As pitchers, catchers, and a majority of position players have begun to report to camp over the past few days, Spring Training has officially begun, which means Opening Day is just around the corner. For many teams, Spring Training signifies hope, as they can see top prospects get action against Major League competition before being sent back to the Minor Leagues to get more experience. For other teams, spring is just another step on the road to October, where you read the recap at the end of each day, hoping no one vital to championship hopes got injured. The Atlanta Braves belong to the latter group. They are a team not only with their eyes set on making the playoffs in October, but they intend to win a sixth straight division title and win their second World Series in three years. As camp begins for the Braves and another season begins, here are five storylines I will be following throughout camp:
- The battle for the 5th spot in the rotation
Last year the Braves had one of the top rotations in baseball, and this year appears to be no different. Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Kyle Wright, and Charlie Morton are all penciled in as the first four starters. However, the fifth spot is up for grabs. Last year, several pitchers filled the fifth spot in the rotation before Spencer Strider received his first start on May 30th. The results were less than spectacular, with the team holding a record of 23-25 and the pitchers in the rotation not named Fried, Wright, Morton, or Ian Anderson specifically posting a record of 2-9. Once Strider joined the rotation, the team took off, going on a 14-game winning streak that helped propel them into the pennant race with the Mets. This year, the fifth rotation spot will be filled by either Michael Soroka, Ian Anderson, or Bryce Elder, although prospect Jared Schuster will be given a shot as well at the beginning of spring. The favorite in this race is probably Ian Anderson, given his overall track record in the prior three seasons. However, Soroka is the one that everyone will be watching as he tries to come back from his twice-torn Achilles. If he can return to his 2019 form or even 75% of what he was, then the Braves rotation will once again be at the top of the list in terms of Major League rotations.
- 2. Arcia vs. Grissom
Part of the benefit of having a young team with all its stars locked under contract for the foreseeable future is that it is pretty easy to see who the starting nine will be each day. For the Braves, there are only two starting spots open this spring, none more important than who will replace All-Star Dansby Swanson at shortstop, either Orlando Arica or Vaughn Grissom. Both have their own warts, Grissom’s is that he is young and inexperienced, and Arcia is extremely streaky offensively and hasn’t been a starting shortstop since 2019 with the Brewers. This is a competition I expect to go down to the final days of spring, as Grissom will be given every opportunity to seize control of the job and show the potential he flashed in 2022 was real. However, I expect Arcia to be named the Opening Day starter, with Grissom being given more time in Gwinnett before being brought back up mid-season.
- 3. Who will start in Left?
Marcell Ozuna, Eddie Rosario, Sam Hilliard, Jordan Luplow? The options do not inspire that much confidence. However, one of these four will be the starter in left field come Opening Day. The best-case scenario is that Eddie Rosario’s struggles last year really were all due to his eye surgery, and he can return to pre-2022 form. Marcell Ozuna will also be given plenty of playing time at the beginning of the year due to his contract (he is still owed over $30 million for the next two seasons). Still, his subpar defense makes him a better candidate to fill the DH spot in the lineup. Hilliard and Luplow are solid depth pieces and will be able to start on occasion to give players rest. However, if either of them are starting every day, it would be an indictment on the front office that they didn’t upgrade left field in the offseason.
- 4. Sean Murphy
Atlanta’s one big move this offseason was bringing in Gold Glove catcher Sean Murphy from the Oakland Athletics and watching how he works with the pitching staff could be one of the more subtle keys to the season. Travis d’Arnaud had been the starting catcher for the last three seasons and established a very good rapport with all Atlanta starters, so it will be important for Murphy to try and form a similar relationship with the pitchers as quickly as possible, especially given all the rule changes that will also throw off pitchers routines in-game.
- 5. New Rules
The fifth storyline that I will be watching during the spring is how the Braves will adjust to the new rule changes being implemented this year. There is now a pitch clock, where there will be a maximum of 20 seconds allowed in between each pitch during an at-bat when a runner is on base and 15 seconds when the bases are empty, as well as a ban on the defensive shift and larger bases to help improve offense around the league. Pitchers such as Charlie Morton and Jesse Chavez, who have been around a number of years, might have trouble adjusting to making a pitch every 20 seconds with runners on, as well as the limit on the number of “disengagements” from the mound they are allowed to have each at bat. The larger bases are intended to increase the number of stolen bases, which is great news for Ronald Acuna Jr fans and his quest for a 40/40 season of which I am a member, and the banning of the shift should help Matt Olson, who has been one of the most shifted hitters since making his debut in 2016.