ATLANTA -- As the Braves welcome players to Truist Park for Summer Camp this week, they’ll be surrounded by some of the same questions they had faced before COVID-19 forced Major League Baseball to cancel Spring Training on March 12.
But as the baseball world has remained dormant over the past four months and the landscape has changed with the creation of a 60-game season, the answers to some of the questions surrounding Marcell Ozuna, Austin Riley and Cole Hamels have changed.
Here’s a look at some of the top storylines the Braves face while preparing for this unique season:
1. How will the DH affect the Braves’ plans?
Part of MLB’s health and safety protocols led to the decision that a designated hitter will be used by the National League for the first time this season. It remains to be seen whether the universal DH will extend beyond one year. But its presence for the current season gives the Braves the option to keep cleanup hitter Ozuna out of the outfield.
When we last saw Ozuna, he had not yet shown why the Braves were willing to give him a one-year, $18 million deal. The outfielder went 2-for-24 and struck out in 12 of 25 plate appearances during the Grapefruit League season. As for the defensive concerns that surrounded him over the past few years, they were highlighted by his limited range and reduced arm strength.
Still, Ozuna, who has averaged 30 homers over the past three seasons, has the potential to compensate for the power lost by Josh Donaldson’s departure. The only question is who should play left field if Ozuna is used strictly as a designated hitter.
Manager Brian Snitker would have the option to platoon Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall in left field. But while Markakis is slightly better than Ozuna defensively, thoughts of having him range Truist Park’s cavernous left field on a regular basis are not appealing. Ronald Acuña Jr. could shift from right field to left field if needed. But he could find himself in center field on those days when Markakis and Ender Inciarte might sit against lefties.
Putting Duvall in left and using Ozuna as the DH against left-handers is a perfect plan. The plan against right-handers is not as clear cut because of the defensive concerns. One option would be to put Johan Camargo in left field on those days.
2. How should the Braves handle Riley?
Riley was the most impressive player in Braves camp this year. But even as he produced a 1.080 OPS and struck out just five times over 32 plate appearances, there was reason to think it might be best to give him additional time at the Triple-A level. He struck out in 36.4 percent of his big league plate appearances last year and was lost after tallying 14 homers through his first 161 career at-bats.
But this year no longer provides the option of collecting more at-bats in the Minors. And quite frankly, the Braves don’t have time to attempt to navigate through a portion of this shortened schedule without their best possible lineup.
Camargo is capable of handling third base. But the Braves would be at their best with a productive Riley sitting in the middle of their lineup, attempting to impress like he did back on March 3 with his 450-foot blast against the Rays.
3. How might a healthy Hamels influence the rotation?
When camp closed, it looked like Hamels might be sidelined throughout most or all of the regular season’s first two months. It now looks like his previously inflamed left shoulder will be healthy enough for him to be an asset over the course of a season that will last just two months.
With the active roster consisting of 30 players over the regular season’s first two weeks, the Braves plan to carry enough multi-inning relief options to account for their desire to limit Hamels and some other starters to four innings or fewer through their first two starts.
The Braves will be counting heavily on Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz. But if Hamels remains healthy while logging approximately 70 innings over the regular season, the team will have some flexibility while deciding how to best utilize Sean Newcomb and Félix Hernández, who are competing for a rotation spot.