For Acuña and Braves, Sky’s the Limit in ’20

By: Mark Bowman –

Though the shape of the challenge has changed, the Braves still have the same World Series aspirations that existed before the coronavirus pandemic ended Spring Training in March.

While the Braves would certainly like to celebrate a third straight National League East title, their ultimate goal is to bring Atlanta its first World Series championship since the strike-shortened 1995 season.

The 60-game season that awaits will look much different than the one navigated by those Braves 25 years ago, but the satisfaction and excitement it creates could prove to be quite similar.

Here’s a look at what to expect from the Braves in 2020.

What needs to go right?

With Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, the Braves may have the NL’s best Nos. 1-4 hitters, but the bottom of the lineup is a concern. Now that Yasiel Puig is no longer an option following a positive COVID-19 test, there is a greater need for Austin Riley to become the masher he was in the first six weeks of his career last year. If Riley can get back on track and Dansby Swanson builds on the success he had last year, Atlanta’s lineup should be plenty deep and consequently increase Acuña’s plate appearances in the leadoff spot.

Big question

One of the most influential pieces this year could be Swanson, who exited last June with 15 homers and an .815 OPS. What had the makings to be a strong season crumbled as he missed a month with a bruised right heel and produced a .611 OPS over the season’s final three months. Per Statcast, the Braves shortstop hit .020 lower than his Expected Batting Average (.271) and slugged .058 lower than his Expected Slugging Percentage (.480). If he shows opposite-field power, like he did early last season, this could be a very efficient offense.

On the schedule

Though getting off to a good start is important for every team during a 60-game sprint, it will be even more important to the Braves, who are scheduled to play their first 20 games — one-third of the season — before getting a breather. That 20-game stretch ends with a five-game road trip that includes games against the Phillies and Yankees. By Aug. 12, we may have a good feel for how successful the Braves might ultimately be this year.

Team MVP will be …

As good as Acuña was while finishing three steals shy of joining the 40-40 club last year, he’s primed to be even better this season. The 22-year-old outfielder is one of four players in the past 25 years to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases within a 60-game span. Expect him to match that feat this year and provide even greater defensive value with his arm in right field.

Team Cy Young will be …

It’s pretty hard to pick against Mike Soroka, who is one of the most cerebral young pitchers the Braves have developed since Tom Glavine. The young right-hander gained confidence from the gem he produced in last year’s NL Division Series against the Cardinals and could once again be an NL Cy Young Award candidate.

Bold prediction

The Braves will win a third straight division title, but they will not hold sole possession of first place before the season’s final weekend.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for since 2001.