Close the book on the Atlanta Braves for 2020. By all objective measures this was the most successful season for the Braves since they managed to get swept by the 1999 New York Yankees in the World Series. Atlanta stood toe-to-toe with the LA Dodgers and managed to land a flurry of punches before bowing out of the NLCS in game 7. Sure, that was extremely painful for everyone involved, especially considering at one point they held a 3-1 series advantage, but again, we are trying to be objective here.
So what exactly was Atlanta able to accomplish this year? Here are a few highlights:
Emergence of clear top-of-rotation starters
While Mike Soroka may have established himself as the ace of the Braves staff coming into this season, someone forgot to tell Max Fried that the position was filled. Once Soroka was lost for the season it was Max Fried who stepped up and solidified the top of the rotation, going 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA. Ian Anderson also exploded onto the scene with a one hit, one run outing against the New York Yankees and following it up with a 2 run, 8 strikeout performance against the Red Sox. He finished September with 5 starts and a 2.05 ERA, and his work in the playoffs (2 earned runs in 19 innings pitched) provided plenty of indication that he was ready for a full time role in the Braves rotation in 2020. Even Kyle Wright proved that he can put the necessary work in to make himself into a legitimate middle to back end starter for a World Series contender.
With the news that Soroka is going to be throwing by the time Spring Training starts in February, barring any setbacks of course, the Braves enter the 2021 season fairly confident that for the first time in the last 5 years they don’t have a significant need for a top end starter.
Freddie freeman is getting his due
Fans of the Braves have known for some time how special Freddie Freeman is and how much he means to the organization. Sadly this seems to be one of the best kept secrets in baseball, though fortunately for Freddie and the Braves the secret is finally out. Freeman shouldered his way past the likes of Mookie Betts and Fernando Tatis right to the top of the NL MVP discussion, prompting even Bryce Harper to point out that he is among the best players no one is talking about in baseball right now.
Freeman got off to a slow start after contracting and recovering from COVID-19 during Spring Training 2.0. He was cleared to return right before the first game of the season and struggled predictably, going 2 for 14 as he tried to get his legs under him. On July 29th, the 6th game of 2020, he went 4-5 with his first HR of the season and never looked back. He finished with a .341/.462/1.102 stat line with 13 HR and 53 RBI in only 60 games. There is still a chance he loses out to Betts in the MVP race because of the defensive dynamic but at last Freeman is figuring prominently in the discussion.
Cristian Pache arrives
On one hand, the Braves lost a potent offensive threat when Adam Duvall exited in his first AB against the Dodgers with a pulled oblique. On the other hand, the Braves finally got the opportunity to see what Cristian Pache could do on the biggest stage. He did not disappoint. The young phenom showed a very advanced approach at the plate, walking 3 times and only striking out 4 times in his 22 AB’s. His first career HR came against Julio Urias, one of the more dominant pitchers the Dodgers threw at the Braves, and he added a double later in the series and finished with 4 RBI.
It was encouraging to see Pache have some early success at the plate, naturally, but it was his defense that got him to the big leagues. That skillset was on full display as he roamed centerfield like a veteran, making difficult plays on line drives to the warning track and in the gaps appear routine and even stealing a HR away from the Dodgers. While he didn’t have an outfield assist in his 7 games, it wasn’t for lack of trying. His cannon of an arm came into play early and often, and by the end of the series the Dodgers appeared to be loathe to risk running on the kid. He is going to be fun to watch as his comfort level grows at the big league level, possibly challenging Andruw Jones for the most gold gloves in Braves history by the time his career is through.
Once the offseason gets underway the Braves will still have some significant questions to answer. Who will fill the role of DH, assuming the league decides to tell teams whether or not they intend to allow the National League to have one in 2021? Is Max Fried enough of a veteran presence in the rotation or do they need to go out and acquire one? Was the production Riley provided this season enough to stick with him at 3B? How do you replace the production of those relievers leaving the Braves in free agency, especially Mark Melancon and Shane Greene? We will look to explore each of these questions in more detail as we get closer to the Winter Meetings, so stay tuned!
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