As we get closer the top in ranking the NL East ahead of the 2021 season. The Miami Marlins came in at number five, followed by the Washington Nationals at four & Phillies in third. Coming in at number two…
The Atlanta Braves.
The Braves won the division for the third straight year in 2020 and made it to the NLCS for the first time since 2001, when they lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Though they lost to the Dodgers in 7 games in last year’s championship series, they looked almost every part of being a contender. They have a great recipe for success, but it’s not enough to steal another NL East title.
A large part of Atlanta’s success the past three seasons has been their ability to develop young prospects, good starting pitching and acquiring veterans on short term deals that turn into huge contributors.
- Developing Young Prospects
Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Max Fried, Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson have all come up through the ranks of the Braves farm system and have made big impacts for at the Major League level. Acuna Jr. is already a superstar at age 23, winning rookie of the year in ‘18, while getting MVP votes in ‘18 & ‘20, and even going so far as to finish fifth in the voting in ‘19. Albies, not that much older than Acuna Jr. (24), has already proven to be one of the top second baseman in the National League. In 2019, he had his best season in the Bigs so far, slashing .295/.352/.500, leading the NL in hits and winning his first Silver Slugger. Swanson has steadily come into his own, seeing an increase in each one of his slash stats every season since 2018, even garnering some MVP votes last year:
Fried was incredible last year in the shortened season. He led MLB in winning percentage (7-0) and put up some of the best numbers of his career so far, including a 2.25 ERA, 3.10 FIP & 1.089 WHIP in 11 starts, finishing fifth in NL Cy Young voting. In 2019, Soroka was sensational as a rookie, winning 13 games to go along with 2.68 ERA in 174 innings, as he finished sixth in the NL Cy Young voting, second in Rookie of the Year behind Pete Alonso, and made his first All-Star team. Unfortunately, Soroka only made three starts last season due to an achilles injury. Rookie Ian Anderson looked far from a pitcher just called up to the Majors in 2020. In six regular season starts he posted a 1.95 ERA, 11.4 K/9 in 32.1 innings. He was even better in the postseason, as he gave up a measly 2 runs in 18 innings, making two starts between the Wild Card and Divisional Series, and two more in the Championship Series against the Dodgers.
It’s no secret the Braves have been able to evolve and grow their farm system and make them Big-League ready players.
2. Crafting young Starting Pitching
It started in 2018. Mike Foltynewicz became an ace of a Braves staff that made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. He made his first All-Star team and finished eighth in Cy Young voting that year, while posting a career-high in strikeouts (202) & ERA (2.85). Before he was moved to the bullpen in 2019, Sean Newcomb was another young arm that made a name for himself as a starter during that ‘18 season. He won 12 games to go along with a 3.90 ERA & 160 K’s.
2019 produced two more studs in the forms of Mike Soroka and Max Fried. I mentioned earlier how good Soroka was for Atlanta that season, as well as Fried’s mini breakout season in 2020. ’19 was Fried’s first full season in The Show. He went 17-6, with a 4.02 ERA (115 ERA+) & 9.4 K/9 in 30 starts. He wasn’t what he was in ‘20, but Fried showed in ‘19, along with Soroka, that he was going to be a good pitcher at the Major league level.
3. Free Agent Signings
The acquisitions the Braves have made in the past three seasons aren’t as important as the two former areas were for Atlanta, but they’ve been the edge needed to win a tough division. In 2019, it was former AL MVP Josh Donaldson that put up All-Star numbers to help the Bravos to their second straight NL East title. Last year, it was veterans Marcell Ozuna, Travis d’Arnaud and Will Smith. Ozuna and d’Arnaud played a huge part in the Braves making it to the NLCS last year, and I elaborated on this in an article I wrote a few months ago. This year they acquired RHP Charlie Morton, two-time All-Star and 2019 third place finisher in Cy Young voting, to a rotation that has the potential to be very good. Atlanta is looking to continue the trend of the last two years.
Looking ahead to 2021 for Atlanta, they’re in a good position to make another run for an NLEast title. They have one of the best lineups and well-rounded bullpens in baseball. The question is the rotation. It has the potential to be very good. It could look like Fried, Morton, Soroka, Anderson and either Kyle Wright or Drew Smyly. If Soroka can return to the 2019 pre-injury form and Anderson can be what he showed flashes of in 2020, than the rotation could be one of the best in baseball.
With that being said, they just fall short this year. In an average division, they’d be a lock for first place, but this is the 2021 NL East. They’ll be in a tight race for the divisional crown, but I see Atlanta obtaining a Wild Card spot instead.
2021 Prediction: 89-73 (2nd place)
Key Players to watch: RHP Mike Soroka, OF Marcell Ozuna, C Travis d’Arnaud
Featured Image: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images