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The Atlanta Braves suffered a grave blow on Sunday, as star outfielder and reigning National League MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. suffered a torn left ACL and will miss the remainder of the 2024 season

Most important is what this means for Acuña himself, as he previously had to fight his way back from an ACL tear in his other knee. Given that history, it’s fair to say the toll this news has taken on one of the brightest stars in the game goes beyond “just” the physical: 

Then, though, we get to the matter of what this means for the Braves. They’re aiming to win the National League East for a seventh straight year, and – coming off a 2023 season in which they won 104 games – anything less than the hoisting of the World Series trophy would constitute failure of a sort. The loss of Acuña of course harms their prospects for success and means it’s time to reappraise a team that looked like the best in baseball coming into the season. Let’s do that now and lay out reasons to believe in the post-Acuña Braves as one of the very best teams in baseball this season and then lay out reasons to not believe in them as such a thing. 

Reasons to believe in the 2024 Braves

1. Replacing Acuña’s production thus far might be easier than you think. 

The reality of Acuña in 2024 to date is that he wasn’t producing in line with expectations leading up to the knee injury. His season ends with a slash line of .250/.351/.365 with just four home runs in 49 games (compare that to last year’s .337/.416/.596). Throw in his declining range in the field, and he put up a WAR of just 0.1 across those 49 games. Acuña was of course still a useful player thus far – his 104 OPS+ and 16 steals in 19 attempts tell you that – but the first two months of the season did not yield anything close to vintage output for him. Whether the Braves cobble together an internal solution to replace him or dip into the evolving trade market, meeting the 2024 baseline that’s in place is surprisingly doable. 

2. There’s still a lot of talent on the roster. 

The Braves when at full bore are positively stuffed with established and high-ceiling talents. Peruse the roster and you’ll find All-Star-grade names like Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Marcell Ozuna, Chris Sale, Max Fried, and others. Sean Murphy, one of the best all-around catchers in baseball, just returned from the injured list and will see action for the first time since Opening Day. To be sure, not all of that talent has lived up to expectations so far – Olson, Riley, and Michael Harris II haven’t found their respective levels yet, for instance – but bear in mind it’s still relatively early out there. 

Speaking of which, let’s put all of this in perspective. Despite having gotten less value than you’d expect from the likes of Acuña, Olson, Riley, Harris, and others and despite having their starting catcher for all of three plate appearances thus far, the Braves are on pace for 97 wins right now. In that sense, we’re wringing hands over a season to date that most teams would regard as a resounding success. 

3. The NL looks weak overall. 

We’ll dip into the NL East race in a moment, but let’s talk a bit about the senior circuit as a whole. Even without Acuña moving forward, it’s nigh impossible to see a path toward a postseason that doesn’t include the Atlanta Braves. Yes, they’re in second place, but they’re also in top wild-card spot right now with a five-game cushion in terms of playoff position. In related matters, glance at our standings page and you’ll find that SportsLine gives the Braves a lofty 95.1% chance of making the postseason. Among NL squadrons, just the Phillies and Dodgers presently have higher playoff odds. 

Framed another way, the second NL wild-card spot is occupied by the 27-26 Cubs, and the third and final spot gives us a tie between the Padres and Giants, both of whom are .500. It’s not unthinkable that the NL in 2024 could yield a playoff team with a losing record. That’s largely another discussion, but for these purposes let’s just appreciate that the Braves would have to crater beyond plausibility in order to see their year end when the regular season does.  

Reasons to not believe in the 2024 Braves

1. Injuries have hit them hard. 

As though the loss of Acuña weren’t enough, the Braves will also be without their young ace, Spencer Strider, for the rest of 2024. One of the best strikeout artists among starting pitchers, Strider last season finished fourth in the NL Cy Young balloting, and at age 25 looked like the leading contender to win the award in 2024. After just two starts this season, however, he was diagnosed with a UCL tear and will now miss the entirety of the season. That’s a huge loss to the Braves and their rotation. 

Speaking of the rotation, Atlanta recently lost coveted young righty AJ Smith-Shawver for perhaps the next two months with a Grade 2 oblique strain. While Smith-Shawver is more of a long-term piece for the Braves, he was also a valuable depth arm for the rotation given the loss of Strider. They were already having trouble finding a reliable fifth starter, and now their options are even more scarce. 

Finally let’s circle back to Acuña. His uncharacteristically average production leading up to his injury was detailed above, but now let’s talk about what the Braves will miss on a theoretical level. Given Acuña’s rich history of high-level production, he was very likely going to be more valuable over the rest of 2024 than he was up until Sunday’s injury that left him in a heap between second and third base. Over at FanGraphs, the ZiPS rest-of-season forecast tabbed Acuña for a slash line of .294/.393/.546 over the remainder of 2024 with 26 additional homers and 35 more stolen bases. That’s 106 projected games played of high-level production that the Braves may well be missing out on. Sure, it’s possible Acuña would’ve continued putting up those disappointing-by-his-standards numbers, but it’s more likely that he would’ve found something closer to his career norms. That’s what the Braves will be missing between now and the season’s end. 

2. They have other rotation worries. 

The Braves’ rotation stalwarts this season – Chris Sale, Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Reynaldo López – have thrived so far. The quartet has teamed up for a 2.64 ERA and 3.17 FIP in 38 starts, and that’s been a huge driver when it comes to that aforementioned 97-win pace Atlanta has enjoyed. However, it’s not hard to land on some forward-looking concerns. Will the 40-year-old Morton be able to continue staving off age-related decline as the season deepens? Will López, who entered the 2024 season with a career ERA/FIP of 4.73/.4.69 as a starter, continue defying that history and much larger sample? 

Then there’s Sale, who’s enjoyed a deeply impressive renaissance thus far. With him, though, it’s also about health and durability. Sale has a long history of arm problems, and he hasn’t managed a qualifying number of innings since 2017. In that 2017 season, Sale racked up 214 2/3 innings pitched. Over the last five seasons combined, he has a total of 214 1/3 innings pitched. The default assumption has to be that Sale will not be healthy and available for the entirety of the season that remains. Given his immense value to Atlanta thus far, that’s a huge looming worry. 

On another level, the trade deadline may not bring the respite they seek. That crowded NL playoff fray noted above almost certainly means a scarce supply of deadline sellers. Starting pitchers are always in demand come trading time, and the Braves with their thinned-out farm system may have trouble meeting the acute conditions of the 2024 trade market for rotation help. 

3. The Phillies are better than ever. 

Given the Braves’ nigh endless kvetching about what the five-day layoff supposedly did to them last postseason, maybe they’re secretly pleased to be lagging the Phils in the NL East? Probably not. The Phils right now hold a six-game lead in the division, and according to SportsLine that comes to an 88.9% chance of beating the Braves for the division title. That, in turn, would mean the Braves (assuming they claim a wild-card berth) would be forced to play that best-of-three additional round of the playoffs. As we know, baseball’s weirdness is such that it’s entirely possible for a wild-card team to be the last one standing, but that additional hurdle makes it much less likely.

As for the Phils, the rotation looks like a powerhouse, particularly with the skills growth of Ranger Suárez and the vintage performance to date of Aaron Nola. Elsewhere, there’s ample reason to believe that Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott have leveled up with the bat in sustainable ways, and so far the lineup is weathering the loss of Trea Turner. Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are still at their peaks.

Of course the Braves can catch the Phillies, but the current reality of the standings is not an accommodating one. The Phillies also appear to be a legitimate power team as opposed to the “merely” very good Philly models of the recent past. 

In the end, the Braves are all but locks to make the postseason, and that means they’re by definition World Series contenders. No doubt, though, they’re lacking the shine of 2023. The extent to which the loss of Acuña dims their outlook is a subjective matter, but what’s left is perhaps the most perilous season the Braves have faced in some time. 

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