|Posted by theprincipality on August 8, 2021 at 2:40 PM|
In more than 20 years covering the Braves, it is hard to remember a season quite like the one we find ourselves in now. The sheer number of serious injuries we have had and to still be in contention is quite remarkable and testament to the leadership of the manager, Brian Snitker, and the pragmatic approach to the trade market of the GM, Alex Anthopoulos.
We started the season lacking a backup catcher. Alex Jackson and William Contreras were deemed to be unready for the Majors and so it proved. So when Travis d’Arnaud suffered a serious hand injury, there was a void of experience in a key position. Contreras did as best a job he could, but rather than continue to let him struggle on a daily basis, it was deemed better for him to play in the Minor Leagues and grow in confidence ready for the future. Behind the plate since that point it has been almost a case of catcher-by-committee, with a revolving door of candidates. Alex Jackson spent time in Triple-A before being traded to the Marlins. Jeff Mathis and Kevan Smith came in, before Mathis was let go in favour of Jonathan Lucroy. When Lucroy did not work out, Steven Vogt was brought in to platoon with Smith and form a serviceable catching unit. Now d’Arnaud is almost ready to return, a sigh of relief can be heard as the Braves have scraped by in this regard and are still in contention.
Of far bigger concern though has been the outfield. Opening Day saw the Braves start Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuna Jr and Christian Pache. Each one suffered serious injury. Even if he regains his fitness, Ozuna remains a doubt given a pending domestic abuse charge against him. Acuna was on the verge of starting the All-Star game when his season-ending injury hit. I found it ironic that the injury happened innocuously in Miami, where the Marlins had been actively trying to injure him for the last couple of years. Acuna was a massive loss to a team that hadn’t been above .500 all season and presented management with a dilemma: Give up on the season and prepare for 2022, or trade some prospects for outfield replacements and try to make a run at the division.
This is where Alex Anthopoulos deserves a lot of credit. He was able to completely revamp the outfield, bringing in Jorge Soler from Kansas City, Adam Duvall back from Miami, Joc Pederson from Chicago and Eddie Rosario from Cleveland. In the couple of weeks that have followed, Atlanta has gone over .500 for the first time this year and at time of writing has cut what was once a six game deficit out of first place to just two. Whilst missing Acuna, the new outfield has reinvigorated the team, giving them the boost they sorely needed to make a push for a fourth straight NL East title.
What has also been evident is the strength of the starting pitching in the farm system. Again, through serious injury, the team has had to juggle the rotation around, giving starts to rookies and inexperienced pitchers, trying to back up the veterans. Mike Soroka remains out for the year, but 11 starters have been used by the Braves this season: Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, Drew Smyly, Kyle Muller, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Tucker Davidson, Huascar Ynoa and Jesse Chavez. Faced with that much adversity, you would again be forgiven for thinking the team would give up, but there have been some pleasant surprises, especially from Ynoa, Davidson, Muller and Toussaint. The Braves now find themselves in the position of actually having to decide who their rotation will be, instead of it being forced on them, as Ynoa returns from his long layoff.
Elsewhere, making up for the loss of power suffered when Acuna went down have been Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson. Riley is having the best season of his young career, batting .296 with 23 home runs, whilst Swanson has picked up his average from around the Mendoza line to a respectable .254 and a recent power surge has seen him post 20 home runs for the first time in his career – with 50 games still to play. These two have provided ample support for All-Stars, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, giving the Braves the only positive run differential in the division.
Despite the injuries, you look at all the positive stories from the Braves camp this year and you have to wonder how they are not ten games ahead in the division, and this largely down to a leaky bullpen, that accounts for 22 of the team’s 55 losses to date. It has been quite a different story to 2020 when the Braves had the best bullpen in baseball. It was a shame that this was not maintained in the offseason, allowing Mark Melancon to go to San Diego (and be lights-out over there) and not re-signing Shane Greene until deep into the new season. Hopefully the deadline addition of Richard Rodriguez from the Pirates will help to plug the holes.
It all leaves me feeling confident of a final push to glory during the last 50 games, but also worried that without Acuna we may fall short, either in the regular season or the playoffs. After the disappointment of coming so close in 2020, 2021 was supposed to be our year. It does feel however that the weight of expectation that perhaps loomed over the team in the early portion of the season has now been lifted and they are playing with more freedom. What will be, will be. Enjoy the ride!