Leadoff: Ten key questions about Braves as spring training commences

With the Braves’ pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training Friday, here are 10 key questions about the season ahead: 

1. Will Josh Donaldson stay healthy and return to a reasonable approximation of his peak years to power the Braves’ batting order alongside Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna?

2. Since it’s unlikely the Braves will have as good a record against an improved NL East as they did against the division last season (49-27), will they fare considerably better against out-of-division opponents (41-45 last season)? 

3. Will the Braves’ young starting pitchers develop, improve and hold their own in a division where the Nationals and Mets have superior rotations on paper? And if not, will the Braves find a way to acquire an established ace at some point? 

4. Will Ozzie Albies be closer to the hitter he was before the All-Star break last season (.281 batting average, 20 home runs, 55 RBI, .834 OPS) or the hitter he was after the break (.226 batting average, four home runs, 17 RBI, .624 OPS)? And will he improve as a left-handed hitter (.231 batting average and .695 OPS last season, compared to .333 and .904 as a right-handed hitter)? 

5. The question Braves fans probably worry about the least: Will Acuna’s second season be everything that his rookie season portended? And more? 

6. After team owner Liberty Media revealed strong financial results for the Braves through the first nine months of 2018 – revenue up from $366 million to $410 million and operating profit before depreciation and amortization up from $49 million to $105 million, compared to the same point in 2017 – shouldn’t some of those additional funds have been used to bolster the roster by increasing the player payroll, which instead is lower today than it was last season?

7. Will the bullpen be reliable? Or will it prove problematic, especially in light of bullpen investments this offseason by three NL East teams (Mets, Phillies and Nationals)?

8. Will Nick Markakis be closer to the hitter he was in the first 120 games last season (.319 batting average, .878 OPS, 14 home runs) or the hitter he was in the final 42 games (.229 average, .586 OPS, no home runs)? 

9. Can Dansby Swanson, who made great strides defensively last season, progress offensively from last year’s .238 batting average? 

10. Will the catching tandem of Brian McCann-Tyler Flowers be productive enough? Or will the decisions not to re-sign Kurt Suzuki, now with the Nationals, and not to relinquish  the considerable prospects required to acquire J.T. Realmuto, now with the Phillies, be rued?

The answers to those 10 questions won’t come during spring training, but during the grind of the long season. Collectively, the answers could determine the difference between first place and fourth place in the NL East.

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SUPER BOWL AFTERMATH

Add this to Atlanta’s post-Super Bowl stats: Atlanta-based Rubicon Global worked with State Farm Arena to recycle nearly 12 tons of waste, which otherwise would have gone into landfills, from five Super Bowl-related events held in the arena. 

The events required temporary construction in the arena  that left metal, wood, paper and cardboard to be recycled, officials said. In all, they said 15 pickups of 30-yard open-top containers by Rubicon and Waste Eliminator resulted in 2.07 tons of metal, 6.26 tons of wood and 3.46 tons of paper and cardboard being diverted to recycling streams.

Among the events held in State Farm Arena were Super Bowl Opening Night and the three-day Super Bowl Music Fest. They drew more than 50,000 people.

ICYMI: Atlanta expresses ‘interest’ in Super Bowl return by 2027.

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LEADOFF LINKS

> Georgia slipped from No. 3 to No. 4 in ESPN’s updated “2019 Way-Too-Early Top 25” football rankings. Oklahoma moved ahead of the Bulldogs, rising from No. 6, after landing quarterback Jalen Hurts, a graduate transfer from Alabama. Clemson and Alabama remain Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. See the rankings here.

> Surprisingly, given the Falcons’ 7-9 record in 2018, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit ranks them as the NFL’s “least needy” team entering the offseason. See the rankings here. 

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