9 key storylines for the Atlanta Braves heading into the 2023 season
By Eric Cole
Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves is on Thursday against the Washington Nationals, so now is the time to take stock of the team heading into the season. On the whole, the Braves look on paper and in spring training to be one of the most formidable teams in the entire league, but that does not mean that they don't have some questions going into the season.
Below you will find nine key storylines for the Braves heading into the 2023 season. How these narratives play out will determine a lot about the Braves' chances to make another deep postseason run.
How will the Braves' shortstop situation play out?
To the surprise of, well, most everyone, Orlando Arcia is going to be the Braves' starting shortstop instead of Vaughn Grissom or late entrant into the competition, Braden Shewmake. Arcia has had a good spring and seems to be a mostly capable defender, so giving Grissom and/or Shewmake more time in the minor leagues isn't the craziest notion although the narrative that the team tried to spin about wanting to keep Ehire Adrianza around was a bit silly.
The bigger question here is how long this arrangement lasts. If Arcia struggles playing in the field everyday, how quickly will the Braves replace him and if so, with who? Vaughn Grissom was the heavy favorite amongst a lot of observers and if the Braves need to make a move early, Grissom seems like the guy that would get the shot.
However, Braden Shewmake looked like a much improved player this spring and if he starts hitting like we thought he would after being drafted AND continues to defend well over at short (the playing time at the position in Gwinnett will be telling there), he could end up snagging an opportunity if it presents itself.
There is also the possibility that Arcia looks awesome at short and rakes. This is the best sort of problem to have as no team has ever complained about having too many good players, but how the Braves handle that would be quite interesting.
Is Eddie Rosario back?
Left field was a source of anxiety for Braves fans last season and this past offseason and with good reason. Eddie Rosario was not anywhere close to the player he was when he basically singlehandedly ended the Dodgers' season in 2021 as he had an eye issue that required surgery, put him on the injured list, and he wasn't the same guy even after returning last season.
The Braves brought in a bunch of guys to compete for the spot just in case Rosario's issues ran more than eye deep, but spring training has been very promising when it comes to Rosario. He was hitting the ball hard early in spring training even when the results weren't showing it, he looked good in the World Baseball Classic, and upon returning to camp he was hitting homers and looked more like a player that could contribute every day.
Guys like Same Hilliard, Eli White, Jordan Luplow, Kevin Pillar, and maybe others could still see time in left over the course of the 2023 season. However, if Rosario puts together a strong start to the season, that would make the Braves' decision-making a whole lot easier.
Can Matt Olson carry is nuclear hot spring into the regular season?
By normal human standards, Matt Olson's 2022 season was completely fine as he posted a 3.1 fWAR season with 34 homers and a 120 wRC+. However, when you are replacing a guy as good as Freddie Freeman and have lofty expectations after being rescued from the offensive black hole that is Oakland, it is fair to say that Olson wasn't quite what Braves fans were hoping for.
Fortunately, the adjustments that Olson made late last season appear to have carried over this spring as he has been on a tear. Leading the entire league in home runs this spring seems like a good sign and that combined with the shift being eliminated AND hopefully an improved defensive season means that Olson could be primed for an even bigger year.
What can we expect from Charlie Morton?
This is a tricky one because there are a lot of factors in play, most notably that Charlie is not getting any younger. We were somewhat critical of the Braves' decision to extend Morton this offseason, but given the price for quality pitcher and just contracts in general this offseason...it is understandable that the Braves thought that bringing back Charlie for another year wasn't the worst idea.
However, this spring has been a bit of mixed bag for Morton and his last start of spring training wasn't the best. We can't really know what Morton was trying to accomplish in spring and he could have been holding back and/or experimenting more than we think, but a rough start to the season for Charlie could mean the Braves could have yet another question in their rotation.
Which of Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster will stay once Kyle Wright returns?
When spring training started, very few people probably had Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster being the finalists for their open spot in the rotation and even fewer thought they both would be needed early. However, Kyle Wright's delay in getting ready due to a cortison injection in his throwing shoulder has allowed this unlikely scenario to be possible and, to be blunt, Dodd and Shuster were awesome this spring while the pre-season favorites (Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder) did not.
Barring a setback, no one thinks that Wright is going to get Wally Pipp-ed out of the rotation and he should be back reasonably quickly. The question then becomes which of Dodd or Shuster will stick around once that happens. Shuster has the prospect pedigree, a nasty changeup, a breaking ball that is much improved, and a fastball with a questionable track record, but that has been at least one tick harder than it was previously.
In Dodd, what he lacks in name recognition, he makes up for in aggressiveness against hitters, more power stuff, and a lot of pitches that he clearly has confidence in (as he should). These first couple of weeks of games will be very important in making these decisions, but I would not be shocked if Dodd is the one that sticks around as the Braves have loved him for a while and his metrics look quite good.
Can the bullpen hold things down with Raisel Iglesias on the injured list?
Letting Kenley Jansen walk in the offseason was pretty much a given as he wasn't the same guy he once was and the Braves had a tailor-made replacement for high leverage situations in Raisel Iglesias whom they acquired at the trade deadline. Iglesias was awesome for the Braves down the stretch and he seemed like he would be the anchor for yet another strong Braves bullpen.
That is why it was a real bummer to find out that Iglesias is dealing with inflammation in his shoulder that is forcing him to start the season on the injured list. The Braves have a deep bullpen with AJ Minter seemingly taking over Iglesias' responsibilities and several high quality arms from the left and right side. What the Braves don't want to happen, though, is have to overuse those arms too much early, especially if Iglesias is out longer than expected.
Will Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. have strong bounceback seasons?
Both Ozzie and Ronnie dealt with injury stuff last year. Ozzie had a broken foot and broken pinky last year AND had a minor shoulder surgery this past offseason. Acuna Jr. was able to return from major knee surgery a bit earlier than expected, but it was clear that the healing process wasn't quite done and he had to do a lot of rehab during the season to stay on the field.
With a normal offseason and a strong spring, Ronnie looks ready to roll and already has some predicting that he could threaten a 40/40 season in 2023. Ozzie made the same projection for himself, although him getting to 40 home runs would be a bit surprising. For a little while, it sounds like Ozzie's swing from the right side (which is normally his best side) will be impacted as he recovers from the shoulder surgery, but getting big bounceback seasons from both of those guys would go a long way.
How will Sean Murphy's do in his first season with the Braves?
I think we all forget just how big of an addition that Sean Murphy is for the Braves especially with the new rules changes that are coming in 2023. The ability to control the running game is going to be more important than it has been in a long time and Murphy has a cannon of an arm, crazy pop times, and is among the best defenders at the position in the entire league.
Given that, any performance above average for catchers is an added bonus. Fortunately, Murphy does have a couple of .800 OPS seasons under his belt and he is coming off a year (again, in the wasteland that is Oakland) where he set career highs in several offensive categories. There is a realistic chance that Murphy could end up being the worst offensive player in the Braves' lineup and still be in the running for a Silver Slugger at catcher. That would be an ideal position for the Braves to be in.
Will the Braves prove again that minor league system rankings do not matter?
Remember when folks were complaining that the Braves' farm system ranked among the worst in the entire league before the season last year. Yeah, that system still produced Michael Harris II who ended up winning the National League Rookie of the Year and Vaughn Grissom who helped stabilized the team after the loss of Ozzie Albies.
Look, everyone (including us) does their absolute best to make guesses as to the overall strength of a team's farm system with the information available to us. However, arguably most important thing about an organization is player development and the Braves have proven time and time again that they not only know how to identify players via their scouting department that can be productive big leaguers, but they also know how to get them ready.
Case in point: Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd have looked great this spring and are pitching in the Braves rotation to start the season. Braden Shewmake looks vastly improved over where he was at the last couple of years. You can even look further down the road and see the promise shown by Ignacio Alvarez, Diego Benitez, JR Ritchie, Owen Murphy...the list goes on. There is real talent in this system even if it doesn't match what most neutral observers are used to seeing.