Josh McKinney

If you’re a regular viewer of Major League Baseball, you have probably seen the commercials that implore people to “Let the kids play.” However, the “kids” in question aren’t kids at all, but the newest wave of MLB stars.

There are so many exciting young professional baseball players in the game today, but the team I most enjoy watching is the Atlanta Braves. That’s not just because they’re my favorite team — truth be told, they weren’t very much fun to watch there for a few years — but because they are the perfect example of MLB’s youth movement.

Ronald Acuna Jr. is at the forefront of the Braves’ youth movement, as the 21-year-old is a rare five-tool player. That means he has above average speed, arm strength and fielding capabilities as well as the ability to hit for average and power. If you turn on one of Atlanta’s games, you’re probably going to see their talented outfielder do something special at some point.

Another Braves player who does special things is 22-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies, who just so happens to be Acuna’s best friend. Although diminutive in stature, Albies is one of the club’s leaders in extra-base hits. He is also a speedster on the base paths, as evidenced by his 11 stolen bases and team-high seven triples.

Another popular saying is that “Chicks dig the long ball,” and if that’s truly the case, a lot of young ladies should be flocking to watch the Braves. With 184 home runs, Atlanta ranks sixth in baseball and third in the National League, giving them a shot at breaking the franchise record for single-season homers (235 in 2003).

Acuna leads the way with 30 blasts, while first baseman Freddie Freeman has 29 and third baseman Josh Donaldson has 26. Albies and injured players Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley have 17 homers apiece, with catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers combining for 19 (10 for McCann, 9 for Flowers) while splitting time behind the plate.

Swanson is the Braves’ 25-year-old shortstop, while Riley is a 22-year-old rookie who is a natural third baseman but has spent most of his time in left field due to the aforementioned Donaldson’s play at the hot corner. The 33-year-old Donaldson was signed to a one-year, $23 million deal in the offseason to provide offensive protection behind Freeman, but he has also flashed the leather on numerous occasions.

Speaking of Freeman, the 29-year-old veteran is the longest-tenured player on the roster. He has been with the Braves for the past 10 seasons, providing steady contributions at the plate and in the field. The four-time All-Star is hitting .307 this season with 92 RBIs, the latter representing the second-highest mark in the major leagues. He has appeared in all but one game for the first-place team in the NL East, which is not a regular occurrence in this day and age.

Atlanta’s offense is undoubtedly its biggest strength, but the Braves also have some gifted young starting pitchers. Rookie Mike Soroka is a 22-year-old right-hander who has a 10-2 record, a 2.45 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 121 innings, while 25-year-old lefty Max Fried is 13-4 with a 4.11 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 120 1/3 innings. The duo certainly looks like it could remain at the top of the Braves’ rotation for many years to come.

Veteran southpaw Dallas Keuchel signed with the Braves in early June, and despite getting roughed up in his latest outing, he has done just what the club envisioned when it gave him a $21.21 million contract for the remainder of the season. His ERA is a bit high at 4.85 and his record doesn’t look great at 3-5 — some of that can be chalked up to the bats going cold in several of his starts — but he has given Atlanta’s pitching staff an experienced arm that should especially help come playoff time. After all, he was the ace of the Houston Astros’ rotation when they won the 2017 World Series.

The bullpen remains a huge question mark even after some notable acquisitions at the trade deadline, but if nothing else, the Braves are fun to watch. Their offense looks more like one an American League squad would boast, which gives them a fighting chance in any game. Additionally, if their relief corps can tighten things up and the likes of Soroka, Fried and Keuchel can continue to pitch at a high level, the sky’s the limit for the 2019 Braves.

They’re young, they’re talented and they’re entertaining. But just how far can these Braves go?

I don’t know, but I can’t wait to watch.

 

Josh McKinney is the sports editor for the Hickory Daily Record. Reach him at jmckinney@hickoryrecord.com.

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