At some point, MLB’s lockout will end. Expect a flurry of moves in the days after that happens as teams ready for opening day.
When baseball business resumes, here are some questions surrounding the defending champion Braves:
1. Will they re-sign Freddie Freeman?
Shortstop Dansby Swanson and other teammates made it crystal clear during the team’s championship celebration: Freeman, the Braves’ MVP first baseman, needs to stay a Brave. Fans have likewise spent the past year clamoring for the Braves to extend Freeman, who ultimately hit free agency and remained unsigned when the lockout began.
There isn’t much more to add here given how often the topic is broached. Re-signing Freeman is paramount for the Braves’ chances in 2022 and likely beyond. He’s their franchise player, clubhouse leader and an integral part of their lineup. Braves fans are in a euphoric state following the team’s second championship since moving to Atlanta; losing Freeman would be a major letdown.
Should Freeman sign elsewhere, the conversation will shift to alternatives (such as Oakland slugger and Atlanta native Matt Olson, a trade candidate). But until that happens, the likeliest outcome has always felt like Freeman returning.
2. What becomes of the outfield?
Marcell Ozuna will be eligible to play opening day. The National League will likely have a designated hitter, which is the best fit for Ozuna. Ronald Acuna isn’t expected to miss much time at the season’s beginning. But postseason stars Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler are free agents. With Ozuna back, the Braves almost assuredly won’t keep the band together. The question is which, if any, of the July acquisitions returns.
The Braves have Guillermo Heredia and Adam Duvall on the roster. They also still have prospect Cristian Pache, who flopped in his first extended trial as a major leaguer. Top prospect Michael Harris isn’t that far away, though he won’t factor into the 2022 opening-day roster.
There are plentiful options. The Braves won’t be starved for outfield depth. The question is who will be in uniform and who will handle the starting spots for game 1 in Miami.
3. Will they bolster the rotation?
The Braves’ top three starters are set with Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton, who should be ready for the season after suffering a fractured fibula in the World Series. The next two spots are unclear. Huascar Ynoa would be a logical leading candidate. Kyle Wright, once again, begins a spring training competing for a spot. Tucker Davidson and Kyle Muller will log innings at some point.
It’d behoove the Braves to add another veteran starter. Lefty Drew Smyly was an underwhelming short-term contributor a season ago, but another move of that ilk makes sense. The team should have some breathing room financially even if it re-signs Freeman.
4. Will they add more to the bullpen and bench?
The Braves inked right-hander Kirby Yates to a two-year deal before the lockout. They could add further reinforcements to the bullpen – Darren O’Day is already back on a minor-league deal – but the unit is in good shape. Will Smith, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter are under contract.
Dylan Lee, Jacob Webb and newcomer Jay Jackson are depth. Spencer Strider, promoted the final weekend of the 2021 regular season, will vie for a role. Every team could always add more relief help.
Infielder Orlando Arcia and catcher Manny Pina are bench players. Heredia could be depending on how the team manages its outfield. Benches are usually fluid and it’s easy to forget how concerning that group was for the Braves entering last season. Expect to see some new bench candidates in the spring.
5. What happens with NL East and NL contenders?
The Mets were busy before the lockout, so they’ll once again be a popular pick to upend the Braves atop the division. The Phillies signed reliever Corey Knebel, whom the Braves faced in the NL Championship Series, and could make further improvements. Miami could become a sleeper pick due to its pitching and offensive reinforcements. The Nationals are rebuilding and don’t present much of a threat.
The Braves will also watch how other NL contenders move forward. The Dodgers lost Corey Seager and Max Scherzer. How will they atone for those losses and improve their rotation? San Francisco retained some key free agents and has the money to make other additions. The Padres, under new manager Bob Melvin, could emerge as they were supposed to a year ago. The NL Central remains the league’s unsexist division, though the Brewers and Cardinals could be a move or two away from making more noise. The Cubs, after tearing down their roster in July, could go various directions with their flexibility.