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2020 MLB Team Preview: Atlanta Braves

Zach Thompson provides his thoughts on what the 60-game MLB season could look like for the Braves.

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July update: The Braves have been one of the most active teams in the preparations for this year’s shortened MLB season. They reportedly made one of the biggest late additions by signing Yasiel Puig, who was expected to help the team in a corner OF spot with Marcell Ozuna likely heading to the DH spot, which will be in the National League this season. Unfortunately, though, Puig announced that he has tested positive for COVID-19, so his status for the start of the season is definitely in doubt. When he is available, he will provide coverage in the outfield with Nick Markakis opting out of the season, and his bat could be a key in the middle of the order if Freddie Freeman isn’t fully ready for the start of the season after battling COVID-19. Freeman is reportedly recovering but did have symptoms and hasn’t been able to start workouts yet. He will need to continue to quarantine and have two negative tests before returning to the team. Markakis will be joined in his choice to opt out by Felix Hernandez, who was trying to win a spot in the rotation as a non-roster invitee after his many seasons in Seattle. Another injury situation to monitor is Cole Hamels (triceps), who is still dealing with tendonitis even after the long layoff.

The Braves went 97-65 on their way to a second straight National League East divisional crown last season. They improved by seven wins over their 2018 mark but lost in the Division Series in the playoffs for the second straight season. They moved up to the No. 2 seed in the National League and did manage to force a fifth and deciding game before losing to the Cardinals in a 13-1 blowout in Game 5.

The Braves have a solid leadership structure in place with general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager Brian Snitker, who both earned extensions this offseason. While the team has moved some pieces around this offseason, the same core is back to try to claim a third straight NL East title and hunt for more success in the playoffs.

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Can Ronald Acuna Jr. be this season’s top fantasy player?

DraftKings Sportsbook odds

— Division Winner: +200

— League Winner: +550

— World Series: +1200

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Key Departures:

Josh Donaldson, 3B; Dallas Keuchel, SP; Julio Teheran, SP; Matt Joyce, OF; Billy Hamilton, OF; Francisco Cervelli, C

Key Acquisitions:

Marcell Ozuna, OF; Will Smith, RP; Cole Hamels, SP; Travis d’Arnaud, C; Yasiel Puig, OF

2020 Fantasy MVP

Ronald Acuña Jr., OF

Acuña had a monster season last year as one of the top fantasy players in all of baseball. He crushed 41 home runs with 101 RBI and a robust .883 OPS. The main differentiator for Acuña, though, was his 37 stolen bases. He led the National League in runs and stolen bases by a sizable margin while also finishing in the top-5 in home runs. Acuña accomplished all that before he turned 22 this past offseason. The Braves locked him into a relatively affordable extension and seem ready to roll him out at the top of their lineup for years to come. Acuña still has room to grow and hasn’t shown any durability concerns to this point in his MLB career. He could threaten for a 40-40 season and continue to score runs at a league-leading pace, making him my No. 1 overall fantasy player on DraftKings. I give him the slight nod over Angels OF Mike Trout since he has more stolen base potential and less injury risk.

2020 Fantasy LVP

Cole Hamels, SP

The Braves tried to add some veteran depth to their rotation by signing Hamels as a free agent this offseason. The 36-year-old lefty spent last year with the Cubs after long tenures with the Rangers and Phillies. He had a decent 3.81 ERA in his 27 starts while going 7-7. Hamels got off to a rough start with Atlanta, though, and suffered a shoulder injury on the day before pitchers and catchers officially reported. Even with the extra time off, Hamels could not be ready whenever Opening Day is since there has been no update given and no timeline for his recovery. Hamels was only signed on a one-year deal, but it is an $18 million deal that could return very little. Hamels’ absence or struggles could have a domino effect on the rest of the rotation, and also adversely impact an already inconsistent bullpen.

2020 Breakout Player

Austin Riley, 3B

Riley burst onto the scene last May with eight home runs in his first 16 games after being called up and 25 RBI over his first 18 games. After that, though, Riley cooled way off, hitting .191 in 65 games after June 1 with only 11 home runs and 87 strikeouts in 234 plate appearances, anchoring down his .643 OPS. Things got so bad for Riley that he ended up being left off the playoff roster.However, the 22-year-old spent the offseason working on his plate approach in an attempt to regain a better feel for the strike zone. His results this spring were extremely encouraging, as he went 10-for-28 (.357) with two doubles, two home runs, and four walks to go with only five strikeouts. His change to a simpler swing is resulting in more contact and control but no loss in power. He still has to beat out Johan Camargo for the starting 3B spot vacated by Josh Donaldson, but if he does, he’ll have a very high ceiling with great power numbers in the middle of a very good lineup. Even if Riley starts in the minors, Camargo’s versatility will allow him to slide wherever there is a need so Riley can take over at the hot corner, his natural position.

Sean Newcomb, SP

Newcomb worked mostly out of the bullpen last year, but seems set up to enter the rotation this season, especially with the injury to Hamels. He went 12-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 2018 in 30 starts but pitched 51 of his 55 games in relief last year on his way to a solid 3.16 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 68 and one third innings. Newcomb gave up two runs on eight hits over nine innings while striking out 11 in three starts in Spring Training. While Félix Hernández and Kyle Wright also had strong springs, it looks like Newcomb has the inside track and could open the season as the No. 3 starter. He offers about a strikeout per inning and has shown he can contribute on a Major League roster.

Final Thoughts

The Braves are primed and ready for another run to the postseason. They’ll need to figure out how to address the losses of Josh Donaldson from the lineup and Julio Teheran from their rotation, but Marcell Ozuna and Austin Riley should help fill in the offense while the younger starters will need to continue to progress since Hamels can’t be counted on at this point.

The NL East is stacked with the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Nationals all looking to contend for the postseason this season. It will be one of the most exciting races to watch once the season starts. Atlanta’s rotation will need to come together, but if they do, they’ll have another good shot of playing into the postseason. However, they may have some issues if they run up against teams with more established aces in the playoffs. It makes sense that with the division getting better and those key losses that they could regress a little bit.

Most over/under’s had their mark at 90.5 for a full 162-games season, which seems about right to me. One key injury or hot streak could push them above or below that percentage of however many games end up getting played, but I’d lean slightly to the under and pick them to be in the thick of the Wild Card race coming down the stretch.

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