• Charlie Morton

    Anthopoulos, Braves Enter Winter Meetings With Holes To Fill

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    WOODY GAP, Ga. — A brisk December afternoon finds winter’s chill riding the northwest breeze across the North Georgia mountains. A scattering of bundled-up hikers cross Ga. 60 at the Union County/Lumpkin County line, navigating the rocky trails at a site where snow fell for most of the afternoon just five days earlier.

    This place sits 88 miles from my upper-deck seats at Truist Park. As with so many things in 2020, that slice of normalcy feels a million miles away.

    Today’s view, a stop on this Saturday’s winding journey around and over the hilly terrain of my home state, is perfect for pause and perspective. The Winter Meetings — often a point of both decision and pivot for baseball’s offseason — kick off Sunday. Much like everything else in this year unlike any other, it will be different. Virtual. No meeting in suites. No hallway conversations. No ideas bandied about while sharing a drink or a meal.

    Looking Ahead: A brief pause before the Winter Meetings begin.

    Like the hikers determining which path to take after crossing the highway, the Atlanta Braves sit pondering choices of direction at a couple of key checkpoints in filling out the 2021 roster. You can cross the starting rotation off Alex Anthopoulos’ shopping list, the Braves general manager inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton last month to a pair of one-year pacts for $26 million.

    That last part stands out to me. The naysayers who lean on the worn-out narrative that the Braves don’t spend money conveniently forget the spending spree of last offseason, when Atlanta bolstered its roster to the point it would’ve hit opening day with a payroll of around $155 million.

    Atlanta has 11 players under guaranteed contracts for approximately $95.05 million in 2021 (including Smyly and Morton), with an estimated potential (per FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors) of $13 million more to four players in arbitration. Add in the up to $4.16 million if the contracts tendered to Luke Jackson, Johan Camargo and Grant Dayton become full, and that’s a 2021 number so far of approximately $112.21 million.

    Spending $26 million of that on the Smyly/Morton duo leads me to think even with pandemic-impacted finances, the Braves still have significant money to spend. They certainly have needs to add to a core that came within one win of the NL pennant.

    Pause and perspective; two words that at times are hard for fans to grasp. A few thoughts as I gaze at the mountains in the distance and think about a franchise aiming to reach the summit.

    We Should Marcellebrate: I know Anthopoulos doesn’t like long-term deals. I know the organization is loath to pay top dollar over a lengthy timeframe. I know the ongoing — and ridiculous — fact MLB and the Players Association have yet to determine if the DH remains in the NL for 2021 plays a factor not just for the Braves, but for every Senior Circuit club.

    I also know what I saw from Marcell Ozuna in a Braves uniform. No, I do not expect a Triple Crown-contending campaign to be the baseline. No, I admit his defensive shortcomings in left field give me pause.

    I also know the impact of having that type of right-handed bat behind reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman (if I may briefly digress: how awesome it was to type that). It’s why I advocated re-signing Josh Donaldson last winter, a player almost five years older and one with a longer injury history.

    I don’t anticipate something happening with Ozuna until the DH is decided. It’s immaterial to me. Sure, it’s not my money, but I’d pony up a four-year deal at $88 million ($22 million average annual value, or AAV). I think that’s what it will take to sign him. I’d live with the defense in left field for one season to know the biggest hole in the lineup is filled through 2024.

    It’s a Marcellebration: Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna’s selfies became a symbol of the 2020 postseason.

    Anthopoulos likes to jump the market. I’d love to see him do it with Ozuna. Do I think it will happen? Honestly, no. I expect the Braves to fill the lineup hole via trade, perhaps a one-year “rental” of former MVP Kris Bryant to play third base and/or left field, citing one oft-mentioned example that doesn’t excite me like it did last winter or the winter before.

    Either way he goes, Anthopoulos has no choice but to nail this move. It’s his biggest to date in his tenure. The bat acquired has to be impactful. And while it shouldn’t have to be said, just for the record, piecing together a solution in-house is unacceptable. All the more reason in my opinion to be aggressive and maybe a bit uncomfortable here, and stretch to give Braves Country a reason to Marcellebrate.

    Gold Glove Bullpen Piece: One of the more memorable (and enjoyable) images from the NLCS was closer Mark Melancon gloving not one, but two Ozzie Albies homers belted into the Braves bullpen.

    No Bull, This Glove’s Legit: Braves closer Mark Melancon caught two Ozzie Albies homers in the bullpen during the NLCS.

    Melancon, a free agent expected to net somewhere between $4 million and $8 million, has spent the offseason cracking up the masses on social media. From my perspective, he should spend next season cracking down on opposing hitters in the ninth inning for the Braves.

    I’ve heard multiple people I trust say they expect the 35-year-old (he turns 36 in late March) to re-sign with Atlanta. Melancon’s return would provide the Braves one more impactful arm needed to go with Will Smith and Chris Martin — plus lefties Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter — to form another formidable bullpen.

    I’d think $6 million-$7 million gets it done, but be patient. The reliever market is flooded, even more so now after the non-tender deadline. It might be mid-January, but unless someone blows him away with an offer, I expect Melancon back in 2021.

    One More Bloom: Atlanta needs a backup catcher, but for multiple reasons there is zero reason to spend significant money here.

    Travis d’Arnaud figures to catch a majority of the time — Braves catchers typically split duties in part to the toll of the Atlanta summer heat, but d’Arnaud could be in line for 130 starts after his breakout 2020. Atlanta has two highly regarded catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, but the loss of minor-league ball in 2020 dictates both need to catch every day somewhere in 2021 and not ride the bench in Atlanta.

    Alex Jackson could handle the staff fine for 35 starts at the major-league minimum salary. But I know how highly the organization regards Tyler Flowers. With roots in Atlanta and likely limited opportunities elsewhere if he wanted to try and catch on with another organization, I could see the Braves bringing Flowers back for cheap (say, $1.5 million, or roughly $1 million more than Jackson’s salary).

    California Dreamin’: There was a little buzz when the Angels tabbed Braves exec Perry Minasian as their GM, in particular given a certain Braves star and newly minted MVP who has California roots and an expiring deal.

    Dream on. I don’t see any scenario in which Freeman leaves the Braves. My feeling all along has been a contract extension will be done before the season begins. Doing so avoids Freeman’s status being a talking point all season, and gives the Braves cost certainty at the position for the foreseeable future.

    M-V-Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final year of his contract after winning NL MVP honors.

    Until I see otherwise, I think Atlanta will do right for Freeman and the two sides will settle somewhere around $185 million for seven years ($26.4 million AAV). And no, the first baseman should not take a “hometown discount,” and fans have no right to expect that he should.

    Doting on Duvvy: Closing out today with a hat tip to Adam Duvall, whose pinch-hit homer off Jack Flaherty in Game 2 of the 2019 NLDS was such a cool moment to experience. Cool beyond how the crowd shifted from annoyance with Brian Snitker’s decision to hit Duvall for Mike Foltynewicz to euphoria when Duvall deposited a 3-2 offering over the wall in center, but because of the ease that comes with rooting for a guy like Duvall and the significance of him delivering in that moment.

    Duvall’s story — his living with Type 1 diabetes, his work at Triple-A after not breaking camp with the team in 2019, his prolific 10-game span this season in which he belted nine homers (including two three-homer games) — is well known. He made quite an impression on this fanbase. To this day, I have not met one person who does not like Duvall.

    I was surprised he got non-tendered, but I hope he lands a starting gig and a good payday somewhere. He’s certainly deserving.

    —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.

    Back Where It Started: Braves, Morton Reunite With One-Year Deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A dozen years is a long, long time. I’m reminded of that every time I look at my kids … or look in the mirror.

    How long is a dozen years? Let’s go back to 2008. Some dude (me) started a lonely little Braves blog called BravesToday.com. He thought it would be fun to write about the ballclub every day. He even opened an account on some weird, new social media site called Twitter to occasionally promote the blog.

    Timing is everything in life, and the timing wasn’t great in this instance. Those Braves lost 90 games, the first time an Atlanta team had dropped that many games since 1990, the year before the worst-to-first Miracle Braves kicked off the franchise’s magical run. The company who hosted the blog went bankrupt. That Twitter account got ignored for a year or two.

    There wasn’t a whole lot to write about in that summer of ‘08. Chipper Jones was hitting .400 in June and ended up winning the NL batting title at .364. Otherwise, it wasn’t much fun. But there were a couple of bright spots.

    One came on a Saturday in Anaheim in June, when one of the Braves projected future aces made his major-league debut by holding the Angels to three runs on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in six strong innings. 24-year-old Charlie Morton, who the club selected in the third round of the 2002 draft, threw 64 of his 104 pitches for strikes that night in besting future Brave legend Ervin Santana and pulling Atlanta within one game of .500 at 34-35.

    The rest of the story: not as fun. Morton gave up five runs or more four times in his other 14 starts, finishing 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA. By the following June, he was gone from the organization. The Braves finished 72-90, 20 games out of first place in the NL East. Their next playoff appearance was two years away.

    Now we hit the fast-forward button to today. The Braves and Morton have reunited, agreeing to a one-year, $15-million deal. It’s the second move in eight days Atlanta has made to add to a starting rotation that endured a death march of injuries and underperformance in 2020, following last week’s one-year, $11-million agreement with Drew Smyly.

    Smyly is a nice piece based on his short body of work down the stretch in 2019 for Philadelphia and seven appearances in 2020 for San Francisco.

    Morton is much, much more impactful.

    Charles in Charge: Charlie Morton won his first three postseason starts in 2020, including striking out six in 5 2/3 shutout innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to pitch the Rays to the World Series.

    After being dealt to Pittsburgh in the awful Nate McLouth deal in June 2009, Morton had surgeries on both hips with Tommy John surgery mixed in for good measure across the next five seasons. Once he finally got healthy, he shifted from pitching to contact (6.3 strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratio from 2008-2015) to relying on velocity.

    Since the start of 2017, Morton has a 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and owns a 3.34 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 97 starts for the Astros and Rays, posting a 1.159 WHIP, 7.4 hits-per-nine innings and a 3.57 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. From his debut through 2016, Morton threw more than 145 innings twice. He’s surpassed that in each of his previous three full seasons (146 2/3 in 2017, 167 in 2018, 194 2/3 in 2019).

    It’s paid off in more ways than one. Morton closed out Game 7 of the 2017 World Series for Houston and in 12 postseason appearances since 2017 has posted a 3.40 ERA with a .644 OPS. He made the All-Star team in 2018 and 2019, finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019, and signed a two-year, $30-million deal with Tampa Bay after the 2018 season.

    Now, a dozen years after those six innings in Anaheim, Morton returns to where it all began.

    —30—

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

    2020 Season Preview: Braves are Built Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Entering Unprecedented Campaign

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nobody could have predicted what we have been through the past few months. Nobody could imagine the impact the coronavirus would have on every single aspect of our everyday lives, on things far more serious than the doings of a baseball franchise seeking its first World Series title in a quarter-century.

    Yet, in some weird way, Alex Anthopoulos built an Atlanta Braves team that seems poised to handle baseball’s 60-game sprint quite well. It certainly wasn’t foresight into what this 2020 baseball season would look like – one that will be as unprecedented as any baseball campaign in the history of the sport – but rather, by how the Braves general manager viewed his team after back-to-back National League East championships.

    Anthopoulos felt the Braves needed depth in their bullpen. He first addressed it with three moves at last season’s trade deadline, and further bolstered it by signing Will Smith in early November. There is the seemingly never-ending supply of pitching prospects gurgling in the upper levels of the minor leagues, including some arms the Braves hope are ready for prime-time duty under the bright lights of the majors.

    The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League automatically lengthened Atlanta’s lineup, a lineup that saw a logjam at third base with Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, plus a logjam in the outfield. Certainly, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be in the lineup almost every day, and even with Nick Markakis electing not to play, the Braves still have Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall (plus Cristian Pache waiting in the wings).

    Adding the designated hitter also can help these Braves address a deficiency that could be an Achilles heel – bats that mash right-handed pitching. Often those guys are left-handed hitters, and the Braves brought Matt Adams back this week hoping to see the type of power he displayed here three seasons ago. The reported and rumored signing of Yasiel Puig would have addressed that, too (the erstwhile Dodgers slugger bats right-handed, but features reverse splits). But once again, COVID-19 and 2020 reared its ugly head, Puig testing positive for the virus and announcing the news via social media just minutes after the Braves captain – Freddie Freeman – joyously trotted onto the field Friday at Truist Park, following his harrowing journey through having the virus.

    Freddie Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times, but the four-time All-Star found himself sick from COVID-19 in early July.

    Freeman embarks on his 10th season in the majors; how has it been that long? Without question this is his team, much as Terry Pendleton led the early 90s Braves, much as Chipper Jones carried that torch for more than a decade. Thankfully, Freeman looks healthy and his swing looks great. A week ago, we all wondered what a Freeman-less Braves would look like embarking on a truncated schedule that begins with 20 games in 20 days, against plenty of great pitching.

    Consider who the Braves may see in those opening 20 games: Jacob deGrom (twice) and Steven Matz of the Mets, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Rays, Hyun Jin-Ryu of the Blue Jays, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees. That’s nine of your first 20 games against a group of pitchers who are on many people’s short list of All-Star hurlers.

    It’s all going to be different. This isn’t going to be your father’s baseball season. The methodical marathon that frames our spring and summer evenings? Not this year, folks. This is a 400-yard dash for a sport accustomed to logging 26.2 miles. Teams that start quickly are going to be positioned to potentially steal playoff spots. But before crying doom and gloom if the Braves arrive at their first off day on Aug. 13 at 8-12, consider two schedule quirks across the final 40 games that might prove more important than having to start 14-6.

    The middle 20 games: Atlanta faces Philadelphia and Washington 12 times. Six of the other eight are against Miami and Boston (this Red Sox team certainly is not of the ilk of the 2018 champs). Even if the Braves stumble a bit out of the gate, not only do they have an opportunity to catch up against two subpar teams in the middle part of the schedule, they also play 60 percent of their games in that stretch against the two teams I feel will challenge them for the NL East title.

    The final 20 games: The Braves play 13 against the Marlins, Orioles and Red Sox. Atlanta ends the season with a seven-game homestand against Miami and Boston. The Yankees and the Rays are likely to rule the AL East, and Boston’s pitching is quite suspect. Miami will be better; its young pitching is maturing, and the Marlins have a few guys who are developing into good players (they’re a couple of years away from being a real problem for the NL East). If you’re going to wrap up the season with a week at home, other than Baltimore, there are no two teams in the combined East you want to face than the Marlins and Red Sox.

    What will it take to get to that point, 53 games in the books, one week to go, with a shot at October? The more I look at it, the more I think the Braves are built for this.

    Atlanta’s youthful exuberance, a hallmark of the Braves resurgence the past two seasons, remains (minus the hugs and high-fives). Acuna remains an emerging megastar. Ozzie Albies is developing into a star in his own right. The rotation is fronted by two of the better young arms in the game: Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in modern Braves history to earn an opening-day starting assignment, and Max Fried, who could develop into a sneaky Cy Young candidate if his change-up continues developing.

    22-year-old Mike Soroka finished second in NL rookie-of-the-year voting in 2019 and sixth in Cy Young voting, providing a cool presence at the top of Atlanta’s rotation entering his second full big-league season.

    There are question marks. Can Cole Hamels get healthy? Can Dansby Swanson replicate his 2019 first half and postseason while staying healthy? Can Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz settle the middle of the rotation? Will Ender Inciarte start the season hitting like it’s April or July? Can Smith, who is out with the virus but asymptomatic, test negative twice and get back on the mound?

    We are forced to acknowledge the 50,000-pound weight hanging over all this. What happens after three weeks of play, of flying into different cities and staying in hotels then returning home, if positive tests spike and a team (be it the Braves or another team) finds itself with an outbreak? Nobody knows, and that’s part of the trepidation I feel in offering a projection of where this Braves team lands when this season like no other reaches its conclusion on Sept. 27.

    But we’re going to hope and pray things go well – for every team in the majors – and we’ll forge ahead with a best guess. And it’s just that: a guess. We have no clue what’s going to happen. There is no playbook, no guideposts. This is the strangest season preview I’ve ever authored, fitting for the strangest year of my life.

    This incredibly unpredictable sprint rests on simple math. Each singular game is worth 2.7 times one regular game in a 162-game season (subscription required). If you win 37 games, that’s a .616 win percentage (a 99-win pace over a full season). Win 27 games? That’s a .450 win percentage (a 74-win pace).

    I don’t see these Braves reaching either that peak or that valley. Even with an 8-12 start, I think they’re good enough – based on their depth, Freeman being ready from the jump, the young talent on the roster, and motivation after choking away what should have been the franchise’s first postseason series victory in 18 years – to finish 34-26.

    That’s a 91-win pace over 162, and I think that’s just enough to land the Braves one game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Philadelphia. That would put Atlanta into the postseason party, and in a world where everything seems to have changed, the overarching goal has not:

    Win 11 games in October and capture the World Series title. There is no telling who will do it, or what will happen along the way, but it’s time to start the journey.

    After all we’ve been through, how sweet that sounds.

    —30—

    On deck as we preview the 2020 Atlanta Braves season: A Braves Opening Day like no other.

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