This was not how the 2021 season was supposed to go for the Atlanta Braves.
Sure, if you ask most projection systems, the Braves were supposed to be essentially a .500 ball club. In that regard, the team’s 44-45 record heading into the All-Star break shouldn’t be entirely surprising.
But how the season arrived at this point, and what fans expect the second half will hold, is unlike anything anyone could’ve predicted.
One of the most persistent disappointments, other than the Braves’ inability to exist a single day with a winning record, has been the recovery of Mike Soroka from an Achilles tendon injury. At one point, fans were hopeful he could maybe return by Opening Day. That date got pushed back multiple times, both from shoulder discomfort and setbacks related to the Achilles. Now, many are left wondering if Soroka will ever truly return to form for the Braves.
But as bad as losing a former All-Star and presumptive ace is, it’s actually even more crushing than that. Because Soroka was the solid one, the “Maple Maddux.” Soroka doesn’t have the devastating curveball that Max Fried has, but he also doesn’t have the blister history. He doesn’t have the stuff of a Touki Toussaint or the power of a Kyle Muller. But what he’s always had is consistency and control. If there was one pitching prospect that you could bet your house on, it’s Mike Soroka.
Until you couldn’t.
Huascar Ynoa seemed to be filling the void left by Soroka. He posted a 3.02, 1.052 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings through his first nine appearances and eight starts of the year. After a bad outing in Milwaukee on May 16, though, he broke his hand by hitting the bench during an angry outburst.
Joining Ynoa in the injured hand brigade was Travis d’Arnaud. The 2020 Silver Slugger catcher hadn’t been hitting well this season, but the position has been a revolving door of subpar performances since he went on the IL on May 1.
Then there’s Marcell Ozuna. Obviously, the No. 3 hitter being ineffective, then also suffering an injured hand, then arrested for domestic violence is almost as bad as it could possibly get. But for the Braves, it was even worse.
Coming into the season, Ozuna looked like the most perfect example for how Alex Anthopoulos’ plan could work. He signed Ozuna to a one-year “show me” deal similar to Josh Donaldson or Cole Hamels, but then he and the team were able to line up on a multi-year deal. The Braves’ fanbase connected with a free agent signing, he produced a career year and then he came back long-term. Few players on the 2021 roster were as popular as Ozuna, and he looked like a piece of the puzzle for years to come.
But then things went as far south as possible, and fans are left wondering if the Ozuna deal will prevent future deals, either tangibly or intangibly. This was the only long-term deal post-rebuild, the one we had been waiting for. And it’s completely ruined.
Speaking of deals, a Freddie Freeman contract extension once seemed a sure thing, perhaps even before the 2021 season began. Now, halfway through the year, not only has that not happened, but many are beginning to wonder if we’re watching the final months of a fan favorite’s time in Atlanta.
Even the All-Star Break itself isn’t really a break from the overall suckitude of the 2021 Braves’ season. At one point, this year’s game and the surrounding festivities were supposed to be held at Atlanta’s Truist Park. But after a situation that can best be described as a political urinating contest, all of that was moved to Denver.
And just when we all thought that it would be hard to suck any more fun out of the season, the cruelest blow of all was struck – Ronald Acuña Jr. went down last week with a season-ending knee injury. Now the Braves will play the second half without an All-Star outfielder who was hitting .283 with a .990 OPS, 24 homers and 17 stolen bases in just 82 games.
But like the rest, Acuña is more than those numbers. He’s sometimes the reason you tune in to a Braves game. When everyone else is slumping, and you’re pretty sure either the starting pitcher or the bullpen – or both – is going to blow that day’s game, you watch because Ronald might hit a ball into orbit, gun a runner down at third, steal a couple bases or do all three. And now we know he won’t be back until sometime next year.
And let’s not even delve into the eventual demotions of highly anticipated prospects Cristian Pache and William Contreras.
This isn’t to say that there’s no reason to watch the Braves now. This isn’t even to say that the Braves can’t make a run, make a couple trade deadline additions and win the division. There are plenty of reasons to watch this team, and the talent is there to run down the oft-injured New York Mets.
The problem is that 2021 has given us every reason to expect that if things start going well, Truist Park is going to become infested with feral hogs. Or Ozzie Albies will wind up pregnant. Or Rob Manfred will announce that the Braves have to play their remaining games on the TV Guide Channel, which no longer exists.
As a fanbase, it’s just all been too much, and it’s tough to set yourself up to get disappointed again. That said, I assume we’ll all be tuning in Friday, PTSD and all.