The champagne had barely stopped fizzing when the Braves and their backers turned their attention to the postseason. That’s a good thing because it means that, unlike last season, October expectations are high after winning the National League East. It’s also inevitable for a franchise that has won plenty of divisional titles only to fall flat in in the fall. Everybody wants more.
It looks like the Braves will face the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. That’s the best possible matchup for them. I think the Braves will beat St. Louis, though some recent developments have been a bit unsettling. That’s also inevitable -- every potential setback is magnified when hopes are high — but it would be nice for the Braves to stroll into October with few worries.
That’s not going to happen. Most of the concerns are about injuries, with first baseman Freddie Freeman’s elbow at the top of the list. Outfielder Ender Inciarte has yet to return from the injured list yet. Utility man Charlie Culberson won’t be back and switch-hitting infielder Johan Camargo likely won’t.
Lineup depth was a big advantage for the Dodgers when they bested the Braves in the 2018 NLDS. The Braves are deeper this season. Unexpected contributions allowed them to make it through a rash of injuries in August. That might be tougher to pull off in October.
If he’s feeling right, Freeman can carry a lineup that otherwise isn’t operating at full capacity. Freeman did the smart thing by taking himself out of Sunday’s game because of right elbow pain caused by a bone spur. He wants to play every day, even when he’s not feeling up to it, but the stakes are too high for that now.
The Braves aren’t making a postseason run if Freeman isn’t himself. That’s why it’s a good idea for Freeman to sit out until the three-game series at the Mets this weekend. He then would have three more days rest days before Game 1 of the NLDS, on Oct. 3 at SunTrust Park.
Freeman’s injury obviously isn’t ideal. It’s unnerving, if we’re being honest. But at least there’s time for him (and everyone worried about him) to recover. Also, the injury is a possible explanation for his recent slump. Over the past two weeks he hit .182 with one extra-base hit.
Maybe I’m being too pessimistic to think that, if Freeman can’t get back to form, the Braves will be in trouble in the NLDS. The Cardinals have great pitching, but the the Braves have three other good hitters with Josh Donaldson, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Donaldson has been the most productive Braves hitter since the All-Star break and Albies leads the team on in-base plus slugging over the past month (.985 entering Tuesday’s game).
It’s true that Acuna lately has struggled to hit. Entering Tuesday, he’d struck out 40 times over his past 110 plate appearances. His strikeout rate over that time was second-worst in the majors behind Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer.
That’s also not ideal for the Braves, but Acuna is so talented there’s always a good chance he figures things out. Once that happens, the Braves will have formidable hitters one through four with Acuna, Albies, Freeman and Donaldson. Nick Markakis returned last week after six-plus weeks on the injured list and should be steady as always.
Things are less certain for the Braves at the bottom of the lineup. Back in June, the Braves had the deepest group of hitters in the NL. A league-high eight Braves batters with at least 150 plate appearances were average or above in on-base plus slugging adjusted for ballparks. Now just four Braves batters with at least 300 PAs are above that mark: Freeman, Donaldson, Acuna and Albies.
Thus, the worry about the dwindling depth. Culberson, Camargo and Inciarte would be good options for Snitker. But it’s possible that some players playing bigger roles now could lengthen the lineup and provide some versatility for matchups.
Infielder Adeiny Hecchavaria has been a poor a hitter during his career, but he’s been producing since the Braves signed him last month. (It’s to the point that Snitker must decide if Hecchavaria starts at shortstop instead of Dansby Swanson, who has scuffled since returning from the injured list.) Matt Joyce has produced a career-high OPS (.872 entering Tuesday) over a significant sample of 225-plus plate appearances. Adam Duvall is showing signs of recovering at the plate after a terrible August.
Obviously, Freeman’s status is a bigger concern than what the Braves might get from those players. Yet there’s always room for less-heralded hitters to make a mark on October. Last year’s World Series MVP was journeyman Steve Pearce, who hit three homers in five games for the Red Sox. The year before that Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor was co-MVP of the NLCS.
The NLCS looks to be the floor for the Braves. It makes sense that the Dodgers are heavy favorites to win the pennant, but it’s not outrageous to think the Braves can upset them. That wosn’t happen if Freeman’s elbow isn’t right. Here’s to better health for the Braves slugger.
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