The Atlanta Braves are coming off of back-to-back NL East division titles but are looking to break through with some postseason success. Atlanta fell to the Dodgers 3-1 in the Division Series in 2018 and fell in five games to the Cardinals last season in painful fashion.
That was the backdrop as the Braves entered the offseason. Atlanta won 97 games in 2019 despite what was at best an inconsistent bullpen (and at worst, the worst relief corps in the majors, as it was right before the Trade Deadline).
Alex Anthopoulos sought to address that deficiency immediately by signing reliever Will Smith to a three-year deal. He also re-signed Chris Martin and Darren O’Day to pair with the returning Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Luke Jackson. In theory, this should give the Braves one of the deepest bullpens in the division with the ability to mix and match roles and situations. The team’s payroll has swelled to an all-time high this offseason with a large chunk going to relievers. It remains to be seen if that is the correct call, but Atlanta’s bullpen struggled enough in 2019 that it might be difficult to fault Alex Anthopoulos for attempting to address it.
The other big question of the offseason was whether or not the team would be able to bring back Josh Donaldson, who reestablished himself in 2019 as one of the premier offensive players in the league. Donaldson hit .259/.371/.521 with 37 home runs and a 132 wRC+. Furthermore, he demonstrated that he was completely healthy appearing in 155 games while displaying good-to-excellent defense at third base. His 4.9 fWAR was second on the team, trailing only Ronald Acuña Jr.
Naturally, Donaldson’s big season generated a lot of interest this offseason. While the Braves were interested in a reunion, they stopped short of matching the four-year deal with $100 million in guaranteed money that Minnesota was offering. With a glaring hole in the middle of their lineup, the Braves pivoted quickly and signed outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal.
While Ozuna may not be quite the same offensive threat as Donaldson, he should provide enough offensive punch to fill the gap. Ozuna has consistently ranked among league leaders over the past two seasons in hard-hit rate and Atlanta is betting that there is more potential to be unlocked. Ozuna turned down a multi-year offer elsewhere to bet on himself so he should not be short of motivation.
The Braves are hoping that Ozuna can help supplement a good young core that is headlined by Acuña and Ozzie Albies. Acuña came close to joining the 40-40 club in his first full season in the majors, finishing with 41 homers and 37 stolen bases. He is a dynamic offensive threat and true five-tool talent that should only continue to improve. Albies slumped badly during the second half of 2018 season and entered 2019 with a number of question marks. He responded with a more consistent season and showed improvement by lowering his strikeout rate while taking a few more walks. Acuña and Albies will continue to give the Braves a dynamic combination at the top of their batting order.
Freddie Freeman set career-highs in home runs, runs scored and RBIs and posted a 138 wRC+, yet just a few months later, no one seems to remember it. Freeman set those numbers despite slumping badly at the end of the year, potentially due to an elbow injury that he said made it difficult for him to even wash his hair. Freeman gutted his way through September and the postseason and underwent surgery on the elbow this offseason. He had an early setback in Spring Training with the elbow that the team described as precautionary and should be set for another big year.
Donaldson’s departure created an opportunity for Johan Camargo and Austin Riley to compete for the starting third base job during Spring Training. Camargo burst onto the scene with a huge offensive season in 2018 when he largely served as the team’s starting third baseman. However, he struggled badly in 2019 in a utility role and found himself back in Triple-A. Austin Riley brings his own question marks. Riley forced his way to the majors in May as the team shifted him to left field in order to get his bat into the lineup. He delivered hitting .324/.368/.732 with nine homers in his first 18 games. However, he hit just .192/.249/.347 with nine more homers over the final 62 games.
Both Camargo and Riley spent their respective offseasons focused on making adjustments. Camargo shed some weight while Riley emphasized mechanical adjustments to his swing. The duo will compete for the job in March, but it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Camargo at third on Opening Day with Riley back at Triple-A. At some point in 2020, Atlanta will want to see if Riley can handle the job on a full-time basis. If he can’t, then finding an answer at third base could be their most pressing question at the trade deadline. The rest of the position player corps looks reasonably well-set. Tyler Flowers and Travis d’Arnaud will work a timeshare at catcher, similar to how Kurt Suzuki and Brian McCann split time with Flowers in prior years. Ender Inciarte, coming off an injury-plagued season, Nick Markakis, and Adam Duvall will provide outfield depth, though it’s not clear how each them factors into the playing time mix at this point.
Another question mark for the Braves could be their rotation. Mike Soroka made a solid impression in his first full season in the majors. Max Fried also took a huge step forward in 2019, finding his command and providing multiple dominant starts, but Mike Foltynewicz took a significant step backwards as he lost to the feel for his dominant slider. Foltynewicz seemed to right the ship down the stretch but will need to show consistency in 2020 to prove that he can be a part of this team’s rotation going forward.
Atlanta signed Cole Hamels to a one-year deal this offseason in hopes that he could provide some veteran leadership and eat innings. However, Hamels suffered a shoulder injury during his offseason workouts and will miss the start of the season. The injury has set up a competition in Spring Training for the final two rotation spots. Among those competing are Sean Newcomb, who transitioned into a relief role last season, veteran Felix Hernandez and youngsters Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. An elite starter earlier in his career, Hernandez was dreadful during his final season in Seattle but the Braves are hopeful that he has something left in the tank. Atlanta needs Wright and Wilson to take steps forward this season and both should get an opportunity to contribute at some point. The Braves have entered the past two offseasons looking for starting pitching help. Anthopoulos strengthened the rotation last season with the addition of Dallas Keuchel and may have to look for an upgrade again, particularly if the team’s young pitching prospects are unable to contribute.
The NL East figures to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball and the Braves should once again be right in the middle of things. The loss of Donaldson hurts, but this is a team that is still flexible enough to make some in-season additions and could very well be the favorite in the division.