MLB Team Roundup: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves

2023 record: 104-58
First place, NL East

Team OPS: .845 (1st in MLB)

Team ERA: 4.14 (15th in MLB)

What Went Right

It was truly a dominant season for the Braves, who won their sixth straight NL East title and finished with their most wins since their 106-win season in 1998. The offense was head and shoulders above anyone else, averaging 5.8 runs per game. Led by Matt Olson’s franchise-record 54 home runs, the Braves matched the 2019 Twins for the most home runs (307) ever in a single season. 10 different players reached double-digits in home runs and five reached 30 homers. Back to full strength another year removed from his ACL surgery, Ronald Acuña Jr. became the first player ever with a 40-homer/70-steal season. He’s the prohibitive favorite for the NL MVP Award. Spencer Strider led the charge for the pitching staff, as he won 20 games while racking up 281 strikeouts. He’s firmly in the mix for the NL Cy Young Award. Max Fried was excellent when healthy and Bryce Elder was a nice surprise for the rotation. Raisel Iglesias performed as expected after missing the start of the season with a shoulder injury and A.J. Minter, Nick Anderson, Jesse Chavez, and Joe Jiménez were among the key cogs for the bullpen. Pierce Johnson proved to be a strong midseason addition after coming over from the Rockies. He just signed a two-year extension to stay in Atlanta, which is big for this bullpen going into 2024.

What Went Wrong

While the regular season success should be celebrated, this was the second year in a row that the Braves lost at the hands of the division rival Phillies in the NLDS. Naturally, this will lead to all sorts of bad feelings about the randomness of the playoff format, but the Braves won the World Series in 2021 despite having the fewest regular season wins of any playoff team, so it can work for you and against you at times. It’s hard to nitpick with a season which went so well overall, but the offense helped make up for some deficiencies in the rotation. Kyle Wright was limited to just nine appearances (seven starts) due to a shoulder injury and underwent surgery in October which is expected to sideline him for the entire 2024 season. Max Fried made just 14 starts due to a forearm strain and a blister issue. Charlie Morton was up-and-down in his age-39 season and dealt with a sprained ligament in his right index finger down the stretch. Vaughn Grissom was discussed as a fantasy sleeper as the presumed replacement for Dansby Swanson, but he ended up appearing in just 23 major league games while Orlando Arcia grabbed ahold of the job.

Fantasy Slants

**So how big of an advantage is it to have the No. 1 pick in a fantasy draft next year? It’s hard to think of a comp unless we’re talking 2006 LaDanian Tomlinson. Ronald Acuña Jr. had a somewhat underwhelming return from ACL surgery in 2022, but he was better than ever this year while amassing 41 homers, 106 RBI, 73 stolen bases, and 149 runs scored over 159 games. The counting stats were ridiculous, but don’t let those obscure the incredible growth in his approach at the plate. He lowered his strikeout rate to a career-best 11.4 percent after never having a strikeout percentage lower than 23.6 percent in the big leagues. Acuña flat-out didn’t swing and miss and when he didn’t, he was making oodles of hard contact. There’s no holes to poke in his profile here, so just sit back and enjoy.

**Matt Olson’s first season in Atlanta was a bumpy ride, but there was reason to keep the faith with his quality of contact. Those who banked on a rebound this spring reaped the benefits of his best season to date, as he led the majors with 54 home runs, 139 RBI, and a .604 slugging percentage. He also scored 127 runs, with only former Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and teammate Ronald Acuña Jr. besting him in that category. Olson only slightly lowered his strikeout rate compared to 2022, so it’s probably unfair to expect him to hit .283 again, but he takes his walks and hits the ball as hard as anyone in the game. He figures to be the second first baseman off the board in mixed leagues next spring (behind Freeman) and for good reason.

**Should Spencer Strider be the No. 1 fantasy starter going into drafts next year? Going on pure upside, he has the strongest case among his peers. Even with the 3.86 ERA this season, he was in a completely different stratosphere in terms of missing bats. His strikeout percentage sat at 36.8 percent, a full five percentage points higher than the next-closest qualified starter (Blake Snell at 31.5 percent). Yes, the two-pitch arsenal hurts Strider at times, but he’s very difficult to hit and he actually lowered his walk rate this season. It’s more likely than not that his ERA improves in 2024. And we can’t ignore the win potential (he was the only 20-game winner this season) with this powerhouse lineup continuing to back him.

**Max Fried probably isn’t going to be as popular in drafts next spring after a forearm issue caused him to miss three months this season, but keep in mind that he posted a strong 2.79 ERA and 55/12 K/BB ratio over nine starts after returning. In other words, typical Fried excellence. The southpaw owns a 3.03 ERA for his career, and like Strider, he’s in a great situation with the Braves. Pitching is inherently a risky pursuit, so it’s hard to say that he’s any more of a red flag than any other pitcher. He could very well be a value in his walk year of 2024.

**In case it wasn't already obvious, it was a pretty good year to be a hitter on the Braves. Austin Riley blew away his previous career-high in runs scored while hitting .281 with 37 homers and 97 RBI. After a bit of a quiet first half, he turned things on in a big way after the All-Star break, mashing 21 homers with a .968 OPS over his final 70 games. On the whole, Riley was more discerning at the plate and continued to make plenty of quality contact. He’s safe and steady, and might fly under the radar a bit relative to his high-profile teammates. That’s hard to say about a projected second-round pick.

**As my colleague and Circling the Bases Podcast co-host Eric Samulski recently noted, second base is not all that deep in fantasy leagues, even with the cheat code of Mookie Betts. Thankfully Ozzie Albies reclaimed his status as an elite option at the position this year. After an injury-plagued 2022 season, Albies slashed .280/.336/.513 across 146 games while reaching new career-highs with 33 home runs and 109 RBI. He also scored 96 runs, which was all the more impressive considering that he spent the early part of the season mostly hitting sixth in the Braves’ lineup. The switch-hitting Albies traditionally hits lefties better than righties and his speed isn’t what it once was, but his contact rate was higher than ever this season and his fly-ball heavy ways should continue to translate to reliable power production. He’s the clear No. 3 option at the top-heavy position, behind Betts and Marcus Semien, but ahead of Jose Altuve.

Key Free Agents

Joe Jiménez, Kevin Pillar, Jesse Chavez

(Charlie Morton, Eddie Rosario, Collin McHugh, and Kirby Yates all have club options for 2024 while Brad Hand’s contract includes a $7 million mutual option for next year)

Team Needs

The position player core is locked in and stable for the most part, but the rotation should be a priority for the Braves this offseason. As noted above, Kyle Wright is slated to miss the entire 2024 campaign after shoulder surgery, but there are questions beyond that, as it’s hard to count on Charlie Morton (who turns 40 in November), even if he decides to return for another season. The same goes for Michael Soroka, who is arbitration-eligible this winter and comes with a long injury history. Expecting Bryce Elder to take a step forward in 2024 is far from a guarantee. Max Fried is also going into his final year of team control, so it would be wise for the Braves to add an accomplished starter to put the team in the best position possible to finally get over the hump for a long postseason run.

Signing impending free agent Pierce Johnson to a two-year contract was a good start for the Braves’ bullpen, but we should see more changes with a unit who struggled down the stretch and into their NLDS series against the Phillies.