Opening Day for the 2023 season is Thursday, and the Atlanta Braves start the year on the road – as per usual – against the Washington Nationals.
With the Braves more than five years removed from a rebuild and firmly entrenched as one of the top contenders to win the National League pennant each year, much of the roster was already decided, truthfully, when last season ended. That left very little to be decided this spring, and even less has been left to the imagination as the season approaches.
Still, there are a few loose threads and points of intrigue heading into Thursday’s opener.
What is Ozuna’s role?
You’d have to be hiding under a rock to not realize that Marcell Ozuna is a polarizing figure in Braves Country. While any fan, when thinking logically, would want every player on the roster to play well and help the team, many Braves fans would rather see the much-maligned slugger playing somewhere else this season.
For his part, Ozuna has stepped up offensively this spring. Playing largely with the B-team on road trips, the Dominican outfielder and designated hitter has posted a .321 batting average and .859 OPS across 17 games. As camp has dwindled to numbers more resembling a regular season roster, Ozuna has become a more consistent presence in the A-squad lineup. But the question still remains, what will his role be beginning Thursday?
There has been some offseason speculation that perhaps Travis d’Arnaud and Sean Murphy would essentially lock down the catcher and DH slots. This would leave Ozuna as a part of some sort of platoon in left field with Eddie Rosario and the other options out there. Frankly, though, I don’t expect this will be the case. Instead, I expect that Murphy will be the primary catcher, with d’Arnaud getting a start or two each week. While Murphy and TDA could certainly see their ABs in the DH role, I think Ozuna will get a bulk of the starts there unless he’s just atrocious.
What is the Impact of Iglesias’ Injury?
Unfortunately, closer Raisel Iglesias will start the year on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. This was a real letdown considering the excitement surrounding Iglesias’ presence at the back end of the bullpen after he posted a miniscule 0.34 ERA in 28 games for the Braves at the end of the 2022 season.
Initial reports are that Iglesias would be re-evaluated in the next few days, and if the inflammation is down, it wouldn’t take incredibly long for a primarily one-inning reliever to get back up to speed. But the Braves will still need to turn to someone else to close out games in the short-term, and that replacement could be a long-term one if there are complications.
First out of the gate will likely be AJ Minter, who was stellar in his own right in 2022. The lefty was third in the majors in appearances with 75 and had the third-lowest ERA among relievers with at least 70 appearances at 2.06. He also led the league in holds with 34. I would expect he gets the first opportunity to take over closing duties, and if Minter continues his trajectory from last season, he won’t let the job go until Iglesias returns.
If Minter were to falter, or if Iglesias’ absence is a lengthy one and someone needs to step up during a busy stretch, Joe Jimenez is another likely candidate. Pitching for the Tigers, Jimenez posted a 2.00 FIP last season with a 12.2 strikeout rate per nine innings. Kirby Yates also has closing experience, carding a MLB-best 41 saves in 2019, but that was also the last time he saw significant action after being sidelined by injury.
Who Will Stick in the Rotation?
As the season begins, three rotation spots are seemingly locked in for Opening Day starter Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Spencer Strider. A fourth will belong to Kyle Wright eventually, but his season is being delayed after a cortisone injection in his shoulder. That opened the door for both Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd to make the rotation out of camp as rookies, but how long will either of them stay?
Both pitchers were impressive this spring, but they’ll jump into immediate competition for the rotation’s fifth spot unless the team carries six starters upon Wright’s season debut. Both men provide another lefty in the mix, and they have near identical ERA and strikeout numbers in the minors. This spring, Dodd struck out batters at a higher rate, but Shuster did a slightly better job limiting damage otherwise.
As if that weren’t enough intrigue, Michael “Don’t Call Me Mike” Soroka could throw his hat in the ring at some point. After having his career derailed by a handful of injuries, the Canadian righty returned to the mound this spring, allowing three hits and a run in 1 1/3 innings of work. If he continues to progress, Soroka’s full return to the rotation would be quite the story.
Will the Sophomores Slump?
Last season, the Braves had a historic rookie class, led by the top two vote-getters in the NL Rookie of the Year race. The actual ROY, Michael Harris II, was phenomenal in taking over center field, as he posted an .853 OPS with 19 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 414 ABs – a real threat for a 30-30 campaign when extrapolated over a full season. Runner-up Spencer Strider had his own historic season, though, by posting an eye-popping 202 strikeouts in 131 2/3 innings to go with a 2.67 ERA. That led to both players signing multi-year extensions before the season ended.
This year will be different, though. Harris blazed onto the scene last year after beginning the season in Double-A and kept the momentum going all year. For Strider, he made the team as a bullpen arm but took over in the rotation to try and shore up the fifth spot.
In 2023, both men are regarded among the best in the NL at their positions and put up the kind of rookie years that have people daydreaming about the awards beyond Rookie of the Year. The math isn’t difficult to see what could be on the horizon if either Harris or Strider can keep anywhere near their 2022 paces for a full season. But “sophomore slump” is a phrase for a reason. As the league tries to catch up, will either or both be able to make the adjustments to continue their success?
How Back is Ronald?
Ronald Acuña Jr. is widely regarded as one of the most exciting players in baseball when healthy. After bursting onto the scene in 2018, the Venezuelan phenom very nearly posted a 40-40 season in his first full year in the bigs, finishing with 41 home runs and 37 stolen bases in 2019.
But that was the last time we saw a full season of “La Bestia.” Of course, 2020 happened for everyone, and Ronald did what he could, posting a .987 OPS with 14 home runs and 8 stolen bases. That’s essentially another 40-30 pace, and 2021 started no different. Acuña came out of the gates blazing hot, unlike the rest of the team, and had 24 home runs, 19 doubles and 17 stolen bases with a .990 OPS through 82 games. Then his season ended due to a knee injury, and 2022 was just about recovery for the most part.
This spring, though, Ronald seems rejuvenated. In both spring training and the World Baseball Classic, the young star’s legs seem to be as healthy as we’ve seen since the start of 2021, as seen on a triple in the closing games of spring.
And if Ronald is really back to the form we saw early in 2021, the rest of the league is in for a show.
Acuna is one hundred percent the player I am watching the closest the first few weeks. If he is all the way back to a top 3 MLB OF, that makes Dansby’s loss a lot less impactful.
oddly quiet here lately, guess we are all waiting for the games to begin
I expect people also adapting habits to new format, etc.
New piece from a new author!