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Five storylines to follow as Braves start 2022 season today

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 14: Kyle Wright #30 of the Atlanta Braves is taken out of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning in Game Three of the National League Championship Series at Globe Life Field on October 14, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Up there with Christmas for some of us, MLB’s Opening Day is one of the most anticipated days of the year – especially this time around due to the fact that it was very much in question just a few weeks ago. If you’ve played around on the web any this morning you’ll see countless write-ups about the upcoming 2022 campaign – from season previews and award predictions, to one of MLB.com’s pieces: “1 Fact About Every Team To Make You Look Smart” (lol). The point is, everyone is focused on baseball right now, and rightfully so, for it has been quite an offseason.

I’ve already previewed the Braves upcoming four-game series with the Reds, starting today with first pitch slated for 7:08 PM (CT) on ESPN 2. But now I want to examine the most notable storylines we’ll be watching for during the long regular season. What will we be talking about the most as Atlanta attempts the nearly impossible feat of repeating as champs? Let’s dive in…

An Acuna-less team in April

In case you’ve been asleep all winter, outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. will begin the 2022 regular season on the injured list, as he continues to rehab his way back from that devastating torn ACL he suffered back last July. The star Brave of course had surgery last year but so far hasn’t had any setbacks, allowing team officials to predict a late-April or first-of-May return date. Obviously this means the Braves will be without essentially its best player for the first month or so of the season in 2022, which is far from ideal. However, Atlanta’s offense was Acuna-less for 80 games during the 2021 regular season, not to mention its 16 postseason contests, in which the team had to somehow get through the Brewers, Dodgers and Astros… all without RAJ. The truth is, the Braves can manage without Acuna. I mean, think of it this way: on July 10 (when RAJ injured himself) Atlanta was still playing below-.500 baseball with a 44-45 record. Well, by season’s end we know the team was in first, sporting an 88-73 record. Whether it’s bringing back guys or going out and getting someone, GM Alex Anthopoulos has ensured that the outfield (and the team in general) will be ok in Acuna’s absence. And I trust him. The Braves will be fine in April.

Another huge year for Austin Riley?

I still don’t believe Riley has deserved enough credit for what he accomplished in 2021. For goodness sake, the kid went from basically a below-average big league player to a guy who won a Silver Slugger and received serious consideration for the NL MVP award (he finished seventh). I’ve already written some words on that amazing turnaround, but just because it has been mentioned doesn’t mean it’s no longer a story to follow. Can Riley keep this up? Was last year just a fluke? The projections are optimistic at least, even though ZiPS does expect a small bit of regression for the Braves third baseman in 2022. I guess we’ll find out…

Will Matt Olson replace Freddie as the leader?

Talent-wise, I don’t think there’s any question that Olson is a comparable player, as he actually outperformed Freddie Freeman in WAR in 2021, on his way to a 5-win season – thanks to a .271 AVG, 39 HR, 111 RBI and a 146 wRC+. What I want to know, though, is Olson prepared to lead this Braves team, and assume the role as captain? From all accounts by people who know him obviously better than I do, Olson is reportedly an A+ guy in the clubhouse, which may be more significant than anything, given the controversial interview with RAJ that’s currently going around on Twitter. We know Olson will produce – his track record has proved that. But will he be the guy that everyone on the team turns to for guidance during a 162-game campaign?

Is the bullpen fool-proof for Brian Snitker?

We’ve all done it. On any given night during a Braves game, we’ve found ourselves screaming at the TV because Snitker made a questionable decision regarding the bullpen. It has happened a lot over the years, even if the Atlanta skipper seemed to improve later on in the season in 2021. Will that be a thing in 2022? Anthopoulos made some savvy moves to ensure that the Braves relief core is stronger than ever this time around. In fact, recently MLB.com named Atlanta’s ‘pen the absolute best in the game. With Kenley Jansen closing out close games, to go with Collin McHugh, AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek bridging that gap, has the Braves bullpen become so talented that Snitker won’t be able to screw it up? I’m keeping the faith for now.

Who steps up in the back-half of the rotation?

With 14-straight games to start off the 2022 campaign, the Braves will be rolling out a six-man starting rotation to begin the regular season. Reports indicate that Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson will work the four-game series versus Cincy (in that order), with Huascar Ynoa and either Tucker Davidson or Spencer Strider pitching after that. As you can see, that’s three proven arms, to go with three guys that we’re definitely less sure about. A team may be able to get by with three starters in the postseason, but over the course of the regular season, to be a contender you must wield a strong starting staff, from top to bottom. So who is it going to be? Many feel that Wright has finally turned the corner and is ready to put together strong outings on a consistent basis. And given how well Ynoa pitched before his injury last season, there’s plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about his chances of getting hot. One thing’s for sure, if Atlanta has any chance at winning the NL East for a fifth-straight time, one or two of those bottom-three starters must be an above-average producer in 2022. As of right now, I like the Braves chances.

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