Posted on February 20, 2020, by Bryan Zarpentine
The Atlanta Braves have won the NL East in back-to-back seasons, only to suffer disappointing playoff defeats each year. They are once again positioned to be one of the best teams in the National League in 2020. However, with the NL East looking as strong as ever, do the Braves have enough to win a third straight division title and compete for a pennant or will they fall short of expectations this season?
With some of their young pitchers taking a big step forward last season, Atlanta’s rotation became an important catalyst for the team’s success. The key in 2020 will be getting similar performances from the likes of Mike Soroka and Max Fried. Soroka, in particular, looked like a bonafide ace, posting a 2.68 ERA over 29 starts despite being just 21 at the start of the season. Fried wasn’t quite as brilliant, but he did win 17 games and could be even better in 2020 now that he has a full season under his belt.
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The good news for the Braves is they have some proven guys to fall back on if their youngsters show some inconsistency. Mike Foltynewicz had a breakout 2018 campaign only to struggle early in the 2019 season. But he found himself in September after a demotion to the minors. Atlanta will also get some veteran experience and leadership from Cole Hamels, who will help fill the void left by Dallas Keuchel. Hamels pitched to a 3.81 ERA in 27 starts last season, so he clearly has something left in the tank despite some should trouble early in spring training. The final spot in the rotation remains undecided, but Sean Newcomb will get a chance to return to the rotation after mostly pitching out of the bullpen last year. The Braves also have some youngsters in the farm system who could fill that spot if the team wants or needs Newcomb to pitch in relief.
Speaking of the Atlanta bullpen, it was a huge problem for most of the 2019 season. However, the Braves figured things out late in the season and invested heavily in the bullpen this winter, potentially giving them one of the best in the majors. Mark Melancon came to Atlanta last July and immediately filled the closer’s vacancy. The Braves also opened up their checkbook this winter to bring in Will Smith, one of the top relievers on the market. Smith has been brilliant with the Giants the last two seasons and will once again be setting up games for Melancon.
Getting to Melancon and Smith in the late innings shouldn’t be a struggle for the Braves. Both Shane Greene and Chris Martin are back after helping to turn things around for the Atlanta bullpen late in 2019. Luke Jackson, who saved 18 games last year, is now a bridge guy who will help out in the 6th and 7th innings. The Braves are also hopeful that Darren O’Day can bounce back from an injury-plagued 2019 and add even more depth to their bullpen. With the likes of Grant Dayton, A.J. Minter, and Jacob Webb likely rounding out the Atlanta bullpen, the Braves boast an impressive amount of depth that could turn a weakness in 2019 into a strength in 2020.
Once again, it’ll be Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. anchoring the Atlanta lineup. It’s hard to go wrong with those two doing damage in the middle of the order. However, the Braves lost a huge part of their lineup from 2019 when they failed to re-sign Josh Donaldson. The Braves hope that outfielder Marcell Ozuna and new catcher Travis d’Arnaud can help replace some of the production they got from Donaldson a year ago.
The Braves will also need their complementary players to add depth to their lineup so it’s not just Freeman and Acuna carrying the offense. That means Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson avoiding a letdown while getting consistent production from the rotating outfield trio of Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis, and Adam Duvall. The same goes for infielders Johan Camargo, Austin Riley, and Adeiny Hechavarria, who will be sharing the duties at third base.
After 97 wins and a division crown in 2019, Atlanta’s betting wins total for the 2020 season is 91.5. Now that the bullpen isn’t a huge issue, the Braves will be able to close out games they might have lost last season. Even if the offense isn’t as good, there’s enough to carry Atlanta to over the 91.5-win threshold. However, 90-plus wins may not be enough to guarantee a title in the NL East this year.