• Exclusives

    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.