In Atlanta, New Faces Help Win Division Races

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The Braves are seeking their fourth-straight postseason appearance.Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

By Dan Schlossberg

As the Atlanta Braves attempt to put the wraps on their fourth consecutive crown in the National League East, the new guys deserve much of the credit.

After the team lost sluggers Marcell Ozuna in May and Ronald Acuna, Jr. in July, general manager Alex Anthopoulos rebuilt his outfield with a flurry of pre-deadline deals that seemed like stopgaps at the time. 

Not anymore.

Adam Duvall, brought back after a half-year exile the Miami Marlins, may do what Ozuna did last year: lead the National League in home runs and runs batted in.

Jorge Soler, two years after hitting a league-best 48 home runs for the Kansas City Royals, has also been red-hot since going from also-ran to contender.

Joc Pederson, coming off a solid postseason with the 2020 World Champion Dodgers, has also made some notable contributions since coming south from Chicago.

And Eddie Rosario, acquired only for overweight Pablo Sandoval, has jumped from the Cleveland injured list to a vital spot in Brian Snitker’s lineup.

Rosario even managed to do something never achieved by Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Dale Murphy, or other greats of Braves history: last weekend, he hit for the cycle. Not only that but he did it within the space of five pitches: single, double, triple, and a home run.

Nobody can make up for the production of Ozuna and Acuna, of course, but collectively, the new guys are trying. Duvall has already reached a career peak in home runs and RBI, as have teammates Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson.

Freddie Freeman, the defending National League MVP, moved back into the number two spot in the lineup Monday and responded with a three-hit game that hiked his average over .300. He’s in the MVP conversation again, along with Duvall, Riley, and Albies, a little second baseman enjoying a big season (he’s just achieved his first 100-RBI campaign).

If Swanson emerges from a weeks-long skid, the Braves could have four infielders with 30-plus homers – a major-league first.

Even if he doesn’t, the new guys have all prospered since joining the team. Atlanta went on a tear in August, overtaking the New York Mets, and has maintained its grip on first place ever since arriving there.

Much could be determined next week when the Braves finish the season with a seven-game sprint against the Phillies and Mets. New York could be toast before that, however.

Looking ahead to 2022, Acuna will be absent at the start as he recovers from his torn ACL. But Duvall is certain to return, probably with a new multi-year contract, and the Braves will try to keep Soler, a free agent this fall, and Rosario. The jury is still out on Pederson, who has a $10 million option that might be too rich for a guy who doesn’t play every day.

Also in the outfield picture for next year is Cristian Pache, a centerfielder widely regarded as the best defensive player in the minors. After failing to hit in Atlanta this season, he went back to Gwinnett and tore up the Triple-A circuit over the second half. If anyone gets hurt, he’ll be the first guy up.

Ozuna may get his legal charges dismissed but likely faces a suspension from Major League Baseball for an alleged domestic violence incident against his wife Genesis. So he can’t be counted on.

But Acuna, Jr. will return by June at the latest, making a crowded outfield even more over-populated. Perhaps the return of the DH to the National League would help, as Soler handled that role with the Royals. Duvall’s defense is good and he deserves to be the right man in left field, though Rosario has played there too. Duvall can also handle center and right.

For Brian Snitker, it’s a good problem to have. Too much of a good thing can’t hurt.

Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ covers baseball for Latino Sports, forbes.com, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Ball Nine, and Here’s The Pitch, among others. You can email him at ballauthor@gmail.com.

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