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    Braves Again Boast Big Upside, and “What If?” …

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The initial day of February. Friday night in the capital city. The weather has warmed a bit, thankfully. The Super Bowl is here this weekend, all the beauty and class of Atlanta shining bright on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

    In the lab this evening doing what I always do when this weekend rolls around: prepping for my fantasy baseball draft.

    (No, I’m not going to talk fantasy baseball. Nobody cares about my fantasy team … oh, and nobody cares about your fantasy team, either.)

    It’s this time of year, when the NFL prepares to crown a champion and we start to get the slightest tease of spring weather, when my thoughts turn toward which players I will select on draft day. And regardless of whether or not you play fantasy sports, you’re a baseball fan. You look ahead to the season and wonder what will happen.

    Fantasies are not a bad thing. Sometimes, they can be downright fun. No, you can’t spend all your time dreaming of what life would be like if this or that happened (news flash: nobody cares about that either). While some fantasies aren’t practical – no, my dude, she’s not walking through that door – considering the possibilities is critical to building a good fantasy roster and, in reality, a winning baseball team.

    Let’s consider these 2019 Atlanta Braves, a work still evolving as baseball’s free agency freeze continues to keep the biggest dominoes on ice. We know enough to at least sit back, enjoy a weekend beverage, take a break from the Super Bowl hoopla and all that comes with it, and let our fantasies stretch their legs. What if …

    Ronald Acuna really is THIS good: Yeah, that’s a lot to put on a kid who’s been 21 for all of six weeks, but here we are. That’s what happens when you hit .293 with a .917 OPS as a rookie while making every leadoff at-bat must-see TV in the second half. Certainly, it isn’t fair to ask Acuna to slug 1.028, hit .322 and carry the lineup across a full season – as he did in 68 games after the All-Star break – but it’s tantalizing to think what he could do being in the lineup for 155 games.

    Ender Inciarte’s 2019 as a whole is closer to his 2018 second half: The three-time Gold Glove center fielder struggled at the plate in the first half, which isn’t breaking news when you look at his career splits (.263/.314/.349 first half; .315/.361/.432 second half). Following an especially discouraging .241 average with a .649 OPS in the first half, Inciarte hit .302 with a .794 OPS after the break. A more consistent season could go a long way to helping the Braves lengthen the lineup.

    Sean Newcomb takes a step in 2019 similar to Mike Foltynewicz’s progress in 2018: The left-hander nearly joined Foltynewicz on the All-Star team after a stellar first half (3.51 ERA, 1.276 WHIP), and fell one strike short of a no-hitter July 29 against the Dodgers. But after throwing that 134th pitch on Hall of Fame Sunday, Newcomb pitched to a 5.68 ERA over his final 10 appearances. Folty’s step forward last season came in career starts 66 through 96; Newcomb begins this season with 49 career starts.

    Dansby Swanson makes it through 2019 with no wrist issues: The Atlanta native missed the NLDS with a partially torn ligament in his left wrist, resulting in offseason surgery and removal of a lima-bean sized growth. Swanson hit .340 through 12 games before feeling wrist discomfort for the first time during a raw, rainy April day in Chicago. By the time he hit the disabled list May 2, Swanson’s average had dropped to .289, and a .213/.296/.376 slash line in the second half only puts more focus on his health and his production in the season to come.

    Josh Donaldson reverts back to something close to his pre-injury form: The 33-year-old makes a childhood dream come true by joining the Braves but there is an asterisk, considering he missed 110 games last season with injuries and 49 games in 2017. A stark difference from 2013-16, when Donaldson never missed more than seven games in a single season. In that span, all he did was average 33 homers a season while slugging .518 and finishing in the top four in MVP voting three times, winning the award in 2015. An MVP season isn’t needed, but close to 30 homers and 135 games played would give the lineup a tremendous boost.

    Mike Soroka’s shoulder is healthy and he makes 25 starts: For all the wonderment around Atlanta’s vast array of young arms, the 21-year-old Canadian showed more than enough poise and control in a small sample size to consider him a strong candidate for a rotation spot. Right shoulder issues limited him to five big-league starts, but if he is healthy and has a good spring, Soroka will get the ball every fifth day in Atlanta. And if first impressions (3.82 ERA, 2.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio) hint of things to come, the Braves may have a developing staff ace on their hands.

    Soroka dreamed as a child of manning the blueline for his hometown Calgary Flames, a far cry from Donaldson (an Alabama kid) and Swanson (who attended high school nine miles from SunTrust Park). But their dreams have brought them to Atlanta at a time when Braves fans are dreaming big for the first time in more than five years.

    Tis the season. Dare to dream, let your mind wander a bit, gaze toward the future and wonder, “what if.”

    —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.

    Can Emerging Braves Finish What They’ve Started?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When I covered sports on the Southeast Georgia coast, I would travel to Atlanta to cover events or see family. Upon departing, I always looked forward to reaching Macon and hitting Interstate 16.

    It’s one of the most desolate stretches of highway I’ve ever traveled. It’s long, it’s boring and there’s not much to grab your interest as you traverse from central Georgia to I-95 and the final leg home to the beach. I learned quickly to divide I-16 into thirds, so on the way home the mental objectives were to reach Dublin, reach Metter and then reach I-95.

    Exactly two-thirds of this baseball season now reside in the rear-view mirror, 108 games to be precise. We’ve made it to Metter, to use the exercise above. There are 54 games remaining, and by the time we steer the car off I-16 on Sept. 30, we will know if the Atlanta Braves will continue their 2018 joyride into the National League playoffs or pull into the garage.

    Suffice to say, if the Braves reach October, they will have earned it.

    Atlanta used Monday’s off day in Washington to refresh and refuel before beginning one of the most challenging schedules in recent memory. Twenty-two games in 20 days, starting with a doubleheader Tuesday against the Nationals (another double-dip looms Monday at home against Miami). Following an Aug. 27 off day, the Braves play 16 consecutive days through Sept. 12. An off day then is followed with 16 games in 17 days.

    That in and of itself provides a tremendous challenge for any team, let alone one experiencing a pennant race for the first time in a half-decade and with only two holdovers (Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran) from that 2013 division-winning squad. And that says nothing of the competition Atlanta will face between now and October.

    Consider: Thirty-eight of the Braves final 54 games come against teams that woke up Monday within five games of a playoff spot. Fifteen are against division leaders (four with Arizona, three with Boston, seven against Philadelphia – all coming in the final 10 games of the season – and a makeup game with the Cubs). That’s 70.3 percent of the remaining schedule against contenders, 27.8 percent of those contests against division leaders.

    That speaks in part to the parity in the NL, where 11 teams reside above .500 (including the Giants, who were 5 ½ back of the second wild-card spot the Braves occupy starting Monday; Atlanta faces three in San Francisco in September after playing four in Arizona, two locales where the Braves typically do not play well).

    We have not seen these Braves nosedive at any point this season, save a 5-13 stretch over the bulk of July that dropped Atlanta from 3 ½ games up in the East to 2 ½ back. To their credit, the Braves have responded by winning six of its next seven – albeit six of those games came against the Mets and Marlins – to slice one game off the Philadelphia advantage.

    But the margin for error shrinks as the days disappear from the calendar, in particular when the games come fast and furious and the competition is tough. It will be the stiffest test of all for a team that has raced past expectations and exceeded even the most optimistic hopes of spring. But now the rubber begins to hit the road in earnest, and these Baby Braves will be challenged like never before in 2018.

    How will they respond? Will the outstanding seasons of Freeman and Nick Markakis, the emergence of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, the impact of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, a revamped bullpen and a bolstered bench, be enough to carry the Braves to their first postseason berth since 2013? Can a rotation that at some point during the next few weeks will see the resurgent Anibal Sanchez, the young Max Fried, the maddeningly inconsistent Teheran, the spot-starting 20-year-old Kolby Allard (who acquitted himself well enough in his debut despite horrible pitching conditions), and perhaps the enigmatic Luiz Gohara and the promising Touki Toussaint, make starts in the pressure cooker of a pennant race hold up?

    If nothing else, there are key components of Atlanta’s future core that are going to get baptism by fire in the heat of a playoff push. That in and of itself is a win, regardless of how successful or how ugly the results may be. The Braves window has cracked open sooner than expected. There is a bonus opportunity here. There is a feeling to run with this house money and see if the Braves can trump the dealer and slide into the festivities of October, which considering where this franchise sat last October would be cause for immense celebration.

    But for every fairy-tale ending, there are countless others that careened off the road. The schedule is stacked with nary a breather to be found. This is where the pragmatic approach takes root. Logic may dictate at some point, there’s a 2-7 stretch coming that sends the Braves just far enough back to dash those October dreams. But even if that were to happen, did anybody expect these Braves to arrive a full week into August holding onto a playoff spot?

    Monday served as a breathing point, a last chance to pull off the exit at Metter, top off the gas tank, grab a cup of coffee and some snacks. Tuesday brings a doubleheader in the nation’s capital, the first step toward what the Braves and their victory-starved fans hope will result in a victory lap and a chance to race under the bright October lights.

    —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 DEADLINE: Anthopoulos must make the right move

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – And to think, just four months ago we all assumed this week would be about getting some type of return for Brandon McCarthy and Nick Markakis.

    Unless you’ve been hiding on another planet since March – and if you have, pull up a chair because you’re truly not gonna believe this – you realize the preconceived notion of the 2018 Atlanta Braves has transformed greatly thanks to the team winning 54 times in the season’s first 98 games. At least a year ahead of the expected opening of its contention window, Atlanta sits in a very enviable and yet difficult spot as the hours tick toward Tuesday’s trade deadline.

    We could spend the next 40 paragraphs discussing the craziness that has transpired with this franchise since last summer, when Atlanta’s midsummer moves included releasing Bartolo Colon and Eric O’Flaherty, and dealing Jaime Garcia and Anthony Recker to Minnesota for a little-known prospect named Huascar Ynoa (who incidentally today was promoted to High-A Florida and is considered by many as an intriguing pitching prospect).

    Imagine that, another young impact arm in the Braves system, a system that despite the sanctions imposed by Major League Baseball in the wake of Coppygate still bursts as the seams with talent that could make waves in the majors for years to come.

    “Could” is the key word, and therein lies the rub as general manager Alex Anthopoulos surveys the madness of a market that one person described to me today as quiet for now, but “would not surprise me if it becomes frantic in the next three-to-four days.”

    The Braves, among several other teams, deserve credit for that madness. The National League was to be a victory lap for the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers in 2018, with Arizona and Colorado and Milwaukee fighting for the two wild-card spots. Alas, the standings are chaos, with 10 teams sitting within five games of a playoff spot.

    Alas, the Nationals are not among them.

    How to sort through this unexpected landscape, especially with a team contending a year ahead of schedule and a fanbase starving for a postseason game and a system overflowing with players who could impact your future in a good way (or bad, if you deal the wrong ones)? This is when general managers make their money.

    I’m on record in this space in saying I don’t expect an earth-shaking move to come in the next seven days. It would not be prudent to deviate from a plan that has caused so much pain in order to chase a short-term gain – as sweet as October baseball would be – at the risk of negating what many expect to be a long-standing swing at championships extending into the next decade.

    Again, back to my conversation today. I was reminded of two names.

    “Stephen Strasburg.”

    “Matt Harvey.”

    Strasburg blitzed through the league in 2012 as a 23-year-old, winning 15 games with a 3.16 ERA, but was shut down after 159 1/3 innings to protect his arm. The Nationals did as the Nationals do, flopping in the NL Division Series. Six seasons later, Washington has won as many playoff series as you and I combined, and woke up today six games out of a playoff spot.

    Harvey led a young, talented Mets rotation to the 2015 NL pennant, then famously refused to yield to manager Terry Collins after eight innings of a must-win Game 5 of the World Series. He gave up a walk and a double leading off the ninth before being yanked, the Royals won in extra innings to capture the championship, and today the Mets are a dumpster fire while Harvey pitches every fifth day for Cincinnati.

    One, an organization decision based on belief opportunities would present themselves without fail for years to come. The other, a manager who was convinced to change his mind with good intentions and perhaps lost the only shot that franchise will have at the brass ring for years to come.

    Both are cautionary tales of counting on a future that may not arrive. And so, as the clock ticks toward the deadline, Anthopoulos and his charges won’t sleep much. That’s life in a major-league front office in the days before the deadline, but the challenges facing this Braves regime as July crawls to a close are equally unique, daunting and exciting.

    For his part, Anthopoulos is not shying away from the task at hand. On SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio Monday morning, he stated the Braves are able to make the moves they need to make, provided it’s right for the organization for 2018 and beyond. It’s comforting to know this front office won’t empty the farm system for one run at a ring, but at the same time one wonders just how far they should push.

    After all, the right move – not the biggest move, and not just for the biggest name, but the right move – could vault Atlanta alongside the Dodgers as NL favorites. There is a three-headed beast in the American League, four if the Brad Hand deal stabilizes Cleveland’s bullpen, so many think the Senior Circuit is playing for runner-up honors. But the fact is you can’t win the World Series until you get there, and the Braves are in the mix of NL teams who could find themselves getting the chance to win seven games (or eight, depending on if they are in the wild-card game) in October to reach the big stage.

    But at what cost? What will it take? And remember, for all the folks on Twitter begging the Braves to get “this guy” or “that guy” or “those guys,” it takes two to tango. Some of the proposed moves by basement GMs border on absurd. At the same time, Atlanta could offer the moon and sun in any one deal and still have a top-10 system. That’s the result of four years of misery and all the work that’s transpired to rebuild this once-proud franchise.

    Sorting out the varying possibilities and the potential impacts, good and bad, always are part of the recipe of July for front offices. For the one residing at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Atlanta’s northwest flank, figuring out the straightest path through the winding madness could yield an amplifying boost for the next three months while not negating the opportunity to contend for the foreseeable future.

    After today, I have backed off my earlier stance of the Braves not doing anything, for what it’s worth. Call it intuition, call it a feeling, call it a guess. But the closer we get to 4 p.m. ET on July 31, the more I think Anthopoulos and the Braves will strike.

    —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.

    Vizcaino hit with 80-game PED suspension

    Vizcaino was acquired for Tommy La Stella this winter and expected to be a prominent figure in the new Braves bullpen.

    Vizcaino was acquired for Tommy La Stella this winter and expected to be a prominent figure in the new Braves bullpen.

    Atlanta Braves’ relief pitcher Arodys Vizcaino was suspended Thursday for testing positive for PED use in violation of the Major League Baseball Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Vizcaino will serve an 80-game, unpaid suspension beginning with the regular season next week.

    Reports are that Vizcaino tested positive for Stanozolol, a synthetic anabolic steroid. It is his first positive test.

    Vizcaino was assigned to Triple-A Gwinnett Monday after struggling mightily in Grapefruit League play. His performance ended the hope that he would be part of a revamped bullpen. Vizcaino’s eight innings of work over seven appearances at camp resulted in 8 runs allowed on 9 hits and a head-scratching 8 walks. The Braves decided getting Vizcaino right in Triple-A would be beneficial when the ‘pen needs reinforcements. They will now have to look elsewhere until Vizcaino returns in 80 games.

    Over the winter, Arodys Vizcaino was acquired from the Cubs with international signing money for middle infielder Tommy La Stella. While the Braves have lost Vizcaino for 80 games at the cost of a promising young player in La Stella, they were able to sign 8 players with the $830,000 in international signing cash they received from Chicago. Additionally, La Stella had lost his starting spot with the signing of Callaspo and the trade that brought Jace Peterson to the club.

    In the absence of Vizcaino, the Braves continue to make decisions regarding the opening day bullpen spots.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter@framethepitch.

    Bonifacio and Russell join Braves in San Diego

    INF Emilio Bonifacio offers infield versatility and a back-up outfielder for Fredi Gonzalez.

    INF Emilio Bonifacio offers infield versatility and a back-up outfielder for Fredi Gonzalez.

    Not willing to stand pat at the trade deadline with bench questions and help needed in the bullpen, Frank Wren made the call Thursday just an hour before the trade deadline to acquire IF Emilio Bonifacio and LHP James Russell from the Chicago Cubs for Class A catching prospect Victor Caratini.

    To make room on the 25-man roster, the Braves designated OF Jordan Schafer for assignment on Friday prior to the opening of the weekend series in San Diego and optioned LHP Chasen Shreve to Triple-A Gwinnett.

    Bonifacio has made a name for being a versatile player with timely professional hitting and speed. The Cubs signed Bonifacio to a 1-year $2.5 million dollar contract. They pick up the remainder of his salary as well as that of Russell as well as cash considerations for the future services of Caratini.

    Bonifacio is a career .264 hitter in his 8 years in the big leagues. This season he hit .279 with 14 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers and 18 RBIs with 12 stolen bases in 276 ABs.

    LHP James Russell is an addition to the 'pen that is desperately needed in the absence of Luis Avilan.

    LHP James Russell is an addition to the ‘pen that is desperately needed in the absence of Luis Avilan.

    Russell, son of former big leaguer Jeff Russell, is someone the Braves have had their eye on for a few years. As a left-handed reliever he has a 3.87 ERA over 5 seasons with the Cubs. Russell is in his 2nd year of arbitration and will be a free agent in 2016. His arm will be a great addition to a ‘pen that is without the services of Luis Avilan, who was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett, and Shae Simmons, who has a nagging sore shoulder that he hadn’t reported to the staff until recently despite ongoing trouble on the mound.

    The Braves may look for an additional bat as waiver claims amp up in August. However, their biggest problem is not the pieces they lack, but the pieces they have that are not performing up to their potential. If the Braves are to contend with the Nationals atop the NL East, they will have to get from their starters what their starters are truly capable of.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

     

    Bats cold in Big Apple, set for final series of half

    For the Braves, there are few things that sting quite like a series loss to the Mets. Unfortunately for Atlanta, losses within the division have come regularly in the first half of the season. If the Braves want to make a strong run for a division championship in the second half, there is no question that consistency and wins within the division will be paramount.

    Aaron Harang leads the Braves and all of the National League with an 0.85 ERA. He leads teammate Ervin Santana by .01.

    Aaron Harang leads the Braves and all of the National League with an 0.85 ERA. He leads teammate Ervin Santana by .01.

    The one person standing between the Braves and a sweep at the hands of the Mets was Aaron Harang. Harang has become some sort of escape artist in his last month of starts. In his last 5 starts, Harang gave up 43 hits in 33 innings, 16 earned runs, 12 walks to 16 strikeouts and 4 homers. Despite an overwhelming amount of hitting against him, Harang has a 4-1 record in that span while recording a 4.36 ERA. This week was no different when he went 7 innings, giving 4 hitters a free pass. Somehow he managed to get out of the start with only one earned run. Harang improved to a 9-6 record with a 3.53 ERA on the season.

    While the bats were cold and didn’t do much to help the cause of the starters, Freddie Freeman continued to own the Mets. Over the 4-game series, Freeman hit .417 in 17 at-bats. He had 7 hits, 2 of them doubles and drove 3 men in. In 13 games again the NL East rival this season, Freddie has a .392 average with 7 doubles, a homer and 13 RBIs. In his career, Freeman now has a .324/.394/.571 line against the Mets. By comparison, notorious Mets’ killer Chipper Jones hit .309 in his career against New York.

    Other than Freeman, there certainly weren’t too many hitting performances to highlight against the Mets. However, an under reported story is that of B.J. Upton in the lead off spot. In 16 games at the top of the lineup, B.J. has hit .279 with 19 hits, 2 doubles, 2 triples, a homer, 5 RBIs and 3 stolen bases. Batting second he was hitting .207 and a mere .171 when in the 6-hole. Of course, the problem with this is that it knocks Heyward out of the lead off spot where he has hit .254 on the season. In the 5-hole, Jason drops to .227 at the plate. The situation isn’t easily remedied for Fredi Gonzalez.

    In the series finale against the Mets, Craig Kimbrel was called on to get a 4-out save. These situations have been few and far between for the dominant closer and have bit the Braves in the playoffs. However, Fredi says that the more comfortable Kimbrel gets with those situations, the more likely Fredi would be to use him in a similar playoff situation. In his second 4-out save opportunity this season, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit and had 1 strikeout.

    Julio Teheran had one of his worst and shortest outings of the season against the Mets. In 3 1/3 innings, newly selected all-star Teheran gave up 11 hits, 5 earned runs and struck out only 2 batters. His command was terrible and the poised starter we’ve seen really develop in 2014 was much less composed on the mound. Teheran will not pitch in the All Star Game, as the Braves announced, due to his Sunday start in Chicago.

    BRAVES WRAP FIRST HALF AGAINST CUBS…

    The Braves arrive at Wrigley Field after the best pitcher they had left via trade to Oakland. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were traded to the Cubs last week for a slew of prospects. Samardzija made the All-Star roster, selected in the National League and will represent in Minnesota wearing the NL jersey while sitting in the AL dugout. Joining Samardzija at the ASG are current Cubs Starlin Castro and Final Vote winner Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo edged out Atlanta’s Justin Upton in the NL Final Vote. Look for Justin to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder in Chicago.

    Games in Chicago will be a bit off the usual schedule due to the ASG festivities beginning over the weekend as well as the perfect atmosphere for day baseball at the Friendly Confines. Friday’s game will take place at 4:05 p.m. (ET), Saturday’s at 4:05 and the finale Sunday will start at 2:20.

    The opening game of the final series before the break will feature Wood (6-7, 3.14) vs. Arrieta (5-1, 1.78). Saturday’s game will pit Minor (2-5, 4.54) vs. Jackson (5-9, 5.05). And the series will wrap with Teheran (8-6, 2.57) vs. Wood (7-7, 4.64).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves drop series in San Fran after sweep of Cubs

    As the Braves closed a series on the road against the San Francisco Giants, fans are reminded of how terrible the team was when the Giants faced them at home and how the Giants trot out a homer parade against Braves’ pitching. Yet at the same time, fans have the recent sweep of the Cubs telling them that the team isn’t as terrible as they were when the Giants visited or when Julio Teheran faltered by the bay. At least the team that was swept by the Giants at the Ted isn’t the team that swept the Cubs. This seems to be the story of the Braves in the early going of 2014: Two teams, two very different outcomes.

    If the Braves are two teams, as we posit, those two teams are divided on traditional lines of pitching and hitting. While there has not yet been a series this season that has displayed Atlanta’s offense as a consistent, cohesive force, there have many series that have showed the shortcomings of the strikeout-prone, power-hungry lineup. On the pitching side, there has been only one series–in Miami–when the pitching could not stand up to the batters faced.

    Pitching has been fortified in recent weeks by Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd and continues to be led by Ervin Santana, Julio Teheran and the surprising Aaron Harang. The Braves are pitching like a team that didn’t lose two top-tier starters for the year. While Luis Avilan has not been the Avilan of the 2013 season, he has improved in recent games to add versatility in the bullpen. Jordan Walden heads to the disabled list at a time when both David Hale and Alex Wood move from the rotation to the ‘pen. Wood is eager to help his team in any way he can and has been the go-to guy for Fredi Gonzalez. Pitching depth is not an issue for the Braves despite having a total of 4 pitchers on the DL right now (Medlen, Beachy, Venters and Walden).

    Consider what the Braves’ roster will look like in the weeks leading up to the all-star break. Jonny Venters will join a bullpen with dominant starters-turned-relievers Wood and Hale, reliable set-up men Carpenter and Walden, the clutch arm of Varvaro and shutdown closer Kimbrel. The lineup will feature the 2-out RISP wizard Freeman, the hopefully reliable and consistent bats of Heyward and Simmons, slugging Justin Upton and El Oso Blanco, and the possibility of table setters in guys like Schafer, Pastornicky and B.J. Upton.

    But as we’ve seen over the last week, there remains a big question mark surrounding second baseman Dan Uggla. It appears Fredi and Frank Wren have come to the conclusion that the lineup is better off without him–something fans decided more than a year ago–and the checkbook can manage if his big contract is a failure. With the versatility of Ramiro Pena and the scrappy nature of Tyler Pastornicky, second base is in good hands. What the club hasn’t decided is how long they allow B.J. Upton to fail in the batter’s box. His recent surge of on-base percentage is shrinking. They also have the question of Ryan Doumit. His bizarre signing has yet to be fruitful for Atlanta. With these questions answered, the team could run away with the division. But the longer these questions go unanswered, the tighter the division will remain.

    BRAVES HEAD TO ST. LOUIS…

    The Braves will put the San Francisco series behind them as they arrive in St. Louis to face the Cards. Recently the Cards front office commented on it being unacceptable that the team was at an even .500. Most teams, including many within their division, would love to be at .500. What the front office was alluding to was the potential of the team. The Braves are cut from a similar cloth–talent that continues to under perform.

    It’s unclear what the lineup might look like in St. Louis, but don’t expect to see too much of Dan Uggla. Fredi appears to be sticking with the hitting the pitcher in the 8-hole plan for now. And while the team considered a 6-man rotation, for the time being they’ll stick with a 5-man (Santana, Harang, Teheran, Minor and Floyd).

    The Braves will open the series at Busch Stadium with Santana (4-0, 1.99) vs. Lynn (4-2, 3.83). Saturday’s game will pit Harang (4-3, 2.98) vs. Miller (5-2, 3.22). And the final game of the road trip will send Floyd (0-1, 2.70) to the hill against Garcia (–).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves prepare for Cubbies. Magic number: 2

    Evan Gattis hit 2 homers in the series finale in Philly. His 1st, in the 2nd inning off Hamels, was estimated to fly 441 feet.

    Evan Gattis hit his 20th HR Tuesday. 8 of Gattis’ 2013 homers have given the Braves a lead.

    The Braves were plowing toward the postseason with teams in their rear view mirror and then September hit. The injury to Jason Heyward was just the beginning of a series of bad luck for Atlanta. Their young pitching, which had been phenomenal, wore down. Their flawless closer has had a few rough games. Their supposedly dynamic outfield never clicked. The bench bats that had been strong for Fredi Gonzalez seemed to all go cold at once. And the bullpen that has survived injuries that would have put any other club in the bottom of the heap from then on, finally showed signs of turmoil.

    Two weeks ago, it looked like Atlanta would easily secure the National League record, however now that the Dodgers have clinched the NL West, it now seems likely that the best record (therefore home field advantage in the playoffs) will be held by the NL Central or West winner. The Braves had lost 5 games straight before getting the win Wednesday against the Nats. They have lost 10 of their past 14 games. Unfortunately, the Braves had twin shutout losses over a period of 3 days.
    The Braves were slated to begin a 3-game series Monday at Nationals Park when news of the shooting at the Navy Yard broke. Monday afternoon when the Braves and Nats would have been heading to the park, the Navy Yard was still an active scene just blocks from the ballpark. The Nats were asked to stay home until told otherwise and eventually Monday’s game was postponed. The Braves and Nationals scheduled the game to be made up Tuesday as a doubleheader. Prior to the first game of that doubleheader, the Nationals observed an extended moment of silence for those who lost their lives and those whose lives were forever changed by Monday’s tragedy. Nationals’ players all held hats with the Navy emblem over their hearts during the national anthem, hats they wore during team warmups.

    The final game of the series, the Braves were able to secure the win, thus dropping their magic number for clinching the NL East to 2. Wednesday’s win also prevented them from being swept while in D.C.

    It wouldn’t be a Braves/Nats game without some fireworks. In the final game, Fredi Gonzalez got tossed after he went out to make sure Wood wasn’t tossed for arguing with home plate umpire CB Bucknor. Wood was irritated with a bad call on a 3-2 pitch and voiced his objection loudly. Once Werth, the batter during the scuffle, walked,  Alex Wood was removed from the game. While leaving the field, he barked at Bucknor, earning his first career ejection. It wasn’t the best moment for the young rookie, but, in his defense, the call was terrible. As the game carried on, Bucknor warned both benches for no apparent reason after Varvaro hit Rendon. We have seen Bucknor make terrible calls before, but this was an all-time low for the ump.

    Homers by Dan Uggla and Justin Upton in the 3-run 6th inning got the Braves in the lead, a lead they held on to. Solid outings from injured Scott Downs and the impressive David Carpenter held the Braves’ lead and Kimbrel entered and ended the game with the 3-run lead in tact.

    Kimbrel had a rough outing in the second game of the doubleheader where he did something he had never done in his previous 224 career appearances. He allowed 3 runs. Kimbrel was scored upon in consecutive appearances for the 1st time since the 3 in-a-row catastrophe April 29th through May 4th of last year.

    Kimbrel had been given every opportunity to get the Braves the win. Evan Gattis stepped into the box in the 8th inning of that game, securing the lead. Gattis homered off of reliever Tyler Clippard who, in 6 appearances against the Braves in 2013, gave up 9 hits, 7 earned runs, 3 homers, 6 walks (for a 11.12 ERA) in 5 2/3 innings pitched.

    A final note on the Nats’ series: Freddy Garcia, despite a brilliant effort, could not secure a win in the doubleheader. Freddy pitched 7 brilliant innings giving up only 7 hits and allowing only 1 run. The veteran surrendered 2 walks and struck out 6 in 84 pitches. Since joining the Braves from the Orioles Triple-A team, Freddy Garcia has pitched 20 2/3 innings, allowed a mere 3 runs, walked 4 and struck out 13. He has a stunning 1.31 ERA with Atlanta.

    BRAVES HEAD TO WRIGLEY FIELD…

    With their magic number down to 2, it would seem likely that the Braves will clinch the NL East while on the northside of Chicago. That said, it looked like they’d clinch the division while in D.C. and clearly that did not happen. The Braves arrive in Chicago with a 90-62 record. The lovable Cubbies sit in the bottom of their division with a record of 64-89.

    One point that the Braves desperately need to improve on in their final games before the playoffs is production off the bench.

    Jordan Schafer is 15-for-92 (.163 average) in the 27 games he has played since returning from the disabled list. Over that span, he has a disappointing .238 on-base percentage. Schafer is 1-for-24 with 4 walks and 10 (10!) strikeouts in his past 9 games. The Braves need Schafer to offer production off the bench going forward, especially with the lack of production from B.J. Upton. Also without Heyward and a lack of production from B.J. Upton and Jordan Schafer, the Braves need Reed Johnson to step up in a big way. Reed Johnson has only 2 plate appearances in 2 games since returning from the disabled list on the 17th, but the veteran will need to be the bat he built his reputation on. With Gattis getting more playing time, split between the outfield and catching, there hasn’t been a concern about his offense. However, it would be great to see Gattis out in left field before the next few games taking some pointers from veteran Reed Johnson on positioning and how to best approach various situations. Remembering that he is a catcher, it’s understandable that Gattis has showed some inconsistency on defense while in the outfield.

    Jason Heyward has continued to take batting practice while on the road with the team. It is possible that he could return next week, though he’ll need to face live pitching consecutively first.

    The Braves/Cubs series gets underway Friday with the former Cubbie Maholm (10-10, 4.35) vs. Baker (0-0, 0.82). Saturday’s game will feature Medlen (14-12, 3.32) vs. Wood (9-11, 3.05). And in their final game before returning to Atlanta, Sunday’s game will pit rookie Teheran (12-8, 3.14) vs. Jackson (8-16, 4.75).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.