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MLB Team Roundup: Atlanta Braves

Spencer Strider

Spencer Strider

James A. Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

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Atlanta Braves

2022 Record: 101-61
First place, NL East
Team ERA: 3.46 (5th in MLB)
Team OPS: .761 (2nd in MLB)

What Went Right

The defending World Series champion Braves won their fifth straight NL East championship. They pulled it off in thrilling fashion. After trailing the Mets for nearly the entire season, the Braves swept a three-game series in the final weekend of the regular season and beat Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Chris Bassitt along the way. Dansby Swanson led the team in WAR, playing excellent defense at shortstop while slashing .277/.329/.447 with 25 homers and 18 steals. Austin Riley posted a 142 OPS + (better than his 135 mark in 2021) while blasting a career-best 38 homers. The Braves’ season largely turned around on the backs of two outstanding rookies, as Spencer Strider reeled off a 2.67 ERA across 131 2/3 innings while Michael Harris II hit .297/.339/.514 with 19 homers and 20 steals over 114 games while wowing with his defense in center field. Kyle Wright was a breakout star in the rotation, leading the majors with 21 wins. Max Fried did his part as the staff ace, posting a 2.48 ERA across 30 starts. Travis d’Arnaud and William Contreras proved to be an excellent combo behind the plate. It was a struggle for Matt Olson as times as he replaced longtime first baseman Freddie Freeman, but he came on strong down the stretch as the Braves jumped in front of the Mets in the NL East. Kenley Jansen led the National League with 41 saves and Raisel Iglesias was one of the best acquisitions from the trade deadline. A.J. Minter, Collin McHugh, and Dylan Lee were among the other names that made the Braves’ bullpen a strength. Rookie Vaughn Grissom also provided a lift at times while Ozzie Albies was sidelined.

What Went Wrong

While the Braves completed an amazing turnaround to win the NL East, they came up short against the division rival Phillies in the NLDS. All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies barely saw the field this year, as a fractured foot and broken pinkie finger limited him to just 64 games. He was forced to miss the postseason. After serving out his suspension for domestic violence, Marcell Ozuna posted a miserable .687 OPS and was also arrested and charged with a DUI during the summer. 2021 postseason hero Eddie Rosario missed extensive time due to a laser eye procedure and posted a troubling .587 OPS over 270 plate appearances. Adam Duvall struggled with a .677 OPS over 86 games before undergoing season-ending surgery in late-July for a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist. Huascar Ynoa ended up making just two rough starts with the big club while Ian Anderson put up a brutal 5.00 ERA over 22 starts and actually finished the season in Triple-A where he didn’t fare much better. Jake Odorizzi was largely ineffective after coming over from the Astros in a trade, posting a 5.24 ERA over 10 starts.

Fantasy Slants

**It’s hard to say anything went “wrong” with Ronald Acuña, Jr., which is why he was omitted from the section above, but there’s no question he wasn’t quite his normal self after coming back from a torn ACL in his right knee. After making his return in late April, Acuña hit .266/.351/.413 with 15 home runs and 29 steals across 119 games and appeared to lose a step defensively. His .413 slugging percentage was a full 105 points lower than his previous career-low in 2019. Acuña was still faster than most players and he hit the ball harder than most, as well, but he took a noticeable step back in all areas. He also wasn’t nearly as patient as he had been the previous two seasons. Now, this doesn’t mean that the Acuña we saw this year is some sort of “new normal.” The one that we got in 2022 was still pretty useful in fantasy leagues, after all. It’s fair to expect a bounce back to the elite category as he gets further away from surgery. It’s very unlikely he’ll slip out of the top five picks in mixed fantasy league drafts next year.

**Austin Riley was once again one of the most valuable options at third base in fantasy leagues, amassing 38 home runs, 93 RBI, and 90 runs scored over 159 games while posting a .273/.349/.528 batting line. His batting average fell 30 points compared to 2021, but that wasn’t exactly unexpected. He had a .368 BABIP last year, after all. It checked in at .315 this year and he actually lowered his strikeout rate from 25.4 percent to 24.2 percent. It’s all good news here. Riley actually hit the ball harder than he did last year, registering in the 98th percentile in barrel percentage, the 96th percentile in average exit velocity, and the 95th percentile in hard-hit percentage. He’s a slam-dunk top-five option at a shallow position. Odds are he’ll come off the board in the second round next year.

**Spencer Strider was a sensation for the Braves this season and played a key part in their turnaround after joining the rotation in late May. He posted a 2.77 ERA in his 20 starts and allowed more than three earned runs just three times. For the season overall, he struck out an astounding 202 batters in just 131 2/3 innings. The 24-year-old made all sorts of history as a rookie, reaching the 200-strikeout mark in fewer innings than anyone (surpassing Randy Johnson in 2001) and also became the first pitcher to ever reach 200 strikeouts with fewer than 100 hits (he gave up 86) allowed. He also established the new franchise record with a 16-strikeout performance against the Rockiest on September 1. Strider went down with an oblique injury in mid-September before a shaky performance against the Phillies in the NLDS, but the Braves still rewarded his outstanding rookie campaign by signing him to a six-year, $75 million extension in October. Strider throws hard and induces plenty of whiffs on his slider and changeup, so it’s hard to poke holes in what he did this year. In fact, according to Sarah Langs of MLB, his slider had the highest whiff rate of any pitch type (min. 250 swings) from a starter this season. He’s likely already cracked the top-10 starters in mixed leagues.

**Max Fried might not have the strikeout flash of Strider, but he was outstanding in his own right this season, posting a 2.48 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 170/32 K/BB ratio over 30 starts. The southpaw had a 2.14 ERA over his final 21 starts, and the Braves went 15-6 in those outings to power their surge in the NL East. Fried displayed the best control of his career and also gave up just 12 homers while logging a career-high 185 1/3 innings. Reaching 200 innings for the first time could help make up for the lack of strikeouts relative to the starting pitcher landscape at large, but he still looks like a potential value from here.

**Kyle Wright was an unexpected stud for the Braves during their World Series run in 2021 and that success carried over to this season, as he led the majors with 21 wins while posting a 3.19 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 30 starts. It was an amazing transformation for a pitcher who struggled with a 6.56 ERA through 70 regular season innings between 2018-2021. His control was also vastly better than anything he had done previously. Wright not only switched up his pitch mix (he wasn’t as slider-heavy compared to his previous chances), but he also did things like throw his curveball harder than the past. The formula worked for him as he’ll likely go into 2023 as a top-100 pick in mixed leagues. Keep in mind that Wright posted a 3.50 ERA after the start of May (and a 3.89 xERA for the year), so keep those numbers in mind for a baseline.

**Spencer Strider and Kyle Wright were surprises in the rotation this season, but Michael Harris II was the biggest surprise for the Braves this season. It was hard to know what to expect from a 21-year-old who had played just 43 games above High-A. However, he held his own from the start and ultimately finished with .297/.339/.515 batting line to go along with 19 homers, 64 RBI, 20 steals, and 75 runs scored over 114 games. He’s a five-category dynamo and the heavy favorite over Strider for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Harris certainly has some work to do with his approach, but he’s still plenty young enough to figure it out. He hits the plenty ball hard and his sprint speed was in the 95th percentile this season, so there’s every reason to think he can be a valuable all-around fantasy option moving forward. He’s at least on the cusp of being a top-10 mixed league outfielder on draft day next spring.

**Perhaps the most interesting situation to examine is what Dansby Swanson did in his walk year. Though he was drafted outside the top-12 shortstops in most mixed formats, only Francisco Lindor and Trea Turner ended up being more valuable than him in Yahoo leagues this season. Swanson hit .277/.329/.447 with 25 homers and established new career-highs in RBI (96), stolen bases (18), and runs scored (99). Swanson began the year mostly hitting ninth, but he eventually found a home in the No. 2 spot. That sort of volume, assuming he stays in that spot wherever he plays in 2023, certainly changes his outlook moving forward. Swanson has sacrificed some contact for the added power in recent seasons, but he’s also hit the ball much harder than when he first broke into the league. Again, some of his success this season was about lineup placement, but it’s time to put some more respect on his name in fantasy leagues.

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Key Free Agents: Dansby Swanson, Kenley Jansen, Luke Jackson, Jesse Chavez, Jake Odorizzi, Adam Duvall, Robbie Grossman

Team Needs: The Dansby Swanson situation looms large going into the offseason. Do the Braves think Vaughn Grissom is a potential long-term answer at shortstop? The club has locked up most of their core at a reasonable rate, so they can certainly afford to keep Swanson. The question is whether they actually want to do that. Charlie Morton is already signed for next season, but Alex Anthoupolus will still likely bring in another starter to complete the rotation. The Braves should also have their sights set on a reliable left fielder as well as some additional firepower for their bullpen with Jansen hitting free agency.