The Atlanta Braves head into the 2023 MLB season as one of the World Series favorites. The Braves have won five straight NL East titles, giving them the longest active streak among division champions. Atlanta was upset in the 2022 NLDS, and a few core pieces from its 2021 championship team are no longer on the roster.
With such high expectations for the upcoming season, let’s take a look at the biggest Braves questions that still need answers before 2023 Opening Day.
3. Who will be the Braves’ fifth starter?
Jared Shuster or Dylan Dodd will be the Braves’ fifth starter to start the season. Neither prospect seemed likely to land the role when spring training began. Ian Anderson, who won a World Series game for Atlanta less than 17 months ago, has already been sent back to Triple-A after an awful spring. Bryce Elder wasn’t much better than Anderson after making nine starters and posting a 3.17 ERA in his 2022 rookie campaign. A hamstring injury has delayed Mike Soroka’s return even further.
That leaves Shuster and Dodd in the race to fill out Atlanta’s rotation. Shuster is the top prospect in the Braves organization. The Braves selected the left-hander in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft. Dodd was a third-round pick in 2021 and is Atlanta’s 10th-best prospect. By just watching spring training, you might think Shuster and Dodd were the best pitching prospects in baseball.
Dodd (0.69) and Shuster (0.71) have the lowest ERAs of any pitchers who qualify in spring training. In two starts, Dodd has given up a single run while striking out 15 batters over 13 innings. Shuster has gone 12.2 innings in three starts, and he’s only allowed seven runners to reach base. Both pitchers have surrendered two walks and one home run.
The Braves ranked fifth in the NL last year with a 3.72 ERA from their rotation. Given Charlie Morton’s age and struggles last season, Dodd or Shuster could prove to be an even more important part of the Braves’ rotation than initially anticipated
2. Who will round out the Braves’ bullpen?
Both the front end and the back end of the Braves’ bullpen will look different in 2023. Kenley Jansen is no longer the team’s closer. After leading the NL with 41 saves in his lone year in Atlanta, Jansen has been replaced by former Los Angeles Angels closer Raisel Iglesias. Joe Jimenez is a new bullpen addition. A.J. Minter and Collin McHugh are back with the Braves as setup men.
Nick Anderson was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves have plans for the reliever to be part of their bullpen in the 2023 season. Anderson will start the season in the minor leagues as he looks to rebuild his arm strength after recovering from injuries for nearly two years.
Does that mean Kirby Yates will be on the Opening Day roster? It’s been three years since Yates was an effective reliever. The 35-year-old missed the 2021 season with Tommy John Surgery and had a 5.14 ERA in nine appearances for Atlanta last season. In six spring training innings, Yates has given up two homers and six runs. Yates does have eight strikeouts.
The New York Yankees cut Lucas Luetge in December. The left-hander seems likely to leave spring training with a spot on the Braves’ Opening Day roster. Luetge had a sub-2.75 ERA in both of his seasons with the Yankees.
Dylan Lee could have a more prominent role in the bullpen than either Yates or Luetge. Unlike the two veterans, Lee has put up good spring training numbers. Lee has struck out eight batters while giving up no runs or walks in 5.1 innings. Braves manager Brian Snitker put Lee in three of Atlanta’s four 2022 playoff games.
1. Can Ronald Acuna Jr. be an MVP candidate?
Two months into the 2021 season, Ronald Acuna Jr. was the favorite to win the NL MVP award. Then the right fielder suffered a torn ACL that kept him off the field for Atlanta’s World Series run. Acuna Jr. made his 2022 debut in April, but other leg injuries limited him to 119 games. While the 25-year-old made his second straight All-Star team, his .764 OPS was the worst of his career by more than 100 points. Health has prevented Acuna from consistently being one of the best players in baseball.
The 2019 campaign is the only season in which Acuna played more than 120 games. The result was a top-five MVP finish. Acuna hit .280/.365/.518 with 41 home runs and 101 RBI. At 22 years old, Acuna led the league with 127 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. In the last three seasons, Acuna has topped out at 24 home runs and 52 RBI.
Acuna certainly has the talent to win the 2023 NL MVP award. In 128 games from 2020-2021, Acuna had 38 homers, 25 steals and an OPS of just under .990. Acuna could benefit more from the bigger bases and new pickoff rules than most players.
The Braves won the 2021 World Series without Acuna. Doing so again two years later could be much more difficult. Freddie Freeman is gone. Dansby Swanson left Atlanta, too, and is being replaced by a defense-first shortstop in Orlando Arcia.
Atlanta scored three or fewer runs in three of its four playoff games last season. If the Braves hope to make another title run, Acuna might have to be a top MVP contender.