For the past several years, Daniel Shoptaw over at Cardinals Conclave has graciously solicited inputs from myself and a few other writers about the state of Atlanta Braves baseball coming into each new season. In fact, he does this for all 30 MLB teams; a series you can follow at the link given above. What follows is that Braves Q-and-A session from me for 2023… this is part 2 of 2 parts.
[DS] What’s the weakness of this team and do you expect the club to address it during the season?
[AC] While left field wasn’t specifically addressed in the off-season, it’s clear that bringing in more outfielders (Sam Hillard, Jordan Luplow, Kevin Pillar, Eli White) sends a message to both Eddie Rosario and Marcell Ozuna that their playing time is not secure… though manager Brian Snitker has declared that Ozuna will play (and he’s getting tons of Spring reps). [ed note: in the month since this writing, both have clearly stepped up offensively, so take all that into consideration … the concern over LF (and DH) has been waning]
As noted earlier, the Braves have enough offense around the diamond, so they don’t necessarily need a thumper in left field. But Atlanta also ranked 30th — dead last — in left fielder WAR in 2022. That needs to change.
I don’t think the Braves are looking for a Gold-Glove guy out there… but they need a competent defender. They also don’t need a Silver Slugger… but they need someone who’s not an automatic out, either.
So this will be an area to watch closely. In-season trade options are going to be difficult, given the dearth of talent now in the minors and general lack of available quality OF’s (not counting the impossible-to-get Bryan Reynolds).
So regardless of the position – LF or pitching – Atlanta is running through numerous candidates in the hope someone steps up to seize the opportunity and avoid needing an in-season option… and that’s being done in this way for budgetary reasons.
[DS] There are so many young talents already established, but is there a rookie or someone that hasn’t played much MLB yet that will make an impact this season?
[AC] A month ago, I was prepared to say “no”… since there were no rookies even in the mix as position players, and even pitching prospects seemed like longshots.
However… Atlanta has seen what 5th-starter candidates Bryce Elder and Ian Anderson can do in the past, and the team is obviously still looking for ‘more’.
On March 15th, both Elder and Anderson were optioned to AAA Gwinnett — effectively ending (for now) their pursuits of the 5th starter role. With Mike Soroka still yet to throw a competitive pitch (and indeed, his last MLB pitch came on August 3rd, 2020), that leaves Shuster and Dodd as the only remaining candidates with 2 weeks to go in Florida.
The 24-year-old Shuster ended the 2022 season at AAA (9 starts, almost 49 innings, 4.25 ERA), but did well at AA Mississippi before that (16 starts, 90.2 IP, 2.78).
In nearly 9 Spring innings [at that time], though, his numbers have been eye-opening: 0.71 ERA with a 0.553 WHIP in 12.2 innings… 5 hits, 2 walks, and 16 punchouts against decent quality hitters, including a full-on audition success against the Red Sox.
Dodd has been nearly as good: a 0.69 mark… for both ERA and WHIP over 13.2 innings. His audition against the Phillies went almost perfect after yielding a leadoff homer.
The odds are that the ‘next man up’ scenario will still be fully in play for the end of the Braves’ rotation among 5 pitchers: Shuster, Allard, Anderson, Elder, and hopefully Soroka. But it’s looking like Shuster [and now Dodd as well will]
might get the first chance… which could give him a 2-month window of opportunity to stick.
Shuster was my choice to be the answer to this question regardless, but this
possible promotion is coming a bit sooner than expected. Let’s hope it’s not too soon.
[DS] What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?
[AC] Best case is easy: the Braves pitching is healthy, the offensive leaders slug and run (I expect stolen bases to be a story), and everything comes together for a runaway World Series title… they are certainly capable of this on paper.
Atlanta has at least three players who are capable of garnering MVP votes (Acuna, Olson, Riley), plus 2-3 Cy Young vote recipient potentials (Fried, Strider, and 21-winner Wright). If all play to those levels, this team can’t be stopped… and Olson has looked amazing so far.
In the worst case, we have a repeat of 2014 when the Braves lost starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy on consecutive days or 2008 when the pitching fell apart then, too. Even that latter team’s offense (Brian McCann hit .301, Chipper Jones OPS’d 1.044) couldn’t overcome the pitching damage and the team stumbled to 72-90. Even so, I’d think the lowest possible floor this year comes at 81-83 wins since there’s so much mediocrity around the league.
Most likely? The offense will be solid and at least 4 starters will be reliable at a given time. Given the newly-semi-balanced schedule, there’s 12 fewer games against the Mets and Phillies, so that helps… but it helps those clubs, too.
The Braves reached 101 wins last year despite a slow start. With a full year of a healthy Acuna and Albies (hopefully) plus a full year from Harris II, the slow start trend should vanish.
This is a team that should exceed the predictions of 94-95 wins that many are making. I am bullish on that: 97 wins or better… which might [should] be enough to win the East again.
A fast start would be a needed and welcomed change this season.