The Braves are 7-5 through 12 games, going toe-to-toe with a pair of playoff teams from last season.
They have Thursday off before taking on the Cubs at Wrigley Field, another excellent barometer for where this group stands.
Here are 12 thoughts about the season’s ripest stage:
1. As expected, they’re exciting
As first baseman Freddie Freeman predicted, the Braves are doing the little things well. They’ve played mostly reliable defense and run the bases well.
They’ve come up with timely hits and pitches in winning three of their first four series, with two over 2017 playoff teams. They’re 7-0 when hitting a home run.
The Braves might not hang with the Nationals and Mets all season, but they’re showing they aren’t too far away. The roster is plush with young, athletic players trying to find their footing. Even if it doesn’t propel them to wild card contention, it’s certainly better to watch than recent seasons.
2. Freddie Freeman will be a strong MVP candidate
He hasn’t gotten the credit that Washington’s Bryce Harper has, but Freeman’s start has been almost as immaculate.
Freeman is tied with Harper for the most walks in baseball (16). He’s hitting .325, but that number balloons to .667 (8-for-12) with runners in scoring position. His eight extra-base hits are one off the NL lead following Wednesday’s game.
Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto received the most National League MVP votes a season ago. Neither the Marlins nor Reds ever were close to serious contention. That could help Freeman’s case if the Braves fail to make a wild-card run.
3. Eric Young Sr. is an unheralded difference maker
The Braves’ new first-base coach won’t receive much credit from the casual fan, but his fingerprints are all over their new aggressive base-running mindset.
You’ll see the Braves take the extra base, stretching singles into doubles. Smart base-running has become a calling card.
“You see it in spring training,” Freeman said. “We were either one, two in stolen bases and that’s all him (Young Sr.). That was the goal. ... There are lots of opportunities to steal bases and that’s what they want us to do and that’s on EY.”
4. A successful road trip is within grasp
If the Braves can win one of three in Chicago this weekend, it would complete a 4-5 road trip. The 10-day, nine-game trip might be the team’s most difficult on paper.
An 8-7 record entering a seven-game homestand against the Phillies and Mets would be a solid start.
5. Preston Tucker was hot, then not
Tucker, who’s done a more-than-acceptable job keeping left field warm for No. 1 prospect Ronald Acuna, was perhaps the team’s best power hitter in the first week.
Tucker hit two three-run homers in the first homestand. He has nine RBIs, second on the team (Freeman, 11) and sixth best in the National League entering Wednesday.
But he’s cooled off considerably in his past five games. He’s 0-for-12 with no walks and five strikeouts. That dipped a .435 average to .286 (granted, both were achieved with small sample sizes).
6. What to do about ‘Viz’
Arodys Vizcaino has struggled in two of his past three outings. The closer issued three walks Saturday in Denver, including a game-ending walk with the bases loaded. He served a game-tying homer to Matt Adams on Wednesday.
Vizcaino has walked six in as many appearances. He didn’t allow a run in four games, but it’s the two implosions that warrant concern.
Lefty A.J. Minter is the best candidate to take the closer role if manager Brian Snitker elects to make a change, now or later.
7. Even so, the bullpen is a strength
Adams’ homer off Vizcaino Wednesday was the first the bullpen had allowed. Shane Carle has been a pleasant surprise. Minter hasn’t allowed a run in six appearances. Dan Winkler has been an asset after recovering from two arm surgeries.
After a rocky two outings, Jose Ramirez has pitched three scoreless outings. Sam Freeman and Peter Moylan have been dependable when asked to get out of dangerous situations.
8. Dansby Swanson looks comfortable
Swanson’s hitting .348 on the young season. But his changes exceed stats. He looks confident at the plate, making better and harder contact than a year ago. His defense has improved as well.
We’re seeing more of Swanson circa 2016 than 2017. It’s too soon to judge, but the early returns suggest Swanson can still fulfill the promise that made him one of the organization’s most valued foundation players.
9. Ender Inciarte’s slow start shouldn’t be a concern
Inciarte historically takes time to get going. Neither the Braves nor Inciarte are worried about his 12-game struggle, in which he’s hitting .192 with one hit in his past 13 at-bats.
10. Alex Anthopoulos proved shrewd already
Some questioned the Braves’ decision to carry three catchers on the opening-day roster, even knowing Tyler Flowers was battling a groin injury.
Flowers was hurt in Game 1 and placed on the disabled list. Carrying Chris Stewart was a smart call, and looked even wiser when Kurt Suzuki was hit in the hand by a pitch in the third game, temporarily sidelining him and forcing Anthopoulos to quickly acquire Carlos Perez from Anaheim.
11. The Ronald Acuna situation
Acuna started his season 0-for-11 before going 2-for-4 with a walk Wednesday. He followed that with an 0-for-4 showing that dropped his average to .105.
The earliest he can be called up is Saturday if the Braves wish to keep an additional year of contractual control, though with the rainy and snowy forecast in Chicago, it would be surprising if they made that move. He could debut at home against the Phillies on Monday.
Acuna could catch fire this weekend during Gwinnett’s first homestand. If he struggles, there’s no harm in giving him an extended stay in Triple-A and letting him sort through a rare slump.
Better there than in the majors, right?
12. SunTrust Park still waiting for an All-Star game
Dodger Stadium won the 2020 All-Star game bid. And deservingly so, as one of baseball’s most recognizable shrines hadn’t hosted the game since 1980.
The Braves were among the organizations bidding for the game, as our Tim Tucker explained. The 2021 game was also included in the Braves’ bid, hoping the lure of SunTrust Park could get Atlanta its first All-Star game since 2000.
That location has yet to be decided, but the Braves could face competition from other stadiums which haven’t hosted, including Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park and new Yankee Stadium, as well as Wrigley Field, which has undergone major renovations and hasn’t had the event since 1990.
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