10 predictions on the Braves entering the 2021 season

Some of these will come to fruition. Some won’t materialize. Some will be absolutely laughed at by October. But here are 10 of my predictions — some bold, some not-so outlandish — on the Braves’ upcoming season.

ExploreMark Bradley: Braves are very good. They know it.

1. The Braves win their fourth consecutive National League East title

I admit I’m not as confident in this prediction as I was a season ago. There are questions with this team, and the depth is thinner than years past. But I can’t talk myself into any of the Braves’ eastern adversaries. I think the Mets will be a wild-card team, but they’d need a good bit to swing in their favor to surpass the Braves. The Nationals should be much better, too. Yet the Braves have the best team on paper and they’ve proven it in recent seasons, so their latest division streak continues. I’ll say 93 wins, besting New York by five games.

2. Freddie Freeman doesn’t repeat as the MVP … but Ronald Acuna is a finalist

I think Acuna’s in for a monstrous season. I’ll say he joins the 40-40 club — that’s 40 homers and 40 steals — and reaches 100 RBIs for the second time in his career. Last season was a bit weird in that Acuna — arguably MLB’s most exciting individual — was overshadowed by Freeman and Marcell Ozuna. His wrist injury didn’t help matters. But he’s healthy, experienced and has 162 games to do damage. I’m betting on a career year.

Does that mean he wins MVP? I’ll say Acuna is at least a finalist alongside the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. I think each of their teams will be successful, but we’ll see which story generates the most attention.

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

3. Max Fried earns his first All-Star nod and is the team’s best starter again

I think Fried has it all figured out. He’s well past those troublesome blisters that plagued his early days. He has an “elite season” on his resume, even if it was a truncated one. He has enough experience under his belt that he should be considered closer to a veteran now. Fried is the most comfortable bet to be the team’s best starter again. I could also see a scenario where, at the end of the season, Soroka has fully reacclimated himself and is challenging Fried for this unofficial title. But over the course of the year, Fried will be the Braves’ best and most valuable starter.

4. Speaking of the All-Star Game, the hosts will have at least five representatives

The All-Star Game is scheduled to be at Truist Park this July. The Braves will be well represented. I think Freeman, Acuna, Fried, Travis d’Arnaud and Ozzie Albies make the All-Star team. Would Acuna participate in the home run derby? MLB should beg him, Tatis and Juan Soto to do it. Anyway, the All-Star Game should be a huge hit nationally as the country continues trending in the right direction. The Braves will be at the forefront of it.

5. Jacob Webb becomes the Braves’ most valuable reliever outside the core four (Will Smith, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek)

He won’t be on the opening-day roster, but I’m buying Webb stock. Really, the only reason not to is injuries, because Webb has been consistently effective when he’s been out there. If he stays on the field in 2021 — and the Braves eventually will need him to — I think he takes another leap forward. The Braves need another couple relievers to emerge. I’ll say Webb does just that, and by season’s end, he’s viewed in a different light. I also think 35-year-old Nate Jones sticks around and proves an important part of the bullpen.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

6. The Braves will be thrilled that the designated hitter is on its way in 2022 because Ozuna’s defense remains a rough watch

I’ve been mostly positive in this piece, so here’s something negative. The Braves have reiterated their belief Ozuna can be an average left fielder. I think the reality is he’s not a good defender but you’ll live with hiding him in left so you have everything else he brings to the table. This season will further confirm that. When the universal DH arrives next season, Ozuna spends the remaining three years of his contract as a regular DH. Spectators rejoice.

7. These rookies will debut for the Braves in 2021: LHP Kyle Muller, OF Drew Waters, RHP Jasseel De La Cruz

Your guess here would be as good as mine, but I’m going bold. I think Muller could contribute in the bullpen later in the season, so it’s not too difficult to find a path for him if he succeeds in Triple-A. Waters is more challenging, but if he’s having a productive season, perhaps he earns a look in September. I’ll guess, somehow, a road opens for Muller and Waters to appear in the majors this season, even if the time is extremely brief. De La Cruz is a hard-thrower who provides additional pitching depth.

I wasn’t bold enough to predict it, but keep an eye on infielder Braden Shewmake, who’s played only 14 games at Double-A. He was going to ascend the system quickly before the world was disrupted. It’s unlikely, but maybe he gets a cup of coffee in the bigs late this year as a utility player. There have been bigger surprises.

Final thought here: Several seasons ago, Max Fried was called up from Double-A for his debut. Maybe there’s another unexpected debut in the coming months. A handful of relievers impressed manager Brian Snitker at times this spring, including William Woods, Freddy Tarnok, Daysbel Hernandez and Victor Vodnik, though none have pitched above Single-A. Catcher Shea Langeliers is a college product and advanced behind the plate, especially in throwing out baserunners. The Braves have good catching depth, so it might take an injury and Langeliers surging to reach that point, but I suppose it can’t be ruled out.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

8. The Braves’ underappreciated MVP: Huascar Ynoa

When I asked general manager Alex Anthopoulos to name one player who’s primed to take a step forward, he said Ynoa. Snitker has raved about the righty over the past month. Ynoa was valuable in his rookie season, covering innings at a time few Braves pitchers could do so. I think Ynoa’s versatility in the rotation and bullpen will be crucial. I’m not sure what the upside is, but I feel confident Ynoa will be a generally solid innings eater throughout his career. He comes up big for the Braves in 2021.

9. William Contreras is the back-up catcher by season’s end

This isn’t a criticism of Alex Jackson, but more so a testament to Contreras. The Braves want him playing regularly and that’s why he’s starting the season at the alternate site (and later Triple-A). You can only put off that talent for so long. The Braves, with World Series aspirations, see Contreras as one of the players who can help them reach their goals. He ends the 2021 season in the majors, and with d’Arnaud a free agent next winter, Contreras might be positioned to become the starting catcher moving forward.

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

10. The Dodgers repeat as champions, defeating the Yankees in six games

The playoff field: New York, Chicago, Houston, Tampa Bay and Toronto make it in the American League. Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Diego and New York make it in the NL. I think the Braves have an excellent team, but I’m not sure they’re better than the Dodgers or Padres, as currently constructed. My predictions are almost always wrong, so you can thank me if this season culminates with the Braves’ first championship since 1995.

As for who I did pick, Dodgers-Yankees, I know, I know. Way to go out on a limb. I think this is the year the coastal elites reign supreme, to the dismay of many, and it ends with the Dodgers becoming the first repeat champion since the 1998-2000 Yankees.