• Brian Snitker

    CHOPTOBER BOUND! Braves Pull Together, Reclaim NL East Throne

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The manager spoke with tears welling in his eyes, his voice quivering with the emotion of 40-plus years spent with one organization. The veteran first baseman and team captain referenced losing 90-plus games each of the past three years. The front-runner for rookie of the year leaped into the air as he approached the human mosh pit.

    And all around SunTrust Park, baseball’s newest stadium that didn’t even have turf laid on its field 19 months ago, Braves Country lost its collective minds in a symphony of cheers, tears, hugs and certainly more than a few beers.

    The Braves completed their remarkable ascent from the depth of rebuilding to the top of the National League East. Atlanta officially slammed the door shut on the nearly five-year painful trudge through the rebuilding of the organization, clinching its first division championship and playoff berth in five seasons at 3:44 p.m. Saturday when Ronald Acuna glided to his left and gloved the final out of a 5-3 triumph over second-place Philadelphia.

    Many thought these Braves would be winners eventually, but certainly not this fast. History provides two significant breakthroughs since this franchise uprooted from Milwaukee and brought pro sports to the South in 1966. The 1982 Braves rode the momentum of a 13-0 start and a national fanbase cultivated by TBS on nationwide cable, America’s Team shocking the world by winning the NL West and reaching the postseason for the first time since 1969. Nine years later, following six awful years of baseball the 1991 Braves went from worst-to-first in the NL West, chasing down the Dodgers before stunning the Pirates in the NLCS and pushing the Twins to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series.

    Take the stage, 2018 Braves. You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your 1982 and 1991 counterparts.

    That’s how remarkable this campaign has been, and unlike those two squads – who did not clinch until the final weekend of the season – these Braves finished their business with a week to spare. The 2018 NL East champs now have the luxury of resting starters, as we saw in Sunday’s 2-1 victory, of lining up their playoff rotation, of determining who makes the NL Division Series roster.

    How did we get here? So many have their fingerprints all over this championship, critical ingredients into the mix that results in Atlanta gracing the postseason stage starting Oct. 4.

    Leadership, Not Dictatorship: The rookies and young players filling out so many spots on the roster get plenty of attention, but the veteran leadership in the room has been a steadying influence since spring training. One thing guys like Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis did was show the way to do the job while not squelching the enthusiasm the young 20-somethings brought to the ballpark. On the field, Freeman and Markakis anchored the 3-and-4 spots in the lineup on a daily basis, and both have been among the top 15 players in the NL all season.

    The Children Shall Lead Them: Certainly, the Braves needed several of their young and talented players to step up for this to happen so soon. Boy, did they ever. Mike Foltynewicz developed into a front-line starter. Sean Newcomb was sensational at times. Ozzie Albies earned an All-Star berth while burning up basepaths and playing stellar defense. Dansby Swanson continued evolving into one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, and his hitting late in games was nothing short of remarkable. Then there is Acuna, who slammed homers at a breathtaking pace, played outstanding defense, jump-started Atlanta’s sprint to October once he moved into the leadoff spot, and his being plunked by Miami’s Jose Urena seemed to galvanize the team and the fanbase.

    Seize the Day: There were opportunities for both veterans and newcomers to shine, and it seemed like the Braves came up golden at every turn. Ryan Flaherty and Preston Tucker helped carry the offense in the first three weeks of the season. Rookie starters Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson each won their major-league debuts. Brandon McCarthy won four games against the Phillies in the season’s early weeks. Even Jose Bautista hit a homer during a failed experiment at third base. Speaking of which …

    The Goat and Charlie Clutch: One of the biggest questions entering the season was how would Johan Camargo perform with a full season of at-bats. Slowed initially by an oblique injury, Camargo grabbed third base in late May after Bautista was released and hasn’t looked back, providing clutch hitting time and time again (he scored two runs in the first two innings of Saturday’s clincher) while providing jaw-dropping defense. When Camargo wasn’t at third base, it was Charlie Culberson, the throw-in piece in the Matt Kemp trade who developed into a cult hero. Born in Rome and raised in Calhoun, Culberson bookended an early-summer homestand with walkoff homers, played seven positions (including a stellar scoreless inning on the mound that featured a 94 mph heater) and epitomized the Braves mantra of doing whatever it takes to win.

    The Unsung Savior: Most any other season this would be Culberson hands down, but the nod here goes to a guy who didn’t join the team until the final week of spring training. Anibal Sanchez, who admitted he thought about retiring at the end of last season, was signed after being released in March to provide veteran leadership. All he did was help solidify a rotation spot after returning from a hamstring injury in April, taking young pitchers under his wing with the peer-to-peer guidance every successful team needs. He is a viable candidate for comeback player of the year and certainly will get one of the Braves first three starts in the NLDS.

    Filling In the Gaps: Give it to Alex Anthopoulos, who walked into a mess 10 months ago with a franchise reeling from not just three-straight losing seasons, but a nasty front-office scandal. All he did was preach patience, no rash moves, serving originally as one who evaluates, looking to see what he had before really diving into getting the team ready to contend in 2019. But Anthopoulos recognized this bunch had something special, so he supplemented the bullpen and the rotation at the trade deadline, did not hesitate to promote young players who proved they were ready to play in the majors, and brought a much-needed breath of fresh air that permeated from top to bottom throughout the organization.

    A Country United: Braves fans get a bad rap at times, but there is no denying this team unified its fanbase like no Braves team has in a generation. Atlanta averaged more than 31,000 fans per home game at SunTrust Park, and as the season unfolded, the players seemed to pick up on the fans’ emotion and vice versa. Rebuilding takes time and the aforementioned scandal left a scar, no doubt, But after four long and miserable years, the fans responded and were rewarded with a magical season, one that will carry into October.

    Steady at the Helm: Say what you may about Brian Snitker and his in-game tactical decision making. The players on this team absolutely love him. Many felt Anthopoulos would seek to bring in his own manager after 2018, but after this storybook ride to October, there is no doubt Snitker will get an extension. And it’s richly deserved. He kept the Braves from spinning out of control at several key junctures this season, his ability to relate to players old and young one of the many reasons cited over and over again as one of the common foundational threads of this championship. It helped keep the team from getting too high or too low, bore out in the number of comeback victories that propelled the Braves to the top.

    And as he stood on the field Saturday afternoon, his players embracing him one-by-one, Snitker reflected on his four decades in the organization. The tears built in his eyes as he tried to encapsulate for the media what this title means. After a long pause with emotion clearly bubbling to the surface, he told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and The Athletic, “I’m a Brave.”

    He, and his team and the organization he truly loves and the adoring residents of Braves County near and far, awoke Sunday morning wearing another label:

    Champions.

    —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.

    Braves Head West with Sense of Urgency After Wednesday Meltdown

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are certain defeats each season that feel like the proverbial kick in the, well, you know where. Then there are the couple of losses that feel like you’re flying down one of those old 10-foot metal slides we had at my elementary school, and just as you reach maximum speed and just before you reach the bottom, there’s that one little jerk in every fourth-grade class who sticks out his fist at the absolute worst possible time.

    Fifteen minutes later, when you’ve been convinced that, yes, you are medically OK and no longer a danger to land in suspension for strangling the instigator, the heartrate drops, you look around and try to figure out just what in the heck happened.

    Welcome to Wednesday for the Atlanta Braves.

    It flowed swimmingly for seven blissful innings in the matinee finale of a disappointing eight-game homestand, the NL East leaders building a 7-1 lead on a Boston squad that looks like – outside of Houston – a hands-down World Series title contender, but on this day fielding a junior-varsity squad on getaway day for the bunch with baseball’s best record.

    And then it all fell apart, in spectacular, slow-motion train-wreck fashion. The Braves endured their cruelest defeat of the season, a parade of relievers spitting the bit constantly and the infield defense cracking yet again in a six-run eighth to level the score, only to see Freddie Freeman put the Braves ahead again, only to see former friend Brandon Phillips, making his Boston debut, hit one halfway to his home in Stone Mountain with two outs in the ninth.

    Got all of that? If not, pull up a barstool. There’s plenty of Braves Country already here tonight, deep into a drowning of sorrows that resembles anything but a happy hour.

    The game came unhinged in a number of moments, but go big picture here. That portrait was splendid for the first six innings, as Mike Foltynewicz continued pitching like an ace and limited the Boston sub-varsity to two hits and one run while his teammates smashed out of a recent offensive funk. Foltynewicz threw a scant 87 pitches through six frames, and conventional wisdom dictated with the starting pitcher and his mates on cruise control, in a game which the Braves needed to win to finish the homestand at .500, in advance of a seven-game road trip to two locales in Arizona and San Francisco where the Braves typically play like crap, you keep it in fifth gear and keep on trucking.

    Then Brian Snitker fumbled the shifter, missed the clutch and pulled arguably his most bonehead move of the season.

    Yes, I love Snit and root for him. Yes, I know the players love him. Yes, I criticize his in-game management at times. Yes, he only can fire the bullets that have been loaded into the guy by Alex Anthopoulos. But this was over-management at its highest, worst-timed level. It triggered a series of dominos that eventually led to the Braves losing a game no team ever should lose, regardless if Boston rolled out maybe the best bench in baseball history in the late innings as the game morphed from a getaway-day play-it-out-and-fly-home, to a stirring victory on the Red Sox’s march to 110 victories.

    In fairness to Snitker, the very talented writer from The Athletic Atlanta and the Marietta Daily-Journal, Nubjyas Wilborn, shared with us tonight that Foltynewicz noticed his velo had dipped in the sixth inning, plus he was feeling the impact of the bone-spur issue that has impacted him at times this season.

    Still, it could not have resulted in a worse outcome. How so? If the Braves miss the playoffs, Wednesday might cost Brian Snitker his job. And that would be a shame given the job he’s done in steering this ship from the wreckage of 90 losses to surprise contention in a scant 28 months.

    But winning in October – the destination for a franchise stripped to the foundation, at a time that may not be now but darn well will be by 2019 – comes down to those tactical decisions. When you are in first place in a tightly contested playoff race, you ride your horses deeper in September than you do in April or May. That’s why this is the worst loss of the season. Miss me with the Cubs wind-and-rain-palooza at Wrigley in April. That was April.

    This is September, pennant-race baseball. It only gets hotter from here, and now the Braves fly across the continent with the unenviable task of washing away the most bitter loss of recent vintage and set their sights on two teams against which Atlanta is 1-5 this season.

    Yeah, that painful feeling just came back in the pit of your stomach, didn’t it?

    Having to cover nine outs with a bullpen that’s struggled at times and has a multitude of arms at or approaching career highs in innings is different from covering six outs. Snitker loosened the lid of the jar and unleased the fury, but there also is responsibility for the folks who took the ball.

    Dan Winkler had surrendered three hits in his past nine appearances before beginning the eighth inning by giving up four hits in a row.

    Jonny Venters, he of the 3 ½ Tommy John surgeries, made his fourth appearance in seven days, giving up one hit and two runs. Both Venters and Brad Brach, who had allowed two hits total in his previous seven outings, each saw a pair of inherited runners score.

    While all this chaos was breaking loose on the mound, an Atlanta defense that is playing tighter as the calendar gets deeper into September reared its ugly-of-late head at the absolute worst moment. Johan Camargo bobbled a potential inning-ending double-play ball and then sailed the throw past fill-in first baseman Ryan Flaherty – remember, the Braves were up big, and Freeman did not start for the first time this season. Turning two there ends the inning with Atlanta ahead 7-5.

    In the previous 41 games leading into the homestand, the Braves allowed 11 total unearned runs. Care to guess how many Atlanta gifted to opponents during the eight games at SunTrust Park? Yep, you guessed it: 11.

    Freeman did his part to save the day, belting a dramatic homer in the eighth that put the Braves ahead by one. But all that did was set the stage for Phillips, the Atlanta-area native who endeared himself with fans during his brief stint with his hometown squad last season, so much so that he drew a nice round of applause before his first at-bat.

    His last at-bat deflated those left in the ballpark, save the thousands of Red Sox fans who infiltrated STP and The Battery throughout the series.

    It now remains to be seen how deflated Atlanta is moving forward. One thing about these Braves is they’ve proven resilient beyond their years at every crossroads this season. That’s a big reason why, for all the gore and angst of Wednesday, Atlanta will arrive in Phoenix leading the East with 22 games to go.

    But a cautionary tale, especially with seven games remaining against the Phillies in the season’s final 11 days. These are the types of defeats that have felled many a talented team amid the glow of a pennant race. A loss like this at this point in the calendar doesn’t just highlight a missed opportunity within a singular 24-hour window, but can pull a team into a tailspin that its players and fan base spend months, if not years, lamenting.

    Was Wednesday’s loss that bad? We’re about to find out.

    —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.

    Braves Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It would’ve been folly back in spring to pinpoint the final Sunday of August in Miami and consider it a seminal moment, but in this 2018 Atlanta Braves season that toggles between fanciful and frightening, it makes perfect sense.

    Game No. 130 on the 162-game schedule found the Braves wrapping up a seven-game road trip against the National League East cellar-dwellers, having won 12-of-21 during a hellish 22-game-in-20-day stretch that some feared would exhaust the pixie dust that seemingly has been sprinkled on this team.

    And yet, there was plenty of dread entering the series finale after Atlanta scored exactly one run in its previous 22 innings, losing 1-0 and 3-1 contests to Miami as Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis – the veteran linchpins in the middle of the lineup – both fighting significant slumps at the same time. Not an optimal situation at this time of the year, especially considering the dynamic Ozzie Albies has been awful against right-handed pitching this month.

    But as the case has been with this team, it’s never nearly as bleak as it seems despite the constant roar on social media, a volume that surely will build as September dawns and the sprint to the finish begins.

    The Braves scored four times in the final four innings Sunday, earning a 4-0 victory that sends Atlanta into its first off day since Aug. 6 with a three-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. When the gauntlet of games every day (including two doubleheaders) commenced Aug. 7, the Braves sat 1 ½ games in arrears of the Phillies.

    Sunday concluded with the Braves owning a three-game advantage for the fifth consecutive day. No ground gained – Saturday marked an ample opportunity after the Phillies choked a five-run lead, but Atlanta only could scratch a Dansby Swanson solo homer – but overall it’s still a win for the Braves, considering five days have elapsed from the calendar and the Phillies remain at arm’s length.

    It’s a short arm, though, and seven of the final 10 games of the season loom against the lone challenger to the Braves (yes, you can administer last rites to the ghost of the Washington Nationals, who trail Atlanta by 8 ½ games and who dealt Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in waiver-wire deals this week that signified everybody’s favorite paper champion raising the white flag). It’s not the time for the offense to turn south, and the Braves averaged 2.5 runs per game on the road trip while hitting .226 as a team with nearly as many strikeouts (44) as hits (45) entering Sunday.

    But recall the old saying that pitching and defense wins championships. It applies here, as the Braves have been outstanding on the mound in recent days. Atlanta allowed six runs total in seven games on the swing, pitching to a 0.89 ERA as a staff with only nine extra-base hits allowed. Kevin Gausman, the Plan B after Pittsburgh overpaid grossly for Chris Archer at the trade deadline, owns a 1.69 ERA in five Atlanta starts after throwing five scoreless, one-hit innings Sunday to win his fourth consecutive decision.

    Gausman’s short outing Sunday can be attributed to being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, when the Braves were trying to break through offensively nursing a 1-0 lead. It came one night after Brian Snitker left Anibal Sanchez hit for himself with runners on and two outs in a scoreless game, a decision that bit the manager when Sanchez – who is hitless on the season – struck out, then allowed the eventual game-winning run before leaving with a hamstring injury.

    The Braves have been outstanding offensively for large stretches of the season, but in the past month the pitching staff – bolstered by the acquisition of Gausman and relievers Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, the steadying of Sean Newcomb and the sudden consistently good Julio Teheran – has given Atlanta a needed shot in the arm. That says nothing of the contribution by Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, who excelled in winning their major-league debuts during the 22-in-20 stretch. Coupled with stellar defense – Ronald Acuna made another web-gem worthy catch Sunday, one night after Swanson made an acrobatic field-and-throw from short left field – the Braves are in a great position entering the final 32 games.

    Now, it gets serious. A getaway day in Miami resulted in the perfect outcome for a team that desperately needs a day off, that only has two more the rest of the way. A surging Tampa Bay team, fresh off a sweep of Boston, arrives at SunTrust Park for two games starting Tuesday. The Cubs pop in for a makeup game, followed by three at home with the Pirates and then those aforementioned Red Sox for three games.

    That precedes a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco, two locales where the Braves historically do not play well. That carries us into the next off day Sept. 13. Sixteen games in 16 days, pretty close to the grind Atlanta just concluded.

    It would be nuts to suggest the Braves will gain 4 ½ games in the standings in that span, as they did during the stretch just ended. It is a brutal schedule, as the heat of the pennant race ratchets up to a temperature Braves Country has not experienced in half a decade. And once through that stretch, the final maddening sprint features series with the hottest team on the planet (St. Louis), the wounded but still dangerous corpse of the Nationals, and those seven head-to-head meetings with Philly (four in Atlanta; the final three games of the regular season on the road).

    Suffice to say, if the Braves pop champagne and don celebratory T-shirts, they will have earned it. On the final Sunday of August, they found a way to grind out a much-needed victory.

    They will need more of that in the final five weeks.

    —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.

    Braves at the Break: Good grades, but Work Remains to Reach October

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A quiet Wednesday evening finds me at the keyboard, and as I think of encapsulating the first 94 games of this remarkable Braves season, my mind drifts back to another Wednesday evening, exactly 17 weeks ago.

    That late afternoon and evening were filled with food, tailgating plans, blogging, podcasting and the Christmas Eve-type anticipation that comes on the night before Opening Day. Another journey about to begin, another trek into the vast unknown of the marathon that covers 162 games in 187 days. And on that late March evening, I opined these Braves would begin to shed the rebuilding moniker and take steps – albeit measured ones – toward contention, finishing with 80 victories while displaying the promise of better days and October nights to come.

    Here we sit, 119 days and nights later, and the Braves sit one-half game out of first place in the National League East, tied in the loss column with Philadelphia, already at 52 victories (65 percent to my predicted total) and poised to enter the final 68 games of this season as a contender for their first postseason berth since 2013.

    We have time to explore what’s to come. Tonight, on the quietest night of the sports year, we grade the roster, coaching staff and front office on the journey to this point.

    Braves 2018 All-Star Break Report Card

    The Roster

    Nick Markakis (A+): Even the most ardent supporter of Young Nick Outta Young Harris (looking at you, Knockahoma Nation) could not have scripted this breakthrough for the 34-year-old, free-agent to be. Markakis earned his first career All-Star berth and leads the National League in hits.

    Freddie Freeman (A+): Freeman was authoring an MVP season in 2017 before a broken wrist cost him seven weeks. All the veteran has done this season is play every game, hit .315, earn his third All-Star nod and look every bit like a frontrunner for the NL’s best player.

    Ozzie Albies (A): Some scouts wondered about Albies power as a minor-leaguer. Nobody’s questioning the 21-year-old anymore, not after he’s belted 20 homers and collected a NL-best 52 extra-base hits, to go with game-changing speed, outstanding defense and a poise well beyond his years.

    Mike Foltynewicz (A-): The first-time All-Star gets this grade because he’s second in the NL in hits per nine innings (6.285) and has dominated in stretches while finding new-found perspective from the birth of his first child. But Atlanta’s postseason hopes rest in part on the rotation’s ability to pitch deeper in games, and 5 2/3 innings per start on average must improve.

    Anibal Sanchez (A-): Were it not for a hamstring injury, the last-minute spring signing could have merited All-Star consideration. He’s been that good, pitching to a 2.60 ERA with a 1.020 WHIP while serving as a needed mentor to a stable of young pitchers. Simply put, Sanchez has been a God-send.

    Charlie Culberson (A-): Considered just a throw-in as part of the Matt Kemp salary dump, Young Charlie Outta Calhoun etched his place in Braves fans’ hearts with two walkoff homers against division rivals in a seven-day span. Versatile and dependable, he’s one of the unsung heroes of the first half.

    Sean Newcomb (B+): This was a solid A until a recent couple of hiccups before the break, but Newcomb has lowered his walk rate (4.5 per nine vs. 5.1 last season) and has displayed dominant stuff for parts of the first half. A strong second half could propel Atlanta into October, but watch his innings (105 this season; 157 2/3 between Triple-A and the majors in 2017).

    Kurt Suzuki (B+): Injuries gave him the bulk of playing time early, but even with the increased workload the defense has been solid, he’s belted eight homers in 66 games, is drawing more walks and continues to be a stabilizing force for Atlanta’s young pitching staff.

    Jesse Biddle (B+): One of the more unheralded arms in Atlanta’s pitching-rich system, Biddle has earned a spot in higher-leverage situations. He holds right-handers to a .128 average, averages 10 strikeouts per nine innings and deserves more meaningful innings in the second half.

    Dansby Swanson (B): His offense has been frustrating for some (79 strikeouts in 79 games), but he sports a .882 OPS with runners in scoring position, a .324 average from the seventh inning on, and teams with Albies up the middle to form one of the most exciting double-play combos in the game.

    Johan Camargo (B): As I’ve tweeted many times, “that’s my third baseman!!” After an early-season injury and the Jose Bautista experiment flopped, Camargo has made the most of his chance. His outstanding defense and 1.020 OPS with runners in scoring position, plus a higher walk rate, may have provided the final answer at the hot corner.

    Arodys Vizcaino (B): News flash – dude’s been good, 15 saves and a 1.65 ERA good. The bad news is that barking right shoulder and a second DL stint for inflammation, an area of great concern as the Braves approach the trade deadline.

    Shane Carle (B-): The last player to make the team out of spring training, Carle came out of nowhere to post a nice 0.69 ERA in his first 20 appearances. There’s been expected regression since – 5.09 ERA and 11 walks in his last 23 innings. If Carle can recapture his first six weeks form, it could go a long way to settling Atlanta’s bullpen.

    A.J. Minter (B-): Many consider the left-handed Craig Kimbrel clone as Atlanta’s closer of the future. We’ve seen it in flashes (four saves, 43 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings), but the walk rate (3.4 per nine innings) is something to watch for a guy with all the raw tools to become a dominant back-end arm.

    Dan Winkler (B-): Simply one of the best stories in all of baseball, the oft-injured Winkler has shined for much of the first half, owning a sub-1 ERA in mid-June. Three multi-run outings the past month hurt his numbers, but his stuff – like Minter’s – is good enough to make him a critical piece of the roster down the stretch.

    Ronald Acuna (B-): Yes, there are 56 strikeouts in 43 games. There also are seven homers, five tools on display, a recovery from what could’ve been a season-ending injury and the ability to change a game at any moment with his bat, speed, glove and arm. Did we mention he’s 20 years old?

    Preston Tucker (B-): Hard to fault the job Tucker did in the opening weeks in hitting three big homers. Sent to Gwinnett to get needed at-bats, he returned last weekend and belted a pinch-hit homer. He can change a game with one swing.

    Luke Jackson (B-): One of the riders of the Atlanta/Gwinnett shuttle, Jackson actually has settled in as a dependable long man in his latest stint. He’s allowed two runs in 11 1/3 innings in his last 10 appearances with 13 strikeouts in that stretch.

    Julio Teheran (C+): It’s hard to tell what you’ll get every fifth day and there seems to be no middle ground. It’s either great (like six no-hit innings against the Mets) or awful (seven runs allowed in his next start). Two encouraging items: His last two starts before the break were solid and his fastball velocity is back into the low 90s.

    Ender Inciarte (C): The two-time Gold Glove-winning defense in center field remains, but Inciarte’s first half was marred by too many stretches of offensive struggles (his .649 OPS is lowest among Atlanta regulars) and simmering frustration that resulted in his being benched for not running out a pop up. One of my absolute favorites (and I’m sorry, Jayme), but we need more in the second half.

    Tyler Flowers (C): He got hurt on opening day and has scuffled offensively (.165 average against right-handers screams matchup platoon), but the veteran has provided steady defense while teaming with Suzuki to give the Braves the luxury of two capable defensive backstops to steady a young staff.

    Max Fried (C): The Braves continue to do a disservice to the powerful lefty by trying to pitch him out of the bullpen. In three starts, he’s pitched to a 3.07 ERA while averaging 11 strikeouts per nine innings. On the DL with a blister, Fried could bolster the rotation in the second half, or be dangled at the trade deadline.

    Matt Wisler (C): This grade isn’t all his fault, as he’s pitched to a 3.63 ERA with a 1.212 WHIP in three starts. His relief numbers, like Fried, are awful and the Braves have no business throwing him in relief. At this point, he’s a starter who likely will be offered as part of a trade at the deadline or in the offseason.

    Lane Adams (C): Look who’s back in the organization, one of the more popular Braves social media guys (look away, Braves Ninja). Adams hit .275 and went 10-for-10 in steals a season ago but was cut despite posting a .793 OPS in 15 games early this season. Likely to get a look again sooner rather than later.

    Brandon McCarthy (C-): He went 4-0 with a 3.09 ERA through his first six starts, but has pitched to a 6.17 ERA and a .906 OPS in his next nine starts before right knee inflammation landed him on the disabled list. With no timetable set for his return, it’s fair to wonder if the veteran has made his last appearance in an Atlanta uniform.

    Ryan Flaherty (D): Yes, he led the NL in hitting for a brief time. Yes, he is a great veteran presence in the locker room. Yes, he is Markakis’ brother-in-law. No, there are better options for a bat off the bench and backup corner infielder.

    Danny Santana (D-): He needs a three-game stretch like last summer in Oakland, where the speedy reserve outfielder took over a series. Nothing like that has happened this season. An 80-grade Twitter hashtag from last summer, this summer finds the Braves needing better than a 30-grade bench option.

    Sam Freeman (F): He was a bright spot last season, but Freeman’s control issues should move the Braves to upgrade in the bullpen. His ERA is above 4.75 for three of the first four months of the season, including an unsightly 8.49 mark in June and six walks in 3 1/3 innings in July. Enough, already.

    Peter Moylan (F): Everybody loves the Aussie and rightly so, but this ship long since has sailed. A 1.846 WHIP and 10.7 hits per nine innings on the season, and a 12.00 (TWELVE!) ERA in his past five appearances, screams crikey! Enough is enough.

    Lucas Sims (F): A kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, Sims has been awful at the major-league level (7.84 ERA, 1.935 WHIP). He’s pitched to a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts at Triple-A. A change of scenery would serve him well and give him a chance to break through the ceiling of a Four-A arm.

    Evan Phillips (INC): He’s made but two appearances in the majors, neither in high-leverage situations, and the unsightly 14.73 ERA reflects that. Phillips owns intriguing stuff and closed games at Gwinnett. A promising young arm to watch in the second half.

    Mike Soroka (INC): One of Atlanta’s most-prized pitching prospects – he should be untouchable regarding trades – he made only five starts before being shut down with injury. But the Pride of Calgary has a bright future and showed plenty of glimpses of it at times in his initial major-league outings.

    Luiz Gohara (INC): A 21-year-old with arguably the best stuff in the Braves system, Gohara endured an awful personal offseason, then was hurt in spring training. His stuff plays at the major-league level and getting him on track could be akin to trading for a dominant starter.

    The Staff

    The Manager (C+): The players love Brian Snitker and certainly there’s something to be said for that. Having players who will run through a wall for you is important. Snitker is stubborn to change at times, a byproduct of loyalty I don’t want to fault but I must, as some of his in-game decisions have hurt. The infusion of analytics has helped – albeit I think at the pushing of his staff. At times he seems more comfortable in the lead chair than in the past two seasons and, let it be known, I’m rooting for him. He’s one of the nicest guys you ever could meet. With that said, I see too many questionable decisions to buy in long term. Will Snitker be here in 2019? My heart says yes, but my head says no.

    The Coaching Staff (A): It’s clear this organization needed an infusion of new blood, and with the addition of Walt Weiss, Eric Young and Sal Fasano, the Braves have constructed one of the best coaching staffs in baseball. Ron Washington is the unsung MVP of this team, helping to forge one of baseball’s best defenses. Young has helped the roster push the envelope on the bases, using speed Atlanta has not had in years to pressure defenses.

    The Front Office (B-): Maybe a bit of a harsh grade, yes, given this team was picked by most to win between 75 and 82 games. The good: New GM Alex Anthopoulos took the right, measured approach to learn of his assets at his disposal, rather than trying to make a move for the sake of headlines. An analytical approach, embraced by the staff and players, has led to better defense. Also, and this must be said, the environment around the entire organization is so much better. The bad: Snitker has been handcuffed at times by dead weight on the bench and the bullpen. That’s on Anthopoulos, and it must be addressed at the deadline if Atlanta wants to play into October.

    —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.

    Braves Offensive Swoon Just a Blip or Something More?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was “Sandlot Day” at SunTrust Park on Saturday, complete with a postgame showing of the classic movie following the Braves loss to Arizona. And in the midst of that iconic 90s classic, a famous four-word phrase was uttered on two occasions when Scotty Smalls’ ignorance left his buddies in exasperated shock.

    But safe to assume, those weren’t the only two times on this muggy, cloudy July afternoon when that phrase left the lips of Braves fans as another Atlanta hitter trudged back to the first-base dugout, bat in hand. Eight losses in the past 10 games for a team that had yet to blink in a pennant race joined sooner than expected has everybody on the edge of frustration, and Atlanta’s maddening offensive slump has become a flashpoint for the (insert sarcasm font) always-composed, mild-mannered, slow-to-panic denizens of Braves Country.

    Consider:

    • In the past 10 games, the Braves are hitting .241 as a team with 33 runs scored – six of ’em coming in one inning Wednesday against Toronto – while striking out 100 times and leaving 76 runners on base.
    • The Braves have mustered a grand total of one run in dropping the first two games of this weekend set to Arizona, the type of team Atlanta would see should it reach the playoffs, collecting 11 hits while striking out 23 times.
    • Atlanta has belted two homers in its past eight games, after hitting 98 in its first 87 contests, and both of those came off Ozzie Albies’ bat three innings apart Wednesday.

    It isn’t hard to look at any successful team and find a 10-game stretch where the wheels come off one aspect of the game, be it offensive production or starting pitching or bullpen execution. But when it comes to these Braves, with so many young players performing at a high level for the first time, with older veterans who are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, it begs the question:

    Is this merely a bump in the road, or is it regression to the mean?

    I don’t have the answer, and none of us will know until the final tale of 2018 is told and we see how this week and a half impacted the final, finished product. But I do think there are elements of both in play here.

    This team looks like a squad that needs the All-Star break. Desperately. Like, last week.

    There are several areas offensively where the production consistently is falling short of what’s expected or what’s needed (or both). Each one puts more pressure on the guys who are hitting, and what I’ve noticed the past two weeks is – for the first time this season – the Braves pressing a bit. Baseball’s hard enough without trying to hit a five-run homer with nobody on base.

    Some counter by saying the Braves have faced good pitching during this rough stretch – and Zack Greinke was outstanding for Arizona on Saturday, no question – but one of the hallmarks of Atlanta’s early-season success was beating good pitchers (Sale, Scherzer, et al). Playing in May as a feel-good story is one thing. Playing in July with more eyes and, yes, more pressure on every at-bat, is different.

    I don’t believe this team is as bad offensively as it’s shown of late. Nor, do I think it’s sustainable or realistic to expect this team to lead the National League in batting average and homers and slugging percentage, as it did in barnstorming its way to 15 games above .500 at one point a couple of weeks ago.

    That’s not to say there isn’t offensive talent available here.

    Did Ender Inciarte forget how to hit? No. He brought a career .295/.341/.733 slash line into this season, but he’s not performing at all in the leadoff spot. He’s better than a .241 hitter, but at this moment in this season that’s what he is. It’s time to move him down in the lineup, remove some of the pressure of having to set the table and let him get back on track.

    Is Dansby Swanson a .302 hitter, as he was in 38 games at the end of 2016? Most likely not, but is he the .249 hitter he is now (and that’s after collecting two of Atlanta’s five hits Saturday)? Perhaps he is, but his defense and a .327 average from the seventh inning on this season make it easier to roll him out there every day.

    The above two gentlemen are the first names that fly off the lips and fingertips of a fanbase that spends far too much time in panic mode and far too few minutes enjoying this ongoing emergence from the rebuild. Yes, there will the pain as the scar tissue from four straight losing seasons and an embarrassing front-office scandal is broken through.

    And if you think that hurts, sunshine, just wait until the end of this month, or this offseason, when some of the prized prospect possessions this team has amassed are sent off to fix the holes some of you yell about from sunrise to bedtime.

    The key to making any team successful is putting the parts in the best place possible to contribute to the maximum level for the common good. In baseball, that means determining the right prospects to deal and the right ones to keep. It also means putting players in the best spot to succeed, foregoing personal preferences or comfort levels to amplify a positive impact on the sum of the parts.

    For baseball teams, that comes down to wins and losses. And that squarely sits on the manager’s shoulders. There are inputs from various sources, be it the mountains of data now available in every front office or the weathered eyes and gut of a 40-year baseball lifer. But at the end of the day, I wonder (and in a way, fear) that some of the stubbornness we’ve seen from Brian Snitker these past few weeks will cost him a chance to run this show next spring.

    The players love Snitker, and there is something to be said for that. At the same time, there are instances – be it overreliance on Sam Freeman as the first lefty out of the bullpen or leaving Inciarte at the top of the batting order – that certainly must give Alex Anthopoulos pause. The new Braves general manager has no tethers to Snitker or your favorite prospect.

    Prepare yourself accordingly.

    Anthopoulos spent part of his Saturday entertaining questions from season-ticket holders, with many of the queries focused on the July 31 trade deadline. Every inquiry certainly was reinforced by the pain of a magical season suddenly feeling as if it’s souring by the day (news flash: it’s not, for if nothing else the rest of the NL East is every bit afflicted with its own warts and flaws).

    There will be plenty of work done over the four-day All-Star break this week regarding the rest of 2018 and setting the table for 2019. The players need to be as far away from baseball as possible (save the four Atlanta All-Stars who head to D.C. on Sunday), but for this front office and coaching staff, there will be a lot to discuss before the “second half” begins Friday in Washington.

    There are sensible moves the Braves can make at the deadline that won’t gut the farm system (granted, it would take a lot to gut a system more stocked than a hoarder’s supply of canned goods). It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds for Atlanta over the next two-plus weeks. Some of that groundwork gets laid this week, while the sport pauses to celebrate its best and brightest, while most of the Braves hopefully hit the refresh and relax buttons.

    And no, I’m not expecting Manny Machado to have a tomahawk on their jersey come Aug. 1. The bullpen needs an upgrade (or two, to be honest). It doesn’t take the biggest name. It takes the right player in the right position at the right time.

    So, put away those dream proposals floating all over social media. Atlanta is no more likely to meet Baltimore’s asking price for eight weeks of Machado than the Mets are likely to deal Jacob deGrom – in division – for a haul of Atlanta prospects – again, in division.

    In other words: “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    After Discouraging Homestand, Braves (and Their Fans) Need to Catch Their Breath

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A 48-hour span without a game in the midst of the long slough that is a baseball season is pretty rare, a time to step back from the blur of the day-to-day spent dissecting a team and a campaign and the nearly nightly doings under the microscope of increasing pressure and expectations.

    It should be a time of quiet reflection, a quick respite to catch one’s breath, to look around – maybe introduce yourself to the people with whom you share a house – and perhaps even go to sleep at a decent hour.

    If you seek that calming pause in the midst of this surprisingly successful 2018 campaign for the Atlanta Braves, may I share a piece of advice:

    Shut off your phone/laptop/tablet. Now.

    (Well, not right now. Finish reading this first. Then shut off your device, unplug it, disconnect your internet connection and run to the closest place where wi-fi doesn’t exist.)

    There, my friend, you will find peace. Otherwise, prepare yourself for the wrath that currently consumes Braves Country.

    Atlanta flew home from Toronto last Wednesday staring at a gift from the schedule makers: back-to-back home series against a pair of last-place teams, Baltimore and Cincinnati, a golden opportunity to build onto its National League East lead before a difficult 10-game road trip that will carry the team with a week of the All-Star break.

    (Insert narrator voice: “It did not go well.”)

    The Braves dropped both series, needing an Ozzie Albies extra-inning homer in the middle of the night to avoid being swept by the Reds.

    In the process, Atlanta saw both Albies and Ender Inciarte injured – albeit reports indicate neither is serious – lost Anibal Sanchez to a cramp in the middle of a desperately needed quality start – left enough baserunners to start a small city and, most notably, watched its bullpen crumple into a heap of exhausted arms as closer Arodys Vizcaino landed on the disabled list and the revolving bullpen shuttle between Atlanta and Gwinnett shifted into overdrive.

    How much so? Longtime Braves minor-leaguer Wes Parsons found himself signing a major-league contract Wednesday morning. He was packing his locker six hours later, bound for Gwinnett after serving as an emergency relief arm that was not used.

    Perhaps he should’ve pitched. He couldn’t have fared any worse than the relievers deployed in Wednesday’s come-from-ahead 6-5 loss to the Reds.

    The maddening thing is Parsons isn’t the only Atlanta reliever who experienced the same major-league “debut” during this cursed six-day span, the promising Evan Phillips getting the call Sunday only to sit, then return to Triple-A without throwing a pitch.

    Roll all this together, and you have a fanbase that completely and utterly has lost its collective mind on social media. Braves Twitter has its moments on a good day, but even by longtime observer and participant standards, this week has been one for the books. Or one for the panic button, which it seems the good folks in Braves Country have pushed en masse.

    There is credence to the “sky is falling” argument because, heck, it sure feels that way. The Braves bullpen is gassed, plain and simple. No group in the history of baseball needs Thursday’s day off in advance of a night game Friday in St. Louis more than Atlanta’s relievers. Manager Brian Snitker’s heavy reliance on his bullpen, in part a byproduct of the rotation failing more often than not to pitch deep into games, already is starting to catch up to this team, and we’re still in June.

    It doesn’t help that the offense, while scoring enough runs to win and getting plenty of runners on base, struggled mightily the past week in driving home runners from second and third base. Even getting a fly ball to the outfield with one out and a runner at third base has proven problematic for an offense that has spent most of the first half of the season taking advantage of nearly every opportunity to pounce on opposing pitchers.

    We quickly are approaching the time where Atlanta has to decide whether to ride out the good vibes of arriving a season earlier than many expected, or to commit to trying and crash the postseason party come October. No, nobody is saying empty the farm for a rental. Doing so would be foolish.

    But what will Alex Anthopoulos do as the trade deadline approaches in four weeks? Six games do not make a season, but it is clear the Braves need bullpen help. Premium relievers carry a heavy price tag (prospect capital as much as dollars).

    How much of the bullpen management (mismanagement?) falls at the feet of Snitker, who does not have a contract for 2019 and was not hired by Anthopoulos, but clearly is the player’s choice to lead this team?

    To be fair, these questions were going to be asked at some point, regardless. But given the events of the past week, the spotlight shines brighter now on the go-forward plan for this team for the remainder of 2018. And that’s not a bad thing. I mean, who wouldn’t have signed up for this in March, that the Braves would own the East penthouse for the better part of two months, playing at a 90-plus win pace through 79 games?

    And while it feels the sky is falling, it’s important to remember for all the fits and starts of the past six days, the Braves at worst are going to lose only one game in the standings pending Philadelphia’s game late Wednesday. A decent final few days of June will give Atlanta its third-consecutive winning month. Phenom Ronald Acuna Jr., feared lost for the season after a nasty injury at the end of May, likely returns to the lineup this weekend. Vizcaino could be back by the end of the weekend.

    There are 83 games remaining in the season, and the next 10 won’t be easy: three in St. Louis, three in Yankee Stadium, four in Milwaukee. Nary an off day to be found in that stretch. The wild roller coaster of this season resumes before you know it.

    The Braves – and their fans – best take advantage of the next few hours to rest, to recover and to refocus.

    —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 Reality Check, But Not A Wet Blanket After 24 Hours in Boston

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – So the last time the Atlanta Braves graced SunTrust Park, I was unable to see them play in person. One game I had tickets for was washed away by rain, and the other game which I was slated to see in person instead was spent in my Braves room, cheering like crazy for my favorite NHL team in an elimination playoff game.

    Alas, the Winnipeg Jets – perhaps you remember them as the Atlanta Thrashers (and yes, there still are four guys on the active roster who skated in those beautiful baby blue unis at Philips Arena once upon a time; one of them, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, sported a Braves cap during press interviews and hereby has earned a standing invite from me to visit SunTrust Park) – fell short last Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. While the final seconds ticked away on the Jets season and the tears welled up in my eyes, at the same time the Braves were authoring a comeback for the ages, scoring six times in the bottom of the ninth inning to upend the Miami Marlins and put yet another brushstroke on two months of absolute greatness.

    That unfathomable 10-9 victory bolstered Braves County in a way we have not seen in these parts since the 2013 squad rolled to 96 victories, a division title and the last playoff appearance this fan base has experienced. Four miserable seasons followed, with fan favorites traded for kids barely old enough to shave and two different front offices telling us to be patient.

    There is no denying the Braves are baseball’s biggest surprise through the first eight weeks of 2018. At or near the top of the National League East most of the way with equal parts veterans playing well and brash young rookies announcing their presence. The crazy comeback against Miami felt storybook in every sense of the word, and the national media began locked in on this team in advance of this week’s road trip to NL East rival Philadelphia and AL powerhouse Boston.

    So here we sit in the fading hours of Saturday night. There is no hockey until Monday. The Jets have cleaned out their lockers. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Many of us have spent time today grilling out, squeezing what few dry hours remain before Tropical Storm Alberto nails the Southeastern U.S. with tons of rain and wind. The Rockets and Warriors just concluded a NBA playoff game on my big screen.

    And I could not care less, because I sit at my laptop conflicted.

    The Braves dropped two games in Philadelphia, which is OK. After all, Atlanta won the first three series against the Phillies before this week’s meeting. These two teams won’t meet again until Sept. 20, only from that point to play seven times in the season’s final 11 days.

    Geez, unbalanced schedule, thanks for that. Not like we’re in the same division or anything.

    But I digress. After the visit to Philly, the Braves headed to Boston, which is where this franchise’s story began some 142 years ago. Arriving in Beantown, Atlanta found itself squared up with the Red Sox, one of baseball’s gold standard franchises, one of the three American League teams (along with the Astros and Yankees) that many feel will emerge in early November as champions.

    Talk about a measuring stick as we close in on completing the first third of the marathon that is a baseball season. This young and emerging team, against one of the few established powers.

    In a span of 24 hours covering Friday night through Saturday afternoon, the Braves dropped two games. In that timeframe, we saw just how far this franchise has come, and how much further it has to go.

    Look at both games through two different viewpoints, if you will:

    On one hand, Atlanta had ample opportunities to win both games. The Braves left a multitude of runners on base in Friday’s series opener. The starting pitching could not hold the line. The bullpen wasn’t much better. The bullpen management was abysmal.

    You want specifics? How in the world can you have a failed starter just recalled from Triple-A face the frontrunner for AL MVP in a one-run game? That’s on Brian Snitker, folks, plain and simple.

    Let’s go to Saturday, which may be the most agonizing game any of us have watched this season – and yes, I’m including the “weather-n-walk” disaster in Chicago in that discussion. The middle game of this series drug on like a bad early-morning conference call with that one person who keeps butting in mid-sentence to say, “sorry, I was on mute!”

    And yet, Atlanta had multiple chances to seize control of both games. It did not happen, and as of this moment when my fingers are hitting the keyboard late on a Saturday night, the Braves no longer reside in first place in the NL East. That honor belongs to those Phillies, albeit by a scant ½ game.

    There are two talk-tracks that have emerged from the past two games:

    One, is the Braves are not ready for this level of play. They ran up against one of the game’s best teams and they could not handle the pressure, could not handle playing in Fenway – let’s face it, were the Braves to somehow win the pennant and reach the World Series, odds are they would have to deal with a venue like this, be it in Boston, Houston or the Bronx – and could not answer the counter punches from one of the top squads in MLB.

    One, is the Braves needed this. They have rolled through the NL, found success in their division, sport a favorable run differential and have been swashbucklers on the road. They needed to see how the penthouse teams live, how they thrive, how they take every little mistake you make and bury you for it, and this will serve their development well. This is a good teachable moment that will help this bunch moving forward more than any of us right now can grasp.

    Want to know my take?

    Both are true.

    Is Atlanta ready to face a team like Boston in a seven-game series in the 10th month of the season, with the bunting on the railings and all the media and all the cameras and a billion people worldwide watching and that trophy with 30 gold pennants on it? Probably not. And that’s OK. Do I dream about it? Absolutely! I’ve been there. These two aging blue eyes saw the trophy with the pointy pennants brought onto our home field, albeit on the wobbly (read: drunk) head of Ted Turner, and paraded on top of a fire truck through the streets of my hometown.

    Is this weekend a good measuring stick and a good barometer for this team that hasn’t played for anything meaningful the past 55 months, when the bullpen door in Los Angeles remained locked for reasons none of us ever will freaking understand? Yes, certainly. We are 50 games into this season that has engaged us so much. Yes, it is disappointing to lose the first two and be left with resorting to salvaging the finale, but would any of you not sign up for this back in February if you had a crystal ball and realized Atlanta arrived the day before Memorial Day with a 29-21 record?

    There are challenges afoot, for sure, and questions to answer and holes to fill. And yes, the schedule does not get easier, not with a doubleheader at home on Monday with the Mets (if Tropical Storm Alberto allows such festivities to commence) and the always-dangerous Nationals in town after that, followed by the usual west-coast roadtrip that includes three with the defending NL champion Dodgers.

    Many of us longtime fans used to bemoan that early June swing out west, that back in the day would constitute trips to San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I always called it the “June Swoon Trip,” the one that let me know it was time to look forward to Falcons or Hawks or Dawgs season because the Braves would arrive back home buried in the old NL West.

    I certainly don’t see that happening this season. This team figures to be relevant deep into summer. The fits and starts in the Northeast this weekend only help fuel the development of this fun, exciting and intriguing team, as we continue shifting from rebuilder to contender.

    —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.

    Anthopoulos Hiring Restores Hope

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Alex Anthopoulos may never lead the Atlanta Braves to a World Series championship. But amid a dark and stormy winter, the new general manager of the disgraced franchise provided something during his first day on the job Monday that felt completely unattainable through the first six weeks of the worst offseason in team history.

    Hope.

    Capping a process that accelerated over the weekend and culminated in news breaking in the overnight hours, the 40-year-old sat behind a microphone at SunTrust Park on Monday afternoon, the 12th general manager in Braves history beginning a tenure that starts under immense scrutiny and the looming storm clouds of Major League Baseball’s investigation looming on the horizon.

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    But even though there undoubtedly will be stiff penalties handed down and time will be needed for the paying public to move beyond the scandal, Anthopoulos and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk sounded all the right notes in Monday’s announcement. And for this organization, getting the optics right is almost as critical in the healing process.

    McGuirk began by apologizing to the Braves fanbase for the front office scandal that forced disgraced former general manager John Coppolella to resign on Oct. 2.  He remained tight lipped about the nature of the misdeeds, revealing only that he expects Major League Baseball to announce the findings of its investigation into the Braves’ rules violations, along with resulting penalties, within the next two weeks.

    As notable as who appeared during the 30-minute press conference was who did not speak. Team president John Hart was not on stage, having been removed of any influence on baseball decisions beyond an advisory role, a necessary move for a baseball lifer who either was guilty of letting Coppolella run amuck, or too disengaged to notice.

    Longtime general manager John Schuerholz was not present on stage, either. Longtime manager Bobby Cox sat in the audience along manager Brian Snitker.

    Let’s now pause to consider this for a moment. Today has to be the first time the Braves made a major announcement without Cox, Schuerholz and/or Hart offering the voice of the franchise since 1985, the season before Cox returned to Atlanta as general manager and a decade before Atlanta won its lone World Series title.

    For a disenchanted fanbase long-since sick of hearing about “The Braves Way,” this was the right move.

    So, too, is hiring Anthopoulos, who made his mark in Toronto as a general manager not afraid to swing and miss in firing on a big deal. There were more hits than misses in building a team that reached the AL championship series in 2015-16, and time spent in the Dodgers’ front office helping bring Los Angeles its first pennant since 1988 certainly helps, too.

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    The fact Atlanta was able to hire Anthopoulos, one of the brighter young minds in baseball with a desire to win, is impressive. Given the current climate surrounding the franchise, it’s nothing short of a best-case scenario. For the fans, bloggers and columnists who have screamed for weeks about cleaning house and steering clear of a list of former GMs closer to retirement than relevance, this is about as good as it gets.

    Certainly, there is risk. Unless the Braves already have an idea what level of sanctions will be passed down, there is that uncertainty looming over whoever landed in the GM’s chair. There clearly are holes on the major-league roster, including the bullpen and third base and the needed move to clear room for Ronald Acuna in the outfield by March.

    But the upside is enormous, which Anthopoulos mentioned repeatedly in his opening address as GM. With baseball’s best farm system and opening revenue streams and a major-league roster already sprinkled with promising young and controllable talent, the national narrative on this day started shifting back to the pre-October storyline.

    The Braves are getting close. The better days are coming, and soon.

    The baseball decisions to come in the next few weeks will loom large for the 2018 season, one in which Atlanta looks to snap a four-season string of 90-plus losses while appeasing fans and business partners who will sting from the scandal and pending sanctions for some time to come. But at least Anthopoulos fills the gaping hole in the front office, consolidating control into a single voice, one that has built a pennant contender, one that was involved in a World Series run last month.

    And that guy holds the keys to the kingdom, one that does not seem as dire as it did before the weekend began. The honeymoon will not last long and he surely will be tasked with trading some of the overpacked pantry of prospects to address immediate needs. But in Anthopoulos the Braves have their man for the next four years.

    Again, they have hope.

    —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.

    7 Key Questions for Braves as Critical Offseason Looms

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Tailgating alongside Circle 75 Parkway in the shadow of SunTrust Park on Saturday, hours before the penultimate game of the Atlanta Braves’ debut season in their new home, the news flashed across the Twitter-verse that catcher Kurt Suzuki had punted pending free agency in favor of a one-year deal to return in 2018.

    Approximately 20 hours later, my trip to the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 for the final game of the first year in the Braves’ new home was postponed due to a dead battery and a broken battery connection. It laid waste to plans for the day, but as I settled into the Braves room at home after performing the auto repair necessary in advance of a busy week, I realized my unplanned vehicle issues served as a poignant reminder that for all the planning in the world, things can go in a different direction.

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Hence, we arrive at the final week of the Braves’ 2017 season, one in which some felt Atlanta might push to contend for a National League wild-card spot. Many more felt this would be a season of progression; this correspondent predicted this edition of Atlanta baseball would win 78 games. It is a goal mathematically still attainable, provided the Braves win eight games in seven days to close this campaign.

    My point being this: You can plan for the future all you want, lay out the best path forward but, at the end of the day, things happen that can throw off that plan. You have to be able to adjust, to learn from what occurred and shift direction accordingly.

    There is no denying the Braves of 2017 have been equally tantalizing and frustrating. So it goes in a rebuild, especially with an influx of young talent in a new stadium, with flashes of brilliance and ineptitude equally woven into the day-to-day tapestry of the six-month marathon known as a baseball season.

    As the final week of this season dawns, a look at some of the hot-button issues surrounding this franchise as winter is (nearly) here, a season in which the decisions made will help define what is to come in future summers.

    Who is manager in 2018?

    Everybody was thrilled when Brian Snitker – who is the definition of a Braves lifer – was brought back for 2017, with an option for 2018. Atlanta’s passionate finishing kick to close 2016, winning 20 of its final 30 games, gave Snitker the chance to manage a full major-league season this year.

    But a series of tactical errors and some questionable handling of the Braves’ young talent leads me to believe he will not be retained. That is not an indictment of a man who does not have a job guaranteed after next Sunday. He managed attempting to win every night, even if that mentality ran counter to playing younger players for development of the rebuild.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Should this team fulfil its appointed prophecy and win a World Series, Snitker deserves a ring. He served his role in the rebuild and, for the most part, served it well. The players love him. But the franchise needs a manager now who will be here in 2022. That is not Snitker.

    Who comprises the rotation in 2018?

    Atlanta rolled the dice on veterans to cover innings in 2017 – a sound strategy given the time needed to let the first really big wave of young talent to continue percolating in the minors. R.A. Dickey has proven to be steady. Jaime Garcia pitched well at times before netting a prospect at the trade deadline. Bartolo Colon was an unmitigated disaster, as much as we all wanted him to be good.

    General manager John Coppolella is quoted today in published reports that the Braves will look to their young arms to take a step forward in 2018. That tells me Julio Teheran, who was awful for most of the year at home but has turned around his season the past month, will be here. Mike Foltynewicz and Luiz Gohara look like locks for the 2018 rotation, with Sean Newcomb likely to be in the top five, too.

    That leaves one spot. The feeling here is R.A. Dickey rides off into the sunset and heads home to Nashville, leaving the opening as a battle between Max Fried, Lucas Sims and a cast of others who with an impressive camp could start the year in Atlanta (and while I think it’s unlikely they skip Triple-A, I would not discount Kolby Allard or Mike Soroka emerging in March).

    Who pitches out of the bullpen?

    Atlanta’s relief corps in the second half of the season has been a motley mix of veterans (Jason Motte, Rex Brothers, Jim Johnson) and promising young arms (A.J. Minter, Daniel Winkler, Akeel Morris). For now, it appears both closer Arodys Vizcaino and set-up man Jose Ramirez are likely to be in the bullpen to start 2018, but the other five or six slots are up for grabs.

    Sam Freeman certainly has earned a long look next spring, the left-hander proving effective time and time again. Minter, with an offseason of rest, should be ready to unleash his high-90s velocity on back-to-back days. Winkler has impressed now that he is healthy again. Coppolella indicated the Braves will pursue one or two bullpen pieces. Adding a Brad Hand to the core group would go a long way to settling the final innings.

    Which corner outfielder has played his final game at SunTrust Park?

    I do not envision a scenario where the Braves trade Matt Kemp. For one, his contract (through 2019) and the money owed makes it difficult to move the oft-injured right-handed slugger. More importantly, for better or worse, this lineup at this moment is much better with a healthy Kemp hitting cleanup behind Freddie Freeman.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The thought here is the Braves retain Kemp at least through 2018, using Lane Adams – who has enjoyed a breakthrough season and should be the fourth outfielder coming out of camp – to fill in when Kemp is out. That leaves Nick Markakis as the odd-man out, and with one year at $11 million left on his contract and another solid year offensively, there should be plenty of suitors on the market.

    So an outfielder gets traded … who takes that spot?

    Like seriously? Short of leaving baseball for soccer – and his speed would fit in nicely with Atlanta United – Ronald Acuna will be in the Braves outfield on opening day March 29, 2018. And while he will be a 20-year-old rookie who will experience the inevitable ups and downs from playing in the highest league in the world, there is little doubt Acuna is going to be a difference maker … and soon.

    What does Atlanta’s lineup look like in 2018?

    There often is debate online whether the Braves would be better served by putting Ozzie Albies at the top of the lineup. But when you have Ender Inciarte – who is three hits shy of becoming the first Atlanta player in 21 years to reach 200 hits – it is a moot point. Inciarte, for all the teeth-grinding by the sabermetric folks, is a very good hitter who gets on base. He hits leadoff. Stats are great. Results are great, too.

    Albies has impressed in the two-spot and is a switch hitter. He stays there, with the thought he will adjust to the league as it adjusts to him. Freddie Freeman and Kemp are anchored in the 3-4 spots. No doubt there.

    Beyond that, there are options. The catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Suzuki, who will be back in 2018 (Atlanta is almost certain to pick up Flowers’ club option) could slot fifth or sixth. Acuna likely hits sixth or seventh. Dansby Swanson’s adjustments to breaking balls on the outer third since returning from Gwinnett leads me to believe he should hit sixth or seventh.

    OF Ender Inciarte could become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    OF Ender Inciarte could soon become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    The one thing that could turn this around would be if Atlanta trades for or signs a power-hitting third baseman. Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas was interesting, but his big power surge this season and the fact he is a free agent in the prime of his career very well may price him out of Atlanta’s range.

    And with the emergence of Johan Camargo, and the flashes seen from Rio Ruiz, it may be a good thing Moustakas will command a long-term, high-money deal. Atlanta could do far worse than a Camargo/Ruiz platoon next season.

    How patient should be fanbase be in 2018?

    For all the pomp and circumstance as we look back to 1991, the fact remains that Atlanta squad which won the NL pennant had its foundation laid over a four-season period (1987-90). In this age of instant gratification and less-than-zero patience, Braves fans should be cautioned that it is possible a fifth-consecutive sub-.500 season could loom in 2018.

    Rebuilds take time and do not produce instant results. Yes, I know the good folks in Braves Country have suffered since the midpoint of the 2014 season. That is a long time to struggle. But there are good signs this rebuild is progressing as designed. Sure, there will be forks in the road in which decisions that will define this franchise have to be made.

    Several of those decisions loom as this summer descends into the offseason. In the coming weeks, I will reach out to members of the fanbase to discuss the points raised above. It is my goal to communicate the raw feelings of the fanbase as we enter what I feel may be the offseason that defines the coming years of this franchise, and whether this great rebuild results in what we all hope.

    Running the risk of hyperbole, I feel the next few months will be critical in determining the future of this franchise and how history will judge this era of Braves baseball.

    —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 ‘Swanson Situation’ Requires Patience, Long-Term View

    By Bud L. Ellis
    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, takes its appointed path bending toward the outside corner of the plate, and the batter swings over the top of the sliding sphere as the ball thuds into the catcher’s mitt.

    The umpire cries, “strike three,” the crowd groans, and the 23-year-old hitter with the boyish good looks, the gorgeous hair, the aw-sucks temperament, and the weight of a hometown team and hometown friends on his young shoulders begins the walk back to the dugout.

    It is a common refrain we have seen from Dansby Swanson through the first four months of this 2017 baseball season, the first full campaign of major-league duty for Cobb County’s favorite son, a locale which by coincidence also is hosting the Atlanta Braves for the first season in brand-new SunTrust Park.

    Entering play Sunday, Swanson was batting just .210 with a .593 OPS

    Entering play Sunday, SS Dansby Swanson was batting just .210 with a .593 OPS and -0.3 WAR

    Swanson was anointed by the Braves fanbase as a linchpin of the team’s future, a key cog in the rebuild of the once-proud franchise that promised a return to baseball prominence while moving into a new home park. And the kid did nothing to shake that faith upon being summoned last August from Double-A Mississippi to man shortstop for his hometown team, hitting .302 across his first 38 big-league games while flashing the type of defense and leadership that led him through a successful college career at Vanderbilt before Arizona made him the top overall pick in the 2015 draft.

    But the numbers in 2017 have not been kind. Entering Sunday’s contest at Los Angeles, Swanson was hitting .210 with an OPS of .593 and 84 strikeouts in 319 at-bats. With Johan Camargo’s emergence as an impact player in an already-crowded Braves infield, Swanson’s struggles have presented Atlanta manager Brian Snitker a difficult decision every time he fills out the lineup card.

    The common answer of late has been to sit Swanson, who did not start Sunday and has a scant four hits in 43 July at-bats. Camargo, by comparison, brought a .336 average entering Sunday since begin recalled from the minors June 2.

    Camargo must play. Despite the numbers, Swanson has to play, too.

    Were the Braves knocking on the door of a playoff spot, were this 2018 or 2019 and Atlanta was four or five years into this rebuild, this conversation takes a different turn. There is no doubt a guy batting so close to the Mendoza Line with so many strikeouts would not warrant being in the regular starting eight in the midst of a pennant race.

    But a news flash to all the GMs and managers currently filling their social media accounts with the not-so-hot takes of “send Dansby to Gwinnett” … that is not the right answer. Not right now.

    Rookies struggle. It has happened as long as this game has been played, and will be the case long after you and me and Swanson and Camargo and Snitker have watched our final game. Opponents are smart. They have adjusted to Swanson, who thusly has struggled with adjusting back to the new attack plan of pounding sliders low and away. Face it. It happens.

    But what value is provided by sending Swanson to Triple-A, a level he skipped in getting his promotion to The Show last summer? From a confidence and attitude standpoint, there would not be any worries. Swanson has been in the spotlight since suiting up for Marietta High, a mere 10.8 miles from the new home of the Braves, a glare further enhanced by winning Most Outstanding Player while leading Vanderbilt to the 2014 College World Series title. A brief step back to collect himself would not harm a kid who has experienced so much at such a high level, whose confidence and demeanor indicate a guy who gets it, one who the Atlanta front office has placed tremendous trust in so early in his career.

    Braves SS Dansby Swanson

    Braves SS Dansby Swanson

    But what would Swanson see at Triple-A that would impact his development? Short answer: very little. He needs to play every day, against major-league pitching. Yes, there invariably will be bumps in the road. Every young player experiences dry spells. David Justice, who hit .279 with 305 homers in a successful major-league career, started his big-league days by going 1-for-20. Some kids struggle out of the gate; others hit a roadblock after a few months.

    The best path forward for Swanson is to be in the lineup as much as possible. With the trade deadline looming next week and the possibility Atlanta will move first baseman Matt Adams – a move that would shift Freddie Freeman back to first base permanently – and potentially veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips, the logjam in the Braves infield soon may ease.

    But even if the Braves keep Adams and Phillips, they – and their fanbase – must continue to keep focus on the development of Atlanta’s rebuild. There is no denying Swanson is a critical component of the retooling of this franchise. Beyond being a co-face of the franchise with Freeman, Swanson’s skill sets and potential as an impactful bat and glove scream that the kid needs to play, to work through his struggles, to get better against major-league pitching in major-league games.

    The Braves are not going to play in the World Series in 2017. If they did, it would be the greatest miracle since the 1991 Braves found themselves in the 10th inning of Game 7 of that season’s Fall Classic. Atlanta likely is not going to make the playoffs this season. It has been awesome to see this team battle to stay on the fringes of the wild-card race, but that is not the ultimate goal.

    The goal is to win championships, plural. The time for that is coming, and maybe sooner than many of us think. But to get to that level, Swanson must be productive. There is no harm in letting the kid figure it out right now. From the potential we’ve glimpsed of this kid and his team, the prudent move is to shove aside the “right-now” perspective and adopt the “long-term” approach.

    In this era of instant gratification and wanting results yesterday, that’s not an easy mindset to adopt. But the approach that keeps Swanson playing on a regular basis in the majors is the right approach.

    —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.