Just a Bit Outside-MLB Opening Day
Opening Day is Here!
The 3rd largest unofficial national holiday behind the Monday after the Super Bowl & the opening day of the NCAA tournament (and my personal favorite of the 3) is here after one of the most uncertain off seasons ever. Yes siree! It is finally MLB Opening Day! Being a huge Braves fan, I thought I would take a break from the usual high school and Gamecock baseball talk this week to preview and give my expectations for the 2021 season as well as my division picks for all of MLB.
The Bravos had a great covid-shortened 2020 season in which they won the NL East for the 3rd consecutive year, took advantage of a good matchup by sweeping the Reds in 2 games in the NL Wild Card series to capture their first postseason series win in 19 years. They also swept the Marlins in the NLDS, and then took the eventual World Series Champion Dodgers all the way to a game 7 after jumping ahead 3 games to 1 in the NLCS.
Needless to say, the success of last year has set the bar kind of high for the 2021 squad. While it is true that the Braves are definitely in that “World Series Window” we talk about so often, if you expect them to win the world series this year, you might find yourself disappointed (although I won’t complain if you’re not hahaha).
The Braves had a fairly quiet offseason, but that is not to say Alex Anthopolous didn’t do anything. Most notably, they re-signed Marcell Ozuna to a 4 year $65 million deal (16 mil a year) with a 5th year option for an additional $15 million. Ozuna had a fantastic 2020 campaign, where he provided great protection for the MVP Freddie Freeman out of the cleanup role as the team’s universal DH, leading the NL in homers, RBIs, and total bases. There will be no DH in the national league this year (yay returning to normalcy!), so Ozuna will have to be the everyday left fielder in 2021, which is a point of concern for some. Ozuna has never really been known for his defense or touted as a gold glove caliber fielder. But, I think he will be just fine there. The question is, with a full 162 game season, will he stay healthy and can he produce at the dish consistently enough?
Among the other moves AA made in the offseason were the signing of veteran righty Charlie Morton to a 1 year $15 million deal and another veteran left hander in Drew Smyly to a 1 year $11 million deal. Morton pitched 38 innings for the Rays in 2020 with 42 K’s and a 4.74 ERA. Smyly accrued 42 strikeouts with only 9 walks in 26.1 innings last year with the Giants. Both add not only experience but much-needed depth to the Braves’ pitching staff, which plays to Atlanta’s advantage in 2021.
Last year, the Braves faced a lot of questions when it came to starting pitching. Mike Soroka started off strong as the team’s ace before he tore his achilles going to cover first in a game against the Mets in early August of last year. Once he went down, the top of the rotation role fell on Max Fried. Fried never buckled under pressure, putting together his best career season with a 7-0 record with 50 K’s and a 2.25 ERA in 56 innings. The Braves found themselves with a very young back end of the rotation with Ian Anderson and Touki Toussaint anchoring the 3d and fourth spots. Anderson was fantastic, finishing with a 1.95 ERA, while Touki struggled mightily.
This year, the Braves rotation is as follows: Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, Drew Smyly, and Kyle Wright. They are also considering keeping Huascar Ynoa as a potential “opener.” The rotation will change as the season goes on, as Mike Soroka is projected to return late this month. Picking up 2 veterans is a boost to the depth of the pitching as a whole because Charlie Morton, with his experience as an “opener” in Tampa, can be used in the bullpen. Smyly, should he struggle can also be used in a reliever role.
In 2020, the Braves had one of the best bullpens in the majors statistically speaking, ranking in the top 10 in every category except strikeout per 9 IP and walks per 9 IP. The Braves lose closer Mark Melancon, as well as Shane Greene, Darren O’Day, and Josh Tomlin this year. But they retain AJ Minter, Luke Jackson, Sean Newcomb, Grant Dayton, Tyler Matzek, and Chris Martin. The key addition to the bullpen for 2021 besides the potential to see Smyly or Morton, is Will Smith. Smith signed a 3 year deal worth nearly $40 million in the 2020 offseason. The veteran lefty only pitched 16 innings in 2020, but struggled, giving up 7 homers with a 4.50 ERA as the setup man. Smith is expected to be the closer for the Braves this season, and if he is to tak over that role, he will have to cut down on all that.
In general, I expect the Braves’ pitching to build on the success of a year ago, and the added depth with Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, plus the return of Mike Soroka, I fully expect they will have enough pitching, even if injures play in (which they will in a 162 game season), to carry them. Especially with this great lineup which I also expect to continue to put up great numbers so long as they don’t run into the injury bug too hard. My only other questions about the Braves’ offense is Christian Pache. He is finally getting a full season under his belt. He was great when they brought him up, but will he be able to hold his own and help anchor the bottom of the lineup? No doubt he will do fine in center field.
All that said, I fully expect the Braves should make it back to the NLCS and they should take it to a game 7. If they win it, it is a great success. If they lose it in 7, the season was still good. But, anything less than that will be a disappointment.
Now, it’s time to very briefly list my picks for each division and my postseason predictions.
1- Yankees (not really going on a limb there.. lol)
2- Blue Jays (will not be close to Yankees, might be in a tight race for 2nd with Tampa)
3- Rays (not going to have as much success in 162 game season
4- Red Sox (they have no pitching)
5- Orioles (they have nothing)
1- Astros (last shot for them to win another WS)
2- Athletics (sneaky good, but nowhere close to good enough to compete for the division)
3- Angels (Poor Mike Trout. Perpetually the best player on a team that will never make the postseason. Maybe that will change if Freddie Freeman goes there if the Braves don’t re-sign him?)
4- Rangers (lack pitching)
5- Mariners (like the Orioles, they don’t have much to work with).
1- White Sox (Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Tony La Russa as manager, etc. Some nice pieces to keep building around. I like them to give the Twins a fight and take the division.
2- Twins (Still good hitting team, capable of winning the division, but I think they fall just short)
3-4 flip a coin. The Indians traded everybody. The Royals are stuck.
- Tigers (They are just awful all around).
1- Braves (no bias. But, how can you pitch against them at this point?)
2- Mets (Signed Francisco Lindor and a few more pieces to bolster their already strong lineup. Pitching still isn’t where it was a few years ago. They are 2nd but not a challenge for the Braves)
3- Nats (gonna be a close fight between them and the Phillies. The difference is that the Nats have less aged pitching than the Phils.)
4- Phillies (besides Aaron Nola, they are old on the mound. Nola can’t carry them through a full 162 games. Also, can their offense put it together? They struggled even with all that talent. If they do they can be 3rd.)
5- Marlins (More signs of normalcy.. They will return to being the Marlins with a full season, but they had a great run/story last year).
NL Central (intriguing division..)
1- Cardinals (Nolan Arenado was a huge signing for them. But, I can’t say they are clear cut favorites. I basically just thought they have the best chance if they stay healthy).
2- Brewers (Pretty much everyone is returning. But, that is about the only reason I picked them 2nd. I don’t expect Christian Yehlich to carry them like he has been. That is why I am not picking them 1st)
3- Cubs (the window for the Cubs to put together another run is closing as well. I won’t count them out of the mix in what looks like the Region 3-3A of MLB. lol)
4- Reds (good a year ago, but they don’t have enough pitching to carry them through a full season.
5- Pirates (the only certainty in this division. They will be last).
1- Dodgers (really going on a limb there. As they always say, the rich only get richer. Signing Trevor Bauer just proves that)
2- Padres (they’re getting there, but hot take: they’re not going to compete with the Dodgers. They’re going to comfortably be a wild card team. Give them a year or 2 more.)
3-5 flip a coin. The Rockies are rebuilding, the Giants are rebuilding and old as they come, and the Diamondbacks lack pitching). I’ll say Dbacks, Rockies, and Giants in that order.
NL Wild card- Padres over the Mets
AL Wild Card- Blue Jays (or Rays) over the Twins
Braves over Padres
Dodgers over whoever they play. Doesn’t matter. Lol
Yankees. Probably will sweep regardless of who they play.
Astros over White Sox
Dodgers over Braves (in 7)
Yankees over Astros (in 5)
Yankees over Dodgers in 7.