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How Should the Braves Move Forward This Season Without Ronald Acuña Jr.?

The outfielder tore his ACL Saturday and will miss the rest of an already disappointing season for Atlanta.

The All-Star break is supposed to be a time for players to rest up so they can come back recharged for the second-half stretch run. For the Braves, it could function as a necessary respite away from the field—or may result in Atlanta’s players' stewing themselves into sorrow over the rotten end to the team’s first half.

Surely the Braves will appreciate the break before the dog days of summer. But given the way the offense responded Sunday in its first game without Ronald Acuña Jr. at the top of the lineup—with a record nine straight strikeouts to open their loss against the Marlins—it’s fair to wonder about both this team’s ceiling and the state of the clubhouse psyche after Atlanta’s trying first half. The Braves carry a losing record for the first time at this stage in the season since 2017, the most recent year they missed the playoffs. It’s probable this squad follows a similar path. FanGraphs measures Atlanta’s playoff odds at 7.6% after its system spit out a 63.8% chance ahead of Opening Day, by far the largest decrease among National League teams.

No position group on Atlanta’s roster has been spared from the collective funk that’s enveloped the team this season. The rotation is better than last year’s unit, which was held together by Max Fried and Scotch tape, though that's not saying much. This season, it ranks eighth in the National League with a 4.05 ERA and is once again beleaguered by injuries. The Braves have been without Huascar Ynoa, their most electrifying young starter, since mid-May when he broke his hand punching a dugout bench. They may also lose NLCS Game 7 starter Ian Anderson to the injured list with a shoulder injury. Mike Soroka reinjured his surgically repaired right Achillies tendon late last month and will miss the remainder of the year. The 20 losses attributed to the bullpen—five to closer Will Smith—are the most of any NL relief unit except for the last-place Diamondbacks'. Six catchers have suited up for Atlanta, and none have closely approached adequacy at the plate —including reigning Silver Slugger winner Travis d’Arnaud, who compiled a paltry .594 OPS in 23 games before suffering a broken thumb. The infield has seen diminished performances from reigning MVP Freddie Freeman and shortstop Dansby Swanson.

But you need not look further than the outfield to grasp just how poorly the 2021 season has gone for the three-time defending NL East champs. A Braves outfield projected to consist of an incomparable phenom in Acuña, '20 NL home run leader Marcell Ozuna and top prospect Cristian Pache was patrolled Sunday by former Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia, utility man Ehire Adrianza and Guillermo Heredia (who was held in such poor regard last season that he was cut by the punching bag Pirates).

Pache, despite holding his own in last year’s NLCS against the Dodgers, proved to be way out of his depth by slashing .111/.152/.206 in 22 games before being demoted to Triple A, where he’s also been a below-average offensive player. Ozuna hit just seven home runs in 208 plate appearances, and broke his thumb in May before police allegedly saw him a few days later strangling his wife and throwing her against a wall, leading to domestic violence charges. And Acuña tore his ACL while trying to make a leaping catch Saturday, ending his 2020 campaign on a play that few others would have had the combination of talent and guts to even attempt.

A promising rookie struggling to adapt to the bigs. An expensive veteran who didn’t carry his weight before an ugly run-in with the law likely ended his season—and perhaps his tenure with the team. And to cap it all off, the team MVP who suffers a debilitating injury that won’t just end his current season but could very well bleed into the next. Atlanta’s outfield alone has accounted for just about all the different types of problems you can encounter in sports.

Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) reacts as he gets check on by training staff after an apparent leg injury during the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at loanDepot Park.

And yet, the Braves enter the All-Star break just four games out of first place in the NL East, with the division’s best run differential (+19). That the Braves are still within striking distance of the Mets is a testament to how decently the position player injury replacements have fared in their extended tryouts. But how long will they be able to hold up with an even heavier burden to bear? While it’s certainly reasonable to expect improvement from the pitching staff in the second half, what’s been a top-five offense in the NL will surely decline without Acuña.

If a team is said to have its head above water when it has a winning record, then the Braves have been the kid in the pool being continually dunked back under the surface right when they get a chance to breathe. They’re one of just three teams, along with the Marlins and the Rangers, to never spend a single day of 2021 above .500. Six times they’ve had an opportunity to get there, including Sunday’s contest against Miami. All six times they’ve failed, and the first five preceded multigame losing streaks. Another seems likely with the Rays coming to town to open the second half.

Tampa Bay’s visit to Truist Field begins a crucial and potentially brutal stretch for Atlanta. Every team on the schedule leading up to the July 30 trade deadline—Rays, Padres, Phillies, Mets, Brewers—has managed to end the first half at .500 or better, with Philadelphia being the only club in that group not currently occupying a playoff spot. If the Braves emerge during that 15-day, 16-game gantlet with their first precious, extended breath of fresh air above the surface, then perhaps president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos will upgrade this roster. A blockbuster deal for Joey Gallo would do wonders to resuscitate the 2021 edition of this team and lengthen the lineup for '22 as well. A reunion with Miami's Adam Duvall would be a more conservative route.

And if not? Well, it may be best to chalk this season up as a lost one in terms of chasing a championship rather than rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship. The title window propped open by the long, absurdly team-friendly contracts signed by Ozzie Albies (a likely nine-year, $45 million agreement that ends after the 2026 season and has been criticized by many in the game as the worst deal for a player in league history) and Acuña (a likely 10-year, $124 million deal that ends after the '28 season) gives Atlanta more wiggle room to absorb a lost campaign than most. The only potential albatross on the books is Ozuna, who could potentially have his contract terminated (or more likely, reduced via settlement) based on the language in MLB’s uniform player contract that a player must “conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship.” With just roughly $50 million committed to the '22 payroll, the front office is well positioned to sign a fresh batch of free agents and hope for better luck next year.

Even though the Braves do possess quite a few veterans on expiring contracts—including Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Shane Greene, Pablo Sandoval, d’Arnaud and, the most significant of them all, Freeman—it’s hard to imagine they’d become all-out sellers at the deadline. Only the most outlandish of fans would suggest a trade of Freeman, a franchise icon who possesses 10-and-5 trade veto rights, has said he wants to retire a Brave, and lives in Atlanta with his wife and three sons, including two infants born during the offseason. Anthopolous may listen to any contender in need of a starting pitcher willing to dangle prospects for Morton’s postseason pedigree or Smyly, who’s 5–0 with a 2.75 ERA over his last seven outings after a rocky start to the season. But those are the only candidates who’d bring back anything of use in Atlanta’s long-term pursuit of a World Series. And moving any of them would likely require a complete collapse coming out of the break.

But the fact these possibilities are even being bandied about speaks volumes about the state of the team just months after being one game away from the World Series … three times. If this Braves core is going to fully exorcise this franchise’s postseason demons, it'll have to do it with every pillar of its lineup intact. That includes Albies, the switch-hitting All-Star who may just be the NL’s best all-around second baseman. That includes Freeman, whom Atlanta can’t afford to lose in the offseason. And that certainly includes Acuña, whose injury seemingly just sucked the last bit of life out of this Braves' season—but whose continued attachment to the team springs hope eternal.

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