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USATSI

The last time a meaningful game of Major League Baseball was played, it involved the Atlanta Braves defeating the Houston Astros in Game 6 of the 2021 World Series. The Braves lifted their trophy and had their parade, then they endured the owner-imposed lockout, all 99 days of it, uncertain about what their title defense would look like.

Now, we know. What's more is that we know the Braves won't look the same. That was always going to be true to some extent, but the Braves made one of the biggest changes of the offseason by choosing Matt Olson over Freddie Freeman at first base.

How will that work out, and what other questions must Atlanta answer if MLB is to have its first repeat champion in more than two decades? Scroll on to find out.

Win total projection, odds

  • 2021 record: 88-73 (first place in NL East, won World Series)
  • 2022 Sportsline projection: 93-69
  • World Series odds (via Caesars Sportsbook): +1300

Projected lineup

  1. Ozzie Albies, 2B
  2. Matt Olson, 1B
  3. Austin Riley, 3B
  4. Marcell Ozuna, RF
  5. Eddie Rosario, LF
  6. Adam Duvall, CF
  7. Alex Dickerson, DH
  8. Dansby Swanson, SS
  9. Travis d'Arnaud, C

The Braves ranked eighth in the majors in runs scored last season, but only 13th in wRC+, a catch-all metric hosted at FanGraphs that adjusts for ballpark and other variables. The Braves can only hope their offense plays closer to that runs scored ranking. If not, it won't be for a lack of familiarity. As mentioned in the introduction (and as expanded upon below), the Braves will have a new-look at the cold corner; other than Olson, Dickerson is the only batter in the projected starting lineup who wasn't with Atlanta last season, and he figures to split time at DH with a right-handed hitter as part of a platoon. One notable name absent from above is star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. He's still recovering from a torn ACL that ended his season prematurely. Expect to see him make his return sometime in May. One addition not mentioned above is backup catcher Manny Piña. He was our top free-agent backstop entering the winter, and frankly he seems overqualified for this role.

Projected rotation

  1. Max Fried, LHP
  2. Charlie Morton, RHP
  3. Ian Anderson, RHP
  4. Huascar Ynoa, RHP
  5. Tucker Davidson

The Braves' rotation ranked seventh in ERA and 13th in FIP last season. As with the starting nine, there's consistency here. The five pitchers above combined for 106 starts in 2021. Morton is expected to be full-go after breaking his leg in the World Series, but one name who will remain absent for a while longer is Mike Soroka. He hasn't pitched in a regular season contest since 2020 because of Achilles injuries. Soroka is expected to return sometime around midseason, give or take.

Projected bullpen

The Braves bullpen ranked 10th in ERA and 12th in FIP last season. Atlanta added a slew of veteran arms to its collection that should result in a deeper reliefs corps. Jansen, a surprising addition, was the headliner. His control issues last season were worrisome, but it's hard to deny that he isn't still a high-leverage pitcher based on his ability to suppress quality of contact. McHugh and Thornburg's presences should be felt right away. Kirby Yates, meanwhile, is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will miss the start of the season.

Now for three questions about the reigning champs/

1. Can Olson replace Freeman?

Anytime a team willingly moves on from a franchise player, the way the Braves did with Freeman, they're inadvertently putting the successor in a tough spot in which they're guaranteed to be subjected to constant comparisons. Fortunately, for Atlanta, Olson is one of the few who could hold his own against Freeman.

Olson actually outhit Freeman last season, posting a 153 OPS+ as compared to Freeman's 133 mark. Freeman has a slight edge when the two are stacked against one another in a larger, three-year sample: Freeman has hit for a 142 OPS+ over that duration, versus Olson's 139 mark.

Olson may have the advantage moving forward. For one, he's several years younger than Freeman. For another, he seemed to achieve a new true-talent level last season by cutting into his strikeout rate. As CBS Sports detailed when the trade with the Athletics occurred

Last season, Olson batted .271/.371/.540 (153 OPS+) with 39 home runs and 88 walks. (Freeman, for reference, hit .300/.393/.503 (133 OPS+) with 31 home runs and 85 walks.) What's more is that Olson reduced his strikeout rate from 31.4 percent to 16.8 percent, the largest season-to-season change among everyday players. That alteration was accompanied by a correspondingly robust improvement in his contact rate: instead of connecting on 70 percent of his in-zone swings, as he had the year prior, he completed the transaction on close to 82 percent of them. He credited his gains in part to altering his swing, specifically his bat angle, and in part to the use of a "little red" pitching machine the A's used for batting practice. 

If Olson's gains prove to be sustainable, he could be in the hunt for an MVP trophy. The last Braves first baseman to win that award was … ah, yes, Freeman in 2020. See? Comparisons are inevitable, even if Olson delivers as he may.

2. How much will Acuña and Soroka provide?

Arguably the area where this version of the Braves can make up the most ground on last year's team entails the health of two franchise cornerstones.

Acuña was limited to just 82 games last season, having torn his ACL on July 10. Prior to the injury, he was in the midst of what would've qualified as a career year. In 360 trips to the plate, he'd hit .283/.394/.596 (155 OPS+) with 24 home runs and 17 stolen bases. For comparison's sake, through 82 games in 2019, when he nearly posted a 40-40 season, he'd batted .286/.370/.499 with 19 home runs and 12 steals. There's no telling what Acuña would've done the rest of the way, but he was ahead of his 2019 pace.

The hope is that Acuña's injury doesn't have a meaningful effect on him moving forward. Should that prove to be the case, the Braves will have essentially added an MVP-caliber outfielder back into their lineup, thus allowing them to shrink the roles played by either Duvall, Rosario, or Dickerson. That's a win-win situation since it would also improve the quality of Atlanta's bench.

A hearty and hale Soroka could have a similar effect on the Braves' rotation and bullpen. He's a greater wild card than Acuña, however, as he hasn't thrown a regular season pitch since tearing his Achilles tendon in August 2020.

Soroka had made 37 career big-league starts before then, amassing a 2.86 ERA (159 ERA+) and a 3.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Again, it's anyone's guess as to what he brings to the table when he's able to return to the rotation; if he's in the neighborhood of his old performance levels, the Braves will have added a well-above-average starter to the mix, thereby granting them the ability to shift their weakest starter to the 'pen.

There's no sense putting too much pressure on Acuña and Soroka as they continue to rehab and recover, but there is a distinct possibility they could end up being the difference makers in Atlanta's season.

3. Is a repeat in the cards?

The Braves have a good roster in place, and their run to the title last fall should remind us to never say never. Still, it's hard to bet on them (or any other team) repeating as champions. MLB hasn't had a back-to-back World Series winner since 1998-2000, when the New York Yankees reeled off three consecutive crowns. That 21-plus-year stretch is the longest streak without a repeat champion in league history, according to Andrew Simon of MLB.com.

Someone, someday will break that drought. But the odds are very much against the Braves pulling it off. 

Indeed, most projection systems don't even have the Braves as the favorites in the National League East, favoring instead the New York Mets. Whether or not you agree with that forecast, it just goes to show that the Braves have a tough road ahead of them if they want to secure a spot in history by accomplishing an increasingly rare feat.