The Braves are one month removed from a Cinderella run to their first World Series title since 1995. They ended a streak of 16 consecutive fruitless postseason appearances and killed the blown-lead demons of a city haunted by them since this franchise couldn’t close a 2–0 lead against the Yankees in the '96 Series with the benefit of home field advantage. And they did it without Ronald Acuña Jr., their most explosive hitter who was the co-favorite for the National League MVP when he tore the ACL in his right knee in July, and Mike Soroka, the starting pitcher who’s suffered two separate tears to the same Achilles tendon since leading Atlanta in WAR as a 21-year-old in 2019.
All that would indicate SI’s newly crowned team of the year is in decent position to become MLB’s first repeat champions in 22 years next season. But are the Braves really in such great shape going forward? They will still have quite a few items to check off on their offseason to-do list whenever the lockout ends. And while Acuña and Ozzie Albies are signed to criminally team-friendly contracts for the better part of the decade, giving president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos a dynamic two-man core to build around, the defending champs are facing multiple sources of uncertainty that most clubs in their position don’t have to worry about so soon after the confetti has settled.
The first, most pressing item is the fate of Freddie Freeman. He and the Braves could not come to terms on a new contract before the lockout, extending a negotiating process that’s spanned several offseasons. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman has reported the five-time All-Star wants a deal in the neighborhood of six years and $180 million. That's reportedly one more year than Atlanta was hoping to guarantee Freeman, who would be tied to the team through his age-37 season on such a pact. Yet one extra year for a franchise icon seems to be more than worth it to maintain the status quo of a title-winning team and the postchampionship bliss permeating the fan base. There’s also the notion that the first baseman seems uncommonly primed for his position to age well into his late 30s as a slugger with a keen batting eye who can spray the ball to all fields. Regardless, keeping your face of the franchise in limbo coming off back-to-back seasons in which he won an MVP award and a World Series title is a strange way to do business, especially when there seems to be enough room on the books to end this staredown.
Atlanta’s current projected 2022 payroll ranks 12th at around $125 million, according to Spotrac. That figure was around $153 million last season, and the team’s corporate owners, Liberty Media, raked in record profits this year as attendance returned to prepandemic levels. Through the end of September, the team’s '21 revenue had reached $466 million. And that was before the Braves reaped any benefits from the playoff run, during which fans packed Truist Park and the surrounding team-owned entertainment complex. Anthopoulos has indeed indicated payroll will increase. It stands to reason Freeman would already be secured if the Braves didn’t have so many other areas to worry about shoring up from last year’s 88-win outfit.
Atlanta’s outfield construction brings up a bevy of difficult questions. Three of the four outfielders who started World Series games are free agents. Atlanta tendered a contract to NL RBI leader Adam Duvall in November after declining to do so last year but could lose NLDS hero Joc Pederson, NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario and World Series MVP Jorge Soler. Acuña may or may not be ready for Opening Day. Marcell Ozuna may or may not play for the team again. He was essentially dealt a slap on the wrist by MLB in the form of a retroactive 20-game suspension for his domestic-violence charges—which were reduced to misdemeanors by prosecutors—making him eligible to return for the start of the 2022 season. Two days after MLB announced the suspension, TMZ Sports released police body-camera footage it had obtained that shows Ozuna grabbing his wife's neck as officers arrived at his home in Sandy Springs, Ga., on May 29, in response to an "assault in progress" call before his arrest. Even if Ozuna faces no further discipline, the Braves risk alienating a good chunk of their fan base if he’s allowed to play for the team again. But as it stands, he's also the second-highest-paid player on the roster at $16 million per year through '24. Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, once seen as future starting outfielders, posted nearly identical mediocre batting lines at Triple A this year as they did in '19, casting their futures into doubt. It’s possible two-thirds of Atlanta’s Opening Day starting outfielders are not yet in the organization.
The Braves do possess tremendous catching depth, especially after the signing of former Brewer Manny Piña, and Austin Riley is entrenched at third base after his breakout 2021 campaign. Dansby Swanson, however, is under team control for just one more year and presents an interesting extension case. The former No. 1 pick displayed more pop in '21 than he had before, with a career-high 27 home runs, but he’s recorded an OPS+ below the league average of 100 in four of the last five years, with the abridged '20 season being the lone exception. His shortened debut effort in '16 remains his best from an offensive standpoint. The Braves may have been banking on '19 first-round pick Braden Shewmake as a potential replacement, but the lefty-hitting 24-year-old registered a .672 OPS in Double A last year, dimming those odds.
Over the last few years, a farm system once rich with promising pitching prospects has thinned considerably. Anthopoulos would be a deserving winner for the Executive of the Year award after his midseason makeover of Atlanta’s outfield, but he may regret not packaging a few of the young hurlers who have lost their sheen such as Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint and Luiz Gohara in trades for more established arms.
Max Fried and Ian Anderson have earned their stripes over the last two years, but Atlanta could use some reinforcements in the rotation behind them. Charlie Morton earned a one-year extension at the reasonable cost of $20 million with a 2023 club option at the same price, but he’s 38 and just broke his leg in the World Series. Soroka cannot be counted on to return healthy and in his previous form. Huascar Ynoa was a fun story early on last year, but manager Brian Snitker made it clear in the playoffs that he didn’t trust him to get through opposing lineups twice.
And while the Night Shift—the excellent nickname bestowed upon the quartet of Will Smith, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter—consistently turned the lights off in the playoffs, relievers are a fickle bunch. Just ask Braves fans who watched Smith take them on a roller-coaster ride through the regular season before becoming the second reliever ever to throw at least 11 innings in the playoffs without giving up a run. The Kirby Yates signing could pay off, but he’s far from a sure quantity after accounting for 4 ⅓ innings over the last two years.
There’s also the competition to consider. The Mets, the NL East team that's gone the longest without winning a World Series, have spent more money than any other team over the past two offseasons and appear intent on buying their way into the Fall Classic. The Phillies are in win-now mode—desperate to end the NL’s longest postseason drought—and would represent a significant threat with a halfway decent bullpen. The Marlins have perhaps the most talented collection of young pitchers in the majors and finally seem ready to emerge from their rebuild. And the Nationals, while quite obviously being the furthest away from contention, don’t have the look of a complete pushover with Juan Soto and Stephen Strasburg in the fold.
Don’t get me wrong; the vast majority of MLB franchises would trade places with the Braves if they could. But Atlanta's opening the door for Freeman to consider donning a Dodgers or Yankees jersey has served notice to rival clubs that the party on Peachtree Street is over. With how fast those championship-parade buses were moving, perhaps we should’ve known it wouldn’t last long.
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