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2021 Record: 88-73
First place, NL East
Team ERA: 3.88 (8th in MLB)
Team OPS: .754 (tied for 8th in MLB)
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Braves won the World Series after it appeared that all hope was lost when Ronald Acuña Jr. went down with a torn ACL in early July. In fact, the Braves were at 51-54 as late as July 30. But that didn’t stop general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who remade his outfield on the fly with the additions of Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and Joc Pederson. None of them required giving up a top prospect, but all of them proved valuable during their march to their first World Championship since 1995. Rosario won the NLCS MVP Award before Soler took home the World Series MVP Award. After getting off to slow starts, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies rebounded and put up standard excellent seasons. The big surprise was the emergence of Austin Riley, who amassed 33 homers and 107 RBI while also improving his defense at third base. Dansby Swanson had his best all-around season to date. Charlie Morton and Max Fried led the way for the pitching staff, with Ian Anderson having a respectable rookie season and Huascar Ynoa showing some potential despite breaking his own hand punching the dugout bench. Lefties Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, and Will Smith came up huge this season, especially during the Braves’ World Series run. While the Braves’ midseason acquisitions were valuable, the team also saw marked improvements after increasing their use of shifts.
WHAT WENT WRONG
For a team who won the World Series, a lot really did go wrong here. With a few more losses in July — and maybe some better teams in the division — it’s very possible the Braves might have subtracted some pieces rather than add. As mentioned above, Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL in early July, which looked like a crippling blow at the time. It’s not often you can lose a legitimate MVP candidate and still win a World Series. Making matters more difficult was that top prospect Cristian Pache failed to progress as hoped this year. The Braves were also banking on Marcell Ozuna to be a mainstay in the middle of their lineup after bringing him back on a four-year, $65 million contract, but he fractured two fingers on his left hand in late May before being arrested on domestic violence charges. His case is ongoing and MLB can suspend him regardless of whether he’s found guilty, so his future remains in question. The Braves were originally hoping to have Mike Soroka back in their rotation this year, but he required another surgery after re-tearing his Achilles in June. Hopefully we finally see him back on the mound in 2022.
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**Hitting .283/.394/.596 with 24 homers, 52 RBI, 17 steals, and 72 runs scored through 82 games this season, Ronald Acuña Jr. was well on his way to his first NL MVP Award before tearing the ACL in his right knee on July 10. It’s not a sure thing that he’ll be ready for the start of the season, with some estimates placing his return around May, so his status will need to be tracked closely going into spring training. In the recent NBC Sports EDGE staff slow mock draft, Acuña was drafted No. 8 overall. Obviously this isn’t a question of talent — he’s a five-category dynamo if healthy — it’s just a matter of when he’ll be ready.
**Freddie Freeman didn’t quite match his MVP production, but he still hit .300 while topping the 30-homer mark for the third time in his career. It was pretty impressive considering that he was hitting .224 as late as June 8. He was essentially MVP-form from that day forward, slashing .342/.418/.541 with 18 home runs over his final 101 games. Freeman has an excellent approach and hits the ball plenty hard, so he remains the best bet at first base in fantasy leagues despite going into his age-32 season. He’s a free agent this offseason, but it’s hard to imagine the Braves not doing everything they can to keep him around.
**Like Freeman, Ozzie Albies didn’t perform up to expectations out of the gate this season. He was hitting .219 with a .722 OPS on May 20, but he lived up to his early-round billing by slashing .273/.318/.507 with 24 home runs, 88 RBI, 18 steals and 81 runs scored over his final 114 games. In doing so, he reached 30 homers, 100 RBI, and 20 steals for the first time in his career while topping 100 runs scored for the third time. Albies batted out of the first four spots in the order during that time, but he should likely settle into the No. 3 spot next year assuming Ronald Acuna Jr. is healthy. He’s trending toward second-round territory in mixed league drafts.
**We knew what to expect from Acuña, Freeman, and Albies coming into the year, but Austin Riley was the big surprise. After hitting .232/.288/.448 through his first 131 games in the majors, he exploded with a .303/.367/.531 batting line across 160 games this season while amassing 33 home runs and 107 RBI. It was a stunning progression, as Riley came out out nowhere to finish as a top-five third baseman in mixed leagues. The quality of contact suggestions that he’s no fluke, though it’s a lot to ask for him to hit .300 again. Still, given the quality of the supporting cast, he should go into 2022 as a top-five option at a shallow third base position in mixed leagues.
**Max Fried will be the first Braves’ pitcher to come off the board in mixed leagues next spring, as he rebounded from an uneven start this year by posting a 1.74 ERA over 14 starts during the second half. Control was a trouble spot for him during the first half, but he walked just 16 batters in 93 innings after the All-Star break. The southpaw walked one batter or fewer in 10 out of his final 11 starts. Ideally he’d strike out more batters to be considered a top-10 fantasy starter, but he’s not far off as is.
**Charlie Morton posted a strong 3.34 ERA and 1.045 WHIP over 33 starts during the regular season and pitched well in the postseason before breaking his fibula in Game 1 of the World Series against the Astros. He’s expected to be ready for spring training and will do so as a member of the Braves are re-upping with a one-year, $20 million deal in September. Morton turns 38 later this month and carries the health questions, but he’s aging gracefully in terms of results. Assuming he’s good to go in the spring, he’ll probably be drafted earlier than teammate Ian Anderson, who still needs to improve in terms of his control before taking the next step among fantasy hurlers.
Team Needs: Get Freeman signed already, like today. Give him a blank check and make sure he stays forever. It’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere else. Acuña should be ready in the early part of next season, but it would be a good idea to keep at least one of the outfielders they acquired at the deadline. With Morton coming back from a broken fibula and another Achilles surgery for Mike Soroka, it makes sense to add a depth starter. The Braves should also target a righty reliever they can rely upon. It’s very possible this team could be positioned to win more games next year than they did in this World Championship season.