Acuña's return 'mapped out' following knee soreness

Strider continues strong spring; López, Elder battle for fifth spot in starting rotation

March 11th, 2024

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Braves manager Brian Snitker doesn’t know exactly when will resume playing in Spring Training games. But the reigning National League MVP’s previously sore right knee has responded well to daily activity over the past week.

“He’s progressing and doing everything they want him to do,” Snitker said. “When [head athletic trainer George Poulis] tells me, I’ll put him in there.”

With Opening Day a little more than two weeks away, the Braves don’t need to rush Acuña, who hasn’t played since feeling some right knee soreness after a Feb. 29 game against the Twins. The outfielder has seen live pitching while taking live batting practice each of the past few days.

“They have it mapped out and everything,” Snitker said. “When they give me the OK, I’ll put him back in that first [lineup] spot and let him go.”

By giving Acuña extra time to rest, the Braves have at least attempted to lessen the likelihood the knee will be a nagging issue throughout the regular season.

Acuña felt discomfort the day after being involved in a rundown between second and third base during that Feb. 29 game. An MRI exam showed irritation around the meniscus and noted surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache confirmed this diagnosis after evaluating the superstar at his Los Angeles office.

When Acuña returned to Braves camp on March 5, he said he was ready to resume playing immediately. So, there haven’t been any concerns about his availability for Opening Day. But the Braves haven’t revealed exactly how many games he’ll end up playing before the regular season begins.

Acuña produced MLB’s first 40-70 season when he hit 41 homers and stole 73 bases last year. Snitker has said this recent knee ailment won’t affect how aggressive Acuña is on the bases this year.

“He’s still young and he’s still at an age where he can still [steal a lot of bases],” Snitker said. “He’s going to reach a time where he’s going to slow down on his own. For now, you've just got to let a kid like that loose and let him play his game.”

Looks ready
Those looking to make preseason Cy Young Award predictions might want to look at , who has impressed since the start of Spring Training. The Braves right-hander had everything working again on Monday, when he tallied nine strikeouts over five scoreless innings in a 3-0 win over the Twins.

“I certainly made some mistakes, but I think having the curveball and executing some changeups and having the slider be more consistent allows me to mix really well in ways we haven’t before,” Strider said. “So, I can get away with some of those mistakes here and there.”

Adding a curveball has enhanced excitement about what Strider could do this year and beyond. He produced a 36.8% strikeout rate without this additional breaking ball last year. Blake Snell ranked second among qualified starting pitchers with a 31.5% rate.

One of Strider’s focuses has been to lessen the frequency with which his slider moves more vertically than desired, which makes it look more like a curveball. But even when these pitches have blended, he has been effective.

When Brooks Lee looked at an 83 mph strike to end the second, there was reason to question whether he threw the curveball a little harder or the slider just didn’t have its normal horizontal break. The answer was the latter. But the addition of another breaking ball has expanded Strider’s room for error.

“I want each of those pitches to be their own thing,” Strider said. “When the pitches start deviating from what we think they’re going to do, that isn’t good. I can get away with it at times. I certainly made some mistakes with it today. But overall, I think the consistency of the slider improved today.”

Rotation battle
The Braves will gain a better idea about who will fill their rotation’s fifth spot when Reynaldo López and Bryce Elder continue their battle over the next couple of days. López will start against the Pirates in Bradenton on Tuesday and Elder will start against the Orioles in Sarasota on Wednesday.

López has been stretched out to begin the season as a starter if necessary. But the Braves haven’t completely ruled out the possibility he will begin the season as a reliever.

Elder was an All-Star whose stock fell as he fatigued last year. Whether or not he begins the season in Atlanta’s rotation, there’s a good chance he’ll end up making 20-plus starts for the Braves this year.