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Previewing the Yankees’ new rivals: Atlanta Braves

We continue our preview of the Yankees’ makeshift 2020 rivals with a close look at the Atlanta Braves.

MLB: Atlanta Braves-Workouts John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In the 1990s, the road to the World Series championship either passed through the Bronx or through Atlanta—sometimes both in the same year. The teams of the decade intersected at a few different points, from the Braves nabbing Greg Maddux out from under the Yankees, to the Bombers getting the last laugh when they defeated a Maddux-led pitching staff in two Fall Classics.

What seemed like an interleague rivalry for the ages fizzled out with the arrival of the new millennium. And while the storied battles occurred decades ago, there’s no reason the Yankees and Braves can’t revive the rivalry, if only for the 2020 season. After all, the Bombers will play one-third of their schedule against NL East opponents.

In an attempt to get to know these new, temporary rivals, we’re going to preview them, starting with the Phillies, and now the Braves.

The Fundamentals

2019 Record: 97-65

2020 Playoff Odds: 53.6%, per FanGraphs

Manager: Brian Snitker

The rebuilt Braves arrived ahead of schedule, in the same vein as the 2017 Yankees, with their NL East championship in 2018. The Dodgers bounced them in four games in the NLDS, leading Atlanta to bolster their firepower, adding Josh Donaldson in the offseason and Dallas Keuchel over the summer. The result? A repeat division title, with 97 wins, and a trip to the NLDS...where they were bounced by the Cardinals.

Back-to-back disappointments in the first round of the playoffs sent Atlanta on a mini-spending spree in the offseason, signing a bevy of relievers (Darren O’Day, Will Smith, and Chris Martin), a few past-prime pitchers (Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez), and intriguing position players (Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna). That’s the Alex Anthopoulos special: build a young, inexpensive core, then make opportunistic, yet marginal, upgrades without any substantial future commitments. “Did we promise we were going to spend more money, or did we promise we were going to have more flexibility?” he asked Jeff Schultz of The Athletic (subscription required) last February.

The Braves carried this strategy over into summer camp, when they inked Yasiel Puig to a one-year deal. This move comes after Nick Markakis, Atlanta’s right fielder since 2015, opted out of the 2020 season. Puig, 29, had a down season in 2019, splitting his time between the Reds and the Indians, hitting .267/.327/.458 with 24 home runs (101 wRC+). Those numbers aren’t terribly impressive, but he is just one year removed from a 123 wRC+ season with the Dodgers. As a buy-low, bounce-back candidate, you can’t find a better player.

Puig joins a potent Braves lineup, one that revolves around Ronald Acuna Jr. The 22-year-old stands out as arguably the best young player in baseball, and he put on a power show in 2019. Acuna hit 41 home runs, threatened joining the 40-40 club, and finished the year with 126 wRC+. I don’t exaggerate when I say he might be the most exciting player in baseball.

He isn’t the only young star in the lineup either. Ozzie Albies, the 23-year-old second baseman, has a strong bat, hitting to a 117 wRC+ with 24 homers last year. Dansby Swanson is just 26, and while he hasn’t shown off an impact bat yet, he still has that first-pick luster. Austin Riley also had limited success in the big leagues last year, and he figures to get some time in the infield with Freddie Freeman currently battling COVID-19. Veterans like Ozuna and Ender Inciarte round out a lineup that is tough from top to bottom.

Known for their young pitching, the Braves will turn to Mike Soroka on Opening Day. The 22-year-old broke out last year, pitching to a 2.68 ERA (3.45 FIP) over 174.2 innings. As a sinkerballer without overpowering stuff, Soroka uses pinpoint command and pitch tunneling to keep batters off balance, as explained by Ben Clemens at FanGraphs,

Mike Foltynewicz, whom the Yankees have coveted in the past, had a rough time with the rocket ball in 2019, pitching to a 4.54 ERA (4.97 FIP) with a 1.77 HR/9. He is, however, one year removed from a 2.85 ERA (3.37 FIP) season with a 9.93% strikeout rate. The right-hander currently sits in the number two spot for the Braves’ rotation.

After Folty, things can go any number of ways. Atlanta signed Hamels to add experience (read: soak up innings), but the southpaw likely won’t make the Opening Day rotation as he battles nagging injuries. Max Fried, another southpaw, pitched to a 4.02 ERA (3.72 FIP) in 2019, and he ran up an impressive 53.6% groundball rate. Sean Newcomb impressed when he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in 2018, but the lefty spent most of his time out of the bullpen last year.

And, on the subject of the Braves’ bullpen, you will find a lot of familiar faces in there. Mark Melancon serves as their closer, while Shane Greene works as a setup man. Smith and O’Day round out the best relievers in their arsenal.

The Braves figure to give the Yankees the biggest challenge out of any team in the NL East. They’re young, powerful, and have a history of being aggressive at the trade deadline. The Yankees get their first glimpse of them on August 11.

In the meantime, if the Braves think of changing their name, they can’t go wrong as the Atlanta Hammers.