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If 2020 wasn’t an odd enough season, it was a weird one for the Atlanta Braves 23-year-old pitching prospect. Jasseel De La Cruz got his first and second calls to The Show and didn’t pitch in either instance, spending less than 48 hours as a big-leaguer.

What went right in 2020?
De La Cruz got his call to the big-league club, and while he didn’t pitch, it obviously shows the Braves like his stuff enough to have him in the bullpen for emergencies.

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So how about that stuff?

As with several of the Braves young pitching prospects De La Cruz has a sensational 1-2 punch with a third pitch still in progress. For the righty, it’s his mid-90s fastball that flashes 98-99 at times and a reliable slider that several have called the best amongst the Braves’ prospects.

Now, the overall viewing of De La Cruz has been limited. Since signing out of the Dominican Republic prior to the 2015 season, De La Cruz spent his first three seasons trying to get out of Rookie ball. He pitched in Rome in 2018 and then spanned three levels in 2019, the first time in his young career he eclipsed 70 innings.

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That said, in my limited viewings, the slider was very good, particularly on right-handed hitters and can easily become an effective out pitch. He was much improved from 2018 to 2019 and hopefully that trend continues.

What went wrong in 2020?
He didn’t get to pitch in either of those two call ups, so there are still two big questions we don’t really have answers to:

Has his changeup developed to a legitimate big-league pitch?
Has his control issues subdued?
It’s not that De La Cruz’s changeup is awful by any means. It’s just not ready. As far as the command goes, that has always been an issue for him. He appeared to turn the corner early in 2019 in Rome in Florida, but the command problems returned to close out the year in Double-A when he walked 37 batters in 87 innings.

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Both of these concerns are addressed by working on them and repeating them, especially in competitive competition. Hopefully, 2020 wasn’t a setback in his improvements.

What’s in store for 2021?
This is the first season I haven’t gotten to see De La Cruz pitch in person, so as already stated, there are some question marks. The answers to the above two questions will answer the biggest question of them all:

Is De La Cruz’s quickest path to the bigs as a reliever or a starter?

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We know the Braves like him, adding him to the 40-man prior to the 2019 season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. We also know he has a two-pitch mix that could work in the Braves bullpen in a pinch.

That decision will ultimately decide what we see of De La Cruz in 2021. If the Braves envision him as a reliever at least for the near future, he could start in Triple-A, ready for the call when needed. If they want to stretch him out and see how he handles a true starter-like season, he’s more likely to start at Double-A. That is also dependent on where arms like Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright start the season of course.

Anthopoulos’ decision to stick with Duvall was rewarded again this summer when the 32-year-old outfielder hit .237 with 16 homers and an .833 OPS during the 60-game season. That’s a 43-homer pace over 162 games.

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But considering the cost to keep Duvall was going to likely be between $6.5 million-$7 million, the Braves opted not to take this kind of gamble on a cost significantly enhanced by a small sample size.

Duvall hit exactly half (eight of 16) of his homers within an eight-day span from Sept. 2-9. Included within this stretch was a pair of three-homer games. So, 37.5 percent of his home runs were hit over the course of two calendar days.

I get that if you take away Freddie Freeman’s top two games or his finest week of this past year, his MVP credentials would not have been quite as impressive. But you would still be looking at numbers that showed much more consistent production.

Duvall hit .229 with five homers and a .696 OPS through Sept. 1. He then hit .153 with a .572 OPS over the 22 games (including the postseason) that followed his second two-homer game on Sept. 9.

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While Duvall is certainly not as bad as that final stretch would indicate, he also has not proven consistent enough to confidently gamble on the arbitration salary he would have received. The Braves could use that $7 million to land a legitimate middle-of-the-order power hitter, like they had over the past two years with Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna.

Will Ozuna return?
Ozuna’s potential return to Atlanta still hinges on whether National League teams will once again use the designated hitter. While I’ve assumed the DH will remain universal, Anthopoulos and his peers don’t have the luxury to make assumptions.

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So for now, the Braves’ search for that middle-of-the-order bat focuses on a left fielder or third baseman. Before going any further, it does not appear the Braves have any interest in trading for one year of the Cubs’ Kris Bryant. But they are open to moving Austin Riley to left field if necessary to make room for a power hitter.

Ozuna seemingly would provide the Braves exactly what they need. But until the DH issue is resolved, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for his return.

Why is Jackson back?
There was absolutely nothing to like about the 2020 version of Luke Jackson. The right-handed reliever’s four-seam velocity dropped from 96.1 mph to 94.4 mph, while the strikeout rate that drew attention in 2019 fell from 33.7 percent to 15.2 percent.

If you’re looking for a bright spot, Baseball Savant says his 6.84 ERA should have been more like a 4.71 ERA. Can I interest you in another Kawakami memory?

Anyhow, the Braves opted to keep Jackson around with a non-guaranteed $1.9 million deal. If he shows up in Spring Training and struggles, they can cut ties with him at a fraction of the cost. But if he can at least get back to where he was in 2019, he would be a decent fifth or sixth option out of the bullpen.

Will Smith, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek currently serve as the primary base for next year’s bullpen. Josh Tomlin and Grant Dayton add depth to a relief corps that could be further enhanced by the presence of Jacob Webb, Huascar Ynoa, Patrick Weigel, Jasseel De La Cruz and some of the organization’s other talented young arms.

Freeman’s extension
Freddie Freeman’s potential extension has been a popular topic over the past few years, and it will draw more attention now that the first baseman is entering the final year of his contract.

My assumption has always been Freeman will remain with the Braves throughout his entire career, or at least throughout a majority of this decade. But there are no guarantees in this game. So, I’ve wondered about the possibility of him returning home to play for the Angels.

Playing for the Angels would put him 30 minutes from his California home and close to both his father and other family members. It would also reunite him with former Braves assistant general manager Perry Minasian, who recently became the Angels’ GM.

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