• Exclusives

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 1 and 2

    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 1: The Closer

    The Name: Will Smith, LHP

    The Objective: Slam shut the door in the ninth inning for a bullpen that is not as deep as last year’s corps, but has the potential to be just as good.

    The Story: When Will Smith dreamed of playing for the Atlanta Braves while growing up southwest of downtown in the suburb of Newnan, he never envisioned this.

    Playing catch with a net in his backyard, unable to take part in a spring training transpiring in July’s Georgia heat. A capable catcher nowhere to be found. Ballfields closed. A series of positive COVID-19 test results keeping him from joining his new teammates until after the season – one slated for just 60 games – commenced.

    The devastating slider that elevated Smith to All-Star status and 34 saves with the Giants in 2019, that enticed the Braves to offer him a three-year, $40 million deal (with a fourth-year option) that November, was missing in action after he returned. The result: seven homers allowed across 16 innings (a ghastly 3.9 homers-per-nine-innings ratio).

    Consider Smith gave up 45 homers across 410 2/3 innings, a ratio of 1.0 per nine frames, across his previous seven seasons. If there is a poster child for preparation – and thusly, execution – being impacted by the wonkiness of 2020, it’s the 31-year-old Northgate High graduate.

    That feel appears to be back this spring, the left-hander striking out 11 hitters in 5 2/3 innings. Homers? None (just two hits allowed).

    Slam the Door: The Braves look to left-hander Will Smith to take care of the ninth inning in 2021.

    The Upside: Smith faced just four hitters in the ninth inning last season and did not register a save, but in 2021 the ninth is his. He limited right-handers to a .212/.297/.412 slash line in 2019. Settling back into the routine that saw him place third in the NL in saves in 2019, Smith pushes 40 saves as the Braves win the East.

    The Downside: Smith has a track record of success in the closer’s role since missing all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery, logging 14 saves in 2018 before his breakout 2019. But closing games for a World Series contender is a different beast. Smith walked three hitters and gave up a critical homer in 1 2/3 innings during last year’s NLCS. He’ll have to be better in what will be the biggest moments of his career.

    The Feeling: Proving 2020 was an outlier, Smith ranks in the top three in the NL in saves and anchors a Braves bullpen that will see some hiccups in the middle innings, but evolves into one of baseball’s best corps with Chris Martin in the eighth and Smith in the ninth.

    Part 2: The Comeback

    The Name: Mike Soroka, RHP

    The Objective: Return to his 2019 All-Star form after a frightening Achilles injury, forming one-third of a youthful trio at the top of the Atlanta rotation that conjures thoughts of a past generation’s aces.

    The Story: It was, in hindsight, fair to wonder in that moment if racing players through a shortened summer camp after a four-month shutdown was worth it.

    Mike Soroka, one of the faces of these youthful Braves who had charged from rebuild to division champ to pennant contender, lying between the pitcher’s mound and first-base foul line at Truist Park. His right Achilles tendon, torn. His season, over. The Braves title hopes, dinged significantly.

    It’s easy to envision the Braves raising the NL pennant and perhaps the World Series title banner had Soroka not collapsed in a heap breaking toward first base in his third start of 2020 against the Mets on Aug. 3. The injury marked one of several dominos that torpedoed Atlanta’s rotation in the first six weeks of the shortened season, a confluence of unfortunate events that didn’t stop the Braves from reaching Game 7 of the NLCS.

    A healthy Soroka sparks dreams of reaching even grander heights. And why not, after the 23-year-old from Calgary wowed the baseball world in 2019. “Maple Maddux” drew comparisons to the former Atlanta Hall of Famer by posting a 2.68 ERA across 174 2/3 innings (29 starts) with a 1.111 WHIP in 2019. In his first postseason start, Soroka dueled longtime Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright through seven scintillating scoreless innings in Game 3 of the NLDS, on the road, in a game Atlanta won in the ninth.

    Wainwright, the former Braves first-rounder from St. Simons Island, tore his left Achilles tendon in 2015 but returned just five months later, pitching in relief for a St. Louis team that held off Pittsburgh for the NL Central title. The two spoke shortly after Soroka’s injury. The Braves have tried not to accelerate the return of a player who is such a critical component of Atlanta’s present and future, but Soroka is scheduled to pitch one or two innings in Tuesday’s Grapefruit League finale.

    All Smiles: Mike Soroka is scheduled to pitch in the Braves final exhibition game Tuesday.

    The Upside: Soroka returns in mid-to-late April and quickly finds his 2019 rhythm. In a season when pitcher usage will be chronicled more carefully than ever, he still makes 25 starts and takes the ball as Atlanta’s Game 1 starter come October.

    The Downside: Soroka has pitched just 13 2/3 competitive innings across the past 18 months, and that rust takes some time to work through. While the Achilles has fully healed, the rest of his lower body has to catch up, and there are fits and starts that result in underperformance and skipped starts – especially in the first half.

    The Feeling: It’d be almost folly to expect Soroka to blaze out of the gate in April looking like the Soroka of 2019, and then maintain that pace across six months. I say almost, because Soroka already has made a habit of doing things that make us shake our heads. He’s the second-best starter on this team by the stretch drive, and earns a long-term contract extension this offseason after a strong October.

    —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.