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Atlanta isn’t resting on its laurels

The reigning World Champions are making a solid push to defend their crown

2021 Atlanta Braves Archive Photo by Houston Astros/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s easy to brush off Atlanta’s 2021 World Series title as a fluke. The postseason is notoriously a crapshoot, and the team only won 88 games in the regular season. Considering a 90-win team missed the playoffs entirely, Atlanta had to be a bit fortunate especially since Mike Soroka and Ronald Acuña Jr. missed most of the year. If the Mets didn’t go into a tailspin, the NL East wouldn't have been up for grabs at the trade deadline. But give Atlanta credit for identifying an opportunity and going all in. They don’t win the World Series if they don’t go out and get Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, and Joc Pederson.

Still, a repeat for the division title seemed difficult before the lockout started. The Mets aggressively went after Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Mark Canha, and Eduardo Escobar, and Atlanta was left trying to figure out how to replace the production of all their deadline additions. Not to mention what to do with Freddie Freeman.

A week after the lockout ended, Atlanta looks up to the task of defending their title even though Freeman isn’t returning. Though it stings to watch the face of the franchise go, Matt Olson is, at the very least, a sidegrade. If anything, he’s even better. Eddie Rosario will return, and Collin McHugh will reinforce an already solid bullpen. There’s still work to be done to shore up the bench, but most of the major pieces are in place.

Atlanta sorely missed Acuña’s production in the latter part of 2021 since he’s one of the best players in baseball. Acuña only played half the year, but he still tied for second on the team with 4.2 fWAR, and he wasn’t far behind club leader Freddie Freeman who turned in a 4.5 mark. Getting a full season of Acuña is akin to signing an All-Star free agent.

Behind him, Austin Riley, Eddie Rosario, and Matt Olson form a meatgrinder lineup. Ozzie Albies, Adam Duvall, and Dansby Swanson also have the potential to produce above-average slash lines. Still, this group is mostly the same as it was last year when as a unit, they only mustered a collective 98 wRC+.

Currently, Atlanta is looking at a bench of Alex Dickerson, Guillermo Heredia, Orlando Arcia, and Manny Piña. It’s an uninspiring offensive group, and Atlanta should be looking for reinforcements. The market for proven depth is expectedly shallow. Tommy Pham can likely be had on a short-term deal, but Atlanta really needs someone who can play center. Kevin Pillar and Brian Goodwin aren’t exactly upgrades over Heredia and Duvall even if Duvall has only made 31 major league appearances in center field.

With Mike Soroka out until at least July, Atlanta will have to dip into their rotation depth at the beginning of the season. The good news is that the rotation is solid enough without him. Max Fried and Charlie Morton are a great one-two punch, and Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa are plenty capable of delivering quality innings. Unless Atlanta signs anyone else, the battle for the fifth spot appears to be between Tucker Davidson, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, and Kyle Muller. Touissant has the most big-league experience, but he’s never been able to put it together. Davidson impressed enough to earn a start in the 2021 World Series though the outing didn’t go well.

Atlanta’s bullpen doesn’t contain any unhittable demigods, but it’s a deep, talented group. Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, and Collin McHugh figure to get the bulk of the high leverage innings, and it’s easy to do worse than those three. Behind them, AJ Minter and Luke Jackson provide insurance.

This is a team without clear weaknesses. Repeating as World Champions is going to be difficult, but if all goes well, Atlanta should make an inspired push for the division title. The Mets are Atlanta’s clearest rival, and New York doesn’t appear to be done adding to its roster. PECOTA projects both teams for around 91 wins, so on paper, this will be the tightest two-team race in the majors.

Win Projection: 93-69

Ultimately, I believe Atlanta will come up short in protecting the division crown, but their efforts will get them into the playoffs with ease. A healthy Mike Soroka might be the difference in the NL East, and how he looks coming back from injury will have a large impact on Atlanta’s success.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.