• Exclusives

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.