What Went Wrong for the Atlanta Braves in 2021 and What Comes Next?

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIJuly 2, 2021

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried (54) works agains the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Wednesday night, the Atlanta Braves thrashed the New York Mets. They scored 20 unanswered runs, and the fans at Truist Park in Atlanta politely golf-clapped the visiting team when it was all over. 

It was the kind of performance one might have expected from the Braves before this season started, but now they're 39-41, 3.5 games behind the Mets in the NL East, which is either the worst division or the strangest division in baseball, or quite possibly both. 

The Braves were a World Series pick before the season started, having come one win away from a berth in the 2020 Fall Classic. Yet they've spent most of the season in the middle of the division or close to the bottom. The Philadelphia Phillies and their bad bullpen have doomed them for the season and the Miami Marlins are still the same old Marlins, in the midst of one rebuilding phase after another. 

Outside of the division, the Braves are 8.5 games behind the San Diego Padres for the second Wild Card spot. Their best hope to reach the postseason is to catch up to the Mets and the Washington Nationals in the division. But they have yet to reach the .500 mark, and they'll need to get there first. 

How did this happen to a team that had legitimate NL pennant aspirations? Especially a team that has one of the best players in the league in Ronald Acuna Jr.?

But one player doesn't make a team a title contender. Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels are proof of that. It's a combination of injuries, bad luck and general manager Alex Anthopoulos' inability to create any luck. 

ATLANTA, GA  MAY 23:  Atlanta left fielder Marcell Ozuna (20) reacts after lining out during the MLB game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves on May 23rd, 2021 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images


The Offseason

The Braves made a few notable moves over the winter. They didn't make any big, splashy ones, but a good general manager won't overreact to a postseason exit by going out and grabbing big contracts that might solve some problems now but will create more in the future. 

Atlanta made some depth moves, like signing free-agent starting pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, reliever Josh Tomlin, and solidifying the outfield with Marcell Ozuna and waiver claim Guillermo Heredia. 

Ozuna had a huge year in 2020, leading the National League with 18 home runs, so re-signing him seemed like a smart bet. But Ozuna declined sharply and found himself on the injured list for broken fingers. Shortly after that, he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault by strangulation and misdemeanor battery/family violence against his wife, Genesis Guzman. Police officers reported witnessing Ozuna grab Guzman by the neck and throw her against a wall in their Atlanta-area home in late May. 

He's currently being investigated by the office of the commissioner and remains out of the lineup. 

The pitching acquisitions have been fine, but nothing great. Morton is the one signing that worked out well, but Smyly is 5-3 with a 4.79 ERA and Tomlin has a 4.54 ERA. 

The Braves opted not to go after some of the the bigger pitchers on the market thinking Max Fried, Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson would be enough to only need supplementary pieces in the rotation. Anthopoulos probably wasn't wrong at the time, but reclamation projects like Smyly are always a gamble. He gambled on his offseason projections and lost.


The Injuries

Mike Soroka is out for the season with a torn Achilles, a devastating blow to the pitching staff and to a talented young pitcher. Huascar Ynoa, the surprising bright spot of the rotation, has been out since the middle of May with a fractured hand.

Catcher Travis d'Arnaud went on the injured list a few weeks before Ynoa. The pitchers the Braves needed to bolster the beleaguered rotation, like Touki Toussaint and Tucker Davidson, are currently on the IL as well. 

These are tough for most teams to get around, but some key players haven't been playing at the same level they did last season. 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

The Declines

Max Fried, who received Cy Young votes last season, has not looked like the same pitcher. He has had some better outings in recent weeks, going 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA over his last four starts before a blister landed him on the IL. He has held opponents to a .195 average in that span, so he could be turning a corner. 

But Fried can't do it all on his own. 

Reliever A.J. Minter went from a 0.83 ERA last season to a 4.66 ERA this season. Sean Newcomb was optioned to Triple-A on Wednesday when Fried was reinstated. Once a heralded prospect, the 28-year-old has a 5.82 ERA in 21.2 innings. 

Ozuna's production diminished before his arrest. Even shortstop Dansby Swanson is just having an OK year and first baseman Freddie Freeman, the 2020 NL MVP, is having a down year. His strikeouts are up and his BABIP is way down to .280, well below his career average of .338.

The only player doing anything special is Acuna. 


What can they do?

We're getting closer and closer to decision day. The July 31 trade deadline is rapidly approaching.

Charlie Morton is only on a one-year contract, so he could be the first to be traded. They could also trade Freeman, which would be a heartbreaking move, but contract talks appear to be going nowhere and he would bring back some assets. 

The Braves could also consider packaging Swanson. He's young and still under team control for another year, so he might be an attractive piece as a rental who would last more than one year. 

If they aren't ready to give up, then they can make some moves to address areas of need, though this time Anthopoulos will need to swing for the fences. 

Starting pitchers Jose Berrios or German Marquez. Can they get Mitch Haniger out of Seattle somehow? The Mariners do have some outfielders coming up through the system, like Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. Haniger would certainly replace Ozuna's power. 

If management thinks the Braves still have a chance, then they should go for it. But it would come at the cost of the future, because those players would require some serious prospect capital. 

Maybe that 20-2 win will turn the Braves around and they'll remain competitive throughout the rest of the season. But if the rest of this month goes the way the others have gone, they'll need to start bringing in assets for a reset of sorts.