• Austin Riley

    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.

    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.

    Puig’s Your Friend Now, Braves Country, and Other Notes as Camp Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yasiel Puig does not exactly blend in with the crowd, be it the gregarious way he plays baseball, his larger-than-life personality, and the fact he’s built like a nose guard.

    So it wasn’t exactly stunning when the rumor began Tuesday on Twitter that Puig – or his long-lost twin brother – had been spotted in The Battery, adjacent to Truist Park, where the Atlanta Braves would play their fourth intrasquad game later Tuesday evening. The Braves would do so missing left-handed hitting outfielder Nick Markakis, who last week elected not to play the shortened 2020 season. They also took the field without Freddie Freeman, one of the best hitters in the game, who remains sidelined with the coronavirus.

    The news broke later Tuesday afternoon: Puig and the Braves had agreed to terms on an unspecified deal, one that won’t be announced until Puig passes a physical. Certainly, that will include a coronavirus test that even Puig himself probably won’t enjoy – trust me, I found out for the second time Monday that it’s not fun – but the newest Braves outfielder will have plenty of fun soon after things are official.

    The 29-year-old teaming with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna is going to drive some opposing fan bases crazy, especially with the Braves poised to be a contender in the wild setup of a 60-game sprint. The Braves Way has been dead for quite some time, thankfully. Now, the oomph meter just shot to 11, “let the kids play” should be shouted louder than ever, and let’s face it: some folks are going to be mad about it. Big mad.

    But if you’re a Braves fan, I don’t see how you can be mad about this. Puig’s Your Friend now, after all.

    If there’s a nit to pick with this Braves squad as it’s assembled in 2020, it’s hitting against right-handed pitching. It goes without saying not having Freeman and his .304 career lifetime average against right-handers is a considerable blow. Remember, there’s no template or blueprint for a baseball player returning from coronavirus. Is it two weeks from now before Freeman can stride into the left-handed batter’s box? Four weeks? Seven weeks? We just don’t know.

    And with Markakis deciding the risks of playing this season weren’t worth it – and I’ll never blame any player for looking at this landscape and saying, “nah, I’m out” – Atlanta lost another valuable bat against right-handed pitching. So while some will opine that Puig is yet another right-handed bat in a right-handed heavy lineup, he also is a career .285 hitter against rightys with a .845 OPS and, with the presence of the designated hitter in the NL in 2020, the Braves lineup looks more formidable than it did this morning.

    It also looks more fun. Yes, Puig is loud and plays the game with an edge that sometimes boils over. He’s also approaching age 30 and free agency, so the thought here is he’ll behave himself. There will be far fewer dollars on the open market this winter than in years. And if you truly believe Puig is going to poison his limited chances at a good deal for 2021 by poisoning the Braves culture, well, in my opinion that’s a ridiculous thought.

    We play ball in 10 days at Citi Field. At least we hope. A few other notes from the past few days:

    Do the Braves remain the Braves? I wrote my thoughts about the tomahawk chop a few months ago. The manufactured chop beaten relentlessly into fans’ heads needs to go. But the name of the team? I don’t think it will change, a stance backed up by the team to season-ticket holders and the media Sunday.

    Wither Cole Hamels? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. I talked with somebody in February whose opinion I trust; that person doubted Hamels would be ready for the scheduled opening day in late March. When I spoke to that person last month weeks ago, their perspective had not waivered.

    At this point, 10 days before the season commences, Hamels still has not thrown as much as a BP session. I think you must cross him out for the rotation for at least the first two times through, which is 10 games – or 16.66% of the regular season. I’m happy the team signed Josh Tomlin – who looked pretty good in four innings during Monday’s intrasquad matchup – and I’m really excited with what I saw out of Kyle Wright in spring training. It’d be great to see Wright on the mound, however. Like Hamels, we’re still waiting. Speaking of the rotation:

    What about Folty? It was hard to see from watching the feed of the intrasquad game Wednesday, considering the camera was positioned at the top of the ballpark, but the lanky right-hander returned to the mound at Triuist Park for the first time since the infamous Game 5 NLDS meltdown and shoved for three innings, only allowing a walk to Culberson but nothing else.

    We’re so quick to forget just how good Folty was after he came back from his demotion to Gwinnett: 2.65 ERA, .211 opponents batting average, 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings across 10 starts (6-1 record). That does not include seven shutout innings with no walks and three hits allowed in Game 2 of the NLDS. His work in 2020, in my opinion, will be critical to the Braves success. To that point, Folty made sure he would be ready for this unprecedented season. To that point:

    Cheers to the Spartans: I got a message from someone in mid-April, saying a handful of Braves pitchers had secured a high school to work out at while practicing social distancing. As we’ve learned publicly last week via comments made to Atlanta media, it wasn’t just throwing.

    Several Braves hurlers took the shutdown seriously.

    When you go through the annuals of Atlanta sports, Campbell High in the northwestern suburb of Smyrna probably would draw mention for Brian Oliver, the shooting guard who helped lead Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four (teaming with Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson to form the vaunted “Lethal Weapon III”). But if the Braves reach the postseason in 2020, give a hat-tip to the Campbell Spartans and their staff.

    Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Mike Soroka threw at Campbell High six days a week during the shutdown, firing full bullpens twice weekly. They were joined on occasion by teammates Acuna, Albies.  Johan Camargo, Charlie Culberson and others.

    With 20 games in 20 days to begin the season, starting fast is going to be more critical than ever. If the Braves ride solid pitching to a good start, don’t forget the work these guys did at a Cobb County high school field, one the baseball coach and athletic director made sure was ready and open for their MLB neighbors, while also working to keep that news quiet.

    What if Freddie can’t go out of the gate? Losing a solid bat and elite defender at a key position, not to mention the captain of the team, is not a good thing. Let’s all hope the Freddie, and Chelsea and Charlie, stay well and get over the virus.

    We have no playbook, as I referenced on ESPN Coastal last week and earlier in this piece. We’re going into this blind. But I think the Braves turn first at first to Austin Riley and his potential power if Freeman is not well enough to start the season. Riley has played a little first base, and after taking grounders a little bit at first base in spring training, has put in some work at first base during summer camp and in intrasquad contests.

    Yes, Atlanta has a couple of first basemen on non-roster invites in Peter O’Brien and Yonder Alonso – both of whom are getting time in some intrasquad games. But If either of them are on the active roster come opening day on July 24, this team is in trouble. Let’s all hope Freddie is OK and ready to go in Queens when the season starts. If not, we’ll hope some semblance or Riley and Adam Duvall and Camargo can cover first base till Freeman is back.

    To the Max: Unsolicited private comment from somebody who was in Trust Park watching Max Fried pitch in last Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage. “Fried looks poised to be a bad ass upper-tier pitcher.” Glad he’s on my fantasy team, and my favorite team, one that is hopefully a few days away from kicking off a season the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before.

    —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.

    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.

    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.

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know 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.