Maybe 2018 is remembered as the season the Braves transitioned from bottom-feeder to contender.
That’s usually not an overnight process, regardless of what the Cubs and Astros demonstrated in recent years. If the Braves came close to .500, it would be considered a success and a bridge year to 2019 contention.
If they’re going to do that, or even exceed that outlook, here are a few individuals who carry more weight than the rest:
1.1B Freddie Freeman
The obvious answer, a full season of Freeman would go a long way toward the Braves surprising spectators in 2018. He logged 117 games last season after breaking his wrist and missing two months.
Freeman played third base in his return, a short-lived selfless act to keep Matt Adams’ bat in the lineup. He won’t have to make any sacrifices this time (we think), but Matt Kemp and Adams’ subtractions put more pressure on Freeman to address the power void.
Before he was injured, Freeman was on his way to an MVP-worthy season. If he does so again, with improved talent around him, more recognition should come. But that depends on team success. The Braves’ win-loss ratio will partly be a product of Freeman.
2.OF Ronald Acuna
In the optimal scenario, you’re not betting your success on a rookie. This isn’t an ideal circumstance.
Acuna, baseball’s No. 1 prospect and the most hyped incoming Brave in at least eight years, might be the third-best hitter in the lineup as a 20-year-old. He has the ability to hit 20-plus homers, a welcome contribution for a team lacking power outside Freeman.
He may live up to evaluations, but it shouldn’t be expected in Year 1. Even the great Mike Trout was sent back down after his first call-up (hitting .163 in 12 games).
If Acuna doesn’t contribute immediately, the team will continue starving for power and relying on left field by committee, a strategy destined to yield mediocre-to-average results.
Make no mistake, Acuna’s production is an important part of this year’s team. If he bursts onto the scene or provides little, the lineup looks significantly different.
3.SP Mike Foltynewicz
It could be argued Julio Teheran deserves the nod here, or Brandon McCarthy, who could be the team’s best arm if he stays healthy.
But Teheran is a known commodity at this point. He probably isn’t part of the long-term plans, but his durability is needed in an otherwise unknown rotation. McCarthy is a one-year flier, and it would help if he could replicate or better R.A. Dickey’s production from 2017.
Foltynewicz is another animal. He provides more perceived upside than the others, but potential is a dangerous word. With prospects nipping at his heels, Foltynewicz needs to give the Braves reason to believe in him as a piece moving forward.
If he doesn’t, the rotation will be stuck with the enigmatic Teheran and oft-injured McCarthy leading the charge. It’s a sink-or-swim year for Foltynewicz, and either path could heavily influence the Braves’ results.
4. 2B Ozzie Albies
Albies has the look of a potential five-tool player, showing much better pop than his listed 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame would indicate. The Acuna anticipation has somewhat overshadowed Albies entering his first full major-league season, but to overlook the 21-year-old’s importance on this team would be a mistake.
He could top off a solid 1-2-3 of Ender Inciarte, Albies and Freeman. Albies is the best base stealer on the team and gives the best opportunity for a triple.
Albies’ speed and defense are game-changing. Steals and triples would be extra valuable for this group given its power shortage. The Braves need Albies to build off last season and complete the trifecta atop their lineup, which on paper is their greatest strength.
5. SS Dansby Swanson and/or 3B Johan Camargo
We’re going to cheat on the last one because the Braves need at least one of Swanson or Camargo to cement himself as a regular. That would require Swanson to prove 2017 wasn’t the norm, and Camargo to build off a solid rookie season.
The best-case scenario is both secure starting roles, though that might be logical moving forward given the need for power. If only one works out, then the team can address third base as it pleases (prospect Austin Riley or a free agent addition) while feeling comfortable with the rest of its infield.
Both players could make or break a .500 campaign. The Braves don’t have ample depth, so getting the most out of those two (or even one) is pivotal. The same can be said for both staying healthy despite Camargo starting the season on the disabled list.
Gabriel Burns is a general assignment reporter and features writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After four years on the Braves beat, he's expanded his horizons and covers all sports. You'll find him writing about MLB, NFL, NBA, college football and other Atlanta-centric happenings.