In 2020, the Atlanta Braves took home their third straight National League East title but fell short again of reaching the World Series. The Braves held a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series, but the Los Angeles Dodgers won Games 5, 6, and 7 to surge past them. Prior to their deep playoff run last season, the Braves had not advanced past the NLDS round since 2001. So, after nine postseason trips without ever reaching the NLCS, their long-awaited return ended in heartbreak. The Braves have not been to the Fall Classic since 1999.
Atlanta's roster is a great balance of veterans and an impressive young core, and their offense during the abbreviated season was one of the best in all of baseball. They led the league in OPS (.832), hits (556), doubles (130), RBI (338), and ranked second behind the World Series champion Dodgers for the most runs (348) and home runs (103). The Braves finished with four Silver Slugger Award winners: All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman, NL home run and RBI leader Marcell Ozuna and catcher Travis D'Arnaud.
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More surprisingly is that, somehow, the club overcame the seemingly constant injury setbacks their pitching staff took during the 60-game sprint of a season to hang on all the way until the NLCS. When the Braves began the 2020 season, the rotation -- while still fairly uncertain -- at least boasted depth:
Then, things quickly fell apart. The aging Hamels was expected to be ready for Opening Day, but he dealt with triceps tendonitis and shoulder issues before he was ultimately shut down after pitching just 3 1/3 innings. Hernandez opted out of the 2020 season. After finishing sixth in NL Cy Young voting in 2019, Mike Soroka tore his Achilles tendon in his third start.
Foltynewicz, a former first-rounder and top-100 overall prospect, struggled to return to his 2018 All-Star form when he authored what looked like a breakout campaign with a 2.85 ERA and 3.37 FIP across 183 innings. He was designated for assignment after only one outing.
Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint, once-promising young arms, spent most of the 2020 season at the club's alternate site, and were each unable to earn a steady spot in the rotation. Left-hander Sean Newcomb was also set to transition to a full-time starter role, but he notched a 11.20 ERA in four starts before finishing out the abbreviated season at the alternate training site.
Lefty Max Fried became the club's ace in 2020. Rookie Ian Anderson impressed later in the season, including during their playoff run, as well. But, in the long run, the Braves were hurt by their rotation unreliability. All in all, Atlanta used 14 different starting pitchers throughout the 60-game season.
Already this offseason, the Braves have added veteran All-Star starting pitcher Charlie Morton and lefty Drew Smyly to regain rotation depth. To start the 2021 season, the Braves will look to have a returning Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson and Drew Smyly. Some other internal options at this point would be Wright, Toussaint, Newcomb, Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa. As far as the bullpen goes, the Braves took a hit with some of their free agency losses (Darren O'Day, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene), but their depth results in still having a solid bullpen with the players they already have for 2021. Plus, there is still the possibility that Melancon or Greene could end up agreeing to deals to return to Atlanta for next season.
When general manager Alex Anthopoulos took over in 2017, he helped play a part in turning the Braves from a rebuilding club to a serious, perennial contender. The Braves took another step forward last season when they earned their first postseason series victories since 2001 by sweeping the Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins in the NL wild card series and NL Division Series. Now the pressure is mounting on the Braves to break through. Let's take a look at three of the biggest issues that need to be addressed this winter.
1. Re-sign Ozuna
Free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna is garnering interest from a good amount of MLB teams, including the Braves, where he spent the abbreviated 2020 season. Ozuna, 30, finished sixth in NL MVP voting and led the NL with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. He hit .338/.431/.636 in 60 games in 2020. He was just 13 batting average points short of winning the NL Triple Crown this past season. In CBS Sports' top 60 free agent rankings, Ozuna is our No. 6 free agent.
Atlanta should make re-signing Ozuna its top priority this winter. And, the club should have a good plan B -- whether it's via the trade market or free agency -- should Ozuna decide to leave, as Josh Donaldson did last winter. The Braves will need to add another big bat.
It's been a slow winter so far, but an Ozuna deal could still get done as soon as next week's Winter Meetings. Of note is that the slugger recently switched agencies, and is now represented by CAA. Ozuna was previously represented by MDR Sports Management. He switched from Scott Boras to MDR in May of 2019.
Ozuna settled for a one-year deal instead of a multi-year pact last winter, signing with the Braves for $18 million. He was not eligible for the qualifying offer this winter after receiving it last year. The financial fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic certainly complicates Ozuna's search for a long-term deal, but Atlanta already knows Ozuna would be a great fit.
And while it has not happened yet, the universal DH is expected to be put in place again in 2021 and become permanent with the next collective bargaining agreement in 2022. That would make the NL East Braves even more comfortable with signing Ozuna long-term.
The Braves already non-tendered outfielder Adam Duvall because they're waiting for assurance on the DH coming to the National League. But, considering Duvall was likely to be used more as a platoon player, Atlanta evidently believed his projected $5 to $7 million 2021 salary to be too much for the 32-year-old.
I understand teams want official clarity on a potential 2021 DH, but I think it's more than safe to assume that it will be adopted. Also, MLB/MLBPA should have determined this and informed NL teams far before free agency began and definitely before this year's non-tender deadline.
Ozuna spent most of the 2020 season at the DH spot, and played in the outfield in 21 games. The Braves aren't going to find a more talented DH on the open market, and without Ozuna's 2020 performance, they might not have even made it as far as they did in 2020.
2. Figuring out third base
Atlanta's third-base situation is not ideal. Austin Riley is their main option for the position, but he's coming off of a disappointing 2020 season. Riley, 23, hit .239/.301/.415 with eight home runs and 27 RBI in 188 at-bats. He played 46 games at third with four games each at first base and left field.
Johan Camargo is behind Riley as the other option, and he was a non-tender candidate during the offseason, but Atlanta kept him on the roster. Camargo, a switch-hitter, is a versatile player for Atlanta, able to play right field, left field and all four infield positions. But, he posted a career-worst .200/.244/.367 slash line during the abbreviated 2020 season while striking out at a 27.6 percent clip. The Braves will hope for an offensive rebound from Camargo in 2021, especially since his versatility adds value off the bench.
The 2021 season could likely be the last chance for Riley to up his contact at the plate, otherwise, the club is going to have to find someone else to anchor the hot corner. Even if Atlanta wanted to test the market for another third-base option, there's not a whole lot available this year after Justin Turner. However, there is the option for the Braves to go after Kris Bryant via trade. It's unlikely Atlanta re-signs Ozuna and trades for Bryant, but if they were to go the Bryant route, they could have third base locked up and move Riley to left field.
3. Freeman extension?
Another priority for the Braves: extending their franchise mainstay and 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman. The longtime Braves first baseman is coming off one of the best seasons of his 11-year long MLB career, and he's entering a contract year in 2021. It will be the final year of an eight-year, $135 million contract he signed prior to the 2014 season.
It's likely that the 31-year-old will be costly -- he might get at least $100 million -- for the Braves to keep him.
The two sides have made clear the mutual interest in keeping Freeman in Atlanta for the rest of his career.
Last October, Freeman said: "I think [GM] Alex [Anthopoulos] and everyone knows, and the fans know, this is where I'd love to stay. This is my home. This is all I've ever known. I know I only have one year left [on his contract]. We'll see how it goes. But this team is built to win for a long time and I know that. It's going to be a good ride. Hopefully I can be a part of it."
The Braves have already locked up their young core, handing out extensions to Acuna and Ozzie Albies, so now they have the chance to keep a veteran on their roster with another long-term commitment as they continue to push toward their first championship since 1995.