Baseball will finally be getting its 162 game season back, and the National League will return to its traditional form without the designated hitter. In Atlanta, the Braves were one win away from making their first World Series since 1999 before a home run by Cody Bellinger in game 7 of the NLCS put the dagger in Atlanta’s 2020 season. The Braves kept most of their key players from the shortened season, and have what might be one of the tougher paths to the playoffs of any team, but could use the challenge to round into shape.
Atlanta hasn’t won the World Series since 1995, now a full quarter century since their win over Cleveland in an also shortened season. The Indians currently hold the longest championship drought at 72 years.
Atlanta has gone to multiple World Series since the ‘95 win, but arguably haven’t had a team as ready to do so until now. Beyond just the roster, the Braves and greater baseball community lost Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro over the offseason, motivating them to win in their memory. If there was ever a season to win for the Braves, it’s this season. After Aaron died, there were multiple calls for Truist to give up, or at least alter their naming rights to Truist Park so that it could be renamed in his honor, but no such move has been officially recognized or talked about publicly.
On the roster side, the most significant move Atlanta made was resigning 30 year old left fielder/designated hitter Marcell Ozuna. After torching Atlanta in the 2019 NLDS as a Cardinal, his move to Atlanta as a free agent was a tremendous key to making Atlanta a title contender last year. He led the NL in plate appearances, home runs, RBIs, and total bases. He was only signed to a one year deal, and whether he would return was in question since he largely filled the designated hitter role implemented in the NL for the first time last season as a single season adjustment. Without the DH, Ozuna will likely have to play more left field than the Braves were hoping, considering he is often a defensive liability despite winning a Gold Glove
The starting rotation will eventually be headlined by Mike Soroka, who is still healing from a torn Achilles he suffered early last season. Max Fried is set to become the second lefty to start on Opening Day for Atlanta, Hall of Famer Tom Glavine being the only other. The Braves signed Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly in free agency, who will join Fried and Ian Anderson as the starting rotation for the first two times through. The fifth starter while Soroka is out is still to be determined, but will likely be a rotating cast or filled by bullpen games.
That bullpen was one of the best in the Majors last year, reliably led by Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, and Shane Greene. Melancon signed in free agency with the San Diego Padres, while Martin and Minter remain under contract. Greene as of writing is still unsigned by any team.
Offensively, Atlanta should stay one of the best, if not the best in the NL. 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman anchors a lineup that includes a load of power in Ronald Acuña Jr., Austin Riley, and Ozuna. The only notable loss was Adam Duvall, who signed with Miami. In nearly every offensive metric, Freeman or Ozuna was in the top ten last season for the entire league. Atlanta hit the second most home runs, drove in the most runs, had the most hits, and were the only team to break 1,000 total bases in the 60 game season. While they did only play 37% of a normal full season, this same lineup boasts the ability to be the best.
In fact, this lineup does hold the best runs per inning in a single game in the live ball era, scoring 29 runs in a September 9 win against Miami, but only hitting eight times in the game. The Texas Rangers are the only team to score 30 runs in a single game back in 2007, but they were the road team in that game, scoring six of their runs in the 9th inning.
The NL East will be possibly the toughest division in baseball, as everyone has a team that theoretically could make the playoffs. The Mets have a great starting rotation and signed Francisco Lindor in the offseason. Washington per usual has the pitching duo in Steven Strasburg and Max Scherzer, and will continually have a match for Acuña while Juan Soto still plays for them. Philadelphia by all expectations will finish third in the division. Miami, despite having a fantastic young core of players, might be overpowered with how much talent everyone else in the division has, but are in a great spot to be the dark horse of the 2021 season.