5 make-or-break factors to follow as Braves’ season unfolds

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker feels confident the team is prepared to start the shortened 2020 game season after few weeks of training.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

After taking a long, winding road that at times appeared to be heading nowhere, MLB found its destination. The professional baseball season is back on, though it will be unrecognizable.

The Braves’ pursuit of a third consecutive National League East title and second World Series championship begins Friday, when they open a three-game series at the Mets to start the 60-game season.

Overall, the Braves boast one of MLB’s best rosters. They have the ideal combination of elite talent and depth. They feature a nice mix of veterans and youth. Over a 162-game season, if health cooperated, it certainly would’ve had them in the playoff conversation, if not a lock.

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Across the truncated campaign, certainties are even harder to come by. And despite an impressive roster, the Braves have their share of questions, too.

Here are five make-or-break storylines to monitor as the Braves’ season unfolds:

1. Players’ and coaches’ health

The key to every team’s season will be player safety. The Braves already have had four players test positive for COVID-19, and despite MLB’s encouraging low numbers thus far, the risk will increase when teams travel.

The Braves are positioned to withstand losses, but there’s no question random player absences will play a sizable role in the season. Everyone’s hope is that players stay as safe as possible and that those who are sick recover quickly and fully without complications.

As manager Brian Snitker and others around the game constantly reference, this could be a season of attrition. The team that stays healthiest will be best positioned to win.

“There are guidelines we all have to follow,” said outfielder Adam Duvall, a Type-1 diabetic. “We’re all leaning on each other. It’s a collective thing. Everybody has to buy in and do the right thing. As a team, we’re going to try to stay as healthy as we can. That’s the goal at the end of this. Stay as healthy as we can and get through this in one unit.”

First baseman Freddie Freeman, who returned over the weekend after overcoming COVID-19: “I think Major League Baseball has done a great job with the protocols in place. I have to wear a mask everywhere I go in the clubhouse. There’s testing every other day. There are temperature checks. You have to complete a home screening right when you wake up every morning.

“I think if people take a step back and look out for each other it’s going to work. Yes, there are going to be people who test positive – I did everything right and still got it. There’s no way around it. It’s not if someone tests positive, it’s when as the season goes on. You have to try to minimize it. And if people really take care of themselves and look out for themselves, you’re going to look out for other people as well.”

2. The unpredictable rotation

Mike Soroka and Max Fried should be at least above-average starters. Beyond them, it’s difficult to have any game-to-game confidence in the starters entering Friday.

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Mike Foltynewicz was roughed up against the Marlins on Tuesday. Foltynewicz can be brilliant – think 2019 NL Division Series Game 2 – or he can be disastrous – think Game 5. He won’t have time to slowly figure himself out like he did last season, when Foltynewicz was demoted to the minors but returned with an excellent 10-start finish. The Braves need his best immediately. They need their 2018 All-Star.

Sean Newcomb is a wild card. He pitched well out of the bullpen, learning how to consistently be aggressive. He wanted another shot as a starter, and he’ll get it. If he pitches well, it’d bode quite well for his and the Braves’ future.

Then there’s left-hander Cole Hamels — it’s unclear when Hamels will be ready to start a game. The Braves signed him to be a veteran innings eater who adds stability to the rotation. Instead, he’s already one of its instabilities. Whenever Hamels appears, it could provide an early-to-mid season boost. If he doesn’t perform, despite the intangible benefits, consider the signing a whiff.

Kyle Wright has a golden opportunity as the likely fifth starter. If he succeeds, the Braves are a stronger club in 2020 and Wright will enter next season inked into the rotation. If he doesn’t, the Braves’ rotation looks much thinner.

For as much depth as the Braves have, there aren’t any sure bets among it. Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint and even Ian Anderson have intrigue, but they’re far from known quantities. Josh Tomlin and Jhoulys Chacin won’t invoke enthusiasm every fifth day. The rotation is the Braves’ biggest swing factor: It could be outstanding. It could be mediocre.

3. Finding a complete lineup

The Braves’ top four ranks among baseball’s best: Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Marcell Ozuna. What follows them could prove another strength or an undoing.

Austin Riley will be the opening-day third baseman. If he hits like he did Wednesday – two home runs – it will be his to keep (eventually, assuming the Braves do work Johan Camargo in). Camargo was underwhelming in 2019 while adjusting to a utility role. Just as he showed life near season’s end, an injury took him out.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves' Austin Riley talks about his comfort level at the plate and third base ahead of the 2020 shortened season.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Shortstop Dansby Swanson was fulfilling his offensive potential last season before a heel injury stalled the rest of his regular season. He arguably was the Braves’ best player in the postseason, leading to hope that there’s still untapped potential with the bat. Health will be key for Swanson, who’s yet to complete a season without interruption.

Duvall also was stellar in the postseason, and given that he’s been an All-Star, the Braves know he’s more capable than what he’s shown in his past two 74 regular-season games. First baseman Matt Adams could be a solid designated hitter, and fits their need for a left-handed bat, but there’s a reason he’s been a bench player most of his entire career.

Catcher Travis d’Arnaud showed legitimate pop throughout the summer camp, but his encouraging offensive production in Tampa Bay last season isn’t sure to translate. Outfielder Ender Inciarte is another player with a track record, but his past two seasons haven’t been rousing.

Overall, the Braves have exciting players on offense beyond their top four. The odds say some will scratch the surface of their ceilings while others disappoint or don’t take steps forward. The Braves will see if the middle ground proves enough.

4. A bullpen living up to its billing

The Braves’ high-priced bullpen will begin without lefty Will Smith because he tested positive for COVID-19 (he’s asymptomatic). The good news is Smith shouldn’t take long to be ready after he’s cleared. The bad news is nobody knows when that will be.

Smith, a 2019 All-Star whom the Braves signed to a multi-year deal last winter, might be the most important pitcher in the bullpen. The Braves planned to deploy him in tight spots, be that the seventh, eighth or ninth inning. They’ll have to make do without him for an undetermined amount of time, which obviously matters more in a shortened season.

Fortunately, the Braves are well-stacked with other options. They poured an unprecedented amount of resources into their bullpen over the offseason, assembling a group that features four former All-Stars in Smith, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day. The Braves also retained control artist Chris Martin, and they return a more experienced Luke Jackson, who’ll more regularly pitch in the middle innings than at the end of games.

This should be one of the Braves’ greatest strengths. It provides them a significant advantage over most other clubs, especially given the scarcity of above-average bullpens in baseball. The Braves might get only one season out of this reliever group because of several impending free agencies, so they need to make it count.

5. Overcoming – or benefiting from – the field’s madness

While the Dodgers are a comfortable bet to win the NL West, there are few locks over the next couple of months. The Mariners started 13-2 a season ago yet finished as a 68-win team. In this year’s trek, such start would firmly plant one in playoff position.

Potential madness could work against the Braves. They were well-suited for a normal season, when their star power and depth likely would’ve easily pulled them away from the Marlins of the world and perhaps separated them from a Washington or New York. The NL East was expected to be close. Now, it’s going to be even closer.

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This could help the Braves, too. The Nationals’ oft-referenced poor start in 2019 would bury them in this campaign. Should the Marlins catch fire early and do damage to the Phillies, who they play six times over the first 13 games, that might put Philadelphia well behind the 8-ball. Surely, the Braves would rather the Marlins start out frisky than for the Nationals, Mets or Phillies to have encouraging beginnings.

Another wrinkle: Should the MLB and MLBPA ultimately expand the postseason from 10 to 16, as is currently being discussed, that will allow for more breathing room. It would mean eight of the NL’s 15 teams qualify; it’s difficult to imagine the Braves not being among that bunch, even if a few breaks went against them.

The unpredictability might be what makes this season most fun. It will create a twist that provides more hope to the hopeless and moderately levels the playing field. Slip-ups loom larger while two good weeks can make a season. There will be stretches that determine the Braves’ season, be it by them or a competitor.