ATLANTA (AP) — Ronald Acuña Jr. says he isn’t motivated by another try for a rare 40-40 season.
The bigger goal is to give the Braves their first postseason series win in almost 20 years.
The 22-year-old Acuña hit 41 home runs and stole 37 bases last season. He sat out the last week of the regular season with a hip injury that ended his 40-40 hopes.
“I feel like there’s always time for that,” Acuña said through a translator last month.
Acuña was only 3 when the Braves won their last playoff series over Houston in 2001. Two straight NL East titles have led to disappointing first-round playoff exits, including last year’s crushing 13-1 loss to St. Louis in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series.
First baseman Freddie Freeman says “it’s our turn” for postseason success. Braves fans would say that is long overdue. Atlanta has lost a record-tying 10 straight postseason rounds.
The Braves, who won 97 games last season, may be stronger after adding Marcell Ozuna to replace Josh Donaldson as the cleanup hitter. Other key addition are reliever Will Smith, veteran left-hander Cole Hamels and catcher Travis d’Arnaud.
Freeman says the Braves’ “hunger is real” as they plan to report to their new spring training home in North Port, Florida.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos signed Ozuna to an $18 million, one-year deal. Johan Camargo and Austin Riley will compete at third base and Ozuna will play left field, joining Acuña in a suddenly crowded outfield. Smith could challenge Mark Melancon for the closer’s job. Hamels joins Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried in the rotation.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Rookie right-handers Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson and Bryse Wilson are among the candidates to compete with left-hander Sean Newcomb and veteran Félix Hernández for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, two of the organization’s top position prospects, will be watched closely. With Ozuna signed for only one year, Pache and Waters could be looking to impress this spring with an eye on starting in 2021.
Freeman, second baseman Ozzie Albies and shortstop Dansby Swanson also are locked in, while d’Arnaud will share time with Tyler Flowers at catcher. Soroka could be the team’s new No. 1 starter.
Manager Brian Snitker must figure out the new outfield mix. He could keep Acuña in right field and start Ender Inciarte in center field. That would leave Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall on the bench. If Acuña starts in center field, Markakis and Duvall could platoon. A trade could help relieve the congestion. Third base is another concern. Riley showed great power potential in his first few weeks as a rookie last season before slumping badly. Camargo has impressed Snitker with his offseason conditioning and determination to reclaim his 2018 form.
Anderson, Wright and Wilson hope to break into the rotation the way Soroka and Fried became established starters in 2019. Even so, the comeback attempt by “King Felix” will be the feel-good story of the spring. Hernández is only 33, but he had a 6.40 ERA in 15 starts with Seattle last season. The Braves open the season at Arizona on March 26. Their first home game at newly renamed Truist Park will be against Miami on April 3.
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