• Exclusives

    Back To The Ballpark: After 18 Months Away, It’s Time To Come Home

    Editor’s Note: The Atlanta Braves host the Philadelphia Phillies in the team’s 2021 home opener Friday night at Truist Park, the franchise’s first home game in front of fans in 18 months. For Braves Wire writer Bud L. Ellis, the Braves home opener each year is a special moment, the start of a season of attending games and making memories with family and friends. On the eve of his 39th home opener, he shares his thoughts and emotions leading into the return to the ballpark.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – There was a moment, late in the evening of Oct. 9, 2019, where it felt like the end of the world. The Braves had allowed 10 first-inning runs in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series against St. Louis – a series Atlanta absolutely gave away. I wanted to leave early, but my oldest son would not let me.

    He wanted to see Julio Teheran throw to Brian McCann one last time, the pitcher ending his Braves career and the catcher minutes away from announcing his retirement. Walking out of SunTrust Park (now Truist Park) as the Braves season gasped its final breath was one of the lowest feelings I’ve experienced as a baseball fan, and the baseball-loving father of a baseball-loving son.

    We had no idea what would unfold, and how the world truly would stop.

    ****

    At times in our lives, we find ourselves traveling down a long, dark road. No exits. No mile markers. No GPS. No idea where, or when, a light will emerge. Then you see it, at first appearing faint on the horizon – almost as if it’s a mirage – until the illumination grows steadily brighter, draws steadily closer, and you find yourself emerging out of the darkness.

    You find your way home.

    The Atlanta Braves come home Friday night, home to Truist Park to host the Philadelphia Phillies in the home opener after going 2-4 on their season-opening, six-game road swing through Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. A little more than 13,000 fans – 33 percent of the ballpark’s capacity – will file through the gates while wearing masks and sit in socially distant pods. But they will do something fans haven’t been able to do in 1 ½ years: attend a Braves home game.

    My oldest son and I will be among them. Believe me, I realize how fortunate I am to be among that number.

    It’s going to be different, for sure. No cooking tomorrow morning, no arriving hours before first pitch, no hugs and high-fives in Lot 29, no standing shoulder-to shoulder as part of a sold-out crowd. Park in a different lot, walk into the ballpark, watch the game, walk back to the car.

    Of all the home openers I’ve attended since my first one way back in 1980, it will be the strangest one I’ve experienced.

    And I’ll absolutely take it.

    ****

    My birthday is in March. There never was any intrigue around my birthday present every year growing up: tickets to the home opener. My parents would give me money for the home opener even after I’d grown up, graduated college, and got married. I covered four of them during my journalism career. My mom, who has lived with us for a decade, asks me periodically through the winter:

    “How many days?”

    There’s no doubt about what she’s asking.

    I remember hearing her yell for joy upstairs when Adam Duvall’s base hit scored Dansby Swanson to put the Braves ahead in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Cardinals series. I remember her telling me, “we’re getting closer, son,” the morning after last year’s Game 7 NLCS loss to the Dodgers. I remember her and my dad filling a cooler full of beer and champagne for me and a bunch of other 18-year-olds on Oct. 5, 1991, the day the Braves clinched the NL West title in their worst-to-first season.

    Mom’s health has deteriorated the past few months. We’ve had some rough moments the past few weeks. But this week has been a good week, and she’s been adamant that I go to the game. Afterward, she’ll ask me how the Braves played, ask if we had a good time, remind me if the Braves lose that it’s a long season.

    And when I complain about a slow start or an early deficit, she offers her favorite: “It’s never over until it’s over.”

    She told me that the other day. I nodded and put on a brave smile, fighting the realization she’s likely in her ninth inning.

    ****

    I have not watched a baseball game in person since that numbing butt-kicking by the dirty, devil-magic Cardinals. The offseason is long, but there usually are a bread crumb or two to help you along the way. A snowboard event at the ballpark in December 2019; the fan festival a few weeks later. Moments to get you through until the season starts when, for baseball fans, life truly beginning again.

    Until it didn’t.

    Baseball in 2020 was so different, the methodical daily drumbeat delayed 3 1/2 months condensed into the 60-game sprint. It was better than no season at all, and certainly a success for the Braves: a third-straight division title, an MVP season from Freddie Freeman, the emergence of Ian Anderson, the smashing of the playoff series drought. Even the inability to finish off the Dodgers in the NLCS, as painful as that was in the moment, teased even greater heights to scale in the near future.

    And yet, it just wasn’t the same. There is nothing like being in the ballpark. The energy, even with a small crowd, is so much better than piped-in noise. My cardboard cutout is now in its rightful place, hanging in the Braves Room. There simply is no replacement for having fans in the seats, cheering and booing and losing themselves for three hours, forgetting the day and the week and work and all the other real-world stuff that tugs at us.

    Walking through those gates is a release. It’s baseball. It’s comfort. It’s home.

    I know what it’s like to walk into a ballpark for a World Series game, for the decisive game of a playoff series, for a highly anticipated debut, for that first game of a new season. Good and bad, I’ve experienced it all.

    Friday night will be an experience all its own. It will be emotional, all the more so as we remember Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro (and of course, longtime broadcaster Don Sutton). It will be special. And it will be wonderful.

    Friday night, 18 months from the day since I left, I get to come home.

    —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.

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    It’s Opening Day! The Window is Open and The Time is Now

    Play Ball!: The Atlanta Braves open the 2021 season Thursday at Philadelphia, kicking off a campaign the Braves hope will end with the franchise’s first World Series title since 1995.

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I close my eyes, and I can feel the chill of that circular ballpark on that last Saturday night in October. I can hear the swell of anticipation in 51,000 voices, nervous and frantic and frightened simultaneously. I can see Marquis Grissom gliding to his right, a baseball off Carlos Baerga’s bat tumbling toward his glove, a season in its final breathless moment and a dream becoming reality.

    Winning the World Series. It’s the ultimate moment. Nothing beats it. Nothing tops it. Nothing compares to it. And you can hope and dream and envision and imagine what it is like, but nothing compares to that moment when it happens.

    It’s been 9,286 days since I sat in the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, a 1-0 victory on Oct. 28, 1995. Not a day has passed since when I haven’t thought about the next title, the next celebration, the next parade, the next moment this franchise will stand again in the hall of champions.

    The Glory Never Fades: The newspapers may be yellowed from time, but the feeling of winning the World Series never goes away.

    The Braves of 2021 arrive at Thursday’s first pitch in Philadelphia carrying the pain of falling five victories shy last season of becoming the fourth team in franchise history to win the World Series. That 3-1 lead in the NLCS to Los Angeles stings, a lesson learned in painful fashion, but oftentimes an apprenticeship of sorts must be served before the grandest reward is realized.

    Entering the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos had two absolute, must-dos on his list: improve the starting rotation, and re-sign Marcell Ozuna. Teams this close to a championship can’t play the “hope some of the kids figure it out” card, and teams certainly can’t let a guy like Ozuna – the perfect fit behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman in the lineup and in the clubhouse – get away.

    Back in the Mix: Marcell Ozuna flirted with the Triple Crown in 2020, and returns to the Braves on a four-year deal.

    To Anthopoulos’ credit, he accomplished both. Drew Smyly is a curious gamble that could pay big dividends at the back end of the rotation. Charlie Morton made sense on every level – his postseason pedigree the biggest lure of all. They join ace-in-the-making Max Fried, ace-on-the-mend Mike Soroka, and the wunderkid Ian Anderson – one of the young arms who at 22 years old appears to have figured it out – to form one of baseball’s best starting quintets.

    Ozuna contended for the Triple Crown in his first season with Atlanta, making more than enough of a case for the Braves to swallow hard while he plays left field in 2021 (he’s not looked bad in camp; with that said, hurry back, designated hitter). With Ozuna mixing it up and back in the fold, the top six in Brian Snitker’s batting order is as good as any in the sport. Certainly, there figures to be some regression from the output across a 60-game season, and while Atlanta won’t have to average 5.8 runs per game to win 90-plus games, this offense will generate plenty of support. Given the bolstered rotation – further boosted by Soroka’s possible return from a torn Achilles by the end of April – the Braves look every bit like a World Series championship contender.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. showed up at camp looking leaner than a season ago, when a wrist injury hampered his otherwise otherworldly skill set. Acuna looks like he’s on the verge of a breakout season, a laughable statement considering he hit 41 homers with 37 steals in 2019. He’s one of the sport’s brightest stars at 23 years old, a generational talent who figures to push heavily for his first MVP award in 2021.

    He’ll try to wrestle that trophy away from Freddie Freeman, the lifelong Brave who finally is getting his flowers nationally following a spectacular 2020. One of the great joys of last season was seeing the laurels cast upon the face of the Braves (sorry, Johan Camargo), the one pillar who endured through the rebuild. Freeman shined in the NLCS and looks poised to have another fantastic year, and the Braves will need it.

    Chasing the Ring: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman comes into 2021 after winning the NL MVP award, and takes aim at the one thing missing from his resume: a World Series title.

    There are a few chinks in all this shiny armor, and they provide enough reason to at least pause. Can Austin Riley find his footing offensively? It’s the biggest X-factor for me entering the season, and it’s the one place where I could see the Braves pivoting by the trade deadline. Can the bullpen overcome the losses of three veteran right-handers? I’m pretty bullish here. Will Smith looks like the Will Smith we saw slamming the door for the Giants in 2018-19, and all Chris Martin does is throw strikes. Can A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek come close to their stellar – and surprising – 60-game campaigns of last season? Jacob Webb will play a big role, after starting the season at the alternate site because he has options.

    Webb has been brilliant the past two seasons, but health has been an issue. Health indeed is critical for this team; it is for every team, but it’s amplified for the Braves because of a bench that looks underwhelming at the moment, to put it nicely. It may seem a small quibble for a team so good, but the difference between winning a World Series and losing the first week of October is razor thin. The bench will evolve; it always does. But the thought of Pablo Sandoval or Ehire Adrianza (both who earned their roster spots with amazing springs) playing every day due to a significant injury is not pleasant.

    They say strength up the middle of the diamond is foundational to building a good team. For the brilliance of Acuna and the steadiness of Freeman and the potential of Riley, I keep coming back to that saying. Travis d’Arnaud was amazing in the shortened season, the catcher arguably becoming one of the steals of the previous free-agent market. Cristian Pache and his jaw-dropping defense take over in center field. He doesn’t have to hit for this team to win, albeit his at-bats in the NLCS were impressive. He will win games with an elite glove and a cannon of an arm, helping offset some of Ozuna’s limited defensive capabilities in left.

    Ready, Aim, Fire: Cristian Pache and his outstanding defensive skills take over in center field.

    Up the middle, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson begin their fourth full season together. Albies was banged up for the first two months of 2020, missing 31 games, but hit .338 with a .953 OPS upon returning in September and shined in the NLCS, batting .333 with two homers and five runs scored. Swanson enjoyed his best full season, posting a .274/.345/.464 slash line (all career highs, along with a career-best .809 OPS). The kid from Marietta finally was healthy, playing in all 60 games and leading the NL with 237 at-bats.

    Roll it all together, and you’ve got something. I’ve watched this franchise for more than 40 years. It means I’m old. It also means these aging blue eyes have seen a lot of Braves squads, good and bad, roll out of spring training. This is one of the best ones on my watch, and while there’s nits to pick, this team is good.

    Dang good.

    Good enough to win the World Series?

    In my opinion, absolutely.

    Getting out of the National League won’t be easy, even for a team as talented as the Braves. The Dodgers have seemingly unlimited resources and are baseball’s best squad. The Padres were the most active team this winter. The NL East has been billed as baseball’s best division, and it will be as tough as advertised.

    The Marlins aren’t that far away and would be a .500 team if they were in three of the other five divisions. Is this the year the Phillies put it together, with a bullpen that has to be better and a lineup featuring Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto? Philadelphia will find a way to stumble at some point, landing around .500 or a shade above.

    The other three teams will jockey for first place all summer. Washington’s hopes hinge on if Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg stay healthy. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber join a lineup that includes the tremendous Juan Soto and the pesky (meant as a compliment) Trea Turner.

    The Mets made noise throughout the offseason, landing the brilliant Francisco Lindor and bolstering a bullpen that, if healthy, is going to be really good. Jacob deGrom is baseball’s best pitcher, but can that rotation survive a first half without Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco? And then there’s the “Mets” factor. They always seem to find a way to turn wine into water.

    Make no mistake: the Mets should be really, really good. But it won’t be enough to overtake the Braves. Not this year. In what will be a thrilling race not decided until the final week of the season, Atlanta captures its fourth consecutive division crown with 93 wins, four ahead of New York and six clear of the Nationals.

    As difficult as it will be, the East is just the appetizer. The main event comes in October. Yes, getting there is a big part of the battle, and the Braves will get that done. From there, it will be quite the gauntlet, especially considering the two behemoths out West. And the playoffs are the ultimate roll of the dice, a short sprint based on matchups and health and luck and weird bounces as much as sheer talent. That’s what makes winning the World Series – that glorious moment now more than 25 years ago – so difficult.

    But for the Braves of 2021, that’s the solitary objective:

    Win the World Series.

    For this team, this season, winning the ring is the only thing.

    —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.

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 5 and 6

    There are plenty of ingredients needed to create a championship team. Some are well known. Others lurk under the surface. All have to come together if a team wants to win its final game of the season, and stand forever in the hall of champions.

    The Atlanta Braves fell five victories shy of the summit in 2020, a season unlike any other amid the challenges of playing during a global pandemic. With a greater sense of normalcy looming as the 2021 campaign kicks off, Braves Country turns its focus to a team looking to do something only three teams in franchise history have accomplished – and not since the 1995 Braves brought Atlanta its first major pro sports title.

    This is my look at some of the critical pieces of Atlanta’s championship hopes. Yes, it takes good baseball and good health and certainly a dash or two of good luck. But for the Braves to win the World Series, these guys have to play a prominent role.

    – Bud L. Ellis, Braves Wire

    Part 5: The Alpha

    The Name: Ronald Acuna Jr., RF

    The Objective: Continue his ascent toward “top player in baseball” status by displaying his five-tool arsenal while staying healthy.

    The Story: Maybe it’s the fact Juan Soto has a World Series ring, or the fact Fernando Tatis Jr. has a 14-year contract. But in some weird way, it almost – almost – feels like Ronald Acuna Jr. occasionally gets lost in the shuffle when it comes to national buzz around baseball’s youngest and brightest stars.

    Acuna battled through a problematic wrist injury in 2020, missing 23.3 percent of the shortened 60-game season, and posting a career-low .250 average when he did play. But the 23-year-old enters 2021 healthy, noticeably slimmer and, despite the challenges of last summer, stands as one of the best players on the planet. 

    One season after hitting 41 homers and stealing 37 bases en route to a 5.6 bWAR campaign, Acuna raised his walk rate from 10.6 percent to 18.8 percent in 2020, while posting career bests in OBP (.406) and OPS (.987). None of this is good news for opposing pitchers, who face an evolving Acuna as the tip of a lineup featuring four NL Silver Slugger winners in the top five spots.

    In this era of “let the kids play,” nobody possesses the swagger of Acuna, the alpha of a Braves squad loaded with personality. He has the talent to back it up, the list of “did you see that?!” moments already lengthy for someone with a mere 313 games on his big-league resume. Acuna went a combined 6-for-35 in the NLDS and NLCS after a four-hit showing in the two-game sweep of Cincinnati, but even while struggling against the Marlins and Dodgers, he walked seven times and scored 10 runs in 10 games.

    It’s ridiculous to expect anybody to post a 40-40 season. But if Acuna plays 155 games and gets the green light to run, as he did in 2019, it’s not only possible, it’s probable.

    Watch Him Soar: Ronald Acuna Jr. looks for another huge season as he mans right field for the Braves in 2021.

    The Upside: The term “the sky’s the limit” was created for Acuna. Moving full time to right field will put his powerful arm on display more while saving his legs a bit (compared to playing center). He’s a Gold Glove candidate with his range and speed, and the developing hit tool could result in his first .300 season. An OPS above 1.000 certainly is within range, and he’s on everybody’s short list of NL MVP candidates.

    The Downside: There truly is one thing that could slow down Acuna, and that’s health. The wrist hindered him more than he let on last season. Even if his strikeout rate ticks up and his walk rate nudges down, it’s hard to see anything outside of injury keeping him from being one of the sport’s most impactful players.

    The Feeling: The wrist injury and the 60-game season kept Acuna from displaying the full brilliance we saw in 2019. With a full season on tap in 2021, it feels like almost a foregone conclusion he will remind people how dynamic he is with an MVP-worthy season, while driving the Braves deep into October.

    Part 6: The Captain

    The Name: Freddie Freeman, 1B

    The Objective: Back up his MVP season by leading his team to the place it hasn’t been in more than two decades, and securing the final piece missing from his career resume.

    The Story: How can Freddie Freeman be 31 years old, beginning his 10th season as the Braves first baseman, his eighth season since franchise icon Chipper Jones hung up his spikes? It seems like yesterday he made his major-league debut, the chubby-faced kid searching for his place while squarely in the shadow of his more ballyhooed minor-league roomie, Jason Heyward.

    Yet, here he is, a face of the franchise and MVP winner, just like his buddy Jones. It all came together for the first baseman in 2020 – albeit across a 60-game season, but what it season it was. Freeman hit .341, finished with a 1.102 OPS, slugged .640, and led the Braves to Game 7 of the NLCS. A first World Series appearance and winning the championship would have been the cherry on top of a year when Freeman exceled so greatly on the field, after nearly opting out following a scary battle with COVID-19 in July.

    Freeman’s growth during the past 10 years has been remarkable to watch. He always could hit, that sweet left-handed stroke firing balls over the shortstop’s head. The power has expanded. So, too, has his voice, the once shy rookie now the unquestioned leader of the best band of Braves in a generation. Off the field, the Freeman crew is the first family of Braves Country, one that grew from three to five in the offseason with the heartwarming story of twins – two boys born with a twist.

    He’s been a part of everything for the Braves. It was Freeman’s groundout that ended the 2011 season, his homer that clinched the 2012 wild-card berth, his single that won Game 1 last season against Cincinnati, and a million other moments for the only current Brave who endured every painful day of the rebuild. But there remains one final step to take, one final destination to reach, for a player who over the course of the past decade has grown up and grown into a star right before our eyes.

    Feeling Free: The captain of the Braves and the face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman aims to lead the Braves to the World Series title.

    The Upside: Steady Freddie. It sounds simplistic, but that’s Freeman in a nutshell. He a Silver Slugger winner who hits third in one of baseball’s best lineups, he plays a Gold Glove caliber first base, he’s a perennial All-Star, and now his status as a top 10 player in the game is unquestioned. If he’s able to play, he’s going to play, and play well.

    The Downside: Freeman did not miss a game in 2020 – and that’s not a surprise. Starting in 2014, he’s not played in more than four games in a season just twice: in 2015 (34 games) and 2017 (35 games). Both seasons were marred by wrist injuries, and a wrist ailment led to an awful showing in the 2019 playoffs. It seems only health can keep Freeman from posting another season worthy of MVP consideration: he’s finished in the top eight in voting four times in the past five seasons. 

    The Feeling: Freeman hit .360 in the NLCS with two homers – a third homer was taken away by Mookie Betts in the fifth inning of Game 7, or else the Braves very well may have won the pennant. In a season when anything short of reaching the World Series will be a disappointment, on a team full of impact players and personalities, Freeman will respond with another MVP-worthy season that helps push Atlanta onto the sport’s biggest stage.

    —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.

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 3 and 4

    There are plenty of ingredients needed to create a championship team. Some are well known. Others lurk under the surface. All have to come together if a team wants to win its final game of the season, and stand forever in the hall of champions.

    The Atlanta Braves fell five victories shy of the summit in 2020, a season unlike any other amid the challenges of playing during a global pandemic. With a greater sense of normalcy looming as the 2021 campaign kicks off, Braves Country turns its focus to a team looking to do something only three teams in franchise history have accomplished – and not since the 1995 Braves brought Atlanta its first major pro sports title.

    This is my look at some of the critical pieces of Atlanta’s championship hopes. Yes, it takes good baseball and good health and certainly a dash or two of good luck. But for the Braves to win the World Series, these guys have to play a prominent role.

    – Bud L. Ellis, Braves Wire

    Part 3: The Question

    The Name: Austin Riley, 3B

    The Objective: Establish himself as a viable offensive option, avoiding the wild swings from his first two seasons that alternated between unconscious and unplayable.

    The Story: He has the boyish smile, the Southern drawl, the broad shoulders and the ability to hit a baseball a country mile while flashing an underrated glove. He also has stretches of offensive futility that are so rough, no matter how much you want to see him succeed – and for my money, Austin Riley may be the easiest guy to root for on the Atlanta Braves – you have to bench him.

    Here is the intersection of promising young player trying to figure it out and baseball franchise with a realistic shot to win its first World Series in 26 years. Riley stands in the middle, and there is no way to determine with certainty which way this will go.

    On one hand, there is the optimism of seeing Riley look better against offspeed pitching last season – the pitches that overwhelmed him after he destroyed opposing pitchers in the early weeks of his 2019 debut. His strikeout rate dropped from 36.8 percent as a rookie to 23.9 percent a season ago. On the other hand, his ground-ball rate rose from 26.2 percent in 2019 to 41.7 percent, while his hard-hit percentage dipped to 33.6 percent from 42.3 percent.

    Those are a lot of numbers to say this: we don’t know what Riley is as a hitter. It’s asinine to deliver definitive pronouncement on a player who has 462 career big-league at-bats and doesn’t turn 24 years old until the day after the season opener. And while the sage GMs on social media want to pass their final judgement – or demand a trade, most likely for a player who isn’t available – the fact is the Braves have to hitch their wagon to the kid from Mississippi, let him play third base every day, and see what happens.

    An Important Season: Braves third baseman Austin Riley enters a critical season starting Thursday, one day before his 24th birthday.

    The Upside: There’s reason to believe this, his third season in the majors, is the year Riley takes the step toward consistency at the plate. He’s probably not going to have a 15 percent strikeout rate and he’s likely never going to hit .300, but he doesn’t have to do either to help the Braves reach their ultimate destination. Belting 25 homers and nudging into positive WAR territory with a WRC+ reaching triple digits would be enough. Getting to play every day at third base could be the factor that unlocks that upward progress.

    The Downside: There’s reason to believe this, his third season in the majors, is the year Riley shows the Braves they can’t play him 150 games at third. Riley’s slumps so far have been deep, long slumps, and even as the seventh-best hitter in one of baseball’s best lineups, there’s only so long the Braves can ride that train.

    The Feeling: The Braves are past being able to let players figure things out in the majors for long. It may sound unfair to Riley, but that’s what happens when your World Series window is wide open. It’s even more of a challenge with a at-the-moment unproven offensive player, rookie center fielder Cristian Pache and his otherworldly defense, hitting behind him in the lineup. A slow start only raises the pressure on Riley to produce. If he doesn’t, he’s not this team’s third baseman by Aug. 1.

    Part 4: The Homecoming

    The Name: Charlie Morton, RHP

    The Objective: Provide veteran leadership in the rotation and deliver the type of performances in October that have made him a postseason standout.

    The Story: In a way, Charlie Morton is the link from the Braves vaunted Hall of Fame rotation of yesteryear to the hopes of this generation’s young hurlers.

    Morton was drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 2002 draft and debut six years later. That 2008 season saw Morton make 14 starts for Atlanta, while Tom Glavine (13 starts) and John Smoltz (six games, five starts) made their final appearances in a Braves uniform amid injury-marred campaigns.

    Thirteen years later, Morton is back with his original organization, having experienced his share of injuries, reinvention, and October success. The Braves signed the right-hander to a one-year, $15 million contract the week of Thanksgiving after Tampa Bay did not pick up his option, providing their promising young rotation of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson (and their squadron of other young hurlers) with a valuable source of pitching wisdom.

    Traded from the Braves to Pittsburgh in 2009, Morton’s career stayed stuck in neutral until he landed in Houston in 2017. He won 14 games in the regular season and twice more in the postseason, pitching the final four innings of the Astros’ World Series clinching victory over the Dodgers in Game 7. In 12 career postseason starts, Morton has given up three runs or fewer 10 times, including 5 2/3 shutout innings in Tampa Bay’s Game 7 ALCS win over the Astros last season.

    Morton’s quest for a second ring fell short, and his Game 3 start against the Dodgers was an uncharacteristically poor one: five runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. This very well could be his final season of an accomplished career, adding even more motivation to finish things with a championship.

    Back Where It Started: Charlie Morton will start Saturday’s second game of the season, 13 years after making his major-league debut with the Braves.

    The Upside: Morton turned 37 in November, but he’s proven to be more durable as he’s aged. He logged a career-high 194 2/3 innings in 2019, and Morton averaged 29 regular-season starts from 2017-19. The Braves will monitor his usage carefully given his age and the heightened value he can provide in October, but 25 regular-season starts certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.

    The Downside: He is 37, and there always is the chance he gets hurt and turns into Cole Hamels (it’s not a high bar to surpass, I admit). And at some point, father time catches up to everybody, as Morton saw with Glavine and Smoltz during his rookie season.

    The Feeling: Morton is a likely candidate to get a bit of extra rest here and there, especially once Mike Soroka returns to the rotation. He’s here to help guide the Braves aces of the present and future, and he’s really here to help Atlanta win in October. With good health, he’ll get the chance to deliver on those goals, and end his career in crowning fashion.

    —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.

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 1 and 2

    There are plenty of ingredients needed to create a championship team. Some are well known. Others lurk under the surface. All have to come together if a team wants to win its final game of the season, and stand forever in the hall of champions.

    The Atlanta Braves fell five victories shy of the summit in 2020, a season unlike any other amid the challenges of playing during a global pandemic. With a greater sense of normalcy looming as the 2021 campaign kicks off, Braves Country turns its focus to a team looking to do something only three teams in franchise history have accomplished – and not since the 1995 Braves brought Atlanta its first major pro sports title.

    This is my look at some of the critical pieces of Atlanta’s championship hopes. Yes, it takes good baseball and good health and certainly a dash or two of good luck. But for the Braves to win the World Series, these guys have to play a prominent role.

    – Bud L. Ellis, Braves Wire

    Part 1: The Closer

    The Name: Will Smith, LHP

    The Objective: Slam shut the door in the ninth inning for a bullpen that is not as deep as last year’s corps, but has the potential to be just as good.

    The Story: When Will Smith dreamed of playing for the Atlanta Braves while growing up southwest of downtown in the suburb of Newnan, he never envisioned this.

    Playing catch with a net in his backyard, unable to take part in a spring training transpiring in July’s Georgia heat. A capable catcher nowhere to be found. Ballfields closed. A series of positive COVID-19 test results keeping him from joining his new teammates until after the season – one slated for just 60 games – commenced.

    The devastating slider that elevated Smith to All-Star status and 34 saves with the Giants in 2019, that enticed the Braves to offer him a three-year, $40 million deal (with a fourth-year option) that November, was missing in action after he returned. The result: seven homers allowed across 16 innings (a ghastly 3.9 homers-per-nine-innings ratio).

    Consider Smith gave up 45 homers across 410 2/3 innings, a ratio of 1.0 per nine frames, across his previous seven seasons. If there is a poster child for preparation – and thusly, execution – being impacted by the wonkiness of 2020, it’s the 31-year-old Northgate High graduate.

    That feel appears to be back this spring, the left-hander striking out 11 hitters in 5 2/3 innings. Homers? None (just two hits allowed).

    Slam the Door: The Braves look to left-hander Will Smith to take care of the ninth inning in 2021.

    The Upside: Smith faced just four hitters in the ninth inning last season and did not register a save, but in 2021 the ninth is his. He limited right-handers to a .212/.297/.412 slash line in 2019. Settling back into the routine that saw him place third in the NL in saves in 2019, Smith pushes 40 saves as the Braves win the East.

    The Downside: Smith has a track record of success in the closer’s role since missing all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery, logging 14 saves in 2018 before his breakout 2019. But closing games for a World Series contender is a different beast. Smith walked three hitters and gave up a critical homer in 1 2/3 innings during last year’s NLCS. He’ll have to be better in what will be the biggest moments of his career.

    The Feeling: Proving 2020 was an outlier, Smith ranks in the top three in the NL in saves and anchors a Braves bullpen that will see some hiccups in the middle innings, but evolves into one of baseball’s best corps with Chris Martin in the eighth and Smith in the ninth.

    Part 2: The Comeback

    The Name: Mike Soroka, RHP

    The Objective: Return to his 2019 All-Star form after a frightening Achilles injury, forming one-third of a youthful trio at the top of the Atlanta rotation that conjures thoughts of a past generation’s aces.

    The Story: It was, in hindsight, fair to wonder in that moment if racing players through a shortened summer camp after a four-month shutdown was worth it.

    Mike Soroka, one of the faces of these youthful Braves who had charged from rebuild to division champ to pennant contender, lying between the pitcher’s mound and first-base foul line at Truist Park. His right Achilles tendon, torn. His season, over. The Braves title hopes, dinged significantly.

    It’s easy to envision the Braves raising the NL pennant and perhaps the World Series title banner had Soroka not collapsed in a heap breaking toward first base in his third start of 2020 against the Mets on Aug. 3. The injury marked one of several dominos that torpedoed Atlanta’s rotation in the first six weeks of the shortened season, a confluence of unfortunate events that didn’t stop the Braves from reaching Game 7 of the NLCS.

    A healthy Soroka sparks dreams of reaching even grander heights. And why not, after the 23-year-old from Calgary wowed the baseball world in 2019. “Maple Maddux” drew comparisons to the former Atlanta Hall of Famer by posting a 2.68 ERA across 174 2/3 innings (29 starts) with a 1.111 WHIP in 2019. In his first postseason start, Soroka dueled longtime Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright through seven scintillating scoreless innings in Game 3 of the NLDS, on the road, in a game Atlanta won in the ninth.

    Wainwright, the former Braves first-rounder from St. Simons Island, tore his left Achilles tendon in 2015 but returned just five months later, pitching in relief for a St. Louis team that held off Pittsburgh for the NL Central title. The two spoke shortly after Soroka’s injury. The Braves have tried not to accelerate the return of a player who is such a critical component of Atlanta’s present and future, but Soroka is scheduled to pitch one or two innings in Tuesday’s Grapefruit League finale.

    All Smiles: Mike Soroka is scheduled to pitch in the Braves final exhibition game Tuesday.

    The Upside: Soroka returns in mid-to-late April and quickly finds his 2019 rhythm. In a season when pitcher usage will be chronicled more carefully than ever, he still makes 25 starts and takes the ball as Atlanta’s Game 1 starter come October.

    The Downside: Soroka has pitched just 13 2/3 competitive innings across the past 18 months, and that rust takes some time to work through. While the Achilles has fully healed, the rest of his lower body has to catch up, and there are fits and starts that result in underperformance and skipped starts – especially in the first half.

    The Feeling: It’d be almost folly to expect Soroka to blaze out of the gate in April looking like the Soroka of 2019, and then maintain that pace across six months. I say almost, because Soroka already has made a habit of doing things that make us shake our heads. He’s the second-best starter on this team by the stretch drive, and earns a long-term contract extension this offseason after a strong October.

    —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.

    That Time of Year Again: Big Goals, Bullpen Battles, and Hope in Abundance as Braves Start Spring

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The feeling sitting by the lake Sunday was quite comfortable, and it had little to do with my fishing line in the water, the sun breaking through the clouds and the temperature nudging past 70 degrees.

    It had everything to do with the sounds coming through my headphones. The crack of the bat, the thud of a ball hitting the mitt, the scattered rumbling of fans – real people, not cardboard facsimiles – clapping as a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays unfolded before their very eyes along Florida’s west coast.

    Spring training is off and running, and hopefully we continue rolling unabated toward April 1 and the Braves season opener in Philadelphia. Four games in the books – and if you care about the record, can I ask why, because it means absolutely nothing. Four afternoons of familiar sounds and warm thoughts of spring and welcoming voices on the mic and the hope that baseball season brings – a hope that feels a little more meaningful this time around.

    A few thoughts as the Braves continue their first week of Grapefruit League play:

    All Grown Up: I was struck listening to Freddie Freeman’s press conference Tuesday. It’s noteworthy when the reigning National League MVP speaks, certainly. But there was something in his voice, in his expressions, that depicted a man not only completely at peace with his present, but poised for the next step in his future.

    The MVP Is Here: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman spoke at length with the media Tuesday.

    The story of the Freeman family expanding from three to five is heartwarming and inspiring, and adds yet another compelling chapter to what was a notable 2020 for the Braves first baseman. He’s the face of the franchise, the captain – I still would love to see a C on his jersey, a la hockey – and now at 31 years old, undoubtedly one of the top 10 players in the majors.

    The only thing missing from Freeman’s resume is something he alluded to with confidence and openness in his remarks: a World Series ring. He’s got a heck of a shot to get it, considering the combination of talent in the organization and the lessons learned from the past three Octobers. I suspect Freeman will hold court with the media again before the team breaks camp, after Atlanta and its leader agree on a richly deserved contract extension.

    Right from the Right Side: The Braves watched a trio of valuable right-handed relievers depart this offseason. And while Mark Melancon headed to San Diego and Darren O’Day signed with the Yankees (Shane Greene curiously remains unsigned), there is no shortage of candidates to fill that void. Two names stand out to me, both who are on the 40-man roster and both with intriguing potential, if – and there’s the caveat – they can stay healthy.

    Victor Arano posted a 9.1 strikeouts-per-nine ratio across 60 games in 2018 for the Phillies, finishing with a 1.197 WHIP. His 2019 season ended after just three games due to elbow surgery that May, and the 26-year-old was limited to 10 innings in the Mexican League last year. While his fastball sat in the mid-90s before the injury, what set Arano apart was the movement on his heater, slider and changeup.

    Braves fans are quite familiar with Jacob Webb, who has made 44 appearances across two injury-derailed seasons. An elbow ailment ended his 2019 campaign after Webb posted a 1.39 ERA and a 1.113 WHIP in 36 games, and a shoulder strain last summer shelved the 27-year-old after eight appearances. Control has been an issue – Webb has issued 17 walks in 42 1/3 big-league innings – but his stuff is plenty good enough.

    Good health this spring for both Arano and Webb – the same can be said for non-roster invitee Carl Edwards Jr. – could ease the concerns about the offseason veteran exodus and make for some interesting decisions come the end of the month.

    Let The Kid Play: More than once during the NL Championship Series, I wondered what it would be like to have four major-league at-bats then, suddenly, find yourself in the lineup playing every day against the best team in baseball for a trip to the World Series.

    Freeman wondered that, too, joking that he had no idea how super prospect Cristian Pache acquitted himself so well during the NLCS. Yes, Pache went just 4-for-22 against the Dodgers last fall, but the organization’s top prospect registered a hit with a RBI in four games, belted his first big-league homer, and impressed with the poise he displayed in running down balls in center field and grinding out at-bats.

    His Time Is Now: Cristian Pache is expected to begin the season as Atlanta’s starting center fielder.

    Sure, the Braves weren’t going to come out in February and name Pache the starter, especially with the proud veteran Ender Inciarte (he with the $8.7 million price tag) still around and looking to salvage his career. But make no mistake: center field is Pache’s to lose. He took a pitch on the outer half of the plate Monday against Boston and drove it with authority to right-center field, yet another impressive sign that the 22-year-old is ready for everyday duty in the bigs.

    Don’t Forget About Me: On a roster oozing with young talent – Pache, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, William Contreras, et al – it’s easy to get overlooked. But another 22-year-old in camp definitely deserves attention and, potentially, a shot to line up on the foul line for opening day ceremonies four weeks from Thursday.

    Huascar Ynoa landed in the Braves organization after a trade deadline deal for Jaime Garcia in 2017. He made his big-league debut in a blowout victory over the Phillies in 2019 and has made 11 appearances – five starts – across the past two seasons. The casual observer will recall his 92-pitch, one-hit, four-inning relief outing in the Game 3 NLCS blowout loss, but those who have watched Ynoa work know there is tons of potential in that right arm.

    Ynoa impressed in his spring debut Monday. I don’t focus on results too much this early in camp, but every time I watch this kid pitch, I want to see more. Control has been an issue so far, but with upper-90s gas and an impressive slider, it’s not difficult to envision Ynoa having a role with the big-league team – especially if Atlanta wants another power right-hander in the bullpen and the Triple-A season not starting until May.

    —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.

    OZUNA-PALOOZA: Braves make statement, sign Ozuna to four-year deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Braves winter of great discontent ended on the first Friday evening in February, giving the fanbase reason to Marcellebrate and dream of October.

    After a quiet two-month period in which option after option to fill the gaping hole in the Braves lineup landed elsewhere, Alex Anthopoulos finally checked off the most important box of his tenure as Atlanta’s general manager, re-signing Marcell Ozuna to a reported four-year deal Friday with a fifth-year option. It was worth the wait, as the $64 million deal comes out to an average annual value of $16 million, and features a $16 million club option (with a $1 million buyout) for 2025. Early reports hinted Ozuna’s salary for 2021 would be $12 million.

    For Ozuna, it returns him to the team where he flirted with the Triple Crown during the truncated 2020 season. He led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while hitting .338 (third) with a 1.067 OPS. Ozuna, who turned 30 in November, struggled defensively in left field –  while that’s a concern considering at this moment there is no DH in the NL in 2021, the Braves are banking his offense will more than make up for any shortcomings in the field.

    It’s absolutely worth that defensive risk, as I wrote two months ago today in this space. Ozuna helped the Braves get within one win of the World Series last fall. He returns to slot into the third spot in the batting order behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman, lengthening a lineup that desperately needed another impact bat on Brian Snitker’s lineup card. The top three of Ronald Acuna Jr., Freeman and Ozuna is as good as any in baseball. There simply was no way the Braves could go into 2021 without adding a bat, be it Ozuna or someone else.

    And make no mistake: from the final out of Game 7 of the NL Championship Series loss to the Dodgers, there wasn’t a better realistic option available to the Braves than Ozuna. His right-handed bat behind Freeman in the lineup helped unlock a phenomenal season for the longtime Atlanta first baseman. Ozuna looked more like the hitter who broke out for a big year with Miami in 2017 before two decent, if not spectacular, seasons in St. Louis in 2018-19. He certainly fit in well, his signature faux selfies during the playoffs energizing the team and fanbase.

    The Braves struck early in free agency this offseason, inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to one-year deals in November. Then came two months of silence, driven in part by the indecision by MLB on whether to bring back the DH to the NL, in part by questions around whether the 2021 season would start on time due to the pandemic, and in part by whether the Braves had the flexibility to commit the dollars and length of years needed to secure Ozuna coming off a career season.

    Credit to Anthopoulos here, who absolutely was ripped across social media daily for the past eight weeks. Let’s face it – it didn’t matter whether Atlanta signed Ozuna on Dec. 5, Jan. 5, or Feb. 5. The early reports of the deal structure show that, despite the outcry from a whole bunch of Twitter GMs, patience paid off in a massive way for the Braves and their GM.

    This is the type of commitment a World Series champion has to make at some point in time. It was fair to wonder if the Braves actually would do it. Honestly, they had to push in at some point.

    It might not have come as quickly this winter as some wanted but, in the end, Anthopoulos and the Braves got their man. Ozuna got his contract. And while the NL will be as rugged as ever, starting with a ridiculously stacked NL East, the Braves are right there among the favorites to get to where they haven’t been since 1999, and do what they haven’t done since 1995.

    Reason enough on a winter Friday night to Marcellebrate.

    —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 o

    44 Forever: Aaron Meant So Much to Braves, But Impact Traveled Further Than Any Home Run

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – You grow accustom to it after a while, the roaring cheers every time the legends gather. Be it the two-time MVP from Oregon, the provider of the run that won the World Series, or the guy with bad knees whose slide at home plate is seared in this franchise’s history, there is no shortage of people revered by the Braves fanbase.

    And yet, one set of cheers always topped them all. You didn’t even have to see him shuffling out of the dugout or sitting in the back of a car circling the warning track to know. Just close your eyes, and listen.

    Not the Big Three aces, or the cocky kid from Florida, or the Skipper, or the Architect. Not even Murph or Justice or Bream or the various heroes who helped a baseball franchise not just take root in the South, but grow from sea to shining sea and beyond.

    No, the loudest cheers always were reserved for The King. The Hammer. Henry Louis Aaron, he of the quick, smooth swing that drove more home runs out of big-league ballparks than any right-handed slugger in major-league history. He who provided Atlanta with its first signature sports moment with the world watching. He who, more than anyone else, defined the Atlanta Braves.

    Hank Aaron passed away Friday morning in his sleep, the 86-year-old becoming the 10th Hall of Famer to die since June. The past four weeks have been remarkably cruel for Braves fans. Phil Niekro, the beloved knuckleballer who spent his retirement just across the lake from here in Flowery Branch, died Dec. 27. Don Sutton, who spent nearly 30 years in the broadcast booth before health issues sidelined him in 2019 and 2020, passed away Monday night.

    It hurts. They all hurt. Our team’s legends aren’t supposed to die. When it happens, we grieve as if they are family.

    Because they are.

    The Hammer: Hank Aaron played nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves after the franchise moved from Milwaukee before the 1966 season.

    My grandfather used to tell me three things about Aaron. First were the hands and wrists, formed from working on trucks delivering ice blocks as a kid. Big hands. Strong wrists. Powerful forearms. Perfect for belting baseballs 400-plus feet. Second, Aaron learned to bat cross-handed, the right-hander putting his left hand higher on the bat than his right. Try to swing a bat like that; Aaron didn’t adjust his hands properly until he was already playing in the minor leagues.

    Third, and most important, my grandfather said Aaron’s strength wasn’t just physical. I would learn as I grew older what that meant, as I read the well-documented stories of hate and ignorance directed toward a black man chasing a white man’s hallowed record in the Deep South in that era. Just to do his job in that environment was noteworthy and commendable, not knowing what potential threat lurked in the upper reaches of the ballpark or by the back entrance of the hotel Aaron used when the team was on the road.

    All the more remarkable – while inhabiting that fishbowl that grew more claustrophobic the closer he crept to Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career homers – that Aaron kept his cool, never cracked under the pressure, never lashed out. He simply did what we all seek to do: show up at work and do his best, with grace and humility.

    While bigots and racists threatened his life – resulting in the Braves taking extra security precautions and the FBI protecting his family – Aaron’s production didn’t wane as the gap to Ruth’s homer mark decreased. Aaron belted a career-high 47 homers in 1971, leading the majors in OPS (1.079) and slugging percentage (.669) while batting .327 and driving in 118 runs in 139 games. Two seasons later, at age 39, Aaron hit .301 with a 1.045 OPS, 40 homers and 96 RBIs in 120 games.

    The signature moment would come the following spring, on that famous Monday night in April – the first time the sports world had turned its laser focus on Georgia’s capital city. Aaron’s fourth-inning homer off Al Downing of the Dodgers and subsequent, joyous reaction from more than 53,000 inside Atlanta Stadium prompted legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully to tell his audience:

    “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record on an all-time baseball idol.”

    Marvelous, indeed. A moment of celebration, the first of many for the Braves franchise that a decade later, Aaron would help foster as director of player development. Justice. Gant. Glavine. Lemke. Jones. Names synonymous with the Braves emergence from perennial NL West doormat to 1990s powerhouse, all drafted with Aaron as part of the front office.

    I remember the chills I got seeing Aaron walking out onto the field at Atlanta Stadium after the final regular-season game in 1996, flashbulbs popping all over the circular stadium as the crowd roared. He was there when Turner Field – located at 755 Hank Aaron Drive – opened seven months later. There he was in 2016, helping deliver home plate after the final game at Turner Field to the construction site where the next spring, SunTrust Park would host its first game – Aaron throwing the first pitch to Bobby Cox on an April evening in 2017.

    New Home: Hank Aaron helps deliver home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park following the Braves finale at their downtown ballpark on Oct. 2, 2016. Aaron would throw out the first pitch at the new stadium on April 14, 2017.

    Aaron always was there. The Braves honored him at their new spring training site in North Port, Fla., shortly before the pandemic shut down spring training. He congratulated Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman on winning the Hank Aaron Award – given to the best offensive player in each league – just a few weeks ago.

    No matter what, when it came to the Braves, there was Aaron.

    And now, he’s gone. I can’t even fathom what it will be like when things return to normal, we return to the ballpark for opening night, or this summer’s All-Star game, and he won’t be there. It just won’t feel right.

    Sure, it’s certainly not unexpected for someone to pass away after 86 years. It just felt like Hank Aaron would live forever, which explains in part the hole in the collective heart of Braves Country tonight.

    We’re left with memories of one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a major-league field, a man who impacted a city, a region and society in ways that go far beyond the foul lines and resonate for reasons far more important than wins and losses.

    And we remember the cheers. The loudest ones of all, always and forever, are reserved for The Hammer.

    In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to Aarons’ Chasing the Dream Foundation:

    Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation

    3466 Buffington Center

    Atlanta, GA 30349

    —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.

    Anthopoulos, Braves Enter Winter Meetings With Holes To Fill

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    WOODY GAP, Ga. — A brisk December afternoon finds winter’s chill riding the northwest breeze across the North Georgia mountains. A scattering of bundled-up hikers cross Ga. 60 at the Union County/Lumpkin County line, navigating the rocky trails at a site where snow fell for most of the afternoon just five days earlier.

    This place sits 88 miles from my upper-deck seats at Truist Park. As with so many things in 2020, that slice of normalcy feels a million miles away.

    Today’s view, a stop on this Saturday’s winding journey around and over the hilly terrain of my home state, is perfect for pause and perspective. The Winter Meetings — often a point of both decision and pivot for baseball’s offseason — kick off Sunday. Much like everything else in this year unlike any other, it will be different. Virtual. No meeting in suites. No hallway conversations. No ideas bandied about while sharing a drink or a meal.

    Looking Ahead: A brief pause before the Winter Meetings begin.

    Like the hikers determining which path to take after crossing the highway, the Atlanta Braves sit pondering choices of direction at a couple of key checkpoints in filling out the 2021 roster. You can cross the starting rotation off Alex Anthopoulos’ shopping list, the Braves general manager inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton last month to a pair of one-year pacts for $26 million.

    That last part stands out to me. The naysayers who lean on the worn-out narrative that the Braves don’t spend money conveniently forget the spending spree of last offseason, when Atlanta bolstered its roster to the point it would’ve hit opening day with a payroll of around $155 million.

    Atlanta has 11 players under guaranteed contracts for approximately $95.05 million in 2021 (including Smyly and Morton), with an estimated potential (per FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors) of $13 million more to four players in arbitration. Add in the up to $4.16 million if the contracts tendered to Luke Jackson, Johan Camargo and Grant Dayton become full, and that’s a 2021 number so far of approximately $112.21 million.

    Spending $26 million of that on the Smyly/Morton duo leads me to think even with pandemic-impacted finances, the Braves still have significant money to spend. They certainly have needs to add to a core that came within one win of the NL pennant.

    Pause and perspective; two words that at times are hard for fans to grasp. A few thoughts as I gaze at the mountains in the distance and think about a franchise aiming to reach the summit.

    We Should Marcellebrate: I know Anthopoulos doesn’t like long-term deals. I know the organization is loath to pay top dollar over a lengthy timeframe. I know the ongoing — and ridiculous — fact MLB and the Players Association have yet to determine if the DH remains in the NL for 2021 plays a factor not just for the Braves, but for every Senior Circuit club.

    I also know what I saw from Marcell Ozuna in a Braves uniform. No, I do not expect a Triple Crown-contending campaign to be the baseline. No, I admit his defensive shortcomings in left field give me pause.

    I also know the impact of having that type of right-handed bat behind reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman (if I may briefly digress: how awesome it was to type that). It’s why I advocated re-signing Josh Donaldson last winter, a player almost five years older and one with a longer injury history.

    I don’t anticipate something happening with Ozuna until the DH is decided. It’s immaterial to me. Sure, it’s not my money, but I’d pony up a four-year deal at $88 million ($22 million average annual value, or AAV). I think that’s what it will take to sign him. I’d live with the defense in left field for one season to know the biggest hole in the lineup is filled through 2024.

    It’s a Marcellebration: Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna’s selfies became a symbol of the 2020 postseason.

    Anthopoulos likes to jump the market. I’d love to see him do it with Ozuna. Do I think it will happen? Honestly, no. I expect the Braves to fill the lineup hole via trade, perhaps a one-year “rental” of former MVP Kris Bryant to play third base and/or left field, citing one oft-mentioned example that doesn’t excite me like it did last winter or the winter before.

    Either way he goes, Anthopoulos has no choice but to nail this move. It’s his biggest to date in his tenure. The bat acquired has to be impactful. And while it shouldn’t have to be said, just for the record, piecing together a solution in-house is unacceptable. All the more reason in my opinion to be aggressive and maybe a bit uncomfortable here, and stretch to give Braves Country a reason to Marcellebrate.

    Gold Glove Bullpen Piece: One of the more memorable (and enjoyable) images from the NLCS was closer Mark Melancon gloving not one, but two Ozzie Albies homers belted into the Braves bullpen.

    No Bull, This Glove’s Legit: Braves closer Mark Melancon caught two Ozzie Albies homers in the bullpen during the NLCS.

    Melancon, a free agent expected to net somewhere between $4 million and $8 million, has spent the offseason cracking up the masses on social media. From my perspective, he should spend next season cracking down on opposing hitters in the ninth inning for the Braves.

    I’ve heard multiple people I trust say they expect the 35-year-old (he turns 36 in late March) to re-sign with Atlanta. Melancon’s return would provide the Braves one more impactful arm needed to go with Will Smith and Chris Martin — plus lefties Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter — to form another formidable bullpen.

    I’d think $6 million-$7 million gets it done, but be patient. The reliever market is flooded, even more so now after the non-tender deadline. It might be mid-January, but unless someone blows him away with an offer, I expect Melancon back in 2021.

    One More Bloom: Atlanta needs a backup catcher, but for multiple reasons there is zero reason to spend significant money here.

    Travis d’Arnaud figures to catch a majority of the time — Braves catchers typically split duties in part to the toll of the Atlanta summer heat, but d’Arnaud could be in line for 130 starts after his breakout 2020. Atlanta has two highly regarded catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, but the loss of minor-league ball in 2020 dictates both need to catch every day somewhere in 2021 and not ride the bench in Atlanta.

    Alex Jackson could handle the staff fine for 35 starts at the major-league minimum salary. But I know how highly the organization regards Tyler Flowers. With roots in Atlanta and likely limited opportunities elsewhere if he wanted to try and catch on with another organization, I could see the Braves bringing Flowers back for cheap (say, $1.5 million, or roughly $1 million more than Jackson’s salary).

    California Dreamin’: There was a little buzz when the Angels tabbed Braves exec Perry Minasian as their GM, in particular given a certain Braves star and newly minted MVP who has California roots and an expiring deal.

    Dream on. I don’t see any scenario in which Freeman leaves the Braves. My feeling all along has been a contract extension will be done before the season begins. Doing so avoids Freeman’s status being a talking point all season, and gives the Braves cost certainty at the position for the foreseeable future.

    M-V-Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final year of his contract after winning NL MVP honors.

    Until I see otherwise, I think Atlanta will do right for Freeman and the two sides will settle somewhere around $185 million for seven years ($26.4 million AAV). And no, the first baseman should not take a “hometown discount,” and fans have no right to expect that he should.

    Doting on Duvvy: Closing out today with a hat tip to Adam Duvall, whose pinch-hit homer off Jack Flaherty in Game 2 of the 2019 NLDS was such a cool moment to experience. Cool beyond how the crowd shifted from annoyance with Brian Snitker’s decision to hit Duvall for Mike Foltynewicz to euphoria when Duvall deposited a 3-2 offering over the wall in center, but because of the ease that comes with rooting for a guy like Duvall and the significance of him delivering in that moment.

    Duvall’s story — his living with Type 1 diabetes, his work at Triple-A after not breaking camp with the team in 2019, his prolific 10-game span this season in which he belted nine homers (including two three-homer games) — is well known. He made quite an impression on this fanbase. To this day, I have not met one person who does not like Duvall.

    I was surprised he got non-tendered, but I hope he lands a starting gig and a good payday somewhere. He’s certainly deserving.

    —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.

    Back Where It Started: Braves, Morton Reunite With One-Year Deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A dozen years is a long, long time. I’m reminded of that every time I look at my kids … or look in the mirror.

    How long is a dozen years? Let’s go back to 2008. Some dude (me) started a lonely little Braves blog called BravesToday.com. He thought it would be fun to write about the ballclub every day. He even opened an account on some weird, new social media site called Twitter to occasionally promote the blog.

    Timing is everything in life, and the timing wasn’t great in this instance. Those Braves lost 90 games, the first time an Atlanta team had dropped that many games since 1990, the year before the worst-to-first Miracle Braves kicked off the franchise’s magical run. The company who hosted the blog went bankrupt. That Twitter account got ignored for a year or two.

    There wasn’t a whole lot to write about in that summer of ‘08. Chipper Jones was hitting .400 in June and ended up winning the NL batting title at .364. Otherwise, it wasn’t much fun. But there were a couple of bright spots.

    One came on a Saturday in Anaheim in June, when one of the Braves projected future aces made his major-league debut by holding the Angels to three runs on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in six strong innings. 24-year-old Charlie Morton, who the club selected in the third round of the 2002 draft, threw 64 of his 104 pitches for strikes that night in besting future Brave legend Ervin Santana and pulling Atlanta within one game of .500 at 34-35.

    The rest of the story: not as fun. Morton gave up five runs or more four times in his other 14 starts, finishing 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA. By the following June, he was gone from the organization. The Braves finished 72-90, 20 games out of first place in the NL East. Their next playoff appearance was two years away.

    Now we hit the fast-forward button to today. The Braves and Morton have reunited, agreeing to a one-year, $15-million deal. It’s the second move in eight days Atlanta has made to add to a starting rotation that endured a death march of injuries and underperformance in 2020, following last week’s one-year, $11-million agreement with Drew Smyly.

    Smyly is a nice piece based on his short body of work down the stretch in 2019 for Philadelphia and seven appearances in 2020 for San Francisco.

    Morton is much, much more impactful.

    Charles in Charge: Charlie Morton won his first three postseason starts in 2020, including striking out six in 5 2/3 shutout innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to pitch the Rays to the World Series.

    After being dealt to Pittsburgh in the awful Nate McLouth deal in June 2009, Morton had surgeries on both hips with Tommy John surgery mixed in for good measure across the next five seasons. Once he finally got healthy, he shifted from pitching to contact (6.3 strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratio from 2008-2015) to relying on velocity.

    Since the start of 2017, Morton has a 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and owns a 3.34 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 97 starts for the Astros and Rays, posting a 1.159 WHIP, 7.4 hits-per-nine innings and a 3.57 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. From his debut through 2016, Morton threw more than 145 innings twice. He’s surpassed that in each of his previous three full seasons (146 2/3 in 2017, 167 in 2018, 194 2/3 in 2019).

    It’s paid off in more ways than one. Morton closed out Game 7 of the 2017 World Series for Houston and in 12 postseason appearances since 2017 has posted a 3.40 ERA with a .644 OPS. He made the All-Star team in 2018 and 2019, finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019, and signed a two-year, $30-million deal with Tampa Bay after the 2018 season.

    Now, a dozen years after those six innings in Anaheim, Morton returns to where it all began.

    —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.