Some teams were thrown off by the chaos of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but the Atlanta Braves didn’t miss a beat, winning their third straight division title and their 15th NL East Crown in the last 25 seasons. Despite their regular-season dominance, Atlanta failed to reach the World Series again, losing to the eventual champion Los Angeles Dodgers in game 7 of the NLCS.
Although some are picking the new-look New York Mets to win the east this year, the Braves have made improvements to their roster as well. What remains to be seen is if General Manager and President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos has made enough moves to help them win their second World Series since moving to Atlanta 54 years ago.
Led by National League MVP Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ Offense finished at or near the top of the league in every major category in the 2020 season. Besides Freeman, Atlanta also has one of the league’s brightest young stars in Ronald Acuna. In the 2019 season, the 23-year-old Acuna hit 41 home runs and stole 37 bases to win his first Silver Slugger award.
The Braves also re-signed slugger Marcell Ozuna, who hit a career-best .338 with a league-leading 18 home runs during the pandemic-shortened season. Besides these superstars, Atlanta’s lineup also has veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud, and rising stars in 2B Ozzie Albies, SS Dansby Swanson, 3B Austin Riley and rookie center fielder Cristian Pache. The bench will be led by Ender Inciarte, unless Pache falters, and could be bolstered by Jason Kipnis and Pablo Sandoval, who have both been invited to Spring Training.
2021 NL East Preview Series
Although their pitching staff was marred with injuries during the 2020 season, the Braves were still good enough to finish in the middle of the pack in most major pitching categories. Atlanta’s rotation has a ton of potential, boasting four former first-round picks in Max Fried (2012), Mike Soroka (2015), Ian Anderson (2016) and Kyle Wright (2017).
Fried earned a team-leading seven wins in 11 starts last season and rookie Ian Anderson posted a team-best 1.95 ERA. Soroka, who led the Braves with a 2.68 ERA in 2019, missed much of last season with an injured achilles, but is likely to return early in the season. The front office decided to add some veteran experience to this group by signing free agents Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. In the last four seasons, Morton has a combined 3.38 ERA and started 11 playoff games, winning seven.
While the starters didn’t have a great 2020 season, the bullpen was one of Atlanta’s strengths, posting the fourth best ERA in the majors at 3.50. Some relievers like former-Nat Mark Melancon and Darren O’Day are gone, but there is a strong core returning. As of now, veteran Will Smith will take over closing duties and Chris Martin will likely be his set-up man. Manager Brian Snitker can also rely on Josh Tomlin, Grant Dayton, AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek, who all had strong seasons in 2020 and will likely be called on again to protect leads in 2021.
While they haven’t made the big splashes like some of their division rivals during the offseason, the 2021 Atlanta Braves are bringing back a foundation of star position players that made them one of the best offenses in baseball last season. Due to injuries, their young pitchers were forced into leadership roles last season, but all of them showed signs of why they were top draft picks and will continue to build on their success. Atlanta’s bullpen may be slightly weaker than last year. However, with the amount of runs their offense will score, I don’t think it will really matter in the regular season and their general manager will have opportunities to upgrade if needed. The Braves have been the division champs three years in a row and (barring injury) 2021 will likely be no different.
Since moving to the National League East in 1994, the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals has been one of the best rivalries in baseball and 2021 looks to be more of the same. The Braves won six times in 10 meetings last season, but the Nats are still eight games over .500 (143-135) against their division rivals since moving to DC in 2005. Everyone knows that Atlanta has a heavy-hitting lineup and Washington has a lockdown pitching staff, so the season series will likely come down to how the new-look Nationals’ offense matches up with the Braves’ young, but talented pitching staff. Washington and Atlanta are pretty evenly matched and there aren’t any doormats in the division this season, so health and record outside the division will likely determine if the Nats can dethrone the reigning division champs.
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