The Atlanta Braves seemed like a team destined to watch the 2021 postseason on television after a sluggish first half, then the devastating injury to Ronald Acuna in July. But the Braves made a series of shrewd moves to reinforce their depleted outfield and came roaring down the stretch to beat the heavily-favored Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series before upsetting the Houston Astros to win the World Series.
The Braves are expected to get most of the pieces they were missing in the second half last season back in the first month of the season, but as Spring Training got underway Sunday, the biggest piece of their championship puzzle was still not signed, and was in danger of heading elsewhere. Here are the burning questions facing the Braves heading toward Opening Day on April 7, with one big question looming over all others.
Will Freddie Freeman be back?
To borrow a line from Reggie Jackson, first baseman Freddie Freeman is the straw that stirs the drink in Atlanta, and losing him to free agency would be a devastating blow to the Braves’ chances to repeat as World Series champions.
As of Sunday, the two teams most likely to wrest Freeman away from Atlanta were the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, not surprisingly the two teams with the deepest pockets in baseball. The Yankees may have indicated they are moving in a different direction Sunday night by trading for Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson, although there is probably enough room in the clubhouse and on the payroll for both Donaldson and Freeman, who were teammates in Atlanta in 2019.
Freeman reportedly has indicated a desire to stay in Atlanta, and the short free-agency window could work in the Braves’ favor. But Freeman is also from Southern California, and not only would the Dodgers welcome him with open arms, don’t discount the San Diego Padres, who are desperate to move on from first baseman Eric Hosmer, and who have Freeman’s young son Charlie‘s favorite player besides his dad, Fernando Tatis Jr.
What are the timetables for Acuna, Morton and Soroka
The Braves enter Spring Training down three of the most vital players on the roster, outfielder Ronald Acuna and starting pitchers Charlie Morton and Mike Soroka.
Acuna, who tore his ACL last July, an injury that proved a blessing in disguise as it prompted the acquisitions that put the Braves over the top in October, is apparently fully recovered and has been taking batting practice. He could conceivably be back in the lineup by the end of April.
Morton broke his right leg in the World Series when hit by a line drive, but he has also ramped up his activity, throwing a bullpen session on Sunday’s first day of Spring Training. He is also expected to return to the roster in the second half of April.
Soroka, who tore his Achilles tendon for a second time in two years last June, is eying a return around midseason.
Who are the odd-men out in the outfield?
Acuna’s return creates a good problem for the Braves, who brought back Adam Duvall after his big season in 2021 and are getting back Marcell Ozuna off the league’s suspended list after a domestic violence incident last season. Gil Heredia is also in the mix, and Jorge Soler and/or Eddie Rosario could be returning as well, creating a big of a logjam in the outfield.
It is likely that Acuna will see the majority of his time upon returning at designated hitter to protect his knee from an injury running in the outfield, but even with Acuna at DH, at least one of Rosario or Soler is not expected back.