Perhaps one of the most surprising teams of the 2018 season came in the form of the Atlanta Braves. Entering the year, it was said that the NL East was a one horse race and was the Washington Nationals to lose. The Braves had other ideas however, as they went on to finish the season with a 90-72 record, giving them their first division title since 2013. The Braves would then go on to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS where experienced showed its true colors, as they lost to the Dodgers, 3 games to 1. All hope is not lost for the Braves however, heading into the 2019 season. They now find themselves with a year of playoff experience under their belt, have one of the most exciting young talents in the game in Ronald Acuna Jr., and are still considered contenders in the NL East. With that being said, the NL East has vastly improved over the offseason with new talent coming in and star talent being shifted, so you can expect the Braves to have to fight for a playoff spot, come late September.
At just 21 years of age, Ronald Acuna Jr. has already cemented himself as a star in this league and is quickly becoming a face of baseball. About two years ago, when Acuna Jr. was making his rounds in the minor league circuit, I made a prediction to my father. I told him that there was currently a young prospect in the Atlanta Braves system who was going to be the next superstar in our game. I said that Acuna would not only win the rookie of the year award when he came up, but predicted that he would win MULTIPLE MVP awards, make more All-Star games then one can count, and will one day, be on the Mount Rushmore of active major league baseball players. I stick to that statement today. In all my years of watching professional baseball, I have never seen the raw talent and potential that I see in Acuna Jr. Acuna is not just good, he is special. The athleticism he shows in everything he does, is graceful. The sheer, natural talent he displays on a baseball diamond is jaw dropping. Acuna is the type of player I have been waiting to watch my whole life. In 2018, Acuna finished his rookie season with a .293 BA, a .917 OPS, swiped 16 bags, hit 26 doubles and crushed 26 homers. As a reward for his stellar rookie campaign, Acuna was presented with the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award. Although these stats may be impressive, I can not stress to you guys enough, that this isn’t even the beginning of what you are about to witness. In the next few years you can expect Acuna to be a 30 home run, 40 double and 30 stolen base MACHINE. He will also get more mature in the field with time and will take home a gold glove before you know it. How good of a 2019 season is Acuna gonna have you may ask? Well I’ll say this, he is my official dark horse to win the 2019 NL MVP. (Mic dropped.)
One factor that is going to make this Atlanta Braves lineup so dangerous this season, is the production that is going to come from the star-studded bat of Freddie Freeman. When one thinks about Freddie Freeman, they think about consistency. Freeman is just one of three players in Major League Baseball, to have hit for a .300 BA or better, over the last 3 seasons. In 2018, Freeman had an absolute sensational season and made a small case for MVP. Freeman finished the year with a .309 BA, a .388 OBP, a 6.1 WAR, was second in MLB in total hits with 191, hit 44 doubles, clocked 23 homers and drove in 98 runs. As a result for this great season, Freeman was selected to his third all-star game, won his first career gold glove, and finished 4th in MVP voting. The thing that propels Freeman and puts him atop our list, is his masterful ability to find the gaps. Freeman has to deal with a shift, a constant issue of being pitched around and with all those factors aside, still finds a way to rack up 191 hits and pound 44 doubles. It is almost mind-blowing how discipline Freeman’s approach is at the plate. He just never gets fooled and more often than not, he is going to do some serious damage when lumber is in his hands. He is also a tremendous defensive first basemen and has one of the higher baseball IQ’s the game has ever seen. In 2019, I predict Freeman to lead the majors in hits, bat .300 for the fourth straight season and slightly improve his power numbers by hitting close to 30 homers. Freeman is one of the players you love to play with, but hate to play against. As a fan, you better get used to this mans dominance, because he is not going anywhere, anytime soon.
The last player I would like to focus on before switching gears to the Braves pitching staff, is Ozzie Albies. Albies, a 22-year-old from Curaçao, is not a guy that instantly jumps off your TV screen. Do not let his looks deceive you however, as Albies is one of the most energetic and athletic second basemen in baseball. When Albies first made his debut as a major leaguer in 2017, the general speculation surrounding him was mixed. Braves fans were not sure what to expect from the Curacao native and were not sure if he would even be a future starter. Although Albies spent just two months with the Braves during the 2017 season, he immediately showed a bright upside. In just 57 games played, Albies had hit for an average of .286, hit 5 homers and drove in 28 runs. Although it was not the most amazing debut baseball fans have ever seen, it was a start and gave the fans in Atlanta something to look forward to for the season ahead. As the 2018 season rolled in, Albies began to transform from an average player to one of an elite status. His approach in the batter’s box was more patient than a year ago. His looseness and swagger that he presented on the diamond was seemingly night and day and his power numbers had skyrocketed, making him an all-star come July. When the 2018 season came to a close, Albies had proved all the doubters wrong, as he hit for a .261 BA, smacked 24 home runs and drove 73 runs batted in. Is Ozzie Albies the perfect player? Far from it. He finds himself in slumps too often than not and his glove needs some substantial improvement. With this being said, we do have to keep in mind that this kid is only 22 years old. He is going to learn from his mistakes and will grow with every season he plays. I expect Albies to have a solid 2019 campaign and will help the Braves have a productive and energetic summer.
I am going to be completely honest with you guys, I am not crazy about this Braves starting rotation. I feel that there are some holes that could ultimately hurt this club in more ways than one. One of these holes comes in the likes of Julio Teheran. Teheran, a 28-year-old from Colombia, has had anything but a routine career thus far in the major leagues. He has had years where he’s looked like a Cy Young candidate like in 2014, when he finished the year a 2.89 ERA. He has had spurts where he has looked like complete horse shit. In 2018, Teheran had anything but an ideal season, finishing the year with a 3.94 ERA to go along with a lousy 9-9 record. It had seemed as if Teheran didn’t want to be out there and at times, he seemed almost disinterested. I am in no way bashing Teheran as I do believe he does have raw talent, but I do have concerns of how he will produce in 2019 and wonder if he will hurt the team, more than help them.
Another flaw that I could see in this Braves pitching staff in 2019, comes through the eyes of Mike Foltynewicz. Now, I know what you are all thinking. “What the hell are you talking about, Folty is coming off a career best year in which he finished with a 2.85 ERA and is only going to get better with time.” While this may very well be true, I think there is something that should be worth noting. Towards the end of the 2018 season, Folty began to experience some elbow soreness that limited part of his abilities. He pitched extremely poorly in his lone postseason start and come spring, Folty remained sore and is now questionable for opening day. For the long run, this should not be that big of a deal. He is an insanely talented pitcher who has the potential to be special in this league for a long, long time. However, elbow soreness is a tricky injury to manage and if it is a pain that does not go away quickly, Folty could find himself in a summer of hell.
So where do I have the Braves ending up in 2019? Well to be honest, I see them taking quite a dip from 2018 and do not think they will repeat as division champs. I feel that although they have one of the best lineups in the National League, the NL East is vastly improved from a season ago and is going to take a special team to conquer it. I also feel that the Braves have holes in their starting staff and when compared to a staff such as the Nationals or Mets, the Braves come across as seemingly weak. When all is said and done, I have the Braves finishing the 2019 season with a 85-77 record, have them finishing 3rd in the NL East behind the Nationals and the Phillies, and predict that they will not make the postseason, leaving them to play golf come October.