• Alex Anthopoulos

    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

    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.

    Postseason Preview: Red October Beckons as Braves Aim to Overcome Annual Autumn Stumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Alex Anthopoulos cut his teeth on National League baseball, growing up outside of Montreal as an Expos fan before beginning the long journey to his current role as Braves general manager. And even though he found success as GM of the Blue Jays, he remained rooted in baseball played the Senior Circuit way: without a designated hitter.

    Suffice to say Anthopoulos has experienced a change of heart as the Braves prepare for Wednesday’s National League Wild Card series opener against Cincinnati. Thank Marcell Ozuna for that, the former Marlins and Cardinals slugger helping Atlanta deploy arguably its most powerful lineup in years by logging substantial time at DH – in the first season the extra hitter has been used in the NL.

    “I’ve enjoyed the lineup this season with the DH,” Anthopoulos admitted during an interview Monday evening on the Braves Postseason Preview Show on the team’s flagship station, The Fan 680 and 93.7 FM. “Having lived through it, I’ve enjoyed the DH quite a bit.”

    That potent batting order lifted Atlanta to its third consecutive NL East championship and into the expanded 16-team playoff field. It’s a lineup Braves fans hope will lift the franchise to its first playoff series triumph in 19 years. Yes, 2001 hangs around the neck of this fanbase like an anchor.

    So naturally, the Reds arrive at Truist Park with arguably the strongest three-man starting rotation in the tournament. It’s a reason many national prognosticators are selecting seventh seed Cincinnati over the second-seeded Braves, even though Atlanta’s offense led the majors in OPS (.832) and finished second in average (.268), homers (103) and runs scored (348).

    The old baseball mantra says good pitching beats good hitting, especially in the postseason. Will that hold true in a frantic opening round of a postseason like no other? We’re about to find out.

    Five Keys to the Series

    As Easy As 1-2-3: Let’s cut right to the chase, and you’re not going to like it if you’re a Braves fan. Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray could tilt this series decisively in Cincinnati’s favor. The three Reds starters are that good. It starts with Bauer, the NL Cy Young frontrunner and one who never shies away from saying what’s on his mind. Consider his response to a question from WSB-TV (Atlanta’s ABC affiliate) sports director Zach Klein during Monday’s media availability.

    Too Shy? Not I: Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati’s Game 1 starter, speaks to the media Monday.

    Bauer gets plenty of attention for his openness – remember his assessment of Braves hitters’ approach after an April 2019 start in Cleveland – but the dude can pitch. He led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.79), opponents batting average (.159) and hits per nine innings (5.06) this season. Castillo features a changeup that is one of baseball’s nastiest pitches, and he’s a huge reason why I expect this series to go the distance. Castillo led the NL with four wins in September while finishing the month with a 2.20 ERA and .190 opponents average. Gray has revitalized his career after reuniting with his college pitching coach from Vanderbilt, Derek Johnson. The three have driven the Reds staff to 9.5 fWAR this season, third in the majors.

    Feeling Right Against Right-Handers … and Lefties, too: Now for some good news, as all three starters the Braves will see in this series are righties, and that bodes well for one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups. Atlanta hitters slashed .273/.354/.498 for an .852 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season. Regardless of which batter’s box they use, Braves hitters put up a historic season. Atlanta’s OPS is the highest in franchise history during the modern era, the Braves went 31-10 when scoring four or more runs, and led the big leagues by scoring 10 or more runs in 10 games.

    29 Feels Fine: The Braves offense mashed all season, scoring a NL-record 29 runs in a Sept. 9 rout of Miami.

    The top three in Atlanta’s lineup – Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP frontrunner Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna – garner plenty of well-deserved attention, but the rest of the Braves lineup must produce to beat the type of pitching they will face this week. Former Reds outfielder Adam Duvall hit 11 of his 16 homers in September, including a pair of three-homer performances. Ozzie Albies has exceled since returning from the injured list with 25 hits in 18 games to end the season. Travis d’Arnaud finished his first season in Atlanta with a career-best .321/.386/.533 slash line.

    From Boys to Men, Quickly: Mike Soroka isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Cole Hamels, or Felix Hernandez, or Mike Foltynewicz. Instead, after Max Fried looks to extend his brilliant regular season into Game 1, the Braves will turn to rookie Ian Anderson in Game 2 and, if the decisive third game is required Friday, will hand the ball to Kyle Wright. Anderson and Wright have combined to pitch 87 career innings across 18 starts in the majors. The Braves and their fanbase have put a ton of hope into their young arms during and since the rebuild; that faith will be tested this week like never before.

    Anderson must remain poised and aggressive Thursday. The 22-year-old has shown the ability and aptitude to throw his changeup in any count, and he wasn’t fazed by facing Gerrit Cole and the Yankees in his debut, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Wright’s road has been substantially bumpier, but the Vanderbilt product (who would face a fellow Commodore in Gray on Friday) limited opponents to a .164 average while pitching to a 2.37 ERA in his final three starts.

    Sparkling Start: Ian Anderson no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning in his major-league debut Aug. 26.

    Need Relief? Advantage, Atlanta: The Braves poured plenty into their relief corps starting at last season’s trade deadline and continued that effort in the offseason. It paid off bigtime, as Atlanta relievers pitched to a 3.50 ERA and 1.280 WHIP. That includes several arms who will not be on the playoff roster. The nine relievers I mentioned in Monday’s roster post as locks for the series, plus Chris Martin (who was cleared to join the roster Tuesday), combined to strike out 240 hitters in 226 innings while posting a 2.26 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. The Reds feature several power arms at the back end of their pen, but overall their relievers have a 4.53 ERA and .709 OPS.

    Whether it’s a Braves starter or reliever, they will face a Cincinnati offense that has offered up a bunch of all or nothing this season. The Reds finished last in the majors in average (.212), 27th in runs scored (243) and 24th in OBP (.312), but slugged 90 homers (seventh). Cincinnati joins the 1906 White Sox and 2007 Diamondbacks as the only teams in MLB history to finish last in average and still reach the postseason.

    Redemption: Nobody needs to give Atlanta any motivation after the Braves choked away last season’s NL Division Series against St. Louis. Naysayers will remain until the franchise actually wins a playoff series. If the core of this team is indeed going to win a World Series someday, it’d be well served to finally get over the playoff hump.

    Cincinnati hasn’t graced the postseason since 2013, and four weeks ago were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Following an active offseason Cincinnati struggled to find its footing, waking up on Sept. 9 six games under .500 and 6 ½ games out in the NL Central. Then the Reds got hot, closing the regular season with 13 wins in 18 games.

    The X-Factors: First and Foremost

    Freeman has enjoyed an MVP-worthy season, the 31-year-old recovering from COVID-19 over the summer to hit 13 homers with 53 RBIs and career highs in average (.341), OBP (.462) and slugging percentage (.640). Baseball’s leader in fWAR at 3.3, Freeman looks to make amends for a miserable 2019 postseason during which he went 4-for-20.

    Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto is a decade removed from an MVP-winning season, and he hit a career-low .226 in 54 games this season. But the 37-year-old belted 11 homers – a 33-homer pace across a full season after combining for 27 longballs in 287 games across the past two years. Votto has not played in the postseason since 2013, going hitless in the Reds wild-card game loss to Pittsburgh.

    Ready to Rumble: Reds first baseman Joey Votto is full of confidence entering the series.

    The Difference

    Ozuna played a huge role in the Braves losing last season’s NL Division Series, going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored as the Cardinals upended Atlanta in five games. He signed a one-year deal in January, days after Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with Minnesota. Many worried the offensive production wouldn’t be there.

    All Ozuna did was put together a top-five MVP season, leading the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while finishing third in average (.338).

    “He’s had such a positive influence,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said on 680 and 93.7 FM Monday evening. “With the energy he brings, how he approaches the game, how he loves to compete. He’s as good an addition to the Atlanta Braves in as long as I can remember.”

    Ozuna’s regular season was memorable. The feeling here is his postseason will be, too. Like last October, Ozuna will excel but, this time, it will be for Atlanta and not against it. And in a series that’s a coin flip, Ozuna’s presence will make the coin land on the Braves side for the first time in nearly two decades.

    The Pick

    Braves in 3.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NL Wild Card series game, starting Wednesday evening.

    —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.

    As Braves Close In On East Clinch, A Moment To Appreciate The Journey Here

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two years ago today, I stopped by a cigar shop and liquor store on a bright autumn Saturday morning. I bought two expensive stogies, four bottles of champagne, and cruised toward what was then called SunTrust Park.

    A few hours later, Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field, the Braves raced out of the first-base dugout, and tears of joy fell as Atlanta celebrated the 2018 National League East championship. Amid the mosh pit behind the pitcher’s mound, hugs were exchanged, T-shirts and hats were handed out, and Braves Country exploded in joy as the long five-year nightmare had ended.

    The rebuild was over.

    My, how things have changed as we sit here on this Tuesday in late September, the Braves potentially being able to clinch a third-consecutive division crown in just a few hours. I won’t be inside what’s now called Truist Park. You won’t be, either. We haven’t attended a Braves game all season, but while the pandemic has kept fans at home throughout this truncated 60-game season, we can take solace in two things:

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

    The “we” in the previous sentence isn’t just applicable to the Braves, but all of Major League Baseball. I certainly had my doubts and fears in the early days of this season like no other, especially after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experienced outbreaks in the initial weeks of this campaign. But here we are with six games left to go, a four-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins!) in the East standings, and another date with October looming on the horizon.

    It pales in comparison to what so many have endured the past six months, but these Braves have relied on a ton of resiliency to reach this point. They watched their pitching rotation fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane – the latest shoe dropping Monday when Cole Hamels, the biggest mistake of the Alex Anthopoulos era, landed back on the injured list and being done for the season after getting 10 outs in a Braves uniform. He joins the laundry list of hurlers who won’t help the Braves moving forward, a list that if you knew in mid-July would be a thing, nobody would blame you for wanting Atlanta to tank the season or just forget it altogether and move on to 2021.

    But these Braves had other plans. We wondered how the offense would look with Marcell Ozuna replacing Josh Donaldson, with the platoon of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo playing every day, with Adam Duvall and the ageless Nick Markakis getting some semblance of regular playing time. It’s turned into arguably the best Braves lineup top-to-bottom since the team moved to Atlanta 55 years ago, Ozuna earning himself a big payday on the open market this winter and Duvall looking like an extension candidate and Acuna and Ozzie Albies overcoming injuries to shine and Dansby Swanson – a recent slump notwithstanding – continuing his offensive progression and Travis d’Arnaud looking like the steal of last winter.

    And of course, Riley winning the third-base job and showing a much better approach at the plate. He’s never going to hit .280 in my opinion, but the power is real and the plate discipline has been much better and he’s showed he can play above-average defense at the hot corner. Duvall is a legitimate comeback player of the year candidate, ranking among the league leaders in homers. Were it not for the massive focus the front office must have (that’s not negotiable at this point, Alex) on starting rotation in the offseason, the Braves would be justified to hand Ozuna a huge four-year deal.

    But as always, the story of these Braves centers not on the prolific offense, the swagger of Acuna, the emergence of Riley and Duvall, the lock-down bullpen, or the way Max Fried has developed into a co-ace with the injured Mike Soroka. No, this story circles back to a tall first baseman from California who has been the one constant in the Atlanta lineup for a decade.

    Freddie Freeman didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball less than three months ago, stricken with COVID-19 and a 104-degree fever. We laughed when he took 30-plus at-bats in a five-day span across intrasquad games and two exhibitions against the Marlins, attempting to ramp up for the season opener. He struggled through the first 13 games, hitting .190 with a .656 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

    Since then, the Braves captain has slashed .382/.492/.711 for a scorching hot 1.202 OPS in 41 games, with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 41 games. The DH coming to the NL spurred manager Brian Snitker to move Freeman to the second spot in the batting order, where the 31-year-old is hitting .407 with a 1.233 OPS and 20 walks in 102 plate appearances.

    Freeman has placed in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times in his career; in my opinion, he should finish no lower than first this time around. The list of Braves who have helped move Atlanta to the verge of another East title is lengthy, but as always, steady Freddie stands front and center.

    Two years ago today, as Acuna gloved the final out of the division clincher, my enduring memory was of Freeman walking away from first base, both arms extended in the air, an expression of unbridled joy and relief awash across his face. He’ll soon have an opportunity to revel in another division crown, another punched ticket to the postseason.

    Who knows what awaits come October? We’ll worry about that soon enough. The moment that will come in the next day or two is one we wondered if we’d see. But it’s here now, as it was each of the past two Septembers. At least that hasn’t changed.

    For Freeman, for the Braves, for their legion of fans, the moment in and of itself is worthy of celebration.

    —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.

    After deadline whiff, Braves try to power through with shaky rotation

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It’s been eight days since the trade deadline passed, and I still catch myself glancing at my phone looking for the notification that the Atlanta Braves have traded for another warm body disguised as a starting pitcher.

    Granted, it’s an exercise in futility, much like it has been watching the land of misfit toys known as the Braves rotation try to navigate through opposing lineups the past month. Braves fans, who see an offense churning on all cylinders and a bullpen that’s been every bit as good as advertised through the first two-thirds of the truncated 2020 season, are seeing red at the inability of Alex Anthopoulos to find another live arm to add to the decimated starting pitching corps.

    Fans have spent the past week screaming from the rooftops in rage at Anthopoulos’ failing at the deadline to land more than just lefty Tommy Milone, who in fairness to the 10-year veteran stumbled in his debut but acquitted himself just well enough in his second start. On its own, the Milone acquisition was fine. The problem is the Braves needed at least one more arm to help hold together what’s left of a rotation that’s seen Mike Soroka lost for the season, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright banished to Gwinnett, Cole Hamels still stuck on the sidelines (it’s September for crying out loud), and Felix Hernandez long since opted out.

    Time for a moment of realization: there is no way Anthopoulos – or anybody else, for that matter – could predict every single thing that torched Atlanta’s rotation plans. The “they should’ve seen this coming” tweets are beyond old and predictable at this point. If you saw all of this unfolding, put down Twitter and go to Vegas, because in 40 years of following this team, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

    And “this” got even worse Tuesday morning, when the lone survivor of the Braves preseason rotation depth chart, Cy Young candidate Max Fried, landed on the injured list with a back injury. The organization says they expect the lefty to miss just one or two starts. Pardon the fanbase if they take that news with a healthy dose of skepticism, along with a chaser of gloom and doom.

    Sure, as I said, there is no way Anthopoulos could guess his rotation would be down to Ian Anderson, Wright (summoned back from the alternative site to start Tuesday against the Marlins), Josh Tomlin, Milone, and Robbie Erlin as the first full week of September unfolded. But here we are, and the Braves general manager does bear some responsibility for the state of the Braves starters.

    The signing of Hamels to a one-year, $18-million deal in the offseason has turned into the biggest mistake in his 34 months at the organization’s helm. Faux pas 1A is not landing at least somebody else at last week’s deadline. No, he should not have emptied the farm for Mike Clevinger. Cleveland clearly wanted quantity; which three major-league players and which three top-10 prospects would you have dealt for Clevinger, who himself was sent away to the Indians alternative site after breaking COVID-19 protocol?

    Lance Lynn? Last I checked, he’s still with the Rangers, who held the market hostage for a pitcher who’s been good the past two seasons and is on a club-friendly deal in 2021. But it would not have been worth blowing up the farm system, which clearly is what it would’ve taken – Texas got burned by not moving Mike Minor at last summer’s deadline, and now hopes Lynn won’t follow a similar course as the former Braves left-hander.

    But Minor, who struggled this season before being shipped to Oakland for two players to be named later, would have been worth the risk. If not Minor, then SOMEONE to plug a hole for three or four starts. Anthopoulos spending his post-deadline press conference focused on what he has at Gwinnett felt not just odd, but unacceptable for a fanbase whose goals go far beyond winning a 60-game sprint to a division title.

    Because if the guys at Gwinnett are doing that well, there is zero excuse for them not being in the big-league rotation. If Foltynewicz is throwing 94 mph, I’d much rather take my chances with him than Erlin.

    The deadline has passed, and this is what the Braves have for the stretch run and October. Perhaps Hamels comes back and is healthy. Maybe one of the guys sent down returns and pitches well (Wright doing so Tuesday would be a big boost for everybody). It’s not ideal, but you have to go with what’s here and hope for the best.

    That’s not a strategy any World Series contender should have to employ, and that’s squarely on the general manager’s shoulders.

    It’s too late to do anything about it now. But this offseason, Anthopoulos has no choice. He must land a dependable, controllable starter to go with Soroka, Fried and Anderson. The madness of 2020 affords him the slightest of passes here, but the benefit of the doubt is gone.

    —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.

    Ready or Not, It’s Time: Let the Kids Pitch

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Through the first 10 games of a season like no other, the Braves had overcame shaky pitching from 60 percent of the starting rotation and a slow start from a few key offensive cogs, riding a lights-out bullpen and a handful of hot bats to seven victories.

    But in a year where nothing feels solid, the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to this team occurred Monday at Truist Park. Ace Mike Soroka – and yes, I’m labeling the kid who turns 23 today with that lofty designation – tore his right Achilles tendon breaking toward first base in the third inning. The Kid from Calgary, lying in the infield grass after trying to walk, was helped off the field while Braves Country’s collective heart stopped in unison.

    Sure, any time you lose your top starter, it’s a big blow. But when you’ve watched the final three spots in your rotation struggle to the degree Atlanta experienced through the first two trips through, it’s nothing short of devastating.

    Oh, by the way, did we mention there are just 49 games to go, in a season when more teams in the National League will make the playoffs (eight) than go home (seven)? That is, if there isn’t yet another Marlins- or Cardinals-type outbreak of COVID-19 that convinces Major League Baseball to look at the number of games already postponed, the growing number of pitchers coming up with arm and shoulder fatigue, and say, “forget it, see you in 2021.”

    Don’t expect Alex Anthopoulos to find an immediate answer outside the organization via a trade market that is non-existent right now – the Atlanta general manager told media members Tuesday morning he’s been making calls since summer camp ended almost two weeks ago. Maybe that changes as the Aug. 31 trade deadline approaches, but I have my doubts.

    If you’re the Braves, you’ve hoarded pitching prospects like canned green beans for a half-decade. Some of them didn’t pan out or were moved; a quartet of them now occupy spots in the big-league rotation, even if for a couple of them it’s by necessity. Several others are working out at the Braves alternative site camp at Coolray Field in Gwinnett, a phone call away from reaching the show.

    What should the Braves do?

    Baseball likes to say, “let the kids play.”

    I say, “let the kids pitch.”

    But not the kids you may think.

    Look, at this point, is anybody going to really call for Anthopoulos’ job if the Braves miss the playoffs in this bizarro-world of a 2020 season? Even without Soroka, the Braves just need average starting pitching behind Fried to finish in the top eight in the NL – which doing so guarantees you only a best-of-three crapshoot in the opening round.

    So why not give some of the young arms a chance to prove themselves, and not in spot-start-then-back-to-long-relief-or-Triple-A fashion, but with a sustained stretch of taking the ball in the bigs every fifth day.

    Yes, I’m aware 18.3 percent of the season already had expired by the time Max Fried – the one remaining asset in Atlanta’s starting squadron that engenders no worry – took the ball for Tuesday’s series opener against Toronto. Fried is 26 and made just his 42nd career start. But he’s a proven commodity regardless of Soroka or this season; in this current landscape, he might as well be a 15-year veteran.

    Sean Newcomb is seven months older than Fried. But he needed 161 pitches to cover 7 2/3 innings in his first two outings, struggling with control in his first start and getting hit hard in his second outing. Touki Toussaint, 24, struck out six in an otherwise rough relief appearance in his season debut, but provided some stability with four shutout innings in Saturday’s start against the Mets. Kyle Wright, also 24, had a dreadful inning at Tampa Bay after two masterful ones, then spent Sunday tap-dancing around four walks and five hits en route to 3 1/3 scoreless appearance.

    That’s your 2-3-4 in the rotation right now, folks. And you know what?

    That’s how it should stay, at least for the next three weeks.

    Nobody is asking anybody not named Fried to offer more than four good innings at this point. Yes, it’s the third time through the rotation, but I see an opportunity to try and find out how these guys could do getting regular starts. Getting into the fifth inning (or the fourth) also provides piggyback opportunities for the Josh Tomlin’s and Tyler Matzek’s of the world, both of whom have impressed in their initial appearances.

    Matzek’s tale is quite intriguing, from being out of baseball with the yips to impressing from the left side for one of baseball’s best bullpens. That relief corps figures to get better sooner rather than later, as free-agent acquisition Will Smith is slated to throw again Thursday as he continues his return from quarantine.

    Could Matzek, who made 24 starts for Colorado in 2014-15, get stretched out enough to fill the currently vacated fifth spot? Perhaps. Or, a more intriguing thought: using the 29-year-old – who has nine strikeouts with no walks in 5 1/3 scoreless innings so far – as an opener.

    There are plenty of calls to unleash the real “kids,” guys like Ian Anderson, Kyle Mueller and Tucker Davidson, that trio among the organization’s top 10 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. All three have high upside, certainly. Davidson, in particular, intrigues with high-90s velocity from the left side and an impressive showing at Gwinnett last season (2.84 ERA in 19 innings), while drawing attention during both spring training and summer camp.

    There are other options, from the veteran Jhoulys Chacin to another one of the youngsters, 22-year-old Bryse Wilson, to whatever Mike Foltynewicz can salvage from a disastrous beginning to his 2020. But I want to see what’s in front of me here and now. Newcomb has shown at times he can be an effective starter before control problems last season landed him in the bullpen (where he pitched well). We’ve seen glimpses, albeit brief, from Toussaint and Wright.

    This confluence of difficult events has afforded the trio an opportunity.

    It’s time for the organization to give them a chance to seize it.

    —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.

    2020 Season Preview: Braves are Built Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Entering Unprecedented Campaign

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nobody could have predicted what we have been through the past few months. Nobody could imagine the impact the coronavirus would have on every single aspect of our everyday lives, on things far more serious than the doings of a baseball franchise seeking its first World Series title in a quarter-century.

    Yet, in some weird way, Alex Anthopoulos built an Atlanta Braves team that seems poised to handle baseball’s 60-game sprint quite well. It certainly wasn’t foresight into what this 2020 baseball season would look like – one that will be as unprecedented as any baseball campaign in the history of the sport – but rather, by how the Braves general manager viewed his team after back-to-back National League East championships.

    Anthopoulos felt the Braves needed depth in their bullpen. He first addressed it with three moves at last season’s trade deadline, and further bolstered it by signing Will Smith in early November. There is the seemingly never-ending supply of pitching prospects gurgling in the upper levels of the minor leagues, including some arms the Braves hope are ready for prime-time duty under the bright lights of the majors.

    The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League automatically lengthened Atlanta’s lineup, a lineup that saw a logjam at third base with Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, plus a logjam in the outfield. Certainly, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be in the lineup almost every day, and even with Nick Markakis electing not to play, the Braves still have Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall (plus Cristian Pache waiting in the wings).

    Adding the designated hitter also can help these Braves address a deficiency that could be an Achilles heel – bats that mash right-handed pitching. Often those guys are left-handed hitters, and the Braves brought Matt Adams back this week hoping to see the type of power he displayed here three seasons ago. The reported and rumored signing of Yasiel Puig would have addressed that, too (the erstwhile Dodgers slugger bats right-handed, but features reverse splits). But once again, COVID-19 and 2020 reared its ugly head, Puig testing positive for the virus and announcing the news via social media just minutes after the Braves captain – Freddie Freeman – joyously trotted onto the field Friday at Truist Park, following his harrowing journey through having the virus.

    Freddie Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times, but the four-time All-Star found himself sick from COVID-19 in early July.

    Freeman embarks on his 10th season in the majors; how has it been that long? Without question this is his team, much as Terry Pendleton led the early 90s Braves, much as Chipper Jones carried that torch for more than a decade. Thankfully, Freeman looks healthy and his swing looks great. A week ago, we all wondered what a Freeman-less Braves would look like embarking on a truncated schedule that begins with 20 games in 20 days, against plenty of great pitching.

    Consider who the Braves may see in those opening 20 games: Jacob deGrom (twice) and Steven Matz of the Mets, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Rays, Hyun Jin-Ryu of the Blue Jays, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees. That’s nine of your first 20 games against a group of pitchers who are on many people’s short list of All-Star hurlers.

    It’s all going to be different. This isn’t going to be your father’s baseball season. The methodical marathon that frames our spring and summer evenings? Not this year, folks. This is a 400-yard dash for a sport accustomed to logging 26.2 miles. Teams that start quickly are going to be positioned to potentially steal playoff spots. But before crying doom and gloom if the Braves arrive at their first off day on Aug. 13 at 8-12, consider two schedule quirks across the final 40 games that might prove more important than having to start 14-6.

    The middle 20 games: Atlanta faces Philadelphia and Washington 12 times. Six of the other eight are against Miami and Boston (this Red Sox team certainly is not of the ilk of the 2018 champs). Even if the Braves stumble a bit out of the gate, not only do they have an opportunity to catch up against two subpar teams in the middle part of the schedule, they also play 60 percent of their games in that stretch against the two teams I feel will challenge them for the NL East title.

    The final 20 games: The Braves play 13 against the Marlins, Orioles and Red Sox. Atlanta ends the season with a seven-game homestand against Miami and Boston. The Yankees and the Rays are likely to rule the AL East, and Boston’s pitching is quite suspect. Miami will be better; its young pitching is maturing, and the Marlins have a few guys who are developing into good players (they’re a couple of years away from being a real problem for the NL East). If you’re going to wrap up the season with a week at home, other than Baltimore, there are no two teams in the combined East you want to face than the Marlins and Red Sox.

    What will it take to get to that point, 53 games in the books, one week to go, with a shot at October? The more I look at it, the more I think the Braves are built for this.

    Atlanta’s youthful exuberance, a hallmark of the Braves resurgence the past two seasons, remains (minus the hugs and high-fives). Acuna remains an emerging megastar. Ozzie Albies is developing into a star in his own right. The rotation is fronted by two of the better young arms in the game: Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in modern Braves history to earn an opening-day starting assignment, and Max Fried, who could develop into a sneaky Cy Young candidate if his change-up continues developing.

    22-year-old Mike Soroka finished second in NL rookie-of-the-year voting in 2019 and sixth in Cy Young voting, providing a cool presence at the top of Atlanta’s rotation entering his second full big-league season.

    There are question marks. Can Cole Hamels get healthy? Can Dansby Swanson replicate his 2019 first half and postseason while staying healthy? Can Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz settle the middle of the rotation? Will Ender Inciarte start the season hitting like it’s April or July? Can Smith, who is out with the virus but asymptomatic, test negative twice and get back on the mound?

    We are forced to acknowledge the 50,000-pound weight hanging over all this. What happens after three weeks of play, of flying into different cities and staying in hotels then returning home, if positive tests spike and a team (be it the Braves or another team) finds itself with an outbreak? Nobody knows, and that’s part of the trepidation I feel in offering a projection of where this Braves team lands when this season like no other reaches its conclusion on Sept. 27.

    But we’re going to hope and pray things go well – for every team in the majors – and we’ll forge ahead with a best guess. And it’s just that: a guess. We have no clue what’s going to happen. There is no playbook, no guideposts. This is the strangest season preview I’ve ever authored, fitting for the strangest year of my life.

    This incredibly unpredictable sprint rests on simple math. Each singular game is worth 2.7 times one regular game in a 162-game season (subscription required). If you win 37 games, that’s a .616 win percentage (a 99-win pace over a full season). Win 27 games? That’s a .450 win percentage (a 74-win pace).

    I don’t see these Braves reaching either that peak or that valley. Even with an 8-12 start, I think they’re good enough – based on their depth, Freeman being ready from the jump, the young talent on the roster, and motivation after choking away what should have been the franchise’s first postseason series victory in 18 years – to finish 34-26.

    That’s a 91-win pace over 162, and I think that’s just enough to land the Braves one game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Philadelphia. That would put Atlanta into the postseason party, and in a world where everything seems to have changed, the overarching goal has not:

    Win 11 games in October and capture the World Series title. There is no telling who will do it, or what will happen along the way, but it’s time to start the journey.

    After all we’ve been through, how sweet that sounds.

    —30—

    On deck as we preview the 2020 Atlanta Braves season: A Braves Opening Day like no other.

    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.

    Restarting Baseball Won’t Be Easy, But There’s a Way to Get There

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The weekly Zoom call with some of my tailgate buddies is finished. I am watching a replay of a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) game on ESPN2. The Kia Tigers are playing, and Preston Tucker is in the lineup – remember when he hit a homer off Max Scherzer to cap the season-opening homestand in 2018, a homer my oldest son actually called from our seats in Section 431 on a Wednesday get-away day in early April?

    OK, quit lying. You do not remember it. Tucker would be replaced in a few weeks in left field by some hot-shot prospect. Think his name was Acuna? I don’t know. But my kid will not let me forget the moment he told me, “Tuck’s going yard here.”

    We so wish random memories from a game a couple of years ago could dominate our thoughts right now. That’s not the case, obviously. I admit, we are reaching here as we dive into the ninth week of the Coronavirus shutdown that has shuttered North American sports. And yet there are signs – as we hopefully are reopening to get folks back to work while keeping the curve flattened – that some leagues are ramping up. NASCAR, which embraced online technology brilliantly with its iRacing series, plans to run a real race next weekend. NBA training facilities are staring to open, gradually. Same with MLS.

    And Major League Baseball apparently has a plan. It’s a plan that makes sense, given this different time in which we’re living, and given that the decision makers for not just sports leagues, but corporations and local municipalities and state governments and up to the federal level, have no baseline by which to measure the decisions they’re making. I have my opinions, but let me say this: this ain’t easy for any of them. In this time, kindness and grace carries the day, the way I see it, regardless of anything else. And they’re trying, folks.

    As far as firing up MLB again, I know it also is not easy. But there is a plan that was reported by The Athletic (subscription required) on Saturday that feels like it just might work. In summation, MLB is going to present the bones of the plan to the owners on Monday and, provided it gets owners approval, could be presented to the players association as early as Tuesday.

    Of course, there are far more questions than answers. I get that. And those questions are fair. The owners and players could halt this movement if they do not agree to some sort of revenue-sharing agreement, with the likelihood no fans will be in the stands. I do think neither side wants to come across as greedy in this moment. Actually, collaboration between the owners and players association could lay groundwork toward a collective bargaining agreement, considering the current CBA expires after the 2021 season.

    In summation, the plan would produce a shortened season – and without fans to start, obviously. Let’s hope we can get fans back in the stands at some point. The number of games thrown around, dictated by basic math, is 78 games (81 games is ½ of a normal MLB season). Teams would be limited to play only their division opponents, plus the teams who make up their corresponding division in the other league. The Braves play in the National League East, so that means your schedule is comprised of the other four teams in the NL East, plus the five teams in the American League East.

    You play four three-game series against your division opponents, and two three-game series against each team in the other corresponding division. So, 48 games within division, and 30 games against the other division. I would like to see if we could expand that schedule to include a few series with Central division opponents. You’d love to see the Braves play three games against the Cubs at Wrigley, or host three games against the Cardinals. But if 78 games is the limit, we will take it.

    And sure, the “AL and NL East” division would be a tough sled for anybody. Look at last year’s standings. Yes, you have the Marlins and Orioles (two rebuilding franchises) in there, but you also have the Nationals, Yankees, Rays, Mets and Phillies. The Jays have tons of young talent. For the Braves, it would be a tough slog, but they also are among the really good teams.

    And honestly, do you care if the teams in your division are better than the other divisions right now?

    There have been rumors MLB told teams to tell their players to start ramping up, and I noticed evidence of that on social media. Late this week, I watched an Instagram story from Ronald Acuna Jr. in which he shared a pic he took outside Truist Park. Over the next two days, there were IG stories of Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo hitting together.

    Camargo had stayed in Tampa – where he worked this offseason to shed weight and get ready for spring training – and Acuna had traveled to the Miami area after the shutdown. Albies had returned to the Atlanta area after camp was halted. The three of them hitting together was the first sign to me that things might be about to fire up again.

    The conventional wisdom is spring training would start in early-to-mid June, with games beginning in early July. The thought is teams would play in their home stadiums, unless the COVID-19 virus spikes in a particular venue – sadly, New York City comes to mind – and the people involved (players, coaches, umpires, trainers, doctors, PR staff, bat boys, etc.) would get tested frequently.

    Here in Georgia, the governor has told us that anybody who wants a test now can be tested. There was open testing at the park today where I coached my kids in youth baseball for a decade, for example. The City of Orlando has told the NBA’s Orlando Magic to go ahead and test their people freely, as the city now has enough testing for frontline workers to allow for testing for something as frivolous as a basketball team’s personnel.

    We must shift our perspective from what we have experienced previously. It truly is an unprecedented time in our nation’s and our world’s history. Baseball in this moment will not be the same. Let’s embrace that first and foremost. Provided it can happen, this season will be like no other. That statement applies to life in general in these strange days and nights. And there are plenty of salient questions that require answers before an umpire shouts, “play ball!” What happens if a player tests positive? What if a city – be it New York City or Phoenix or Minneapolis or Atlanta – experiences a sudden surge in cases, as more and more locales ease lockdown restrictions? What happens if a baserunner slides hard into second base, gets tangled up with the second baseman, and one of them tests positive the next day?

    I’m not looking for answers right now because, honestly, none of us have those answers. What we do know is this; our sport is going to be different. That’s fine. Lean in here, and get creative. Nodding to the NHL daily roster model, I would love for MLB to have an active roster (thinking 30 guys) plus an inactive list (an extra four players) for each game, with the ability to interchange guys from one day to the next. I also wonder how we handle the minor leagues, which very well may not happen in 2020. If you’re the Braves, do you have Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, and the rest of the prospects playing intrasquad games at North Port, ready to be called up to the MLB inactive list or the 30-man roster if a need arises?

    Starting pitchers, even with a three-week spring training, only will be able to go three, maybe four innings at the onset of the season. One of my centric baseball concerns in this time is starters trying to go deeper than they should and blowing out, and getting lost for most of 2020 and 2021. I think you have to let starters piggy-back each other. The Braves depth helps here. So, Mike Soroka starts a game in early July? He goes three frames, then give the ball to Sean Newcomb or Felix Hernandez (or Josh Tomlin) to try and get you through six, then turn it over to arguably the deepest bullpen in the NL.

    In a truncated schedule, starting quickly is going to be critical. And I think the Braves are well positioned here. They have plenty of depth pitching wise – remember the arms that really stood out before camp shut down? Newcomb. Hernandez. Kyle Wright. Touki Toussaint. Then think about the bullpen. If you use Will Smith, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin on one day, you can come back the next day with Shane Greene, Darren O’Day and Luke Jackson. Each has experience closing games in the majors.

    Alex Anthopoulos never could have have envisioned this environment – heck, who could have? – but the Braves arms are positioned well as anybody for the remarkable, memorable, strange season that we all hope is about to unfold. And, if the season unfolds like we think it might, the Braves might be as positioned as well as any team.

    Hope everyone is safe. Hope everyone is well. Hopefully, we are covering ball here soon. Thank you for reading. Thank you for reaching out via social media. Take care, and hopefully we get to write about baseball soon.

    —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.

    Play Ball: Plenty to Watch as Braves Open Spring Slate

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN WATERLOGGED NORTH GEORGIA – Some 136 days have elapsed since the Atlanta Braves 2019 season ended far earlier than many hoped, in a manner no one could imagine.

    And through the offseason that’s followed, there has been one constant, recurring theme serving as a backdrop as a division rival won the World Series, the front office worked to bolster the 2020 roster, and the name of the ballpark changed.

    It has rained. Every single day (or at least it feels that way).

    So when the skies cleared and the sun emerged Friday morning, it not only gave us a chance to walk outside without need of a floatation device, it also provided a hint of spring. The Braves will play a baseball game Saturday for the first time since that horrific Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series, opening their Grapefruit League schedule against the Baltimore Orioles at Atlanta’s new spring digs in North Port, Fla.

    What am I doing on this final evening of quiet before the long journey begins anew? Thinking about where my focus lies regarding this team across the next 33 days.

    I Don’t Know is on Third: No, not the famous Abbott & Costello skit from yesteryear. The Braves third base situation, now that Josh Donaldson has signed with Minnesota (he left all his rain behind, though). Johan Camargo showed up in shape and motivated this spring, after looking sluggish and disinterested far too often in 2019. Austin Riley spent the winter working to tweak a swing that took the world by storm for six weeks, then crashed and burned with frightening brutality.

    That’s OK. Riley turns 23 in early April. I still think if he’s not traded at some point, he’s the long-term solution at third because he’ll hit enough with plenty of power to offset a high strikeout rate. But that’s not going to be this year, at least not initially. The kid needs steady playing time, and barring a breakout spring, it’s likely going to be at Triple-A Gwinnett to start.

    Which shifts the focus to Camargo. He cut 18 pounds off his frame from last spring by focusing on his body and his diet. And while manager Brian Snitker has said publicly he will split playing time between Camargo and Riley in spring, don’t be surprised if that mix of time starts shifting in Camargo’s favor in a couple of weeks.

    Camargo doesn’t have to have the type of season he had in 2018. I’m not convinced that’s who he is (at least offensively). But he – and the Braves – cannot afford for the 2019 productivity, or lack thereof, to show up again.

    Long Live the King? We Will See: Felix Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training with something to prove. It is a no-risk flyer for the Braves, but with Cole Hamels likely missing at least the first two or three turns in the regular-season rotation due to a shoulder injury, Hernandez emerging as somebody capable of holding down a back-end rotation spot – even if for a month – would be helpful.

    Here’s my problem. The King has steadily declined each of his past three years. He joked with reporters this week that he’s not old, although he turns 34 in early April. It’s more the mileage on that once-dynamic right arm, one that’s pitched 2,729 2/3 innings in the majors, one that debuted in the bigs the same year (2005) broadcaster Jeff Francoeur and recently retired Brian McCann reached the show.

    Many say the Hamels injury increases the odds of Hernandez making the opening-day roster. I disagree. It increases the opportunity, but if the once mighty King pitches to a 6.40 ERA with a 1.53 WHIP in camp (as he did across 15 starts for Seattle last season), this feel good story will end with a release before the March 26 opener in Arizona.

    Filling Out the Pen: Thanks to the aggression of Alex Anthopoulos at the trade deadline and again in the early days of the offseason, Atlanta’s bullpen arguably is one of the best in baseball. There are six locks in my opinion for the eight spots, and all six have closed at the big-league level. Five are right-handed, and lefty Will Smith likely will be closing for this team sooner rather than later. As for the final two openings? There are a lot of directions in which Snitker may opt to go.

    The bullpen does not have a traditional long man at the moment. Josh Tomlin filled that role admirably last season and is back in camp on a non-roster invite. But with so much depth on the 40-man roster, it’s plausible to not have a “break glass in case of emergency” guy, knowing fresh arms can be shuttled in should somebody have to wear it for two or three innings due to an injury or in a blowout.

    A couple of guys I’m watching closely this spring: Jacob Webb, who needs to cut down on the walks and was injured at times last season, but showed flashes of brilliance stuff-wise. A.J. Minter, the co-closer at the start of the season, whose spring 2019 was marred by a fender-bender that tweaked his shoulder, kicking off a lost campaign for the hard-throwing lefty. And I’ll offer a wild card: 27-year-old lefty Phil Pfeifer, who impressed the Braves enough at three levels of the organization last season (1.16 WHIP, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings) that Atlanta added him to the 40-man roster this winter.

    Acuna, Ozuna, and Who: Ronald Acuna Jr. will lead off and play mostly right field, with some duty in center against left-handers. Marcell Ozuna will anchor left field and hit cleanup while looking to rediscover his 2017 production, when he was one of the more feared sluggers in the NL. But what of the final outfield spot, with three veterans on the roster looking for playing time?

    If healthy, Ender Inciarte should play the majority of games, keeping Acuna in right while providing the Braves with a three-time Gold Glove winner in the middle. Inciarte struggled with lower body injuries in 2019, not a good sign for an outfielder whose age (he turns 30 at season’s end) and salary ($7.7 million this season; $8.7 million in 2021) are increasing. Historically a slow starter offensively, Inciarte can ill-afford to not get going at the plate until June.

    Adam Duvall, one of the few Braves who performed in the NLDS, figures to man right field more often than not when lefties are on the mound. But Duvall has struggled when not playing full time, and his $3.25 million deal is not guaranteed (meaning he could be cut in camp and the team recoup a cost savings). If Duvall has a good spring, he certainly will be a trade target. Nick Markakis is back on a one-year deal and finally in the role best suited for him: a good left-handed bat off the bench who, due to injuries, would be fine to start every day for three weeks (not six months, Snit).

    It will be different this year for the dude from Woodstock by way of Young Harris. So too for these Braves, who not only are expected to win now, but win in the most important month of all. But you must get there first, and that journey starts in mere hours.

    —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 Signing Adds Needed Jolt to Braves Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t read this blog, of that I’m certain. His burner Twitter account doesn’t follow me on that always-sane platform, of that I’m fairly certain, too. But if he did track me here or on social media, he certainly would have seen my insistence that upon seeing Josh Donaldson head to Minnesota, he could not take this team into the March 26 season opener as it was constituted this time last week.

    Turns out, all those who screamed the Braves would stand pat got to bang that drum for exactly one week.

    Seven days after news broke that Donaldson was heading north, Anthopoulos solved the Braves cleanup problem in much the same manner he brought the Bringer of Rain here for 2019, signing former Miami and St. Louis outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal. In his second season with the Cardinals, Ozuna slashed .241/.328/.472 for an .800 OPS, 29 homers, 89 RBIs and 12 stolen bases.

    Ozuna is two years removed from a monster season with the Marlins, driving in 124 runs with 37 homers (the same total a certain right-handed swinging, umbrella-toting slugger belted for the Braves in 2019) with a .312/.376/.548 slash line. He turned 29 in November and was offered a qualifying offer by the Cardinals, which certainly helped to depress his free-agent market. As hitter after hitter went off the board, Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos were left as the final two marquee bats after Donaldson signed.

    While Braves fans – including this one – pined for more rain in the forecast for 2020 and beyond – Anthopoulos found a way to land his slugger while not blocking super-prospect outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. In this space throughout the offseason, I wrote how I preferred Ozuna over Castellanos. His defensive shortcomings will be compensated by having Ender Inciarte (Pache later this summer, in my opinion) flanking him in center.

    Ozuna-palooza, coming to the ballpark formerly known as SunTrust in early April 2020.

    In landing an impact bat, the Braves also ensured there will not be three platoons (including catcher) in the everyday lineup. The thought of a World Series contender running Johan Camargo and Austin Riley at third base while employing Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall in left field didn’t necessarily spark visions of October glory.

    Anthopoulos certainly realized this, too. He did not sit by idly (as quite a few folks whined incessantly that he would), making the move he needed to make in the wake of Donaldson’s departure. Sure, losing the draft pick tied to the qualifying offer stings a bit, but when you need a big bat to hopefully push you deeper into October after two straight NLDS exits, you bite on the risk there and go for it.

    For all of Anthopoulos’ great work in the opening weeks of the offseason, missing out on Donaldson was indeed that: a swing and a miss. But Ozuna’s acquisition, on a one-year deal, is exactly the type of realistic impact move Atlanta needed to make. So, a nod of kudos to Anthopoulos for getting it done.

    The batting order looks far better with Ozuna in the fourth spot that it did a week ago, which goes to show the sheer folly of getting too worked up about a puzzle that’s under construction. Opening day remains more than two months away. Camp opens soon, yes, and with every passing day, that hole in the middle of the lineup loomed larger. But it looms no more.

    I would love to think the Braves aren’t done, that perhaps there will be another bat added (full disclosure: I’ve wanted two impact bats all offseason, knowing that’s a reach). Nolan Arenado, another popular topic on this blog and on Twitter, is quite unhappy with Colorado. But any potential trade remains a very complex situation. And I’m convinced my children’s children will have children before the Kris Bryant grievance deal is resolved.

    I won’t quibble if Anthopoulos is done here. Ozuna’s signing gives the Braves 23 locks on the opening-day roster, the way I see it, with a 2020 payroll of approximately $145.88 million. Add a cheap bench piece and two relievers from the vast number of internal candidates, and payroll likely sits around $150 million, with certainly a few million more pigeon-holed for midseason moves.

    Counting the $4 million options exercised for Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers, the Braves have added $74.24 million in salary for the upcoming season. It sure does help having Acuna and Ozzie Albies slated to make $1 million each in 2020, and at least two members of the starting rotation (Mike Soroka and Max Fried; three, if you include Sean Newcomb) pulling in the major-league minimum.

    (No, I’m not counting on Felix Hernandez making the opening-day roster, in case you’re curious.)

    There still is the question of third base, and while I’m not enamored with the strategy of hoping Camargo 2020 is closer to 2018 and not 2019, or Riley 2020 is closer to May 2019 and not July 2019, it’s more acceptable with an impact bat in left field.

    Many of us – myself included – were critical of Anthopoulos last winter after the only move he made between the end of November and the end of spring training was re-signing Markakis. But the financial flexibility jokes officially are dead and buried now. The narrative of the Braves being too cheap is done. You can continue to say them if you wish, but you’re wrong.

    And sorry for this painful reminder, but Ozuna nearly single-handedly helped end the Braves season in the NLDS (although Atlanta had plenty of help doing it to itself), going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored in five games.

    If that Ozuna shows up in October, the Braves will be thrilled. And getting to the season’s 10th month certainly feels more likely than it did this time last week.

    —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.