Without Acuna, can the Braves make anything of this wretched season?

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Braves manager Brian Snitker’s post-game press conference following July 10, 2021, game in Miami in which Ronald Acuna injured his right knee.

When it’s not your year, it’s not your year. That thought has rattled around in this fevered cranium for a week or two, and now comes news that sends a chill through every fan base of every team everywhere: Your team’s best player tore an ACL.

ExploreRonald Acuna in great spirits after diagnosis

Ronald Acuna has had injury scares before. At the speed he moves — and the number of times the Marlins have plunked him — those are inevitable. Always before, the test results have revealed only glad tidings. Late Saturday night, we learned his latest MRI had been as grim as was feared. Torn ACL, right knee, lost for the duration of the 2021 season.

Obvious question: How can the Braves replace maybe the biggest talent in the sport? Obvious answer: They can’t. (Unless the Padres decide they’re up for that long-rumored Fernando Tatis for Josh Tomlin deal. Yes, that’s a joke.)

Four Braves won Silver Slugger awards last season. Three are injured. Acuna is about to undergo surgery. Travis d’Arnaud hurt his thumb. Marcell Ozuna dislocated two fingers. While on the injured list, Ozuna was arrested in Sandy Springs on charges of domestic violence. The fourth is Freddie Freeman, who has labored long to lift his numbers to something approaching the numbers we expect from him.

Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna sits injured on the field after trying to make a catch on an inside the park home run hit by Miami Marlins' Jazz Chisholm Jr. during the fifth inning Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
Caption
Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna sits injured on the field after trying to make a catch on an inside the park home run hit by Miami Marlins' Jazz Chisholm Jr. during the fifth inning Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Of the first five hitters in the Braves’ usual batting order, three are injured. It’s expected d’Arnaud will return in August. The Braves have no idea what’s in store for Ozuna because, in matters of alleged domestic violence, MLB conducts its own investigation, the findings of which have yet to be revealed. The Braves still have Ozzie Albies, who’s very good, and Austin Riley, who’s having a good year. But the everyday lineup is no longer an everyday thing. Ehire Adrianza, Guillermo Heredia, Abraham Almonte and Orlando Arcia have been needed. They’re needed more now.

“You’re not going to replace (Acuna),” manager Brian Snitker said Sunday morning. “He’s arguably the best player in the game.”

Then: “We’re going to continue to play. This bunch has been through this before.”

The trade deadline — it’s July 30 — assumes outsized importance. The Braves need a big-time bat, and those come at a dear cost. Let’s assume the free-falling Cubs make Kris Bryant available. He’s mostly a third baseman, but he could play left field. (Or Riley could play left field. Or something.) Bryant is also eligible to explore free agency at season’s end, which means he’d be a rental, which means the Braves would have to determine how many prospects they’d be willing to shed for two-to-three months of his services.

Kris Bryant stats

Also: Bryant is right-handed. The Braves could really use a left-handed bat. At this moment, though, they can’t get picky.

To consider such a trade, the Braves first have to answer the question: Is the season still salvageable? As has been noted, they haven’t spent a day above .500. After losing Sunday in Miami, where their first nine at-bats yielded nine strikeouts, they’re 44-45. With that record and without Acuna, the World Series might not be possible. Winning the National League East still is. They haven’t fallen so far behind the Mets that a division title is unthinkable. Plus, the Mets are good at messing up.

Some have wondered if the Braves might be sellers, as opposed to buyers, at month’s end. Short answer: no. Longer answer: not unless they lose every game before July 30. This club hasn’t made some sort of roster move nearly every day since April 1 in the effort to finish third.

Said Snitker, speaking of general manager Alex Anthopoulos: “He’s working tirelessly to make this club better. Whatever he decides to do, we’ll roll with it.”

This team was assembled with the expectation of winning big. Over 88 games, they’ve won half. That isn’t what anybody had in mind, but 73 games remain. Even without Mike Soroka, the Braves believe their starting pitching has solidified. They’ll almost certainly look for more bullpen help, and another bat — even if the batter is a cut below Bryant — now falls under the heading of “essential.” The Braves won’t give up on 2021 just yet. That said …

When you’ve lost your best pitcher (Soroka, who re-tore his Achilles tendon walking into the clubhouse) and your best player (Acuna, who tore his ACL trying to make a catch at the wall) at least until 2022, it’s hard to feel enthusiastic about 2021. Truth to tell, it’s hard not to feel snakebit. But sports, as you might have heard, are weird.

The Hawks fired a coach and nearly made the NBA Finals. Trae Young stepped on a ref’s foot and missed Game 4 against Milwaukee; his team won by 22 points. The Bucks were without their best player in Games 5 and 6; they didn’t trail in either. For as much as has gone wrong for these Braves — and much has — there’s still time to make a few things go right. But if you were asking, “What’s the worst that could happen to this team?” … well, it just did.

Asked how much sleep he got overnight, Snitker said: “I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried.”

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