Condensing a 162-game season into a 60-game sprint is uncharted territory for every Major League Baseball organization.
Effectively cutting a season into a third of itself brings a whole new world of possibilities into play. Through 60 games, many teams are still trying to find their identities. Most major leaguers haven’t played a 60-game season since their days rookie ball.
The Atlanta Braves are looking for their third-straight postseason berth, but are they built for success under these new circumstances? FOX Sports South Analyst and former Braves’ outfielder Jeff Francoeur believes so.
He said early-season games will be bigger than ever and it could greatly increase the amount of teams in contention during the final few weeks.
“The cool thing about a 60-game season is that early on there will be high-intensity situations. In April and May, a manager may make a move — I hate to say throw in the towel — down four or five in the 7th or 8th innings. With this format, they’ll be trying to win every ballgame,” he said. “A lot of teams that might’ve felt like they didn’t have a chance can get on a hot streak and there will be some drama. There could be 20-30 teams fighting for playoff spots in mid September.”
The root of this 60-game season is the country’s battle with COVID-19 and the Braves are not exempt. Despite first baseman Freddie Freeman’s unsettling account of his bout with the coronavirus and the hiccups in MLB’s early testing, Francoeur said there is a feeling of optimism in the clubhouse. He said it comes down to upholding the protocols and players taking responsibility when not at the ballpark.
“All in all the players feel confident,” he said. “At the end of the day, guys are going to test positive. You have to be prepared to isolate people and do everything you can to keep those protocols in line. (Manager Brian) Snitker said to the guys, ‘Live a boring life the next two months. Play ball, go home and come back to the ballpark the next day.’ As long as they adhere to that, they should be fine.”
New for 2020 is the universal designated hitter across Major League Baseball. Even with Nick Markakis opting out and the failed signing of Yasiel Puig, the Braves look deep enough to have several lineup combinations with the added rule. The newly-acquired Marcell Ozuna’s struggles in the outfield have been well documented, but Atlanta also has the third-base platoon of Johan Camargo and Austin Riley. Don’t be surprised if manager Brian Snitker pencils in three or four different DHs each week.
While the rule was a matter of special circumstance and can be reversed after this season. Francoeur said the handwriting was on the wall for the National League.
“I love the old-school style of ball, but the designated hitter has been creeping and creeping up on us,” he said. “Pitcher batting averages have been going down and down and even my colleague Tom Glavine says it’s tough watching some of these guys hit. I think this team is set up well for the DH and I’m not sure I could’ve said that two or three years ago.”
He added that it also gives the chance for Ender Inciarte to play center field every day.
On top of the acquisitions of Shane Greene and Mark Melancon a year ago, the Braves made another move this offseason to bolster its bullpen with the signing of lefty Will Smith. Smith is currently on the injured list after testing positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago, but is expected back soon. One of the strongest in the league, the Braves’ bullpen is built for October but could pay dividends early in the season.
“Early on starters are going four or five innings and you don’t want to stretch them out,” Francoeur said. “If you’re up after the 5th, you’ve got a great chance to win a ballgame.
With all their pitching depth, this was supposed to be the year fans would get to lay eyes on one or two of the Braves’ top position player prospects in outfielders Christian Pache and Drew Waters. Pache (ranked No. 13 by MLB.com) is a 21-year-old with a developing bat and some of the best defensive tools in the sport. Waters (No. 26), a speedy switch-hitter, is just 21.
Francoeur believes, however, this short season may not be the time to throw the kids out there.
“It’s funny because I would’ve said one of those two guys. Now with only 60 games, unless someone goes down or tests positive, I can see going with the guy you know what you have,” he said. “Not a lot of rookies burst onto the scene and do their thing in a short time. We knew signing Ozuna would be that one-year bridge for Pache or Waters, but I think the Braves are pretty well set with what they have.”
He added that generally teams like to call up prospects after 30-40 games at Triple-A, so their first game action isn’t in the big leagues.
The Braves open the season on the road against the Mets on Friday. First pitch is scheduled for 4:10 p.m.