So many times, Braves teams have left October with nothing but a bruised ego and a hopeful outlook. So many times, the outlook proved mostly correct — but ended with more refrains of “wait till next year.”
Not this time: Next year has finally arrived in Atlanta. The Braves are World Series champs for the first time since 1995.
But for these world champions, who for a long time seemed to have no business getting to the World Series, let alone winning it, this version of “wait till next year” has a much greater feeling of excitement. Because next year, they should be even better.
To understand why, consider the pertinent facts that you’ve almost certainty heard by now:
— They did all this without the great Ronald Acuña Jr., their best overall player, out with a torn ACL since July.
— They did all this without pitcher Mike Soroka, previously the staff ace, who has missed significant time after tearing his Achilles twice.
— They did all this without Marcell Ozuna, their best hitter in 2020, who broke two fingers in May and then was arrested and suspended on a domestic violence charge.
— They did all this despite that one of their top free-agent acquisitions, pitcher Drew Smyly, was demoted to the bullpen for the final month.
— They did all this without a winning record until August, which is just crazy.
So, yes, the 2021 Braves are quite the unexpected World Series champions. The 2022 Braves, however, will be expected to make more noise — and we should expect it to be plenty loud.
Though the team does have some unknowns heading into 2022, we can project boldly just based on a few relatively safe knowns.
— Acuña will presumably be back at some point early in the season.
— Charlie Morton will presumably continue to be Charlie Morton.
— Max Fried, fresh off a dominant Game 6 performance in the World Series, will be more experienced and more polished.
— Young righty Ian Anderson, who’s been a regular-season joy and a postseason master, will continue to develop his nasty changeup.
— Austin Riley, the team’s MVP in 2021 who slashed .303/.367/.531 and clubbed 33 homers, will play a full season with the confidence gained in his breakout 2021.
— Ozzie Albies, who hit 30 homers and drove in 106, will be that much more experienced.
— The bullpen, so dominant in the second half and especially in the postseason, will return fully intact.
— Knowing they’re the defending World Series champs is a pretty nice X-factor.
Now, about those unknowns.
— Freddie Freeman is a free agent. He wants to stay in Atlanta, and the Braves want him. There are never any guarantees, but it would be shocking to see him in another uniform next season.
— Fan favorite, Atlanta-area son and World Series hero Dansby Swanson also is a free agent. His return doesn’t feel as likely as Freeman’s, but it’s probably close.
— Soroka, previously their No. 1 starter, could return to the rotation if his Achilles allows it. The Braves can’t bank on him either returning or being the same dominant pitcher he was before the injury (he’s now missed nearly two full seasons). But it’s certainly possible.
— Ozuna’s legal situation is ongoing, as is MLB’s investigation. It’s unlikely he plays in Atlanta again, but the Braves’ trade-deadline acquisitions in 2021 can probably replace his production, even if not all of them return.
— Speaking of those acquisitions, the Braves will have decisions to make about whether to bring back any mix of NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario, World Series MVP Jorge Soler, homer-happy Adam Duvall and the pearl-wearing Joc Pederson. All were keys to the team’s second-half success, but there’s probably not room for everyone, even if the National League adopts the DH. But I’d expect at least Duvall, who has a mutal option for 2022, and Soler to return.
So, what can we realistically expect? Short answer: A lot. For starters, don’t pay too much attention to their 2021 regular-season record. Their 88-73 record is not totally reflective of reality. The team that accumulated the bulk of those 73 losses is literally not the same team that won the World Series. Their run differential alone suggested a 94-win team over 162 games and that number feels like the floor for a healthy Braves team in 2022.
None of this takes into account potential trades or free-agent signings, and there will likely be the kinds of injuries and setbacks every team deals with. But the truth is this: The Braves should remain stacked, and they could potentially be the best team in the National League — both on paper and in reality.
This will be a team with all-new World Series aspirations. A fifth straight NL East title feels baked-in, and another deep October run will be the expectation.
The Braves are the 2021 champions, but wait till next year. The show might just be getting started.