2020 Record: 35-25
First place, NL East
Team ERA: 4.41 (15th in MLB)
Team OPS: .832 (1st in MLB)
What Went Right
Things didn’t end the way the Braves hoped, as they were eliminated by the Dodgers in seven games in the NLCS, but they won the NL East for the third straight year and they won their first playoff series since 2001. The offense was a juggernaut. Offseason additions Marcell Ozuna (1,067 OPS, led NL with 18 homers, 56 RBI) and Travis d’Arnaud (.321, 9 HR, 34 RBI) worked out better than the Braves could have possibly expected. After dealing with a nasty case of COVID-19 during summer camp, Freddie Freeman had the best season of his career and could be on track for his first NL MVP Award. Ronald Acuna Jr. posted the best OPS (.987) of his career despite missing time with a wrist issue. Ozzie Albies dealt with a wrist issue of his own, but enjoyed a strong stretch run before having some big hits in the postseason. Dansby Swanson had his best all-around season and Adam Duvall was among the league leaders in home runs. Austin Riley made some nice strides after an up-and-down rookie season and Cristian Pache showed enough to suggest he’ll be the regular center fielder in 2021 and beyond. With Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels out, Max Fried emerged as the staff ace with a 2.25 ERA over 11 starts. Ian Anderson posted an impressive 1.95 ERA over his first six starts in the majors before a strong postseason run. The Braves’ bullpen was a major strength, ranking fourth in MLB with a 3.50 ERA. Tyler Matzek (2.79 ERA in 21 appearances) made for an amazing story, but Darren O’Day, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Grant Dayton were among the other standouts from this crew.
What Went Wrong
As mentioned above, Max Fried was the steady hand for the rotation, but the Braves mostly crossed their fingers beyond that. Mike Soroka was the staff ace going into the year, but he ended up making just three starts before tearing his Achilles. The Braves were looking to Cole Hamels to provide some veteran leadership and experience to their rotation, but the southpaw ended up making just one start due to lingering shoulder issues. The Braves gave up on Mike Foltynewicz after just one regular season start. Tommy Milone was a bust after coming over from the Orioles. Sean Newcomb and Touch Toussaint disappointed in their latest stints in the majors and Kyle Wright struggled to find consistency and the strike zone. As for the position player side, Ender Inciarte and Johan Camargo were non-factors and Nick Markakis underwhelmed after changing his mind on opting out of the season due to COVID-19. Yasiel Puig was originally lined up to replace Markakis in the Braves’ outfield, but the signing was nixed after he tested positive for the coronavirus. This lineup was already pretty fun, but imagine how much more fun they’d be with Puig in the mix? Too bad, too bad.
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**Ronald Acuna Jr. was selected first overall in most Yahoo leagues this year and he mostly lived up to the billing with a .250/.406/.581 batting line to go along with 14 homers, 29 RBI, eight steals, and 46 runs scored over 46 games. The 22-year-old missed a couple of weeks in August due to left wrist inflammation before posting some gaudy counting stats down the stretch. The postseason was a struggle, mostly due to lingering effects of the wrist issue, but he’s expected to be fine after an offseason of rest. While Acuna’s batting average fell this year in concert with an uptick in strikeouts, he also increased his walk rate from 10.6 percent to 18.8 percent. Only Aaron Hicks, Bryce Harper, and Juan Soto had a higher walk rate among qualified hitters, so he’s really finding his comfort zone as a leadoff hitter. Few hitters rival him in the areas of hard-hit rate, barrel percentage, and average exit velocity, so confidence should remain high even if the batting average is a bit of moving target. Acuna continues to have a strong case as the No. 1 overall pick again next year.
**It was hard to know what to expect from Freddie Freeman after he dealt with a scary case of COVID-19 during summer camp, but he actually turned in the best season of his career. The 31-year-old was actually a little slow out of the gate, but he caught fire in early August and never looked back. Freeman finished the year as the No. 1 overall player in Yahoo leagues after batting .341/.462/.640 with 13 homers and 53 RBI over 60 games. He’s the favorite for the National League MVP Award, for good reason. Freeman led the NL in both doubles (23) and runs scored (51) and was just one of seven players in MLB who had more walks than strikeouts. He was more patient than ever before and paired that with his highest contact rate. And when he hit the ball, he hit it extremely hard. Speed is the only element of his game that you can’t count on, so it’s hard to see him being a lock as a first-round pick in mixed leagues next year. But he’s as steady as it gets at the first base position.
**Freeman was the No. 1 ranked player in Yahoo leagues, but Marcell Ozuna was right behind him. Falling into the Braves’ lap on a one-year, $18 million contract, the 29-year-old put together a career-year by batting .338/.431/.636 over 60 games while leading the NL with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. While Ozuna struck out more often compared to recent seasons, he made up for that with healthy numbers across the board in terms of barrel percentage, hard-hit percentage, and average exit velocity. He earned this production in this truncated 2020 campaign, but we’ll know more about the outlook for him depending on where he ends up signing this offseason.
**This was an uneven season for Ozzie Albies, but his wrist injury provides all the context needed here. The 23-year-old hit just .159 with a .468 OPS through 11 games before missing five weeks, but he slashed .338/.372/.581 with five homers over 18 games upon his return in September. On the whole, he took a step back with his approach and really struggled against left-handed pitching, but the sample is so small that it can be taken with a grain of slat. Albies settled into the No 5 spot down the stretch and into the postseason, but his spot in the lineup could change depending on what happens with Marcell Ozuna. Still, Albies deserves to be considered as the top fantasy second baseman going into 2021.
**Could Travis d’Arnaud be the No. 2 fantasy catcher in drafts next year? It’s not a crazy idea. Coming off an unexpected turnaround with the Rays in 2019, the 31-year-old inked a two-year, $16 million deal with the Braves last offseason, which is looking like one of the better bargains in quite some time. Mostly hitting fourth or fifth in Brian Snitker’s lineup, d’Arnaud produced a .321/.386/.533 batting line with nine home runs and 34 RBI over 44 games. He now has 25 home runs and 103 RBI in 147 games dating back to the start of last season. The batted ball metrics mostly backed up his batting average this season, though he never hit higher than .268 in any of his previous seasons in the majors. The Braves’ lineup should remain potent even if Ozuna exits, so d’Arnaud has really earned this push. Salvador Perez, Will Smith, and Willson Contreras are among the catchers vying for the No. 2 spot behind J.T. Realmuto in fantasy leagues.
**Max Fried was the saving grace for the Braves’ rotation this year, posting a 2.25 ERA and 50/19 K/BB ratio in 56 innings across 12 starts. He was a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate before putting up a 4.91 ERA in September in between an absence due to back spasms. While the southpaw couldn’t hang with the elite fantasy starters in terms of strikeout percentage, he did a good job keeping the ball on the ground while limiting hard contact. He’s shaping up to be a respectable No. 2 starter on a mixed league staff next year.
**Ian Anderson made quite the impact as a midseason call-up, posting a 1.95 ERA and 41/14 K/BB ratio in 32 1/3 innings across six regular season starts before putting up an impressive 0.96 ERA during the Braves’ postseason run. The 22-year-old was a consensus top-50 prospect coming into the year and he showed exactly why he’s a name to be excited about for the long-term. Anderson mostly sits in the mid-90s with his fastball, but his changeup is his true shutdown pitch. Opposing batters hit just .104/.175/.146 against it during the regular season. Control is still a question mark here, even going back to the minors, but he deserves to go into 2021 as a relevant pitcher in mixed leagues.
Team Needs: The future of Marcell Ozuna is the big question, though uncertainty over the DH spot for 2021 adds an interesting wrinkle to where the Braves might stand. Ozuna is going to be one of the most sought-after players on the market and the Braves could be outbid even in what’s expected to be a quite offseason. The Braves expect Mike Soroka to be throwing by spring training, but they have resisted giving any official timetable on his readiness for the season. With that in mind, it’s essential that they secure some insurance for their rotation. Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day are all free agents, so the Braves figure to add a late-inning arm to the mix as well. Retaining Melancon is a possibility.