• Atlanta Braves

    A Sobering Fourth, Positive Tests, and Should We Even Try to Do This?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Fourth of July normally is a celebration of all things Americana, complete with summer heat, burgers on the grill, family and friends and, of course, Braves baseball. It’s one of the landmark days on the baseball calendar, along with Memorial Day and Labor Day, when we size up where our team sits and whether it actually is good enough to make it to October.

    But not this year. And we got a stark dose of our current, cold reality splashed right into our faces as the second day of Braves summer camp unfolded Saturday morning at Truist Park.

    I had no inside information, and while some folks mentioned it on social media, I hesitated greatly to speculate on the players I did not see in pictures and videos from the Braves and various onsite media from Friday’s workouts. But I’ve watched this team as close as anybody for years, and not seeing Freddie Freeman’s face pop up in a single image Friday left me wondering if the captain of the Braves indeed had been stricken by the coronavirus.

    Those worries were confirmed by the team Saturday morning, the first baseman and linchpin of the Atlanta lineup testing positive for the virus. He has company, sadly: newly signed closer Will Smith, along with pitcher Touki Toussaint and non-roster infielder Pete Kozma, also testing positive for a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans. According to published reports Saturday, manager Brian Snitker said Freeman has been running a fever and might not be back for quite some time. Freeman’s wife, Chelsea Freeman, commented via her Instagram account that her husband, “literally never gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks.”

    In normal times, we would discuss what Freeman’s absence would mean to the Braves. Three years ago tonight, we were celebrating his return from a wrist injury (at third base, remember? Ah, the Matt Adams days). These obviously are not normal times. Heck, I should be sitting in Truist Park tonight, celebrating Independence Day with 41,000 of my closest friends, enjoying seeing Mike Trout play in person for the first time, welcoming home former Braves standouts Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran. Instead, I’m here in the Braves Room, streaming a Winnipeg Goldeyes games online (Peg City is up 9-0, by the way) while an IMSA race at Dayton plays on my muted TV.

    Normal? Nope. I don’t even know what IMSA means.

    I spent today the way I spent the previous two afternoons – fishing along the shores of Lake Lanier, burning vacation time for work that would’ve been spent at the home opener and the opening homestand and at Fenway Park two weeks ago. The only chop in my world right now comes from boat traffic lapping against the lake shore. The Braves, according to a New York Post report tonight, are scheduled to open the truncated 60-game season on Friday, July 24, at Citi Field against the Mets.

    It’s fair to wonder tonight: Will it happen?

    More importantly: Should it happen?

    Sure, it’d be great to have Braves baseball on our TVs 60 times across 66 days starting two weeks from Friday. The distraction would be welcomed. Just listening to this Goldeyes radio broadcast tonight (Winnipeg roughed up former Mississippi Braves hurler Tyler Pike for seven runs, in case you’re wondering) has provided a bit of comforting and somewhat familiar background noise on a Fourth of July that otherwise feels like no other July 4 in my memory.

    But at the same time, it feels foolish to spend much time wondering how the Braves cover for Freeman’s likely absence when the season begins at first base and the now-gaping hole in the third spot of the batting order. I mean, with everything going on right now, is investing the energy into whether it should be Austin Riley or Nick Markakis or Yonder Alonso playing first base worthwhile?

    Perhaps it is, and perhaps that’s how we keep on keeping on, right? I often come to you here with blunt opinions about this franchise and this sport, but I’m conflicted tonight. Seeing Snitker speak to the media today was difficult. You could see the pain in his eyes as he discussed not only the four positive test results, but also the fact popular first-base coach Eric Young Sr. has opted out of being onsite this season. Say what you will about Snit, but you can’t deny how much he loves this franchise he’s represented for four decades, and how much that man adores every single person who is a part of it.

    The Fourth of July is here, and this is where we sit. It’s a heavy time, accentuated further by Dodgers pitcher David Price and Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman opting out of playing in 2020, by positive tests for Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola and two teammates, by positive tests that have popped up already inside the NBA and MLS bubbles. And sobering news late Saturday: Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle ace who impressed in his initial Braves spring starts before the shutdown, opting to sit out 2020 because of the virus.

    And can you blame him, honestly?

    Trout, the best player on the planet, would be roaming center field for the Angels at Truist Park tonight. Instead, he’s home with his pregnant wife, undoubtedly weighing the heaviness of whether putting on his No. 27 for the Halos is worthwhile in this unprecedented time. I don’t blame him one bit. Honestly, I’ll be surprised if the best player on the planet takes one AB this season.

    I want baseball back, desperately. But deep down, stripping away my Braves fandom and my insane love for this amazing sport, I must admit I’ve wondered if one day I’d reach a point when I’d say, “let’s not do this.”

    This weekend, around the most American date on the calendar and one when our national pastime shines so bright, one typically spent celebrating with family and friends while watching our beautiful game on display, I’m closer to that point than I ever thought I’d 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.

    It Will Be Weird, But Embrace It As Baseball Plans Its Return

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I was awake at midnight on March 11 as my 47th birthday began. Before heading to bed, I tweeted a clip of Tom Glavine in his No. 47 jersey. Twenty-one hours later, sports started shutting down. Not exactly the way I envisioned kicking off my next trip around the sun.

    It’s been 3 ½ months we never will forget, folks, and it hasn’t been easy for any of us. But Tuesday’s news that Major League Baseball plans to start its season July 23 or July 24 seems to have lifted the mood for quite a few people. I mean, I saw Braves lineup debates on social media today. I never thought I’d be so happy to see the Nick Markakis arguments return to my timeline.

    Sixty games, a July 1 spring training opening (“summer training?”), universal DH, no games with the Central or West, no fans in the stands, no tailgate parties, no spitting, no arguing – I can’t wait for Angel Hernandez to do his usual stellar work.

    Is it ideal? Of course not! A 60-game season would be unacceptable if it was a by-product of a lockout or strike. It’s a national emergency that shelved the sport in mid-March, and while we can argue the semantics of what’s happened between the league and players’ union the past four weeks, we’ll leave that topic for another day (because we may be writing about that – a lot – in the months and years to come).

    So cast aside any ill feelings labor-wise, at least for the short term. Buckle up and embrace the madness! After months of so much pain and sadness and despair and grief and hurt and anger, we have at least one bright light to help lift those of us who love baseball.

    Our game is coming back. Let’s go:

    Depth in Numbers: It’s going to be a frantic sprint from first pitch to October like the sport’s never seen. Gone is the marathon mentality. The teams possessing depth, especially pitching, are poised to do well in that setup. The Braves certainly are one of those teams. Starters are not going to be pitching deep into games, at least not initially, and the combination of Atlanta’s depth in starting pitching and a loaded bullpen could launch the Braves to a fast start. Speaking of which …

    Gotta Go Out of the Gate: There is zero room for a slow start for anybody who envisions reaching the postseason. There won’t be Washington going from a 19-31 start to lifting the trophy (not going to lie; that still stings to type). With only 37 percent of a full season being played, a 3-11 start effectively buries you. Conversely, an eight-game winning streak might clinch you a playoff spot. It will be fascinating to see if a playoff contender stumbles. What if somehow a team like the A’s or Astros or Cardinals dropped eight of their first 10?

    Don’t Sweat the Numbers: Chipper Jones hit .419 through the first 60 games of the 2008 season. I was writing for a defunct blog chronicling the season – Chipper literally was the lone reason I didn’t lose my mind writing every night about Atlanta’s first 90-loss team since 1990. If Mike Trout hits .407 through 60 games, that’d be cool. But I don’t think anybody is going to consider it on par with Ted Williams hitting .406 in 1941, even though Trout one day will join Teddy Ballgame in Cooperstown. And if some random journeyman has the 60-game stretch of his life and hits .400? Just embrace it and laugh. Nobody’s going to consider it legit.

    Don’t Sweat the Numbers, Part II: Imagine how many wins will lead the league? With starters likely not going five innings for maybe the first 20 games of the season (33 percent of the season!), if somebody wins six games, does that get it done? What about a vulture reliever who picks off eight wins in relief? Does he win the Cy Young? I know many don’t care about the win statistic for pitchers. That’s not the point. The weirdness of all this is. Speaking of which …

    Don’t Sweat the Awards: Let’s say that aforementioned journeyman does hit .400. Great! Give him the MVP trophy. Somebody with a 4.87 career ERA makes 11 starts and throws up a 1.24 ERA? Give him the Cy Young. See, we all know it’s weird. We all know it’s an outlier. So don’t get too worked up about it. A season like this has never happened before. I pray we never see another one like it. But it’s going to happen, so why not just enjoy the ride?

    The Ring Still is the Thing: So much of what we’re going to see is going to make us laugh, shake our head, maybe irritate us a little bit. Whether the season is 60 games, or around 110 games, or 144 games, it’s an environment of a particular season (games for 2020, 1981, and 1995 in order). But when this unprecedented season ends, the playoff format remains the same: 10 teams, three rounds, two wild-card games, one trophy to win. And whoever wins is a legit champion in my opinion. Can’t win it all if you don’t get there and then play your best in October.

    Baseball in 2020 is going to be weird. It’s going to be choppy at times. It’s going to be quiet with empty stadiums. And yes, we understand it could come to a screeching halt if the virus cannot be handled. That remains the most important thing in all of this, and until we have a vaccine, the virus is in control. But I’ll stay hopeful. And now, we have dates and a plan, so let’s go.

    Welcome back, old friend.

    Play ball.

    —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.

    Owners Deserve Your Scorn as Epic Stumble Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Picture the Fourth of July weekend. Players standing 6 feet apart as the national anthem reverberates through empty ballparks on the nation’s birthday. A return to play before any other major U.S. team sport, a starved nation of sports fans tuning in for the only live baseball available outside of Asia.

    The coronavirus presented a very difficult and different landscape, but the national pastime found a way. The owners and players, who long have held an acrimonious relationship, set aside their long-standing differences, realized this was a crisis and not a collective bargaining agreement negotiation, and for the greater good got to work to bring back baseball, hopefully helping raise a nation from its knees.

    As if.

    Baseball has blown it. Big time. Like, Falcons in that-game-we-shall-never-mention big time. Even for a sport that tends to stumble all over itself in the best of times, it’s fallen flat on its face in stunningly spectacular fashion.

    The owners continue to cite the memorandum of understanding (subscription required) from late March that, if fans cannot be present in the stands, they reserve the right to renegotiate in good faith the plan to pay the players 100 percent of prorated salary for games played. Well, the union’s recent proposals have called for various numbers of games played, but all boil down to paying the players a discount that is not 100 percent of the agreed-to ratio in March.

    Good faith?

    The players association flatly refuses each proposal and provides corresponding counter-proposals, all calling for 100 percent prorated salary. The owners flatly refuse each one, and thus respond in time with another proposal that calls for fewer games, while the net-net money paid to the players remains roughly the same.

    Second verse, same as the first. Rinse and repeat.

    What’s the old saying about doing the same thing over and over again, only to get the same result?

    Insanity rules the day, a day where there are so many heavier and more meaningful issues on our hearts than whether Ronald Acuna Jr. could accomplish his “50-50” season in, say, 114 games (or 89, or 78, or 60). I’ve commented time and time again on social media that while it’s frustrating, negotiators will negotiate. That’s how these things go. Certainly at some point, there will be a breakthrough, the two sides will realize a solution is there, and will find a way to put together a season that’s not a glorified spring training.

    But here we are, with two full weeks of proposals offered and proposals rejected almost instantly. How much talking is happening? It’s not like representatives from both sides can lock themselves in a room, sit down across a table, talk late into the night, and find common ground. Somehow, looking someone in the eye on Zoom doesn’t hold the same power, but it doesn’t excuse where we sit right now.

    My frustration has reached a point I haven’t experienced through this whole shutdown. We all want baseball to return, but I really did not expect we would reach mid-June with no agreement and no return-to-play plan in place. A month ago, if you had told me this is where we’d be tonight, I would assume it would be solely because of the coronavirus.

    Not about money. It can’t be about the money. Now more than ever, it absolutely cannot be about the money.

    Guess what?

    Baseball’s history is littered with work stoppages, lockouts and strikes. We haven’t experienced one since the nuclear bomb of 1994 destroyed the postseason and the public trust. And while the players typically bear the brunt of the public rage in these situations, that’s not fair this time. Players want to play. First and foremost, they want to be safe. Players who have pre-existing medical conditions, such as Braves outfielder Adam Duvall (diabetes), must have assurances they will be safe. Players who have high-risk family members (Eireann Dolan, wife of Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, has a long history of respiratory problems) or players whose wives are pregnant (Jessica Cox, wife of Angels star Mike Trout, is expecting the couple’s first child in August) have legitimate concerns. And let’s face it, there are plenty of coaches and managers who are higher-risk based on age and underlying health factors – including four Braves coaching staff members (including manager Brian Snitker) who are age 60 or older (subscription required).

    But the players want to play. Pay them what they are owed for each game they play. If a player makes $10 million a year and 81 games are played (one-half a season), that player should make $5 million. Play 65 games (40 percent of the season), pay that player $4 million. Why is this so hard? After all, the players are the ones taking the risk. They are the ones traveling, staying in hotels, coming in contact with each other breaking up double plays at second base or tagging out baserunners in a rundown or in the locker room. And let’s face it: the average career – and thus, the window to earn money in baseball – is finite.

    Contrast that with the owners, all of whom are worth far more than any one player will make in their career. Owners don’t become billionaires just by buying sports teams. A professional sports franchise is merely one part of their portfolio, a portfolio that can generate money not just for a few short years, but for decades and decades on end. And I don’t expect any owners will fight to be in attendance or jump on the team charter when the games begin, either.

    Sure, owners will lose money for every game that’s played without fans in the stands, fans who otherwise would be buying tickets and parking passes and hot dogs and beers and souvenirs. And I realize the other parts of their portfolio may not be raking in cash right now, either. But owners assume the risk when they purchase an asset, be it a baseball team or a local pizza parlor. And when the revenue stream generates more than expected, I don’t see baseball owners bending over backward to give players a bonus (while the pizza place owner might reward their employees at the end of the year with a little extra for Christmas).

    I can’t side with the owners here, I just can’t. And what the owners have missed through all of this is the scenario we discussed at the beginning of this piece. Yes, owners would lose more money by playing 81 games that started on the Fourth of July instead of a 50-game season. But that extension of good will, of doing it for the country and for the good of the people, would have paid off in a big way down the road, for years and years to come. It would be an investment into a business unit under their umbrella, a temporary shortfall that in my opinion would have paid off ten-fold moving forward.

    Instead, owners would rather pay the players 100 percent of prorated salary but only for the number of games they feel is appropriate (read: the cheapest outlay of cash), which would result in a season that lasts approximately 50 games. And, if somebody hits .407 across those 50 games, are we going to proclaim them the greatest hitter since Ted Williams?

    Do I even need to mention what the Nationals record was after 50 games last season? (Please stop throwing stuff at your computer.)

    Baseball had a tremendous opportunity to smash a 2-0 fastball into the upper deck, to be the first team sport back, on Independence Day weekend no less, to help the nation rally again, as baseball did during World War II, as baseball did after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Nope. That pitch sail right down the middle and right on by.

    That’s on the owners.

    There are far, far more important things on our hearts and minds right now than a professional sports league that constantly makes us shake our heads in frustration even in the salad days. We continue losing our fellow citizens from the virus – a 42-year-old friend and former neighbor of mine died last week from COVID-19; his funeral is Saturday morning – more and more people are struggling financially, and our nation’s streets are full of protestors rightly voicing their opinion that systemic racism and police brutality must stop now.

    The deeper we go into this summer without baseball, when I see the NBA and NHL and MLS moving forward with plans to return, I care that much less about this grand old game. I just hope history doesn’t look back at this time as the moment when baseball put itself in a place from which it could not recover.

    If that happens, direct your ire accordingly. Not at those in uniform. At those wearing suits.

    —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.

    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.

    Baseball 2020 … An Idea What It Could Look Like

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Tomorrow is Sunday … I think.

    A quick glance at the calendar confirms that as fact. The Braves would be home this weekend. I would wake up tomorrow, take a shower, cook breakfast, then steer my SUV toward Truist Park. I’d pull into Lot 29 around 11 a.m., grab a beer in The Battery (off day on Monday, so not on deadline), meet up with some friends, then roll into the ballpark sometime around 12:30 p.m. for the finale of the Giants series.

    Surely, my work buddy who is from the Bay Area would be there in his Willie McCovey jersey. We’d grab a beer together and talk some smack. We always bet lunch on the two regular-season series between Atlanta and San Fran; that reminds me, he owes me lunch. We’ve done that for every Braves/Giants series in Atlanta for close to a decade. We texted Friday; he was planning on throwing some hot dogs on the grill that night and watching a replay of the 2010 NLDS. Obviously, I didn’t join him.

    Sunday would’ve be the 24th game of the season (14.8 percent of the schedule), the sixth I would’ve attended in person. The Braves would be at or near the top of the National League East, I believe. I had pegged these Braves to win 93 games – a tick down in an improved division – but en route to a third-consecutive NL East title based on several factors, including one of baseball’s deepest bullpens, further growth from several young players, a season that would’ve ended in my opinion with at minimum a NLCS appearance and potentially a World Series championship.

    This is where fate intercedes and snaps me back to reality.

    My best friend on the planet has pneumonia and is awaiting test results. His father, in his eighties, is hospitalized with pneumonia. He fortunately tested negative for the virus. I know people who have the virus. I know people who have family members who have died from the virus. It’s serious. It’s real. I’ll save the rest of my thoughts around this for another time, another platform.

    On this Saturday night, I should be on deadline for Sunday’s preview for the freelance company for whom I’ve worked for nearly a decade – a gig that is gone for now, but I’m thankful that my real job is humming along. I work from home most of the time; the only difference in my work day is my “commute” to the Braves Room is a bit more congested, with my bride now working from home, plus two teenagers who are doing school work at 11 p.m. and sleeping until noon.

    So, where are we in this strange, unprecedented environment when it comes to baseball? I have an idea. I shared it on a Zoom meeting Friday night with a few of my Braves tailgate buddies. I shared it with our heating and air guy who had to come out this week when our thermostat went on the fritz. He’s a big baseball dude and he loved the idea.

    We’ve all seen the ideas Major League Baseball has discussed. I have a different idea. You want some baseball content on this weird Saturday night, six weeks after I cheered on Atlanta United in their home opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta – the last sporting event I attended – and I have something to offer? Let’s go.

    This plan is not perfect. I don’t think there is any perfect plan, not right now. But it’s a thought process that led me to scribble this in one of those old steno notebooks I’ve used for 30 years one night this week. Let me know what you think, because I have a framework that could (key word here) work to get the Braves and the rest of MLB back on the field.

    Let’s dive in. A couple of caveats/assumptions:

    I do not see all 30 teams being able to play in Arizona. Yes, there are a lot of fields available that are near each other. But with temperatures often spiking to 100-plus degrees there every day for several months in the summer, I just don’t see that as being viable.

    I also do not see the split between Arizona and Florida. That’s the “Grapefruit League” and “Cactus League” schedule that has been reported on, but it’s tough to see that as realistic. In a truncated timeframe, you can’t have teams having days off every day. You also would have to travel to other sites in different locations.

    How about having a group of teams located at one location? No travel. No potential interaction with others. Teams and staffs sequestered in place at one place, in a major city where hotels are close to a ballpark. There are 30 teams in the majors. Simple math says pick five locations, put six teams at each site, and play three games a day, each team playing one game a day without having to travel.

    Pick five indoor stadiums. Six teams located at each. Three games a day; each team gets to play. It’s mostly based on division, with one exception: the American League Central gets “dispersed” among the five groupings. You do this based on geography, so you don’t have the Braves based in Arizona playing games that start at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Time on a Tuesday.

    The NL East goes to Tampa Bay. The AL East goes to Miami. I’m not letting the Rays play in Tampa or the Marlins play in Miami. It keeps it fair. Same out west. AL West games are played in Arizona. NL West games are played in Seattle. The NL Central goes to Texas. The AL Central? A bit of a tough one here, but my best shot: Kansas City draws the short straw; they go to the Seattle pod. The rest are as fair as they can be, given the circumstances: Minnesota (Arizona), Cleveland (Tampa Bay), Detroit (Miami) and the White Sox (Texas).

    Three games a day – remember, six teams at each location – that start at 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. local time. A few times it’ll mean uncomfortable start times for certain teams and their fanbases back home, but a rotation would be installed to make sure no team gets stuck at playing at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. every day. Each team would play six games a week; Mondays are a universal off day. No doubleheaders. And here’s how that works to get us a semblance of a season:

    It starts Tuesday, July 7. It ends Sunday, Nov. 1. Each team plays six games a week for 17 weeks, so each team plays a 102-game regular season. You don’t play anybody other than the five other teams in your location. For the Braves, what would that look like? Let’s look at one scenario for the first couple of weeks:

    Cleveland (July 7), Miami (July 8), New York (July 9), Philadelphia (July 10), Washington (July 11), Cleveland (July 12), off day (July 13), Miami (July 14), New York (July 15), Philadelphia (July 16), Washington (July 17), Cleveland (July 18), New York (July 19), off day (July 20).

    What does the postseason look like? Well, for one, it goes to a different location (Houston feels best; it’s not being used during the regular season in my scenario, and it’s centrally located geographically). Who gets there? A quick step back: you can’t have 14-inning games pushing back other start times. Remember, we have three games per day at every location, with start times separated by five hours. You have to give teams time to take BP and fielding drills, on the field. So, you cap games at 11 innings. Tied after 11 frames? It’s a tie, and each team gets one point – think old-school NHL here. Two points for each win. Standings are based on points.

    Take the top team from each location, point-wise. Take the second-place team from each location, point-wise. Take the top two third-place finishers, point-wise. That’s your 12-team postseason. Rank them by points from No. 1 to No. 12. If there’s a tie, default to total number of wins. Still a tie? Second tiebreaker would be fewest losses.

    The postseason also has a twist: the top four seeds get a week off. They get byes. That results in the 8/9 seeds playing to face the top seed, the 5/12 seeds playing to face the fourth seed, the 7/10 seeds playing to face the second seed, and the 6/11 seeds playing to face the third seed.

    These series all happen in one place (Houston), and feature four games a day – at 9 a.m., 1 p.m., 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., local time. All are best-of-three series. It starts Wednesday, Nov. 4, continues Thursday, Nov. 5, and any decisive games are played Friday, Nov. 6.

    There’s an off day, followed by the quarterfinals starting Sunday, Nov. 8. These series are best-of-five affairs. Same start times, four series, each series plays one game a day. It continues through Monday, Nov. 9 and Tuesday, Nov. 10, with if necessary games going off Wednesday, Nov. 11 and Thursday, Nov. 12.

    Two days to catch our breath, and now it’s on to the semifinals (the NLCS and ALCS, if you will) starting Sunday, Nov. 15. Two games per day, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Houston time. Play the first four games, with if necessary games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of that week. Yes, Saturday, Nov. 21, could be two Game 7s for a right to go to the World Series. Crazy, right?

    Just you wait. If the two semifinal series go the distance, there would be no rest. I’m starting our World Series on Sunday, Nov. 22. Best of seven, with 8 p.m. Houston time first pitch. We play Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. If the World Series doesn’t end in a sweep, we play Game 5 on Thanksgiving night, with Game 6 on Friday, Nov. 27 and Game 7 on Saturday, Nov. 28.

    I see Thanksgiving weekend as the final line that you can’t cross, time wise. Doing this would require, in my opinion, spring training 2021 not starting until the end of February, with exhibition games beginning in mid-March and the regular season not getting going until the second or third week in April 2021. And that’s OK. If that’s what it takes to have a 102-game regular season, followed by a postseason that I think – even in the midst of college football and the NFL – would capture a large segment of the sporting populace, then factoring in the proper rest the players will need after such a truncated schedule, I’m on board.

    What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback on social media. We’re all stuck at home right now. It stinks, but I know writing this tonight was good for me. I haven’t gone more than a handful of days without writing something that’s been published since I was 17 years old in 1990 until the past five weeks.

    Appreciate you reading. I miss y’all. Let’s do what we must to get through this. Stay safe, stay at home, and let’s get through this together.

    —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.

    When it Comes to Chopping, Less Indeed is More

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – At the risk of dating myself (and revealing this scribe is old enough to be your father, or that crazy uncle who sneaks you beer and lets you stay up till 3 a.m.), let me take you back nearly three decades to one of the greatest years of my life: 1991.

    I graduated high school that June. I started college that September. I began my second year of covering high school football for my hometown newspaper. There are a variety of other personal reasons I could share that since have lost significance with the passage of time. But there were things I couldn’t dare dream that happened that year.

    They were all tied to my favorite baseball team and my hometown. I’ll never forget any of it. One example (of many):

    I sat in my 1979 Silverado on a two-lane road in northern Douglas County (about 25 miles west of Atlanta) one mid-October afternoon, in front of a subdivision, waiting for the kids who lived there to exit the school bus. There were several parents waiting at the neighborhood’s entrance, as they did every day. It was an unremarkable moment, just another day, until the kids on the back of the bus took notice of the view out the rear windows.

    First one of them, then two, then several, pushed against the glass, waving their right arms up and down. The kids getting off the bus noticed, and started doing that same chopping motion. I looked, and there were the parents, chopping and cheering. The bus driver extended her arm out the window and started waving it in the same manner.

    A lone foam tomahawk, sitting on the front dashboard of my old truck, firing up a fanbase that had no reason to believe until this year, my 18th on the planet, the single-greatest baseball season I’ve ever experienced.

    You see, being a baseball fan in Atlanta was not for the faint of heart in the 1970s and 80s, not until the first great rebuild in our city’s baseball history bore fruit that exceeded our wildest fantasies in 1991. And along the way, the chop was born: started as a tip of the cap to Falcons cornerback and Florida State product Deion Sanders, who became just one of a zillion “can you believe this?” storylines during the Braves historic worst-to-first surge from the bottom of the National League West to extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series in six dizzying months.

    I’ve lived just about every single moment of Braves baseball since the 1980s dawned. I remember Chief Noc-A-Homa delivering the game ball to home plate, breathing fire with a hand-held torch on the pitcher’s mound, then retreating to his teepee in the left-field bleachers of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I remember the outcry when owner Ted Turner removed the teepee during the 1982 NL West race to sell more tickets (at about the same time Atlanta embarked on a 2-19 swoon that nearly cost it the division title).

    Of the million things that make me smile when I think about 1991, the tomahawk chop is near the top of the list. I worked part-time for a cardboard and packaging manufacturer that made a variety of materials, including foam cutouts designed to secure parts for shipping items for federal government clients. The summer before, those orders spiked with the onset of the Crisis in the Persian Gulf and subsequent U.S. military buildup.

    By late summer 1991, there were tomahawks being cranked out of that Cherokee County warehouse like crazy.

    See, the tomahawk chop engulfed the city. I hate to be the “you had to be here” dude, but truly, you had to be here that summer. It never was (and still isn’t) about making fun of any one group. It’s not mocking the heritage or history of an important part of our nation’s history. It merely was an innocent, organic expression of fandom that exploded in a fashion not quantifiable by any metric.

    It didn’t matter where you lived in Atlanta, be it the projects off Hightower or the mansions in Buckhead, be it out in the sticks of Douglasville or the progressive northside. It didn’t matter if you worked in a warehouse on Fulton Industrial Boulevard or a high rise off Peachtree Street downtown or drove a tractor in South Georgia. The Braves were winning. They had captured the heart of the city, the state, the region, and we all were united behind that one simple arm motion.

    Its beauty lied in the chop’s organic nature. Sometimes, it took just a few keys from the stadium organist. Often, even that wasn’t necessary. By the time the eyes of the sports world cast its gaze upon Atlanta for the NL Championship Series and the World Series that followed, the fans simply seized the moment to begin chopping and chanting with no prompting. There were no manufactured moments from stadium ops or the gameday staff. There certainly weren’t any flashing lights or scoreboard messages nudging fans to get ready.

    We simply chopped. We chanted. We cheered.

    Things change as the years go by. The chop is no different. It long ago became worn out, overplayed, sterile, manufactured, contrived, devoid of the emotion that fueled its inception. It’s sad, but it’s understandable. Something as organic and grassroots as the chop was in its early years never is sustainable. Truth be told, this lifelong Braves fan is surprised it’s lasted this long.

    I’ll never legislate how any person or group feels, no more than I would want them to legislate feelings I possess. Yes, there were protests outside Atlanta Stadium during the ’91 postseason. Being the cynical teenager I was at the time, I dismissed them with a simple, “where were they last season, when we sucked?” But the passage of time changes perspectives. I guess I’ve changed mine now, to a certain extent.

    I don’t blame Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley for stating what he did about the chop during last season’s NL Division Series. He was asked a question and he provided an answer. I do have a problem with the Braves organization – which have placed foam tomahawks in every seat for every home playoff game for as long as I can remember (including Games 1 and 2 of last October’s series) – deciding in a knee-jerk reaction to not do so for Game 5.

    The Braves said in October they wanted to open dialogue with Native American groups to discuss ways to hear concerns. If that hasn’t happened, as per published reports (subscription required), then that’s disappointing. It goes back to a simple tenant: you do as you say you will do. As a fan and partial season-ticket holder, that’s not a good look, if true.

    But that’s not my point here. As someone who was a Braves fan before 1991, when a pennant winner and the accompanying chop descended upon us like something from outer space, and as someone who will be a Braves fan long after my time here is done, I now know it’s time.

    Let the chop live on, but only in its original, organic state. No more screaming over the loudspeakers for fans to get on their feet and chop for introduction of the first three hitters in the bottom of the first inning. No more forced drumbeats when Atlanta gets a runner on second base in the third inning of a game the second Wednesday night in June.

    If fans want to do it at those moments, that’s fine. If it’s a big moment late in a game, and the fans want to stand up and start chopping and chanting, I see no problem with that. If it’s a big game down the stretch, and a sellout crowd at Truist Park feels the need to rise and start the chop, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t see how that should spark outrage – again, I have no problem with it.

    The Braves are not going to, nor should they, change their name. Nor should they remove the tomahawk from their logo. But when it comes to trying to manufacture chopping and chanting 10 times a game, 81 times a year, that shouldn’t happen.

    Let it be organic. Let the fans do it as they see fit, when they see fit, in the moments when the crowd feels it matters most. That is the spirit with which all of this started, and should be the only spirit in which it lives moving forward.

    —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.

    Felix Hernandez signed to minor league contact, huge upside

    The Braves have signed Felix Hernandez to a minor league deal with a spring training invite. Should he make the 40-man roster out of spring training he would secure a $1 million contract.

    Felix Hernandez, 33, signed a 1-year minor league contract with Atlanta

    In 2019, long-time Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez pitching 71.2 innings. In comparison, in the prior 14 seasons, Felix averaged 224 innings pitched per 162 games. If ever there were a player who defined ‘workhorse’ it would be Felix. In what is considered his prime, Felix had a 127-83 record (.605% winning percentage) in 291 games started. This number hardly represents just how dominant he was as he played for a club that struggled mightily in those years and game him very little run support. He put up a 3.00 ERA in 1987 innings pitched, recording 1889 strikeouts. He was a 6-time all-star in his prime. He won 1 Cy Young award and arguably should have won 3 (he was robbed in 2014). Felix broke the mold for winners of the CYA, the very mold that would pave the wave for other CYA winners like Jacob DeGrom, to no longer be disadvantaged by their win-loss record due to poor run support. He won the CYA with a 15-14 record. In his prime he finished in the top 25 of the MVP vote 4 times. He held the ERA title in 2 seasons. He is also one of only 23 pitchers who have thrown a perfect game. I would argue he was the best pitcher in baseball in his prime. Yet he was the least known ace in baseball.

    Hernandez is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, nobody could expect as such. The thing about workhorses is that they eventually break down. Look at the recently retired CC Sabathia for instance. Shoulder injuries crop up. Felix has not been immune to this. In the last 3 seasons, he has battled shoulder soreness, a lingering calf injury and a crisis of acceptance of his new reality. A drop of velocity, fastball command and an inability to stay healthy are often talked about. With a 5.42 ERA in only 60 appearances (a handful out of the bullpen when demoted from the rotation) in the last 3 seasons, he has not been himself. It was painful for Seattle fans, myself included, to watch the King fall. However, he has much still to give as a 33-year-old righty.

    When King Felix took his final bow to the fans and his court at T-Mobile Park in 2019, there was a big question mark as to whether it would be the end of his career. Long expected to be a lifetime Mariner, he could have quit the struggle and retired in the city he loved so much that he gave the Mariners a significant discount for his services to remain there. But the thing people who don’t follow the Mariners don’t know is King Felix is one of the most competitive players in Major League Baseball. He is as much a competitor as, say, Max Scherzer. He made clear to the press in his final game for Seattle that he had no interest in retiring and he would pitch as long as he could. The question at the end of the season was whether a team would take a chance on him. Now Atlanta has.

    What does Felix have to offer the Braves? He is expected to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation in spring training beginning next month. He will not be able to give the club especially long outings like those of years past. But as we know, with stronger and deeper bullpens, the way games are managed has changed since Felix first entered the scene as a 19-year-old Venezuelan prospect in 2005. Could Felix give the club 5 innings an outing? This isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

    The x-factor with Felix that few analysts are mentioning is the leadership and mentorship that the righty brings to a club, particularly a young pitching staff. There have been countless pitchers who have come and gone through Seattle in his time there—James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery, Edwin Diaz, Marco Gonzalez—and those pitchers have benefited from his understanding of the craft of pitching. He has taught his changeup to them and talked pitching with them on the bench every day he wasn’t pitching. There have been many young, promising prospects who have found a friend in Felix, a guy who knows what it is like to come to this country as a teenager and be asked to compete at the highest level. He might be exactly what the young guys on both sides of the ball need.

    Can he still be effective? Changing leagues has advantages. National League clubs, aside from perhaps the Padres, have not seen much of Felix. Consider the successes of Javier Vasquez, Rafael Soriano or, most recently, Anibal Sanchez moving to Atlanta after American League mileage. Felix has the potential to do the same. His unusual changeup and better than average curveball can be effective if, and here lies the question he will have to answer in spring training, his fastball command returns. He has long battled a drop of fastball velocity and will have to continue to transition to a different kind of pitcher than he was a young flamethrower.

    If he can’t beat Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright for the 5th roster spot, can he be useful to the Braves in the ‘pen. This was something the Mariners had to explore in 2018 until another injury on the pitching staff forced the Mariners to return Hernandez to the rotation after he made his one and only career appearance out of the ‘pen.

    Can Felix stay healthy? Here is where I think the biggest question mark is for Atlanta and even for Felix himself who has fought to stay on the mound in the last 3 seasons. If I had to guess, I suspect the low-risk contract Felix signed with Atlanta is rooted in his understanding of the failures of his body in recent years. If he can manage shoulder pain, inflammation and fatigue, the best-case scenario for the Braves is to have a repeat of Tim Hudson who was believed to be unlikely to rebound in 2010 at the age of 32. What if the Braves get from Felix what they did from Ben Sheets in 2010 when for 9 starts he carried the club? That would well be worth the $1 million risk.

    As an aside, I am a life-long fan of the Atlanta Braves as well as the Seattle Mariners. Living in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, there was no sports figure bigger than Ken Griffey, Jr. While he was stunning fans at the Kingdome, the Braves were having their record 14 division championships. While the Braves are my first love, the Mariners are special to me and I would love to see Felix return to Seattle at the end of May as an Atlanta Brave, receiving a hero’s—no, a king’s—welcome.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and former beat writer for BravesWire.com.

    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.