• Exclusives

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 5 and 6

    There are plenty of ingredients needed to create a championship team. Some are well known. Others lurk under the surface. All have to come together if a team wants to win its final game of the season, and stand forever in the hall of champions.

    The Atlanta Braves fell five victories shy of the summit in 2020, a season unlike any other amid the challenges of playing during a global pandemic. With a greater sense of normalcy looming as the 2021 campaign kicks off, Braves Country turns its focus to a team looking to do something only three teams in franchise history have accomplished – and not since the 1995 Braves brought Atlanta its first major pro sports title.

    This is my look at some of the critical pieces of Atlanta’s championship hopes. Yes, it takes good baseball and good health and certainly a dash or two of good luck. But for the Braves to win the World Series, these guys have to play a prominent role.

    – Bud L. Ellis, Braves Wire

    Part 5: The Alpha

    The Name: Ronald Acuna Jr., RF

    The Objective: Continue his ascent toward “top player in baseball” status by displaying his five-tool arsenal while staying healthy.

    The Story: Maybe it’s the fact Juan Soto has a World Series ring, or the fact Fernando Tatis Jr. has a 14-year contract. But in some weird way, it almost – almost – feels like Ronald Acuna Jr. occasionally gets lost in the shuffle when it comes to national buzz around baseball’s youngest and brightest stars.

    Acuna battled through a problematic wrist injury in 2020, missing 23.3 percent of the shortened 60-game season, and posting a career-low .250 average when he did play. But the 23-year-old enters 2021 healthy, noticeably slimmer and, despite the challenges of last summer, stands as one of the best players on the planet. 

    One season after hitting 41 homers and stealing 37 bases en route to a 5.6 bWAR campaign, Acuna raised his walk rate from 10.6 percent to 18.8 percent in 2020, while posting career bests in OBP (.406) and OPS (.987). None of this is good news for opposing pitchers, who face an evolving Acuna as the tip of a lineup featuring four NL Silver Slugger winners in the top five spots.

    In this era of “let the kids play,” nobody possesses the swagger of Acuna, the alpha of a Braves squad loaded with personality. He has the talent to back it up, the list of “did you see that?!” moments already lengthy for someone with a mere 313 games on his big-league resume. Acuna went a combined 6-for-35 in the NLDS and NLCS after a four-hit showing in the two-game sweep of Cincinnati, but even while struggling against the Marlins and Dodgers, he walked seven times and scored 10 runs in 10 games.

    It’s ridiculous to expect anybody to post a 40-40 season. But if Acuna plays 155 games and gets the green light to run, as he did in 2019, it’s not only possible, it’s probable.

    Watch Him Soar: Ronald Acuna Jr. looks for another huge season as he mans right field for the Braves in 2021.

    The Upside: The term “the sky’s the limit” was created for Acuna. Moving full time to right field will put his powerful arm on display more while saving his legs a bit (compared to playing center). He’s a Gold Glove candidate with his range and speed, and the developing hit tool could result in his first .300 season. An OPS above 1.000 certainly is within range, and he’s on everybody’s short list of NL MVP candidates.

    The Downside: There truly is one thing that could slow down Acuna, and that’s health. The wrist hindered him more than he let on last season. Even if his strikeout rate ticks up and his walk rate nudges down, it’s hard to see anything outside of injury keeping him from being one of the sport’s most impactful players.

    The Feeling: The wrist injury and the 60-game season kept Acuna from displaying the full brilliance we saw in 2019. With a full season on tap in 2021, it feels like almost a foregone conclusion he will remind people how dynamic he is with an MVP-worthy season, while driving the Braves deep into October.

    Part 6: The Captain

    The Name: Freddie Freeman, 1B

    The Objective: Back up his MVP season by leading his team to the place it hasn’t been in more than two decades, and securing the final piece missing from his career resume.

    The Story: How can Freddie Freeman be 31 years old, beginning his 10th season as the Braves first baseman, his eighth season since franchise icon Chipper Jones hung up his spikes? It seems like yesterday he made his major-league debut, the chubby-faced kid searching for his place while squarely in the shadow of his more ballyhooed minor-league roomie, Jason Heyward.

    Yet, here he is, a face of the franchise and MVP winner, just like his buddy Jones. It all came together for the first baseman in 2020 – albeit across a 60-game season, but what it season it was. Freeman hit .341, finished with a 1.102 OPS, slugged .640, and led the Braves to Game 7 of the NLCS. A first World Series appearance and winning the championship would have been the cherry on top of a year when Freeman exceled so greatly on the field, after nearly opting out following a scary battle with COVID-19 in July.

    Freeman’s growth during the past 10 years has been remarkable to watch. He always could hit, that sweet left-handed stroke firing balls over the shortstop’s head. The power has expanded. So, too, has his voice, the once shy rookie now the unquestioned leader of the best band of Braves in a generation. Off the field, the Freeman crew is the first family of Braves Country, one that grew from three to five in the offseason with the heartwarming story of twins – two boys born with a twist.

    He’s been a part of everything for the Braves. It was Freeman’s groundout that ended the 2011 season, his homer that clinched the 2012 wild-card berth, his single that won Game 1 last season against Cincinnati, and a million other moments for the only current Brave who endured every painful day of the rebuild. But there remains one final step to take, one final destination to reach, for a player who over the course of the past decade has grown up and grown into a star right before our eyes.

    Feeling Free: The captain of the Braves and the face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman aims to lead the Braves to the World Series title.

    The Upside: Steady Freddie. It sounds simplistic, but that’s Freeman in a nutshell. He a Silver Slugger winner who hits third in one of baseball’s best lineups, he plays a Gold Glove caliber first base, he’s a perennial All-Star, and now his status as a top 10 player in the game is unquestioned. If he’s able to play, he’s going to play, and play well.

    The Downside: Freeman did not miss a game in 2020 – and that’s not a surprise. Starting in 2014, he’s not played in more than four games in a season just twice: in 2015 (34 games) and 2017 (35 games). Both seasons were marred by wrist injuries, and a wrist ailment led to an awful showing in the 2019 playoffs. It seems only health can keep Freeman from posting another season worthy of MVP consideration: he’s finished in the top eight in voting four times in the past five seasons. 

    The Feeling: Freeman hit .360 in the NLCS with two homers – a third homer was taken away by Mookie Betts in the fifth inning of Game 7, or else the Braves very well may have won the pennant. In a season when anything short of reaching the World Series will be a disappointment, on a team full of impact players and personalities, Freeman will respond with another MVP-worthy season that helps push Atlanta onto the sport’s biggest stage.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.