5 pivotal questions facing the 2020 Braves

The Braves enter the 2020 season seeking their third consecutive National League East title and a deeper run in the postseason.

Last year the Braves lost to the Cardinals in the NL Division Series, which featured a 10-run first inning by the Cardinals in their 13-1 series-clinching Game 5 victory.

With the Braves’ pitchers and catchers set to report Wednesday to North Port, Fla., here are five pivotal questions facing these World Series hopefuls:

How much of a dropoff is Marcell Ozuna from Josh Donaldson, if at all?

The biggest question of the offseason naturally bleeds into spring training and the regular season. The Braves decided not to match Minnesota’s offer to Donaldson, instead favoring flexibility over a multi-year commitment to a 34-year-old.

Enter Ozuna, a 29-year-old who signed a one-year pact to rebuild his value. The Braves are emerging as a destination for such desires, with Ozuna, Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel high-profile veterans to sign short deals with Atlanta over the past 15 months.

But in the immediate future, the Braves need Ozuna to match a large portion of Donaldson’s offensive production. They can’t demand 37 homers and 94 RBIs – what Donaldson provided last season – but they’re paying Ozuna to cover a significant chunk of it.

If he does, the Braves and Ozuna will be better off for it. The Braves would still possess one of the most feared top-four combos in the league, while Ozuna would position himself to cash in next winter, just as Donaldson and Keuchel did.

What unfolds at third base?

More fallout from Donaldson’s departure. Johan Camargo opens as the heavy favorite to start the season at third, with Austin Riley on his heels. The Braves need someone to secure the position.

Camargo is coming off a disappointing season, one that can be pinned on various factors. In the past several months, he’s trained with extra motivation to recover his 2018 form, when he hit .272 with 19 homers in 134 games. His conditioning was subpar last season, and he never adjusted to a utility role after Donaldson displaced him at third. He’s in much better shape this spring and will be given every opportunity to win the job.

Riley, meanwhile, was promoted in May and took MLB by storm for a couple of weeks. Yet his performance declined, with the slugger struggling to make contact. Riley’s homers decreased while the strikeouts increased. He was left off the postseason roster.

The Braves feel Riley has a bright future, even if he opens this season at Triple-A Gwinnett. He’ll factor into this Braves team at some point. And when the Braves open camp in mid-February, Camargo and Riley will begin their competition.

How does the rotation come together?

While this group of starters boasts immense upside, it isn’t without risk. All-Star Mike Soroka is coming off his first full season, and though the shoulder issues seem to be behind him, the organization will feel much more comfortable after another healthy season. Max Fried’s history was cluttered by blisters, and it remains to be seen if he takes the next step (the Braves are extremely optimistic).

Veteran Cole Hamels struggled across his last 19 starts of 2019 after sustaining an oblique injury. He and the Braves said he’s healthy now, but there’s understandably some risk with a 36-year-old coming off an injury. Mike Foltynewicz presented a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience last season, slumping to the point of a demotion to Triple-A, only to return and pitch brilliantly down the stretch. Foltynewicz made two starts in the postseason: Fittingly, one was masterful and the other a disaster.

The fifth spot could be anyone from former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez to top prospect Ian Anderson. Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson will factor in. The Braves will use a combination of those starters to make it through the season, but it certainly would help if someone made a leap.

Will the bullpen be the strength they envision?

The Braves are spending a premium on their bullpen. In fact, they’ve invested over $40 million in Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Chris Martin and Shane Greene. That’s three All-Stars and a command artist in Martin.

Bottom line: The Braves have to get what they pay for. Melancon was efficient after joining the club in July. Martin provided a breath of fresh air in his lack of walks. Greene had a rough start after he was traded to the Braves at the deadline, but he recovered and proved to be an asset. Smith was the offseason’s richest acquisition, bolstering the bullpen with a 2019 All-Star.

There’s also a healthy Darren O’Day and Luke Jackson in a better-suited role. Grant Dayton is an intriguing unknown. A.J. Minter will try to revive his career and return to a stable role. Newcomb, Toussaint and other youngsters surely will contribute in relief.

It’ll start with the first four, however. They’re the ones making the big bucks. If the Braves get what they need from them, the rest could fall into place.

When will we see the Braves’ trio of top prospects? And how does the outfield jam play a role?

Outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, along with starter Ian Anderson, likely will debut this season. We’re all wondering when – and how.

Pache and Waters might be the two best outfielders in the minors. Pache is a defensive wizard with developing power, while Waters is a switch-hitter hailed for his well-rounded game. The Braves have opted against long-term adds in the outfield because of their presences.

But in 2020, the outfield is a bit crowded. Ronald Acuna is slotted in right. Ozuna, making $18 million for the season, is set in left. Ender Inciarte will open in center. Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, who were scheduled to platoon before the Ozuna signing, are still on the roster.

Even if the team suffers an injury or two, it wouldn’t necessarily open the door for Pache or Waters. Either could force his way up, as Riley did last May, but the circumstances aren’t the same. The Braves are blessed with rich outfield depth, so much that it invites trade speculation.

That’s one avenue to address the logjam, but for now, the Braves are content with their major-league situation while Pache and Waters can take their time in Triple-A. These things have a way of working themselves out, of course, which creates a fascinating inevitability of the season.

Anderson’s path is much clearer. If he’s pitching well, he’ll eventually get the call to at least make spot starts. The team could work him into the mix slowly. Any number of factors could influence Anderson’s arrival, including injuries and his performance at Triple-A.

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