Five storylines to watch in a transitional Braves season

Seldom has a season been as difficult to predict as the one set to begin for the Braves, who’ve completed the most difficult parts of their rebuilding project and are poised to … well, what exactly?

The rebuild has tested the patience of a large fan base and reduced the Braves from gold-standard franchise to one that’s not been very relevant after the Fourth of July in recent years. But most baseball fans know the Braves have a stable of prospects including the best young pitching talent of any organization, and this is the year a wave of those prospects could make significant impacts at the big-league level.

The rebuild has grinded through three consecutive seasons with at least 90 losses, a challenging period for a franchise that endured only one 90-loss season in the previous 24 years. Whether the Braves make substantial improvements in 2018 remains to be seen, but here are five storylines to watch as it unfolds.

1. Fruits of rebuild arriving in rotation

The Braves open with Julio Teheran atop the rotation followed by Mike Foltynewicz, veteran Brandon McCarthy, second-year lefty Sean Newcomb and recently signed Anibal Sanchez in the fifth spot. But things surely will change as the season progresses, beginning with rookie lefty Luiz Gohara coming off the DL as soon as late April. Rookie lefty Max Fried, who debuted last season, could be ready for a call-up at any time. McCarthy, in the final year of his contract, could be a trade candidate to a contender this summer, by which point the Braves might decide to make a bold move and call up 20-year-old prospect Mike Soroka, who has little left to accomplish against minor leaguers. A bigger potential trade could involve Teheran, who has two years of control beyond this 2018 ($11 million in 2019, $12 million option in 2020). It’s not hard to imagine a Braves rotation by late season with nothing but elite young arms from among Foltynewicz, Newcomb, Gohara, Fried, Soroka and Allard.

2. Whither Brian Snitker

When the Braves picked up a 2018 option on Snitker’s contract in early October, it was done while the previous front-office regime was embroiled in an MLB investigation and seen by many as way to maintain some stability as chaos swirled above (ultimately the Braves were slapped with severe sanctions and former general manager John Coppolella banned from baseball for life). Players love Snitker, but there will probably need to be substantial improvement for him to retain the job beyond 2018. With new general manageer Alex Anthopoulos in complete control of baseball operations and not averse to shaking things up, it wouldn’t be surprising if Snitker were not retained and potential replacements were bandied about with connections to Anthopoulos or his assistants, managers such as John Gibbons or Buck Showalter, or a next-generation type such as former Brave Mark DeRosa.

3. The dawn of the Acuna era

No player in the organization has created as much buzz in recent years as 20-year-old outfield-phenom Ronald Acuna, the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball and a five-tool dynamo who was the talk of spring training before a reassignment to minor league camp last week. When he was sent down, Acuna led the Grapefruit League in average (.432), OBP (.519), slugging percentage (.727) and OPS (1.247) and led the Braves in home runs (four) and stolen bases (four). Most saw the move as strictly contractual, done so that the Braves could assure an extra year of control before potential free agency in seven instead of six years. April 14 is the earliest Acuna can be called up to assure that year of control, and it would be surprising if he’s not up then or shortly thereafter.

4. The power shortage

Who’ll supply power for the Braves besides Freddie Freeman, and who’ll bat cleanup? Two questions with no obvious answers for the Braves, who ranked 28th in the majors in home runs last season (165) and dumped two of their four leading homer hitters over the winter in Matt Kemp (19) and Matt Adams (19). The only other Braves to hit more than 12 were Freeman, who had a team-high 28 despite missing seven weeks after fracturing his wrist in May, and Kurt Suzuki, who rather remarkably set a career-high with 19 homers in 309 plate appearances in his age-33 seasons, three more homers than he totaled in 1,355 plate appearances over the previous three seasons. Freeman can be expected to hit 35 or more in a full season, but the Braves’ next-highest total might well come from Acuna. It’ll be interesting to see if Snitker bats the 20-year-old in the cleanup spot soon after arrival or considers moving Freeman to cleanup and hitting Acuna third.

5. Dansby Swanson’s second full season

Plenty of attention will again be focused on Swanson, this time to see whether the erstwhile Golden Boy will bounce back from a disappointing rookie season and get his career back on the trajectory predicted for the Marietta native and No. 1 overall selection in the 2015 draft. Swanson’s second full season in the majors could determine whether the Braves move forward with him as the cornerstone they had envisioned or start to consider other shortstop options.