It’s hard enough for the Atlanta Braves to navigate through the ever-changing status of the 2020 calendar. Just like any MLB club, they’ve had to wrestle with the ebb and flow of an altered routine. Despite missing a couple of integral pieces to start Summer Camp, the Braves are still well-equipped to finish among the best.
Here are just a few reasons why the defending NL East Champions can roll with the punches that COVID-19 continues to throw, and perhaps go beyond in 2020.
Replacing The Generals
The first jab-and-hook from coronavirus was a devastating combination. As Summer Camp began, Atlanta discovered that one of their first subjects of coronavirus was none other than Freddie Freeman. While replacing the face of the franchise is impossible, the Braves have valuable supplements.
One of those candidates is veteran Nick Markakis. However, Atlanta learned that the 36-year-old is opting out of playing the 2020 season, based partly on a discussion he had with Freeman. Despite these blows, the Braves still have a chance to do their own damage. Here’s why.
It is unknown how and when Freeman will return. In the meantime, there is a pressing need to fill a Gold Glove-caliber corner and an elite bat. One option could be Austin Riley. In what will be his sophomore year in MLB, the 23-year-old is trying to position himself as a mainstay in the lineup. The first installment of Spring Training 2020 revealed a highly-contested battle between he and Johan Camargo. Both are viable candidates to fill the vacancy left by Josh Donaldson at third base. Camarago is more of a utility option, while Riley is natural at the hot corner. In 2019, Riley boasted a perfect fielding percentage in 38 innings at third.
Perhaps the biggest impact Riley can make is at the plate. During a 20-game stretch, and the first of his major league career, Riley hit .329 with 9 HR and 26 RBI. As the season progressed, the rookie went the opposite direction. Riley experienced struggles with off-speed pitches and was sent back down to the minors.
In 12 games of spring ball, Riley hit .357 with just five strikeouts. His 1.080 OPS during the short stint was a reflection of his best run in 2019. If Riley can connect with breaking pitches, emulating Freeman’s presence at the plate isn’t such a hard sell. His athleticism and above-average glove will enable him to effectively play the corner opposite to his liking.
If anyone can exude the principles of stoic leadership like Freeman, it’s six-year veteran Adam Duvall. The former All-Star experienced a lull in his career with the Cincinnati Reds before coming to the Braves via trade in 2018. In Game 2 of the 2019 NLDS, Duvall delivered a pinch-hit home run off of Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty to help ensure an Atlanta victory. He finished the 2019 season with a .267 batting average and an .882 OPS, both career highs.
The most admirable trait of Duvall is the fact he battles type-1 diabetes every day. The presence of a high-risk teammate working amidst a pandemic might be enough to reflect the quiet-but-strong presence Freeman and Markakis so effectively displayed. Duvall is now a favorite to start in left field and even spell a primary first baseman, ala Riley.
Diamonds in the Depths
Perhaps the strongest attribute the Braves have is their deep harvest of quality farm hands. From experienced veterans to talented young prospects, Atlanta has plenty of options within their 60-man pool.
The starting point for valuable stash players in a season such as this begins with veteran Charlie Culberson. Despite being on a minor league contract for 2020, the Calhoun, Ga. native is definitely in the mix to play a ton of innings. Culberson’s flexibility gives him even more value in a year where attrition will be at its peak. In 2019, the utility played seven different positions, including pitcher.
Most of the other options for the Braves outside of their standard roster include vigorous, young options. Whether it’s the unproven talents of Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson or Touki Toussaint, the club has multiple alternates to turn to, especially on their pitching staff. While Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried and Mike Soroka headline the starting rotation, more will need to be addressed in light of recent news regarding offseason additions Felix Hernandez and Cole Hamels. Hernandez is opting out of playing in 2020 and Hamels is experiencing triceps tendinitis as he bounces back from a shoulder injury that occurred back in January.
Along with Wright, prospect Ian Anderson comes in on the Top-100 list for MLB.com. Anderson sits at No. 37 overall in the composite despite not competing past AA (Mississippi). Wright and the aforementioned pitchers were all on the Top-100 list in 2019.
Then there are darlings Christian Pache and Drew Waters. The outfielders are the Braves’ top prospects, respectively, according to MLB.com. Pache is widely regarded as the best defensive player in the minors. In a recent poll conducted by MLB Pipeline and conducted by MLB executives, Pache received 48 percent of the vote for Best Defensive Prospect. Waters is a switch hitter with multiple tools. The Woodstock, Ga. native earned 10 percent of all votes in the same survey for Best Hitting Prospect.
It will be a challenge for everyone to navigate the surprises that the 2020 season bestows. Some players continue to opt out for health concerns, while others shuffle into the mix. As Atlanta begins its journey, hurdles are already surfacing. But of all the many strengths of the Braves, it may be the ones typically behind the curtain that shine the brightest for them in 2020.