2020 and was absolutely filthy when he struck out seven over just three innings while serving as an opener in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
Assuming Smith’s long-ball woes were just a 2020 fluke, he is more than capable of returning to the closer’s role, which he had with the Giants in '18 and ’19. Martin provides another strong option if it makes more sense to match Smith up against a left-hander or two before the ninth. Whatever the case, the '21 closer is likely already on the roster.
Will Cristian Pache be ready to begin his reign as Atlanta’s center fielder?
Pache certainly altered the narrative after being forced into an everyday role when Adam Duvall was injured during the second inning of Game 1 of the NLCS. Had this not occurred, the general consensus would likely be that Pache needs a little more time at the Triple-A level. But the top prospect homered and doubled while going 4-for-22 in the NLCS, after having spent almost all of this season at the alternate training site.
Pache won’t be the only prospect who may be offensively affected by not having a Minor League season in 2020. But even if his offensive development is slightly stunted, he’ll provide more than enough defensively to serve as a better option than Ender Inciarte, whose future in Atlanta likely depends on whether the team can package him and his $8 million salary in a trade.