• Chad Sobotka

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —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 2018 Run is Done, but for Inspiring Braves It’s Only the Beginning

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The cadence of a baseball season is unique in that it starts with the sleepy slumber of late winter, the nearly seven-month marathon that builds to a crescendo, then concludes with a frantic sprint to a championship by 10 teams. One squad lifts the big trophy, and the other nine see their dreams end with the subtleness of running head-first into a concrete wall.

    Regardless of final result, for all teams the season’s conclusion does signify an end. But there are teams that the end only hints of a grander beginning, an earmark of better things to come. The 2018 Atlanta Braves embarked on their season March 29 at SunTrust Park against the Philadelphia Phillies, looking to avoid a fifth consecutive losing season. Some 193 days later, their season closed with a 6-2 defeat Monday to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

    There will be plenty of time in the weeks to come to discuss what this franchise’s accelerated progression from rebuilding squad to NL East champion means in the grand scheme of building a World Series champion, what moves will be made, what vulnerabilities were exposed. Now is not that time, not when the bandage has been ripped from the wound, when the standing ovation the home crowd gave the Braves as they walked off the field one last time still echoes in our ears, while many of us still are smiling with pride while tears trickled down our cheeks.

    No, this is a time to sit back, to breathe, to go ahead and laugh about how far the Braves have come in just six months and nine days, and yes, to cry a little bit. Because whoever said there is no crying in baseball never has lived and died with a baseball team for years, then to experience a season sprinkled with so much pixie dust, you find yourself looking at your friends or spouse or children or parents and repeatedly asking, “how is this happening?”

    Like many of the great pure joys of life, you just let it ride. And boy, what a ride these Braves took their beleaguered fanbase on in 2018. A .500 record? Yeah, right. How about 90 victories, a division championship, and a respectable battle put up against a team that played for the World Series title last fall? All the walk-off victories. The emergence of so much young talent, names we heard mentioned during the dark days of the rebuild, names typed on prospect lists, names we saw at Rome or Mississippi or Gwinnett, and wondered how they might fare amid the grind of a big-league schedule.

    You know the names by now, from the generational star-in-the-making Ronald Acuna to the All-Star Ozzie Albies, from the emerging Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb to the next wave of great arms fronted by Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Kolby Allard. Guys like Johan Camargo, who finally did enough to get the third-base job for keeps and never looked back. Guys like Chad Sobotka, who started the season at High-A Florida and ended it pitching in the NLDS. Don’t forget Dansby Swanson, lost for the playoffs with a hand injury but one of the NL’s best clutch hitters and defensive shortstops in just his second full major-league campaign. Or Ender Inciarte, acquired with Swanson in the now-famous heist of a trade with Arizona, anchoring Atlanta’s defense in center field while delivering his typical strong offensive second half. Or Charlie Culberson, who authored several of the season’s most signature moments.

    These Braves took all that youth and blended it with the veteran leadership provided by Nick Markakis, who made the All-Star team for the first time at age 34, the tandem of Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers behind the plate, the resurgent Anibal Sanchez – plucked from the free-agent scrap heap in March, but who pitched so effectively he earned a NLDS start while mentoring the young arms along the way – and a nod to one of this team’s lightning rods of criticism in recent years, the veteran Julio Teheran, who didn’t get a start in the NLDS but proudly came out of the bullpen in Game 4 and held the Dodgers at bay.

    And then, there is the constant.

    In Sunday’s Game 3, the first postseason game in the two-season existence of SunTrust Park, Acuna nearly brought down the house with a grand slam that staked the Braves to a 5-0 lead. The Kid gave Atlanta a cushion that the dogged Dodgers chipped away at until drawing even, and that fear of the run ending with a postseason sweep certainly creeped into the minds of even the most optimistic Braves fan.

    But that’s where The Captain came in. Freddie Freeman watched the Braves tear down the organization to the nubs in the years following Atlanta’s last postseason appearance in 2013. He never wavered, never complained, set the tone, led by example, excelled even as his prime years began with the Braves seemingly no closer to contending. All he did this season was lead the NL in hits and played Gold Glove-level defense while serving as the steady face of a team on the rise.

    Freeman slammed a long leadoff homer into The Chop House leading off the sixth inning of Game 3, turning SunTrust Park upside down in a moment that had you closed your eyes, you would swear you were standing inside long-gone Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the early 1990s. That homer proved to be the difference in the Braves lone victory in this series, but served symbolic in that the franchise foundational cornerstone had delivered the knockout blow on the national stage.

    So, of course it was Freeman striding to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4, Atlanta’s remarkable season hanging by the slimmest of threads. Freeman struck out to end the game, the series and the season, but not before the packed house serenaded him with chants of “Fred-die! Fred-die! Fred-die!”

    When the season ended – when the journey collided with that concrete wall of finality – at 8:16 p.m., the disappointment quickly faded into the aforementioned ovation. A few minutes later, Freeman told the media that for how proud he is of how far the Braves have come, the ultimate goal is to win the World Series. He emphasized and repeated the point.

    At the end of previous seasons, that type of comment would’ve be met with laughter. Nobody’s laughing now. Yes, the hearts ache and the tears fall, if for nothing else this team and its players have left an indelible impression on us all. The hashtag #ForEachOther rang true all season long, as players and fans truly felt they were in this together.

    Yes, 2018 has reached its end. But in every way imaginable, this also feels like only the beginning.

    —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.

    Baby Braves Ready for October Baptism

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Together, they will stand along the first-base line at Dodger Stadium on Thursday evening, adorned in road uniforms and no doubt will feel the full volume of disdain from 56,000 fans in Chavez Ravine to watch what most feel will be the first step in the home team’s return to the World Series.

    One by one, every member of the Atlanta Braves has applied a brushstroke of some sort onto this portrait of stunning arrival, the Braves surging from rebuilding also-ran to division champion in a breathtaking six months. They will grace the postseason stage, amid the increased glare of baseball’s most intense spotlight, as they will face the defending National League pennant winners in Thursday’s opening game of the NL Division Series.

    The talk tracks surrounding this team quickly converge into one irrefutable conclusion: Without the performance of several of Atlanta’s much-ballyhooed younger players, the squadron of young talent Atlanta built while spending four years buried in the standings, it’s unlikely Braves Country would be watching their team play a postseason game for the first time in five years Thursday. And while the headlines have focused on the spell-binding Ronald Acuna, the All-Star Ozzie Albies, the fiery (yet injured and unlikely to play in this series) Dansby Swanson, the emerging Johan Camargo, the ace-in-the-making Mike Foltynewicz and the promising Sean Newcomb, this goes way beyond those marquee names.

    Think about how different the fortunes of this team would have been without four rookies – Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard and Bryse Wilson – winning their big-league debuts. Where would Atlanta be without A.J. Minter grabbing hold of the closer’s gig in mid-summer, or without the 60 appearances from Jesse Biddle?

    This young core is vastly talented, and now has logged time at the highest level. But those names together have exactly zero innings of major-league postseason experience, a daunting fact considering the Dodgers reached Game 7 of the World Series last fall and have won six consecutive NL West titles.

    The Braves have defied the odds all season long, and if this magical run is to continue beyond the next seven days, they will need to continue to buck conventional wisdom. At every turn, be it when Albies stopped hitting homers or Acuna landed on the disabled list or Swanson fell into one of his offensive funks, or Minter and Biddle struggled to find the strike zone, there were other guys who picked up their pace at precisely the right time.

    Consider this: Did anybody four weeks ago think Chad Sobotka (yep, another rookie) would not only make the postseason roster – it will be announced at some point Wednesday or even early Thursday – but that the tall right-hander likely is going to throw very important innings, in close games, in October? This is what has made this Braves journey so special, so improbable. Many felt the talent was there, but how would it react to the pressures of a major-league season, a half-year grind of travel and no days off and late-night flights and competing against 29 other teams comprised of the best players on the planet?

    As the Braves worked out at SunTrust Park on Tuesday afternoon before flying to the west coast, Brian Snitker spoke to the assemblage of reporters about the need to keep things simple, to not try and change the style of play, to keep doing what delivered a 90-win season and the NL East championship. And while the postseason is a different animal altogether, with brighter lights and higher consequences and enhanced pressure, there is validity in Snitker’s words.

    The Braves of ’18 already have made an indelible mark on the hearts of their city and their fanbase. Nothing that happens in this series changes any of that. But these Braves are good. They may not have the postseason pedigree of their opponent. They may have a bunch of playoff newcomers getting their first taste of October baseball. They may not have the odds in their favor.

    But all season, the kids on this team have found a way, a testament backed up by all the one-run wins, the late-inning comebacks, the outstanding road record, the general feeling that yes, it may seem improbable, but sometimes being young enough to not know better is a blessing and not a curse.

    If these Braves are going to reach the NLCS, the kids are going to have to step up yet again. If the past 162 games have shown us anything at all, it’s that they have the ability, the swagger and the confidence to make it happen.

    And now, they get the chance to put it all on display, for all the world to see.

    —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.