• Alex Anthopoulos

    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.

    The Rain Goes North, and It’s Time to Keep This Offseason from Going South

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if the news couldn’t get any worse on a day when the home of the Braves was rechristened as Truist Park (yes, spellcheck just underlined it, if you’re wondering how the English language views this), things indeed turned worse Tuesday night.

    The skies cleared and the rain disappeared, save the tears of frustration and pain from the good people of Braves Country as news of Josh Donaldson’s signing with the Minnesota Twins cascaded across social media.

    Donaldson, whose resurgent one-year stint in Atlanta helped fuel 97 victories and a second-consecutive National League East championship, agreed to a four-year, $92-million deal with the AL champion Twins, who set a major-league record in 2019 for most homers by one team in a single season. The kicker in the deal is a fifth-year option for 2024, a season that will conclude with Donaldson a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday.

    All things being equal – and we may never know just how much the Braves offered and for how many years – it’s not much of a stretch to think Alex Anthopoulos would not include anything for a fifth year. The mindset that the option wasn’t a key element of the decision-making process is something I can’t grasp, especially for a 34-year-old player who struggled with injuries in 2017 and 2018 but rebounded at just the right time, playing 155 games in 2019 to secure a contract that will pay him for four full years and perhaps a fifth.

    Good for Donaldson, who played hard, infused grit and attitude into the lineup, exhibited outstanding defense, and provided a powerful right-handed bat in the cleanup spot. When Donaldson moved to the fourth spot and Ronald Acuna Jr. returned to the top of the order on May 10 in Arizona, the Braves offense took off. Donaldson slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS.

    The rain is gone, but with apologies to Jimmy Cliff, we certainly can’t see any clearer. In fact, the view is now clear as mud. The Braves absolutely must get at least one impact bat (and I’ve advocated all winter, they really need two). But going into 2020 with Nick Markakis hitting cleanup would be abhorrently criminal for a team that views itself as a World Series contender, and acted like one in the opening six weeks of the offseason by upgrading the bullpen to one of baseball’s best, plus adding a solid catcher and veteran rotation piece.

    What’s next, you ask? A few thoughts:

    Go get Arenado: In a perfect world where deals happen in a vacuum (i.e., fantasy baseball, or Twitter), I’d drive (insert prospects name here) to the airport myself. But in the real world, it’s far more complicated than screaming into the atmosphere, “just trade for him!”

    Arenado has an opt-out after the 2021 season. If he doesn’t waive it, you’re only getting him for two years. At $35 million each year. That is, if he approves the trade (Arenado has a full no-trade clause). If he does waive the opt-out, MLB stipulates you must replace that value – potentially by adding another year to a deal that already owes the Rockies third baseman $35 million a year through 2024, $32 million in 2025, and $27 million in 2026.

    I won’t quibble about the money. I’d pay it … sure, it’s not my money, but mainly I’d pay it because this player is that good. Arenado, who turns 29 in April, is a seven-time Gold-Glove winner and a five-time All-Star. It’s fair to question his road splits away from Coors Field: in 316 road games from 2016-19, he slashed .271/.341/.498 (.839 OPS). But even using that as a baseline and projecting across a 158-game season, Arenado would average 34 homers and 99 RBIs.

    But any trade for Arenado will be complex, expensive (in terms of money and prospects), and to me just doesn’t feel feasible, as much as I might want it to happen. But it would be the type of statement that would send shock waves throughout baseball, and it would in my opinion make the Braves the definitive favorite to win the NL pennant.

    Go get Bryant: I wrote about Kris Bryant earlier this offseason, and yet here we sit on Jan. 14, and there still is a question of whether he will play 2020 as a pending free agent or will be under club control through 2021. An arbiter is expected to rule on his grievance issue at some point between now and the All-Star break (kidding; kind of), and while I do not see the arbiter opening Pandora’s Box by siding with Bryant, I also don’t see the Cubs being able to move him until a decision is reached.

    Like Arenado, it feels like the Cubs would ask for the moon and stars for two years of Bryant. He’ll make $18.6 million this season, a number that will soar past $20 million for 2021 provided the Cubs win the grievance. It’s certainly worth exploring, but I just don’t see the Braves paying what Chicago is likely going to ask.

    Turning to the outfield: Donaldson’s migration to Minnesota leaves two major bats on the open market, and both are corner outfielders. Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos have positives about them offensively while not being exactly Gold Glovers defensively (although Ozuna is, in my opinion, adequate enough to be fine in a corner while being flanked by either Ender Inciarte or Ronald Acuna Jr.).

    I thought both Ozuna and Castellanos would get four-year deals, and maybe those dominos will fall quickly now that Donaldson has unclogged the market by signing. A four-year deal is an issue, with Cristian Pache and Drew Waters quickly ascending through the Braves minor-league system. I expect Pache to be up by late summer playing center field; Waters might not be too far behind. As I wrote before the Winter Meetings, I’d lean to Ozuna here but again, the length of the deal would concern me.

    I’ll also pivot to this thought. Two years ago in Miami, Ozuna smashed 37 homers and drove in 124 runs. We’ve seen him be an impact bat before, but we didn’t see it in either of the past two seasons in St. Louis.

    Something we don’t expect: Anthopoulos has made a living in Atlanta pulling off transactions very few people expected, and if I had to bet on any scenario, I’d put my chips here. Seattle keeps popping into my mind as an intriguing trade partner, although I really am not as enticed by third baseman Kyle Seager (.789 OPS) and his contract ($38M across the next two years) as much as I am intrigued with outfielder Mitch Haniger (injury-scuttled 2019 limited him to 63 games, but 26 homers and a .859 OPS at age 27 in 2018, and under control through 2022).

    Everybody loves to throw Matt Chapman’s name out there. I don’t see any way in the world Oakland trades its emerging star third baseman.

    Stand pat: Yeah, right. Johan Camargo had a very good 2018 before a lost 2019 mired by injuries and inconsistency, not to mention showing up to spring training out of shape. Austin Riley dazzled us for six weeks, then struck out at an alarming rate that showed he’s not quite ready to be handed third base out of the gate in 2020. I think he will be a good major-league hitter, in time, but a hope-for-the-best mindset doesn’t win the World Series.

    The Braves already plan to use a platoon in left field between Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, which is concerning. With Donaldson off the market, there simply is no defensible stance to standing pat. It cannot happen, not with the moves already made this offseason, with Acuna and Ozzie Albies still ridiculously inexpensive next season, with the championship window now full open after two division titles, a painful October choke last fall, and the potential to win and win big for the foreseeable future.

    And the feeling here is the Braves won’t be content to go with what they have. A good offseason now has turned a bit on a swing and a miss, even if it’s understandable why the Braves couldn’t get it done with Donaldson. Consider me surprised he’s departing, but it happened.

    Time for Anthopoulos to really earn his money, or else all that great work in November and December will feel awful empty.

    No matter how clear the skies now may be.

    —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.

    Winter Meetings Wrap-Up: No Power Boost, but Braves Have Time as Market Takes Shape

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves left baseball’s Winter Meetings in San Diego on Thursday without adding anyone to their major-league roster. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos did not acquire one single power hitter, or an impact left fielder, or even another pitcher.

    Heck, I bet he didn’t even visit the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld or the beach.

    Sounds like a monumental waste of four days spent doing nothing to bolster the Braves chances to win the 2020 World Series. Heck, those gaping holes at third base and in the power department make completing a hat trick of National League East titles all the more daunting. Right?

    Y’all. Settle down.

    Look, I get it. The lack of completed work upsets some fans. There wasn’t a “podium moment,” where Anthopoulos stood behind a microphone in a packed press conference to announce the completion of a trade or signing of a free agent.

    But baseball’s offseason didn’t end when the general managers and their staffs flew out of San Diego. Believe it or not, there are more than two months until spring training begins, some 3 ½ months before the first pitch of the season zips toward home plate in Arizona (hopefully Ronald Acuna Jr. smacks that baby into the pool at Chase Field).

    In a normal offseason – and hopefully, we’re resumed normalcy after the snooze-fest of the previous two winters – deals are announced throughout the rest of December and well into January. Many of those deals either were sparked or advanced by conversations held at the Winter Meetings. And while the advancement of technology has taken away the romanticism of smoked-filled lounges, trade proposals scribbled on cocktail napkins, or late-night scrums with other teams in hotel suites, the fact remains the movers and shakers in the sport who get these deals done all are in one place for four days.

    Anthopoulos has zero to gain by saying anything outside of his very measured, now predictable comments that provide no gauge of what he’s thinking. And that’s by design. He may have been born and raised in Canada, but you would think the Braves general manager spent his young days developing his poker face in Vegas.

    What’s next? Here are a few of my thoughts on the Winter Meetings, how it impacts the Braves, and where do they go from here:

    The Hot Corner is Scorching

    Josh Donaldson already was a popular commodity after a bounce-back, injury-free season in 2019, one that resulted in 37 homers and the NL comeback player of the year honor. It sparked a love affair with Braves Country that led the Bringer of Rain to dance through the dugout with an umbrella after homers late in the season. A reunion is a perfect match, but if it happens, it’s going to cost far more than the one-year, $23-million “bet on myself” deal the now 34-year-old signed last November.

    And that price tag got significantly heftier in San Diego. With star pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole going off the board, and with Anthony Rendon agreeing to a deal with Anaheim, Donaldson arguably is the brightest unsigned star on the market. Quite the Plan B for those who unsuccessfully courted Rendon. At least three teams who must/could add a third baseman – the Braves, Washington and Philadelphia – reside in the NL East. The Rangers may be out. The Dodgers may be in. The thought that a three-year deal would be enough to secure Donaldson is out the window. It’s going to take four years.

    I’ve long stated paying for the fourth year (Donaldson’s age 37 season) represents quite the risk, especially considering he is just one season removed from an injury-marred two-year stretch. In fairness, 2017-18 represent the only significant medical issues of his big-league career. Plus, Donaldson’s impact on the 2019 Braves almost makes me think Atlanta must lean in here and guarantee that fourth year. Donaldson found success here and was healthy, developing a good approach with the Braves medical and training staff. That says nothing of how his grit/edge infused itself into the roster.

    Donaldson absolutely could end up with a $100-million deal (perhaps more) across four years. The Braves feel like they have almost no choice but to go there. Right?

    Unless …

    Kris Crossing the “What If”

    I’ve beat the drum on Twitter all offseason that if the Braves can add not one but two impact bats – one via trade, one via free agency – it would vault Atlanta right into the short circle of bona fide World Series championship contenders. You not getting there hitting Travis d’Arnaud fourth and Nick Markakis fifth, that’s for darn sure. And while the thought process has been to re-sign Donaldson at third and perhaps trade for a corner outfield upgrade in left field, the escalation of the Donaldson market may lead to a shift in mindset.

    The Cubs find themselves in quite the situation. Several of their key young stars are going to hit free agency soon, and their farm system isn’t exactly teeming with future stars. Kris Bryant – maybe you’ve heard of him, the former college player of the year, NL rookie of the year, NL MVP – reportedly is available in the right deal.

    Bryant was limited to 102 games due to injuries in 2018, but has hit 29 or more homers in each of his other four seasons. He’s topped .900 OPS three times, and slashed .282/.382/.521 last season when he hit 35 doubles with 31 homers and 108 runs scored. Oh, did I mention he plays third base, corner outfield, and first base?

    How long he’s under club control is an issue given the pending grievance, but assuming Bryant remains under club control for two years, this is the type of bat Atlanta needs, and at a position of need. It’s going to hurt. The rumored price of one bat and two pitching prospects feels a bit light, to be honest, not to mention something about the $40-$45 million the Braves would pay Bryant in arbitration in 2020 and 2021.

    But it’s Kris Bryant, and you’re a legit contender in need of a big bat.

    Should Donaldson sign elsewhere and the Cubs dangle Bryant, the Braves should pounce.

    The Pivot Point – Look Left?

    Marcell Ozuna has his flaws and certainly didn’t endear himself to Braves Country during the NLDS. But he posted a .800 OPS last season while hitting 29 homers and 23 doubles, is two seasons removed from a 37-homer, 124-RBI campaign with Miami, and just turned 29 years old. His defense is adequate enough (he’s not a butcher out there; and yes, I’ve seen the highlight of him scaling the wall and then falling ever so gracefully when the ball changed flight).

    Nicholas Castellanos destroyed opposing pitching in 51 games after being traded from Detroit to the Cubs, slashing .321/.356/.646 with a 1.002 OPS. His defense is less than desirable; of his 312 career games in the outfield, just 20 have come in left. But he smashed 58 doubles in 2019, one season after hitting 46 doubles and 23 homers while playing half his games in Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park.

    Both players figure to get four-year deals, and that’s the problem. The Braves will have top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters at Triple-A to start the season; Pache likely is in center in the majors by late summer, with Waters not too far behind. If given a choice to sign either Ozuna or Castellanos, I’d take Ozuna if that’s the only way to get an established power bat into the lineup. The end of the contract would worry me and certainly there’s not room for four full-time outfielders once Pache and Waters are ready.

    All Eyes on Alex

    Anthopoulos has been praised for being aggressive since the offseason began, but not adding a legit power bat to replace Donaldson should he leave – as I’ve said repeatedly – would be a massive failure. A lineup featuring Johan Camargo and Austin Riley platooning at third base with Adam Duvall and Markakis in left simply is not going to generate enough offense to support Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman in the top three spots.

    Think a fourth year of Donaldson at $25 million in 2023 or dealing Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson as part of a Bryant package is risky? Risky is walking into Arizona on March 26 with d’Arnaud hitting fourth and Markakis fifth.

    Sure, maybe Camargo bounces back after a lost season in which physically and mentally he wasn’t good. Of course, Riley is a very talented player who doesn’t turn 23 years old until April and possesses great potential.

    But “maybe” and “potential” don’t win the World Series. And even though this franchise has not won a playoff series since 2001, winning it all should be the single unabashed goal. The Braves choked away a series win in October that would’ve put them eight victories from the grandest prize in sports.

    The bullpen is vastly improved. The feeling here is the rotation will be solid even if the Braves do not add another starter. But without that power bat to protect Freeman – again, I’ll argue for two bats to further lengthen the lineup – it will be a huge roll of the dice that Anthopoulos cannot take.

    And he won’t.

    The Braves will hit their new spring training home with at least one significant impact bat added to the roster. It didn’t happen at the Winter Meetings. That’s OK. It’s December. But it will happen before camp opens.

    Because Anthopoulos has no choice.

    —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.