10 storylines for Braves’ 2022 season

Braves first baseman Matt Olson (right) shares a laugh with shortstop Dansby Swanson as they prepare to take batting practice in mid-March at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Braves first baseman Matt Olson (right) shares a laugh with shortstop Dansby Swanson as they prepare to take batting practice in mid-March at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Braves are entering a title-defense campaign for the second time since moving to Atlanta in 1966. Much has changed since the last time they played a meaningful contest. That was Game 6 of the World Series, when Max Fried tossed a gem, Jorge Soler put a pitch into orbit and Freddie Freeman homered in what was his final at-bat with the team.

A memorable, emotional offseason is over. The Braves begin their repeat bid Thursday at Truist Park.

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Here are 10 storylines for the team’s 2022 season:

1. How realistic is a repeat?

On paper, these Braves look phenomenal. They have more talent than even the post-trade-deadline version of last year’s club. The lineup might be top two in MLB. The bullpen – a primary reason for the team’s October run – is seemingly deeper. The rotation has questions, but a top three of Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson can compete with anyone.

The Braves were under .500 at the All-Star break last season. Remember when nothing was going right? This team is better prepared for misfortunes. An avalanche of injuries is always possible, but its depth and the further expanded postseason provides a large margin for error.

2. Matt Olson’s homecoming

Freeman is a Dodger. His replacement is a younger All-Star in Matt Olson, an Atlanta native who’s already inked an eight-year extension. Like it or not, Olson and Freeman are linked for the rest of their careers. They’ll always be compared.

The Braves will just care how Olson does. He’s a new foundational player, one who’s expected to mash more than 30 homers annually while providing excellent defense. His acclimation to his new franchise will be a focal point throughout the campaign.

The Olson-Freeman debate is a major subplot, but both players and teams should be immensely successful. There will be pressure on Olson, from replacing Freeman to playing at home to playing in a pennant race. The Braves have already bet their money – $168 million of it – that he’ll respond with a bang.

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Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna is all smiles as he outruns a trainer while running sprints during spring training in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna is all smiles as he outruns a trainer while running sprints during spring training in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna is all smiles as he outruns a trainer while running sprints during spring training in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

3. Ronald Acuna’s return

The Braves won the World Series without superstar Ronald Acuna, who tore his ACL in July. His injury, of course, prompted one of the greatest trade deadlines in sports history. Acuna’s return is highly anticipated – he’s expected back in May – and will only make a star-studded lineup even deeper.

Acuna will factor heavily into future MVP races, if not the 2022 one. He’s the team’s best player and a joy for baseball fans to watch. His comeback will be a major story throughout MLB. The sport will be better when Acuna returns atop the Braves’ lineup.

4. Potentially baseball’s best bullpen

The Braves’ bullpen is a primary reason they won the World Series. This group is even more talented. The team retained Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter and Luke Jackson, though the latter will be out an extended period, if not the entire season.

Losing Jackson is a blow, but the Braves are equipped to handle injuries. They added Dodgers All-Star closer Kenley Jansen in a surprising move. They acquired the productive Collin McHugh on a great value deal. Kirby Yates, a former All-Star whose recent seasons have been plagued by injury, should join the group later this summer.

This unit has star power, reliability and upside. If this isn’t one of MLB’s best bullpens, the injury bug must’ve struck significantly. Relievers are volatile, but there’s plenty reason to bet on this group being among the best, if not the No. 1, bullpen in the bigs.

5. What happens with the rotation?

Beyond the top three, the rotation is the Braves’ biggest concern. Kyle Muller, Kyle Wright, Spencer Strider, Tucker Davidson and/or Huascar Ynoa could change that by taking a spot and running with it. They’ve each had promising moments.

As for the top three, there’s curiosity with each. The veteran Morton is returning from a fractured fibula. He’s also 38 years old. Can he maintain his steady performance? Fried, meanwhile, is trying to continue ascending after stringing together ace-worthy seasons. Will he earn his first All-Star berth? Anderson enters his second full season and, despite all his accomplishments, hasn’t yet reached his potential (he’s still just 23).

This will be an area to watch for external upgrades. If the bottom of the rotation remains shaky into the summer, expect to hear the Braves linked to any available starter.

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Austin Riley should be in the conversation for NL MVP after his 2021 season. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Credit: AP

Austin Riley should be in the conversation for NL MVP after his 2021 season. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Credit: AP

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Austin Riley should be in the conversation for NL MVP after his 2021 season. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

6. Austin Riley’s MVP chase

Austin Riley was under the radar for much of the 2021 season. He won’t be anymore. Like Fried, he’s an All-Star candidate. If he produces as he did last season, he should also be an MVP candidate. Riley showed remarkable growth, from his improved plate discipline, to him suddenly hitting for average, to his defense.

The difference between good and great is consistency. If Riley continues his trajectory, he’s firmly among the best third basemen in MLB.

7. Marcell Ozuna returns

Marcell Ozuna’s 2021 season was disastrous. He underperformed before fracturing two fingers. While injured, he was charged with domestic violence against his wife. He was on the restricted list during the Braves’ postseason run. He served a suspension retroactively and will be in the lineup opening day.

There are endless questions around Ozuna, how the fans will react and his on-field production chief among them. In the shortened 2020 season, he had a shot at the Triple Crown. Last season, he wasn’t anywhere close to that player. Which form of Ozuna will the Braves get in 2022?

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Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna flips his bat after hitting one over the wall during batting practice at spring training in mid-March in North Port, Fla. Ozuna will try to rebound from a disastrous 2021 season. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna flips his bat after hitting one over the wall during batting practice at spring training in mid-March in North Port, Fla. Ozuna will try to rebound from a disastrous 2021 season. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna flips his bat after hitting one over the wall during batting practice at spring training in mid-March in North Port, Fla. Ozuna will try to rebound from a disastrous 2021 season. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

8. Who’s the NL East challenger(s)?

The Braves won the NL East by 6 ½ games last season, four games in the truncated 2020 campaign (it never felt that close), four games in 2019 and eight games in 2018. Despite the hype, the NL East hasn’t come down to the very end as other divisions have in recent years.

Will it change in 2022? Mets owner Steve Cohen has bought as much veteran help as he could get. But Jacob deGrom is already sidelined for a long period. The Mets should be playoff-quality, but that doesn’t necessarily put them within striking distance of the Braves.

The Phillies’ lineup looks incredibly potent. The bullpen and defense remain questions. The other two teams don’t seem like threats but could be pesky. Miami is improved and boasts impressive pitching but isn’t likely to compete for a postseason spot yet. The Nationals are rebuilding.

9. The designated hitter

The universal DH is here to stay. Going back to Ozuna, he was most productive as a DH in 2020. The Braves will use him in that role again this season, though perhaps they’ll explore their options. The team might also rotate the DH spot to rest players’ legs and tweak the lineup.

What about the NL’s landscape with the DH? It was just 60 games in 2020. This time, we’ll see it for 162. It’ll be interesting to see how NL teams deploy the DH and which clubs it helps most. The Braves should benefit greatly.

10. Dansby Swanson’s swan song?

This is shortstop Dansby Swanson’s final season under contract. An Atlanta-area native, there’s no doubt Swanson would prefer to stay long term. But as we saw with Freeman, emotions can be set aside when millions of dollars are involved. Swanson assembling a career year would help convince the Braves he’s worth their investment.

Maybe, for whatever reasons either or both sides would have, this is Swanson’s last season as a Brave. It’s worth mentioning Swanson and Freeman are both represented by Excel Sports Management.