That magical day that only comes once a year for all the good boys and girls is finally here.
It’s Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves, who will open on the road against the Washington Nationals at 1 p.m. today. But before we pass from the offseason into the regular season, let’s have one last round of prognostication, as Kirk Hoyer and Ryan Cothran join me to make some key predictions for the Braves this year.
*Ryan here. I added my takes late so no, Jeremy is not ignoring me which he will probably start to if I don’t stop texting him so much.
* Jeremy here. Because I love Ryan, I went back to make sure it didn’t look like I was ignoring him.
Truthfully, Acuña is almost cheating here, which is why all of us were smart enough to put his name down. The star right fielder was the National League’s top vote-getter in 2022 despite having played in just 59 games with a .776 OPS before the break. Fried and Riley made their first All-Star games last year and have given us no indication they won’t be back to that form in 2023.
Harris is a bold pick from Kirk due to the sheer volume of outfield talent in the NL, but I personally love it. He has the kind of game and swagger that is going to catch attention if he can come anywhere close to matching his 2022 output. Murphy also has his work cut out for him with the Contreras brothers still in the NL, but he’s going to get his chances. The Braves wouldn’t cough up the kind of pieces they gave up – including the younger Contreras, a 2022 All-Star – and sign Murphy to a long-term deal if the plan wasn’t to make him the primary catcher and give him designated hitter days. If he’s hitting, he’ll make the ASG.
Given predictions elsewhere, Ryan is wise to go with Strider here. If he’s as good in the first half of the year as he was in 2022, he’ll get plenty of attention. Also, Ozzie is similar to Ronald in that he has established himself as a fan- and player-favorite who will get his fair share of votes, especially if he’s back to 2019 form.
KIRK: Michael Soroka, Comeback Player of the Year
JEREMY: Acuña, Most Valuable Player
If you find a Braves fan who doesn’t want Kirk to be right here, slap them in the face for me. Actually, don’t do that because “a guy who writes for the Braves Journal told me to do it” is not a solid defense in a court of law. But still, Soroka returning to be a big enough contributor to the Braves’ success that he could win this award, after all he’s been through, would be the kind of thing you make a movie about.
As for my pick, Ronald deserves to have the kind of season he was on pace for before his injury in 2021. If he does that – which would include about 45 home runs, more than 30 stolen bases and about 35 doubles with a OPS of nearly 1.000 – his first MVP award could be well within reach.
Ryan goes for the gusto and picks some very solid Gold Glove candidates. Max Fried is entering Greg Maddux status where he’s probably going to win every NL Gold Glove for pitchers until he nails at least four camera men throwing to first. The others are also great picks, especially since plenty has been written about the importance of catchers’ throwing ability with some of the new rules. Additionally, Harris could’ve easily won the CF award last season, so he’ll be on a short list of contenders all year.
And a Strider Cy Young is obviously something I’m a big fan of.
KIRK: Kenley Jansen, Most Pitch Clock Violations
JEREMY: Spencer Strider, NL Strikeout Leader
RYAN: Ronald Acuña Jr. 40/40
I’m glad Kirk decided to have fun with this one because if Kenley can stay healthy, the former Brave’s battle with the new pitch clock rules could be the stuff of legends. Always a man to take his time and twitch his way through a delivery, there may be no greater betting favorite in all of sports than Jansen to be the world leader in such violations.
As for me, I chose to be more serious because I am a professional. Actually, I’m not a professional, but I do love Spencer Strider an awful lot. And I’m prepared to defend that love. As a rookie – he would’ve been my vote for Rookie of the Year, for what it’s worth – all Strider did was record 202 strikeouts, good for 11th in the majors. As impressive as that is on its own, you have to go down to Blake Snell in the No. 30 spot to find someone who didn’t pitch at least 14 more innings than the Clemson product did. If Strider can throw the 170 innings that basically everyone he trailed a year ago threw, he could take the Krown.
What needs to be remembered about Ronald is that in 2019, he didn’t really start TRYING to regularly still bases until sometime in June. If he comes out the gate trying to swipe bags with healthy legs, 40/40 is well within reach.
KIRK: Jared Shuster
JEREMY: Braden Shewmake
RYAN: Dylan Dodd
Shuster and Dylan Dodd earned the right to continue the fight for a long-term rotation spot into the regular season, and Kirk has chosen his horse. Shuster was impressive during Spring Training, carding a 1.45 ERA and 0.589 WHIP in 18 2/3 innings across five appearances. He’s expected to start Sunday’s series finale in Washington, so he’ll get be the first Braves rookie to get a real crack at making an impact on the 2023 season.
Shewmake, meanwhile, did not make the Opening Day roster after frankly being the team’s best shortstop this spring. Always a solid defender, the 2019 first-round draft pick forced himself into the mix for the starting spot by hitting .323 with an .823 OPS and three spring extra-base hits. My prediction is that Shewmake continues that success in Triple-A and forces his way past Orlando Arcia for the starting role by June.
Ryan went the other side of the coin from Kirk, and it’s hard to blame him. While he didn’t have quite the ERA/WHIP numbers that Shuster did, Dodd was able to maintain his 10ish K/9 rate despite the jump to facing big-league hitting. If he can do that in the regular season, the sky is the limit.
The few-game difference here is essentially negligible. We all agree that the Braves will still be very good in 2023, but the National League East – other than those poor Nationals – continues to get better. The Phillies are the reigning NL champions, the Mets won 101 games a year ago, and the Marlins continue to build a roster that will win sooner rather than later. And even though the new schedule means fewer games against those division foes, it also means more games against the best teams from the other divisions. Winning 100 games even one year is difficult, so predicting the Braves to not repeat that feat seems more than logical.
KIRK: World Series Champs
JEREMY: World Series Champs
I can’t wholly speak for Kirk or Ryan here, but I can guarantee you I’m not just being a homer. This Braves team – at least on paper – is as complete a team as we’ve maybe ever seen in Atlanta, and it’s more complete than any other team in the big leagues, honestly.
The lineup is versatile, with the ability to string together rallies or just mash the ball out of the yard, and guys like Acuña, Harris and Ozzie Albies provide plenty of speed on the bases. The rotation boasts a Cy Young finalist, a Rookie of the Year finalist, the 2022 MLB wins leader AND a guy named Charlie Morton. And as if all that weren’t enough, the bullpen was recently projected to be the most valuable in baseball according to FanGraphs.
Simply put, the 2023 Braves roster is loaded, and we see no reason to predict anything short of a trophy.
Braves Journalers, give us your predictions in the comments!