3 knowns, unknowns as Braves begin spring training

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Could the Braves try Sean Newcomb as a reliever again? There are plenty of unknowns in Atlanta's bullpen.

The Braves begin spring training Thursday, formally launching their latest pursuit of another World Series title.

That statement reads a bit differently this year after the Braves came within 12 outs of the National League pennant in October. The three-time NL East champs have their sights much higher than another division title in 2021.

Retaining slugger Marcell Ozuna meant the Braves were keeping most of their 2020 team intact. There are several tweaks, especially among the pitchers, that will make or break this club as a contender.

Here are three certainties and uncertainties concerning the 2021 Braves as they prepare to take the fields in North Port, Fla.

THE THREE UNKNOWNS

1. The top of the lineup is stellar.

Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna created one of baseball’s best offensive trios. The Braves might opt to change their lineup in 2021, but it would be fair to wonder why. There aren’t many clubs who can throw a more frightening threesome out there to start a game.

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Even if the Braves alter their lineup - for example, shifting Ozzie Albies back into the second spot and moving Freeman back to his third slot - that’s an imposing setup. Whatever the combination, the top of the Braves’ order is menacing and a primary reason why they are expected to reach the postseason for the fourth consecutive season.

2. The athletic ability, defense and continuity is still a strength.

Over the past three seasons, there probably hasn’t been a team more exciting on the base paths than the Braves. They’re a true modern baseball team, well-equipped with dynamic athletes who can fly around the bases and make eye-popping defensive plays.

And yes, despite hiding Ozuna in left field, the Braves should have a solid defense again. Their defense has been an underrated part of their run. Other than Ozuna, they’ll have above average defenders at every position. Adding Cristian Pache improves the defense and athletic ability even further.

There’s also the fact that this team has chemistry. Some roll their eyes at intangible talk, but it matters. The players and coaches genuinely care for and enjoy playing with each other. The core of this team has experienced the best and worst together. Continuity works in the Braves’ favor.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

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Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos explains four-year deal for slugger Marcell Ozuna, how that affects the lineup and other possible deals.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

3. The talent level is just better than nearly everyone else’s.

Scan the National League’s landscape. You’ll find two teams comparable, on paper, to the Braves: Los Angeles and San Diego. Scan the American League, and you’ll find very few in the same talent range. The point: The Braves boast one of the seven (or so) most talented rosters in baseball. These Braves already have proved their talent translates into wins.

Injuries happen. Players can underperform. But the Braves are in an enviable position with an elite talent base. The roster will be nitpicked — as every contender’s should be — but the vast majority of MLB would happily trade situations. It’s difficult to envision a scenario, barring a huge injury bug, where the Braves aren’t firmly in the playoff mix. They’re aiming for much more, but having a sustainable contender that will give you annual bites at the apple is an ideal situation in any sport.

THE THREE UNKNOWNS

1. What becomes of the bullpen?

Former closer Mark Melancon reportedly will join the Padres. Darren O’Day is a Yankee. Shane Greene is still a free agent. For now, the Braves appear willing to roll with what they have.

Lefty Will Smith, last winter’s prized signing, could be slated for more closing opportunities. Command artist Chris Martin also could handle the ninth inning. Southpaw A.J. Minter, who revived his career in 2020, has closer experience. That trio takes on more responsibility.

The team’s feel-good story of 2020 was lefty Tyler Matzek, who came out of nowhere to become a high-leverage reliever. He’s back for 2021. So is veteran long reliever Josh Tomlin, who’s proved important on and off the field the past two seasons.

Luke Jackson and Grant Dayton, tendered contracts, are competing for spots. Carl Edwards and Nate Jones, who combine for 15 years experience, are non-roster invitees. Huascar Ynoa could see time as a starter and reliever. Jacob Webb is in the mix. Could the Braves try Sean Newcomb as a reliever again? There are plenty of unknowns here.

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Braves catcher Alex Jackson bats in an intrasquad game on Saturday, July 18, 2020 in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves catcher Alex Jackson bats in an intrasquad game on Saturday, July 18, 2020 in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)
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Braves catcher Alex Jackson bats in an intrasquad game on Saturday, July 18, 2020 in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

2. Who’s on the bench?

This might be the team’s No. 1 area of concern. There’s a decent chance the Braves will have an entirely remade bench from last season. Veterans Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers remain free agents. Adam Duvall is a Marlin. Charlie Culberson is a Ranger. Johan Camargo, tendered a contract, is fighting for a spot on the team. The same goes for Pablo Sandoval, who’s back as a non-roster invitee this spring.

Among others vying for spots: Two-time All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis and seven-year veteran outfielder Abraham Almonte. Then there’s outfielder Ender Inciarte, who’s competing for a starting spot, and infielder Jack Mayfield, who’s played sparingly in the majors but showed some pop in the minors. Former Braves prospect Travis Demeritte, who’s returned from Detroit, is versatile and could supply some bench power.

Youngsters Alex Jackson and William Contreras are options to back up Travis d’Arnaud at catcher. The bench group won’t be an exciting list of names, but the Braves are trusting their evaluation skills and ability to extract the most out of individuals. The bench could be addressed at the trade deadline.

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Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud, left, first bumps starting pitcher Ian Anderson (48) after ending the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud, left, first bumps starting pitcher Ian Anderson (48) after ending the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
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Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud, left, first bumps starting pitcher Ian Anderson (48) after ending the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

3. Are we assuming too much with the rotation?

There’s a lot of praise for the Braves’ rotation, and while it certainly has a high ceiling, one can’t ignore what could go wrong. There’s a high level variance with this group.

For one, Mike Soroka is returning from an Achilles tear, and it’s impossible to project how he’ll fare. Max Fried took a step forward last season, but even performing closer to his 2019 level would hurt the team’s outlook. Rookie sensation Ian Anderson was brilliant in his first taste of the majors, but history tells us he’ll experience growing pains (then again, maybe he’s so good he doesn’t?)

The free-agent signees, Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton, aren’t sure things. The Braves believe Smyly’s best is yet to come, but there’s a chance he doesn’t build off his promising 2019. His injury history also isn’t favorable. Morton, meanwhile, is 37 years old and showed a velocity dip in 2020. He was and can continue being effective, but there’s always risk in relying on an older player. Most important for Morton and the team: Have him relatively fresh and healthy for the postseason.

Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Ynoa are other factors. They’re quality depth but uncertainties nonetheless.

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