On Sunday, in a win to avoid being swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates, reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr. went down with a non-contact injury that was later revealed to be a torn left ACL.
This is the same injury on the opposite leg that caused him to be carted off the field midway through the 2021 season.

It not only feels like a sucker punch to what was already a brutal beginning to the Braves’ year after losing ace Spencer Strider to Tommy John surgery preseason, but it’s a major blow for baseball as a whole for being one of the most electrifying players in so many different ways: running on the basepaths with blazing speed, riling up the dugout after mashing a home run, and flashing his iconic Venezuelan yellow accessories and chains; we’ve now lost a defining offensive star of this era on an iconic franchise for a second time.

The way the Atlanta Braves choose to act following an injury as monumental as this is going to send ripple effects throughout the remainder of the year in the National League landscape. 2021, the year that Acuna’s first ACL was torn, was the year that Atlanta went on to win the World Series. July that year, they had no Ronald and an injured Ozzie Albies as they were hovering around .500 before making minor moves to acquire a rag-tag group of Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario. The rest is as tattooed into the history books as Soler’s World Series Game 6 moon shot home run and more permanent than the cultural phenomenon of Braves fans getting Joc Pederson frosted tips and pearl chains.

The moves they made to rebound during that run and following that run makes Atlanta considered one of the smartest organizations in all sports. This year, the vibes around Atlanta feel eerily different; while following the Acuna injury, they sit at 30-20, second in the division, with the third-best record in the NL and towering at 5 games up for the first wild card spot, every Braves fan would tell you they feel miserable about this year, due to the underperformances and the early letdown following last year’s historic regular season.

It also doesn’t help that the script has been flipped– traditionally, the narrative has been that the Braves have been the big bad wolf dominating the NL East during the regular season, and the Phillies have been content to be the spoiler in the postseason as a Wild Card; now, Philadelphia sits with the best record in baseball as Atlanta is floundering for some juice following the losses of their ace and their MVP before June. 

The question for GM Alex Anthopolous is what to do now.

The Atlanta Braves have long been a trusted front office and coaching staff, and when they make moves, they don’t seem to lose them often.

We’ve seen that so far this year, with the reviving Chris Sale’s corpse into an NL Cy Young contender with an 8-1 record and 2.11 ERA and somehow getting consistent production out of the superstar we thought we had in former stud prospect Jarred Kelenic.

As stated earlier, the vibes around the team have been atrocious despite the 30-20 record; Acuna will likely be more of a basepaths and long-term energy of the clubhouse loss as opposed to his 2024 production thus far as his season will end with just a .250/.351/.365 split, 4 homers, and 16 stolen bases. Marcell Ozuna has arguably been their only reliable and consistent hitter across the board in every metric, and Travis d’Arnaud has covered up for the absent Sean Murphy. Still, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, and Ozzie Albies have all been playing below expectations relative to their superstardom. On the pitching side, with glass bones and paper skin, Chris Sale is the most reliable starter. It is not a formula you want to bank on, and they’ve had 10 different starters to begin the year.

The next several weeks of the Braves’ season following this injury and how they react are going to be a fascinating case study.

An argument can be made that this Braves team is due to get hot and was considered the deepest lineup in all of baseball pre-Acuna injury, and that it’s early in the season. All you have to do is get to the dance, as seen in last year’s World Series matchup of Arizona and Texas. 

While the Phillies look like a juggernaut in their division, the Braves could still easily matchup against the de facto opponents: the Cubs just lost a series to the Cardinals, who are both near the .500 mark; the Giants and Diamondbacks out west both have had inconsistent and injured offenses all season that have made them both unreliable as serious threats thus far, and the Padres have made big swings with a plethora of superstar trades for Dylan Cease and Luis Arraez this year but lost Xander Bogaerts and often have had their high-end names underperform at 28-28.

But with a schedule of Nationals, A’s, Red Sox, and Nationals again, a stretch that should get them back on track theoretically, Atlanta will have to not only survive but also impress, and it may decide how aggressive Anthopolous will be with tinkering the roster. The core is too locked up in their prime to stand pat following the Acuna injury, and the targets are going to be the blood rival, the best team in baseball, the Phillies, along with the billion-dollar-offseason Los Angeles Dodgers. If the aura is bad now with a 30-20 record, a tough stretch following the loss of their superstar could have the Chop House in meltdown mode.

They made minor moves in 2021 with an arguably worse roster and made the World Series. Would further turmoil result in more small moves that you trust because they’re the Braves, or do they make a blockbuster deal to push the chips in? The bottom of the league right now is not only bad but historically bad, and I would love to grab a haul of those Braves’ identified prospects for one of their diamonds in the rough.

With the loss of one of the most special personalities in baseball, the Braves have now become a case study in how they choose to play this 162-game chess match.

PHOTO: Getty Images

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