2 big-picture questions for Braves amid difficult stretch (2024)

May 31st, 2024

2 big-picture questions for Braves amid difficult stretch (1)

Joe Trezza

@JoeTrezz

ATLANTA -- As Memorial Day fades further into the rearview mirror, the Braves are stuck in a rough patch. Down one superstar and one top prospect in the rotation, their pitching depth is being tested. Down another superstar at the top of the lineup, they’re hardly hitting.

Combine those factors, and the Braves have now lost 10 of their last 15 games after dropping Thursday’s series finale, 3-1, to the Nationals. Three of those defeats came this week at Truist Park against Washington, in the four games immediately following Ronald Acuña Jr.’s season-ending injury. The adversity has the Braves searching for answers on both sides of the ball.

“I think you’re really fortunate if you only go through [something like this] one time [in a season],” manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s never easy. It’s never smooth sailing for six months. There are going to be obstructions every year. You’re going to go through periods that you just need to work through, handle and take responsibility for and then fight your way through it. Eventually, things will turn out all right.”

Here are two big-picture questions the Braves need to answer to get back on track:

1) What’s the best way to plug the rotation?

The current uncertainty in the rotation stems from AJ Smith-Shawver’s recent oblique injury, which should sideline the club’s top prospect for 6-8 weeks. But ultimately, the Braves are still searching for a suitable fill-in for Spencer Strider, who is out for the season following Tommy John surgery. They promoted No. 3 prospect Spencer Schwellenbach from Double-A to audition Wednesday, and Thursday gave lefty swingman Ray Kerr another spot start as a way to push Reynaldo López back and provide the entire rotation extra rest.

Schwellenbach held his own a bit better than Kerr, who did strike out seven but allowed three runs over 3 2/3 innings and was outpitched by Trevor Williams. While Max Fried, Chris Sale and López have been sensational, the back of the rotation is strained without Strider: Braves starters are 0-8 with a 7.25 ERA in the 10 losses of this current stretch.

What’s the solution? Besides Schwellenbach, none of the Braves’ next five top pitching prospects -- per MLB Pipeline -- are realistic options at this point, though No. 14 Darius Vines and No. 15 Dylan Dodd could be back at some point soon. But the Braves seem content giving Schwellenbach, and to some extent Kerr, more opportunities, hoping they run with them, while leaning on their remaining horses to keep pulling.

Given that Atlanta expects Smith-Shawver to return around the July 30 Trade Deadline, and the fact that its top trade chips are pitchers, any effort to make a big splashy upgrade feels more likely to go toward figuring out …

2) How to replace Ronald Acuña Jr.

Here, too, the Braves lack an obvious, imminent solution. It’s never easy replacing your best players, and Acuña’s season-ending knee injury came as a total shock to a lineup that was already slumping outside of Marcell Ozuna. Maybe in a month or so, teams will be willing to move on from outfielders the Braves’ front office finds appealing, but the trade market is still weeks away from heating up. The Braves’ lineup is full of talented, accomplished veterans. Atlanta needs them to help mitigate his absence.

“We all know what we’re capable of, it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it,” third baseman Austin Riley said.

The problem is, right now that isn’t happening. Ozuna remains red-hot and looks like an All-Star, leading the National League in homers (16) and RBIs (49). But almost everyone else is scuffling. During this four-game set against the Nationals, they averaged 2.25 runs per game, amassed 43 strikeouts and drew just eight walks.

In the past 14 games, the Braves are hitting .235 with a .676 OPS as a team and averaging 3.4 runs per game. They’ve struck out 134 times and drawn only 32 walks. All told, they’ve lost 17 of 30, scoring two or fewer runs 13 times in that stretch.

“You just hope a two-out hit that somebody gets relaxes everybody,” Snitker said. “You get into try-too-hard mode. Everybody wants to be the guy. You just have to work through it, handle it, keep working. If you handle it, then there are good things on the other end. These guys are really good at doing that if I keep running them out there. So I’m going to keep running them out there every day.”

2 big-picture questions for Braves amid difficult stretch (2024)

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