Atlanta, GA

When Injured Braves Return, Team Will Be Tough

IBWAA

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Ronald Acuna, Jr. hit his first home run in 10 months on May 6.Dan Schlossberg, IBWAA

By Dan Schlossberg

Every team has injuries. Some of them are severe, keeping players sidelined for a season or more.

Contenders that cope best with unexpected losses can survive to the finish line.

The 2021 Atlanta Braves proved that. They lost their best pitcher, Mike Soroka, with a torn Achilles that cost him the whole year; starting catcher Travis d’Arnaud with a thumb injury that kept him out three months; and their best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., with a shredded ACL that needed surgical repair.

Acuña, who missed all of April, is just easing back into the lineup as a combination DH and right-fielder, but Soroka is still sidelined, hoping to return to the rotation after the All-Star break. That’s also the timetable for Kirby Yates, a star closer signed to a two-year contract even though Atlanta knew he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery.

That same procedure also cost the team the services of set-up reliever Luke Jackson, now projected to return in the middle of next season.

Also on the injured list is hard-hitting Eddie Rosario, who won MVP honors in the 2021 NL Championship Series after hitting .560 with three home runs and two four-hit games against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The 30-year-old outfielder, re-signed by the Braves because his left-handed bat compensates for the free agent departure of Freddie Freeman, has a two-year, $18 million contract with a $9 million club option for a third year.

Rosario was hitting .068 this season and missing fly balls he had trouble seeing. Upon examination by a retinal specialist, the Braves learned that his right eye needed surgical repair. Timetable for his return is right around the trade deadline — or roughly the same time Rosario reached Atlanta in the first place.

He was acquired from Cleveland for rotund, over-the-hill pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval, who hit four homers early and then went to sleep for the duration (apparently pandas hibernate). He drew his release the minute the trade was announced and is now playing in the Mexican League.

Last year, the Braves caught fire after general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired four outfielders — Rosario, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, and Jorge Soler — to fill the Acuña gap.

This year, AA might not need to do so much. Acuña and Rosario, if healthy, will form a fine outfield around Duvall, who switched to center late last year even before winning a Gold Glove for his play in right field. If Soroka also returns, that would be the equivalent of the club adding an All-Star arm to its rotation.

In the year that Hank Aaron died, the 2021 Braves not only emblazoned his No. 44 into the outfield grass at Truist Park but won 44 games down the stretch. Then they went 11-6 in postseason play to post their first world championship in 26 years.

Soler is now in Miami and Pederson in San Francisco but neither would fit in Atlanta anymore. Marcell Ozuna, whose fractured fingers preceded his legal issues last year, will ancor the restored DH role and rescue him from publicizing his pop-gun throwing arm in left field.

Even with Mets owner Steve Cohen lavishing large chunks of his hedge-fund fortune on his team, the Braves look like a good bet to win the NL East for the fifth year in a row.

All they need is good health and better luck.

Here’s The Pitch weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ loves to talk baseball. He’s a national baseball writer for forbes.com and author of 40 books. E.mail him at ballauthor@gmail.com.

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