By Brett Stephens

One-hundred seventy days have passed since the Atlanta Braves last played a game in Truist Park. The following games on the 11th and 12th of October were played in Philadelphia, where the “red-hot” Phillies, led by the talented Bryce Harper, closed out the National League Division Series against the Braves. The second time in back-to-back years by the Phillies.

However, the sting of last year for Braves fans has come to end, as Opening Day is approaching in less than 12 hours for the 2021 World Series Champions. During this offseason, the city of Atlanta was once again blessed with terrific decisions by general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, who made several moves to boost the already exceptional talent on the team. The Atlanta Braves have all the tools to craft a championship-caliber squad, but some pieces need to fall in place this year, and many teams across the MLB are looking to do the same. Here’s what the Braves will have to focus on going into the 2024 season.

The Magic of Spencer Strider Continuing on the Mound

(Photo/Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s no secret that Spencer Strider has been a top pitcher in the Braves rotation for some time, and it’s a fair argument to say he is one of the best pitchers in the MLB. Leading the league with pitcher win-loss record (20-5) and strikeouts (281) put Strider in the conversation for the 2023 NL Cy Young award, in which he lost to the former San Diego Padre, Blake Snell.

Strider’s ability to locate pitches with phenomenal speed is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, batters are consistently met with a crafty pitcher in Strider, who can place the ball wherever he wants. Yet, on the flip side, in 2023, Strider gave up almost twice the amount of hits as he did the year prior, with opponents tallying 146 hits against the 25-year-old ace. However, the young gun has another trick up his sleeve for the upcoming season, with the addition of a curveball to his pitching arsenal.

“[The curveball] is just something I wish I had been throwing,” Strider said in an interview a few weeks ago. “It just fits my strengths and the way I pitch, not only philosophically, but mechanically. I spent a lot of time working on it in the offseason, and it’s definitely more comfortable than I thought it would be this early.”

Although Strider has occasionally used the changeup while on the mound, he has not used that pitch as much in the Majors. His go-to pitching set has consistently been his fastball and slider, but the addition of the curveball gives Strider more flexibility to confuse batters. With horizontal movement on his slider, and a curveball that has vertical movement that reaches speeds between the low-to-mid 80’s, Strider’s ability to evolve his pitching game should keep him on top in the MLB. 

Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult and challenging tasks in professional sports, especially making contact with the ball consistently. Strider’s new weapon will add another layer of deception to batters and keep the opposition on their toes as Atlanta’s starter will begin his Cy Young campaign on Opening Day.

The Braves Warming Up Their Bats in October

(Photo/Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Even with a Braves offense that is as electric as any team in the MLB, slumps happen. However, for Atlanta, a big concern when reflecting on last year’s loss to the Phillies (again) was the lack of consistent bats that this lineup provides often.

During the regular season, the Atlanta Braves had one of their best seasons ever when attacking the baseball, ranking number one in hits, homeruns, RBIs, batting average, and more. From Matt Olson hammering in 54 homers, to Acuña inventing his own club by tallying over 40 home runs and 70 stolen bases, every player in the lineup had a terrific year, which helped them clinch the National League East.

The Braves, having earned a bye, waited a long time to compete, especially when this team was at the top of its production. And when Philadelphia started to pick up steam rolling into October, that’s when Atlanta’s engine started to fall off the tracks. Six days may not be a huge length of time, in general, but in the world of baseball, these athletes are playing almost every single day. If Atlanta lost the division, they would still be in the playoffs, carrying their solid hitting immediately into postseason play. Braves manager Brian Snitker and his team had no real way of simulating playoff competition before they would inevitably face the winner of the NL wild-card round.

“We got beat and didn’t play good enough to win the series. It’s as simple as that,” Snitker said, following their game four loss. “We got beat by a really good club that has a penchant for it this time of year.”

During the NLDS against the Phillies, the Braves had one of their worst offensive stints to date. In four games, Atlanta had only three home runs, seven RBIs, and was outscored by the Phillies 18-8 in the series.

(Photo/Chris Szagola/Associated Press)

“You look at the playoff format, you don’t need to be a great team all year,” Spencer Strider commented following the final game in Philadelphia. “You need to get to the playoffs and then it’s a different game.”

Strider makes a great point. Postseason ball is about who can remain the hottest team from the wild-card to the World Series. The Texas Rangers, who won the World Series last year, were the least likely team to win it all since the Marlins in 2003, having a +7500 odds before the 2023 season began. Even the Braves were seen as unlikely candidates to be champions in 2021, with a 0.3% chance to win the World Series around the All-Star break.

Pitching is vital to a winning ball club, of course, but lackluster hitting cannot attribute to success in the postseason, which means the Braves will need to turn on the gas pedal for the playoffs as they march their way through the next 162 games.

Offseason Acquisitions Filling in Their Roles Effectively

(Photo/Getty Images)

If there’s one thing fans of the Atlanta Braves can rely on, it’s the decision making of Anthopoulos. Hired in 2017, Anthopoulos was able to deliver Atlanta their first World Series since 1995, which was largely in part to crucial role players the Braves relied on. Players like Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, and Adam Duvall, were all pickups under Anthopoulos’s leadership, and they all had incredible success during the 2021 regular season and the playoffs.

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, this offseason was no different for Atlanta, who picked up much-needed pieces for their squad. Two additions that may pack the biggest punch for the Braves are starting pitcher, Chris Sale, and outfielder, Jarred Kelenic.

Injuries have plagued the starting rotation for the Braves for quite some time. Atlanta starting pitcher Max Fried has struggled with multiple problems as of late, with tightness in his hamstring in March of last year, followed by strain in his left forearm. Fried has been stupendous when healthy, but he will become an unrestricted free agent after the season, signing a one year deal for 2024. Not to mention, Charlie Morton is 40 years old going into his 2024 campaign, and other pitchers, like 21-year-old A.J. Smith-Shawver and right-hander Ian Anderson, have jumped multiple times between the minor leagues and the MLB.

With Fried potentially signing a massive deal at another ball club in 2025, along with overall pitching concerns for the entire rotation, Anthopoulos pulled the trigger on the veteran lefty, Sale.

(Photo/Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)

Sale was considered to be one of the best pitchers in the league many years ago, but injuries, especially his Tommy John Surgery in 2019, gave him a large setback in comparison to his Chicago White Sox days. In his career, Sale has a 3.10 ERA and a WHIP of 1.05 across three teams.

The left-hander from Lakeland, Florida, is entering his 13th season in the Majors. Sale recently signed a new deal with the Braves, which is a two-year, $38 million deal with the team. In this restructured deal, his former team, the Boston Red Sox, will take a $17 million payment for his contract, with Atlanta only having to pay $1 million of his deal in 2024.

It’s a risk, considering Sale’s injury-riddled past, but the Braves are hoping that his contributions to the team will radiate off the field as well, being a leader for the younger pitching talent on the roster.

“For the young guys, just to see how he goes about everything every day and how he takes good starts, how he takes bad starts, how he does in between every five days, it’s gonna be big for all the young guys to see how someone at that caliber goes about his business,” said Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud when questioned about Sale’s impact to the team. 

(Photo/Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

When looking to the outfield, the Braves felt it was time to make some adjustments to the left field position. Kelenic, formerly on the Seattle Mariners, was acquired in December of last year in a trade that also included Marco Gonzales and Evan White.

Like many of the deals Anthopoulos finds himself in, it’s the upside that intrigues him the most. The contract is not one to shy away from, as Atlanta will pay Kelenic (along with White and Gonzales) around $29 million dollars. Although there is a large sum of money involved, Kelenic’s addition to the Braves will remove the lack of production in left field. Last year, Kelenic had a decent year as a Mariner, with a .254 batting average as well as racking in 49 RBIs in 105 games played.

However, Kelenic said he is thankful for the new beginning in Atlanta, as he hopes to add to an already stacked Opening Day roster.

“I’ve done a lot of learning the last three years, that’s for sure,” Kelenic said, after being acquired by the Braves. “I’m looking forward to being myself and having a clean slate.” 

The Atlanta Braves are hoping to get revenge on the Philadelphia Phillies to begin the season, as they play their opening series for the 2024 season this weekend at Citizens Bank Park.