The Atlanta Braves were a popular preseason pick among MLB bettors prior to this season, as they should have been.
Entering the 2021 season, the Braves had won three straight NL East titles. Also, they almost had their big breakout season a year ahead of schedule. They reached the NLCS for the first time since 2001, taking a 3-1 lead before the Los Angeles Dodgers rallied to win the series.
With the reigning NL MVP in Freddie Freeman, the preseason NL MVP favorite in Ronald Acuna, Jr., slugger Marcell Ozuna having signed a long-term deal to stay in Atlanta, and a strong pitching staff, high expectations were only right and reasonable.
However, beyond Acuna’s overall excellence this season, very little has gone according to plan for the Braves this season.
Braves’ bumbling bullpen blowing winning opportunities with alarming frequency
The biggest issue by far, however, is the bullpen. The bullpen was the wild-card for the Braves, as Braves followers and avid MLB bettors would know. Frequent frustrations have occurred at the hands of the Braves bullpen over the last few seasons.
But this season, those bullpen issues have somehow become even more baffling. Several thousand words could provide a detail analysis of their bullpen struggles. And yes, many of those words would not be fit to publish here.
Coming into today, Atlanta’s bullpen ERA is 4.92 and has recorded a WHIP of 1.41. Those numbers rank 25th and tied for 23rd, respectively, in MLB.
Inexplicably, the most reliable bullpen arm for the Braves has been Luke Jackson, who’s having a career year. Jackson, who has had many, many colorful appearances over his time with the Braves, has a miniscule 1.05 ERA in 29 appearances this season. Coming into this season, Jackson had a career ERA of 4.93 ERA in 182 appearances, so this is quite the turnaround for the veteran reliever.
It’s even more notable when it’s happened while almost everyone else around him has gone the other direction. Jackson and Tyler Matzek, who has a 3.46 ERA in 28 appearances, are the only two frequently-used bullpen arms to post ERAs under 4.
Closer Will Smith has only one blown save in 13 opportunities, but he has five losses. That is already his career-high for losses as a reliever. He has as many losses in 30 appearances this season as he had in 135 appearances over the previous three seasons.
Astounding Acuna is nightly must-see TV, but injuries and inconsistent bats have hurt Braves
What is there to say about Ronald Acuna Jr. that has not been said a million times already? He is human and can’t deliver every single night, but were it not for him, the Braves would be in the cellar.
In 62 games, Acuna is hitting .294 with 15 doubles, 18 homers, 43 RBI, 54 runs, and 14 steals in 18 attempts. Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. (+200) and Mets maestro Jacob deGrom (+220) have taken over as the top two in the latest NL MVP odds, with Acuna third at +380. Mike Trout is a good example of individual excellence being enough to win MVP without team success. But Trout would likely have more than his trio of AL MVP awards if the Angels had made the playoffs more than once in his career. For Acuna to definitely stay in the hunt all season, the Braves need to step it up.
There are some positive signs there, however.
Freeman finding his groove as outfield fill-ins offer unexpected contributions
Freeman has been languishing in the low .200s all season, but he is trending up at present. In his last seven games, Freeman is hitting .400 (12 of 30) with three homers and seven RBI. In this stretch, he has four multi-hit games, and has average has moved from .228 to .246. It was only a matter of time before he was going to get hot.
Outfielder Gil Heredia has claimed the starting role in center, and he enters this weekend in fine form. Over his last four games, Heredia is 7 of 13 (.538) with three doubles, a homer, three RBI, and six runs. Meanwhile, Abraham Almonte, now starting in left and batting in the cleanup spot in the lineup, is also doing his part. In his last five games, Almonte is 6 of 15 (.400) with five doubles, three RBI, and four runs scored.
Catcher William Contreras has only one hit in his last 17 at-bats, but he has had some big hits and big performances for the Braves since taking over as the starting catcher.
Now, the Braves need three things to happen from the bats they already have. Can Austin Riley, who’s on pace to challenge for 30 homers this season, find a consistent level and not keep oscillating from one extreme to the other? Can Ozzie Albies bump his average, which is currently only .250, up to the .270s or higher? Albies has batted throughout the lineup in his Braves career and is now batting third. It looks like a rather profitable move as well. In 72 at-bats in that slot, he is hitting .292 with seven doubles, three triples, and 15 RBI in 72 at-bats. Last but not least, there’s Dansby Swanson, who’s hitting only .235 for the season.
Bryant trade would boost Braves
Will the Braves make a trade for a big bat? Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant tops the list of obvious fits. Bryant has played five different positions this season (first base, third base, and all three outfield positions). That versatility would allow the Braves to be very flexible with lineup options. And he is hitting .291 with 13 homers and 39 RBI, having rebounded from a rough 2020.
But the Cubs, who are surprisingly atop the NL Central standings, may be hesitant to part with Bryant as long as they are contending. This is even though Bryant is a free agent after this season. And if the Cubs do decide to pursue trades for him, are the Braves willing to give up assets now? They could make a run at him in free agency and not lose anything as with an in-season trade. That will be a situation to watch leading up to the trade deadline next month.
Can the rotation stay afloat until its riches replenish?
The rotation appeared to be a strength heading into the season, despite a few questions. In addition to rising stars Max Fried and Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka was on track to return from a torn Achilles early on. Additionally, veteran Charlie Morton re-signed with the franchise where he started his MLB career. Also, Drew Smyly, another free-agency acquisition, looked like a low-risk, high-reward option.
But as with everything else with the Braves, little has gone according to plan.
Soroka suffered a setback and has yet to pitch this season. One of the early bright spots, Huascar Ynoa, broke his hand while taking out his frustration on the dugout bench after struggling against the Milwaukee Brewers last month. Additionally, Tucker Davidson, who moved into a starting role after Ynoa was sidelined, is now on the injured list.
As for the other arms, Fried dealt with early struggles and was then sidelined for almost a month due to injury. Meanwhile, Morton, Smyly, and Anderson have all had their share of struggles.
August the month to circle for Atlanta’s 2021 ambitions
However, as with the lineup, positive signs are emerging. Morton is 4-1 with an ERA under 3 in his last six starts. Smyly is still finding his groove, but he has been serviceable more often than not since a tough April. Anderson and Fried, the anchors of the rotation, are still dealing with some ups and downs as well. But provided they can stay healthy, we should see more consistent excellence as the season progresses.
If they can stay in the mix in the NL East, things could come together for the Braves without needing to make any moves by the trade deadline. According to the latest reports, Soroka and Ynoa are both expected to be back sometime in August.
If Fried, Anderson, Morton, Smyly, and Davidson/Bryse Wilson/Kyle Wright can keep things held together for the next few months, the Braves will be in a strong position to make a run in August and September.
High value in backing the Braves without waiting for turnaround
The Braves have not spent a single day this season over .500, and they enter tonight’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals at 31-35. That puts them 6.5 games behind the NL East-leading New York Mets and 5.5 games behind the Padres for a wild-card spot.
Given how bad the bullpen has been and where they would be without Acuna, there are two ways to look at that record. It is far from where it could and should be. But it is also not as bad as it could be either.
Here’s a look at the Braves’ current odds to win the NL East, NL pennan t, and World Series.
Current MLB futures odds for the Atlanta Braves
- Odds to win the 2021 World Series: +2000
- Odds to win the NL pennant: +1000
- 2021 NL East title odds: +450
Atlanta Braves odds are via FanDuel Sportsbook as of Friday, June 18 at 5:30 pm ET.
There are certainly better options on the board at the moment. For example, the Milwaukee Brewers are even money to win the NL Central and +1200 to win the NL pennant. If they can hit well enough to support their stellar starting staff, they will be a tough out in October.
And in the wide-open American League, the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros offer a lot of value. A healthy Astros team will be a serious AL pennant contender. The hope is that two-time AL Cy Young winner and 2011 AL MVP Justin Verlander returns at some point in 2021 as well. If he does, the Astros will have a future Hall of Famer to add to the mix. If everything comes together, the Astros could be in line to add a title that will (probably) not be under dispute.
The Red Sox (42-27), meanwhile, are +900 to win the AL pennant but +320 to win the AL East. Their starting pitching is a big question, but they have the weight to make a move before the trade deadline. Also, former ace Chris Sale, who hasn’t pitched since 2019, expects to return this season.
Can the Braves make up ground in the standings?
Going back to the Braves, is this the right time to back them?
Their deficits in the NL East and in the NL wild-card standings are not ideal, but it is still early enough in the season to make up that ground with an extended winning run or two.
Based on what the Braves have done over the last few seasons under manager Brian Snitker, such runs are inevitable. Dating back to the 2018 season, the Braves have 11 winning streaks of five or more games. Additionally, they have six four-game win streaks in that span.
Atlanta has 15 head-to-head matchups with the Mets over the remainder of the regular season, starting with next week’s four-game series at Citi Field. They need to make the most of those opportunities to close the deficit.
There is still a long way to go, and there is much that has to happen for the Braves to fulfill the lofty expectations that they held entering this season. But the talent will be there to do that, and if they do, it will have a handsome payoff for bettors who take advantage of their current MLB betting value.
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