Photo courtesy of John Bazemore/MLB.com
In 2020, the Atlanta Braves had an incredibly potent offense.
They led the league in hits and RBIs. The Braves were the runners-up in the following categories: batting average, home runs, and OPS.
The Braves return almost everybody to their lineup. It should be a tough lineup for any pitcher to navigate.
Here’s what it should look like on April 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies:
1. Ronald Acuña Jr. – RF
If you go to an away Braves game any time in the next decade, do your research. Know where to park. Get there early. Otherwise, the score might be 1-0 before you even get to your chair.
Even though he possesses more power than your prototypical lead-off hitter, Ronald Acuña Jr. will be the Braves’ lead-off hitter for the next decade. It is a role in which he thrives.
An already in-shape Acuña took no days off this offseason. He appears to have lost about 10 or 15 pounds. Acuña is primed for a 40-40 or maybe even 50-50 season. With the players he has behind him in the lineup, Acuña is going to score a tremendous amount of runs.
2. Ozzie Albies – 2B
Ozzie Albies will bat second, in a return to the 2019 version of this lineup. In that season, Albies led the league in hits. He will look to get on base as often as possible.
All-Star Freddie Freeman batted second last season. That’s a role that he says will belong to a fellow infielder.
“And when you’ve got Ozzie or Dansby (Swanson) — most likely it’s going to be Ozzie at the start — we’ve got perfect No. 2 hitters to keep the line going, work at-bats, and for them to score on a double if they’re from first base, too,” Freeman said.
Freeman perfectly summed up Albies’ role: work the pitcher, get on base, and get home. Albies is returning from a wrist injury that kept him sidelined for most of last season. Albies looks to have an All-Star caliber season this year.
3. Freddie Freeman -1B
Freddie Freeman will move back to the spot in the lineup where he has batted for much of the last decade. After discussions with manager Brian Snitker, they agreed it would be best for the beginning of the season. Neither Snitker nor Freeman ruled out the possibility of the Atlanta first baseman moving back to second in the order, if that seems like the best option later in the season.
Freeman thrived last season as second in the order, but without the designated hitter, he will have more RBI opportunities batting third in the lineup than batting just two spots away from the automatic out that is the pitcher.
His 2020 season was monstrous, with a 1.102 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). Freeman earned the National League MVP award for his efforts, and he hopes to have a similar season this year.
4. Marcell Ozuna – LF
In the biggest move of the Atlanta Braves’ offseason, they re-signed Marcell Ozuna. With Freeman moving back a spot in the lineup, Ozuna will as well. Ozuna is the ideal cleanup hitter with plenty of power to clear the bases at any moment.
He should continue to thrive hitting behind Freeman, punishing any teams that intentionally walk the reigning NL MVP. The “three-batter minimum” rule remains in place this season, forcing any relief pitcher to face at least three batters.
If teams bring in left-handed pitchers to face Freeman, they will have to stay in against Ozuna as well. Historically, Ozuna has feasted on left-handed pitching.
5. Travis D’Arnaud – C
Travis D’Arnaud is due for some regression after the best season of his career last year at age 31. He achieved a career-high in batting average (.321), on-base percentage (.386), and slugging percentage (.533).
It is unlikely that he maintains numbers this high throughout the 2021 season; however, it is possible that he has finally put it all together at the plate.
Similar to the lesson Barry Bonds infamously taught Christian Yelich about chopping down on the ball, D’Arnaud has really taken that chopping motion into his swing. His hard hit rate increased from 39.7% in 2019 to 57.8% in 2020. If he continues to make hard contact, good things will happen for the Atlanta catcher.
6. Dansby Swanson – SS
There is a solid chance that Dansby Swanson will be the best six hole hitter in the league. Swanson has steadily improved since his debut in 2016 and has emerged as one of the premier hitting shortstops in baseball.
Like many players in this lineup, Swanson hits fastballs extremely well. He had a .331 batting average last year against fastballs, including 80% of his home runs. Swanson possesses opposite field power that he didn’t have early in his career. Swanson should continue to improve in 2021.
7. Austin Riley – 3B
Batting ninth, hitless in three plate appearance on the day, Austin Riley stepped up to the plate in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Blake Treinen, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ relief pitcher, quickly got Riley down in the count, 0-2. Riley looked primed for his third strikeout of the day, but then, something special happened.
Riley took a beautiful slider just under the zone — a pitch he would have certainly swung at a year before. The next pitch, Treinen left a two-seem fast ball over the middle of the plate. Riley connected.
“That is hit deep into left center field,” the television announcer said. “Back at the wall! It’s gone! Austin Riley has put the Atlanta Braves on top here in the ninth with a home run off of Blake Treinen!”
Chipper Jones once described Riley as having “light tower power.” Now, Jones has left the press box and is a hitting coach in Riley’s corner, helping him with his swing and approach at the plate.
Power is certainly something that Riley will always have in his tool bag; however, like in that important NLCS at-bat, Riley has to be selective and wait for his pitch. He has the capability of being a 30-plus home run type of player if he continues to develop.
8. Cristian Pache – CF
Cristian Pache should be the starting center fielder on Opening Day. Even though Ender Inciarte is owed $8.7 million, Pache is the best center fielder in the Braves’ organization.
Inciarte regressed in 2020 — both at the plate and in the outfield. Pache, however, stepped into the starting lineup during the NLCS after Adam Duvall suffered an oblique injury. Pache, who only had four plate appearances during the regular season, looked comfortable during the biggest games of his life.
The youngster however, is best-known for his fielding ability; however, Pache never looked overwhelmed at the plate and put together some great at-bats, including a long home run in Game 3 of the NLCS.
To continue to develop at the plate, Pache needs to get plate appearances against big-league pitchers. Pache starting the season in Triple-A shouldn’t even be a debate. In fact, the minor league season has gotten delayed. In all likelihood, Pache will be Atlanta’s everyday center fielder.
9. Max Fried – P
Unfortunately for fans of the universal designated hitter, the DH is not going to be a thing for National League teams in 2021. It will be a readdressed issue during the collective bargaining agreement after this season, but until then, pitchers are going to hit again.
Max Fried is most likely to take the mound on Opening Day. Fried is an athlete, who played high school basketball and football as well. He can hold his own with a bat. In 2019, Fried had an on-base percentage of .262, which is not terrible for a pitcher. Fried will hope to get on base or bunt Riley or Pache over, so that Acuña will get some RBI opportunities on Opening Day.