• Clayton Kershaw

    It’s Tomahawk Town vs. Tinseltown: Of Course, Resilient Young Braves Face Dodgers in NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When you get right down to it, of course this was going to happen. It happened the last time the Atlanta Braves reached the playoffs in 2013, a last gasp at glory before a wretched four seasons in the wilderness. It happened in 1991 and 1983 and 1982 and heck, even back in 1959, when the Milwaukee Braves lost a postseason tiebreaker that ended their quest to reach a third-consecutive World Series.

    The histories of the Braves and Dodgers franchises are intertwined at multiple points, from Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer in 1974 to the last great pennant race in 1993 ending with the Dodgers boat-racing the Giants while the Braves won their 104th game to capture the division title by one scant game. And here we go again, starting Thursday night at Chavez Ravine as the Braves make their glorious and long-awaited return to the postseason stage against, of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

    You know it was going to happen, right?

    Perhaps the Colorado Rockies would have been a better matchup. Perhaps having home-field advantage would have proven advantageous. Those are bygones at this point, not worth the time to consider. Not with the first pitch of the postseason coming at some time Thursday (we’re waiting on you, MLB). Time to focus on the fact the Braves, losers of 90 games three seasons running, stunned the baseball world by winning the NL East and finishing with 90 victories. The have swash-buckled and grinded and rallied all season to slam shut the door on the rebuild far sooner than most of us dared to dream.

    Their reward: The six-time defending NL West champion, just 11 months removed from Game 7 of the World Series.

    Go get em, boys.

    Seriously, the task appears somewhat tall on first glance, and that’s understandable. The Dodgers have one goal and one goal only: to snap a 30-year world championship drought, which is massively mind-blowing when you consider the Braves, Reds, Angels, White Sox, Astros, Marlins (twice!) and Giants (three times!!) all have captured the brass ring since Kirk Gibson’s famous homer sparked L.A. to a stunning four-game sweep of Oakland.

    Clayton Kershaw, balky back and all, still anchors the rotation. Walker Buehler is one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Kenley Jansen, recovering from a heart scare two months ago, is one of the game’s top closers. The lineup is young, deep and powerful, with plenty of firepower from Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and the dude who came out of nowhere, Max Muncy. And did we mention Manny Machado, the July acquisition looking to show out under the national spotlight before embarking on free agency and a contract that will be worth more than some third-world nation’s GNP, roams shortstop and solidifies the batting order?

    This series will be fascinating to watch for a variety of reasons:

    Too Young To Know Better: Every time we felt these Braves might begin sliding as this special season unfolded, they kept the train on the tracks. Yes, the playoffs are different. No, I don’t think the Braves and their squadron of youngsters will be fazed by the bright lights and heightened stakes. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Foltynewicz and Johan Camargo have combined to play zero postseason games, but they and the rest of the young key components of this Braves New World have a tremendous chance far earlier than expected to gain some critical playoff experience. They haven’t blinked to this point. The feeling here is they won’t now.

    Give Dansby a Hand (No, Seriously, Somebody Give Him a Hand): One huge key for the Braves is their passionate hometown heart-and-soul shortstop, who provides outstanding defense at a critical position while proving to be one of the best clutch hitters in the NL. A partially torn ligament in his left hand ended his regular season five days early, and there is concern he won’t be available for the NLDS. If that’s the case, the former Dodger and current Braves Country cult hero Charlie Culberson will fill in admirably, but the Calhoun High graduate being in the starting eight significantly weakens the Atlanta bench.

    Buehler? Buehler?: Anybody who watched Monday’s tie-breaking win over Colorado saw what the fuss is all about with the Vanderbilt product. Buehler may be the best pitcher in the Dodgers’ rotation right now, but because L.A. had to deploy him in Game No. 163, he only can pitch once in this series. Kershaw has the ability to lock down any lineup on any given night, but we saw the Giants get to him Saturday (he owns an un-Kershaw like 3.89 ERA in his past six starts) and has far less tread on the tires than when he faced the Braves twice in the NLDS five years ago.

    Pressure! Under Pressure: Just as almost nobody expected Atlanta to be here, most everybody used indelible ink to put the Dodgers deep into October. The pressure of expectations sits heavy on L.A., which trailed the West by nine games on May 8, sat 10 games under .500 on May 16, and ended the season 9 ½ games in arrears of its Pythagorean win-loss record (92-71 vs. 101-61). Add in the sometimes-shaky manner in which the Dodgers bullpen has gotten the ball to Jansen, and the fact that manager Dave Roberts does not have a contract for next season, and we will see how the Dodgers handle the pressure-cooker of October.

    House Money: The Braves and their fans will hate seeing that phrase, but it’s true. This feels like an awakening of a franchise where everything was stripped down and built back up carefully, in pain-staking, patience-testing fashion. The view from 30,000 feet is the Braves already are winners, getting to the playoffs so soon, the breakout seasons of Acuna, Albies, Foltynewicz, et al, and accomplishing anything beyond this point is gravy. Yes, that’s true. But honestly, the Braves should play with absolutely no pressure. The vast majority is going to pick the Dodgers in this series, and that’s not surprising, given the Dodgers beat Atlanta five times in seven games during the regular season while outscoring the Braves 35-18.

    If they played the games on paper, then this would be irrelevant because not only would Atlanta not win this series, the Braves already would be on the golf course after a season many thought would finish with 75 wins and even the most optimistic prognosticators said .500 would be a fantastic next step. Instead, they leaped forward and never looked back.

    The Braves are in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. As they prepare for their first postseason content in 1,823 days on Thursday, it’s no surprise who stands in their way.

    —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.

    4 Ways the Kemp Trade Makes the Braves Better … This Year and Beyond

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Say this for Alex Anthopoulos. He’s a creative fellow.

    His first deal as general manager of the Atlanta Braves is just the latest example of Anthopoulos making the implausible possible, turning the strange into sensible, building by taking a road few could even imagine, let alone travel to completion.

    For the thought of Matt Kemp playing limited innings in left field to keep his power bat in the lineup in 2018, the Braves were best served by moving the oft-injured veteran. Anthopoulos did just that in a stunning deal Saturday that draws as much attention to next winter as it does to the approaching spring and summer.

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Kemp heads back to Los Angeles, where I doubt he plays an inning with the Dodgers given his defensive limitations. In return, the Braves received four players – three of whom could contribute to Atlanta next season; one who already has been designated for assignment. The contracts of Adrian Gonzalez (released upon request), Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir will be absorbed by the Braves in return for Kemp going to the Dodgers.

    This is a good move. It is not addition by subtraction in the sense of dealing one player for, in essence, three players: McCarthy, Kazmir and Charlie Culberson. But look closer, and you see this deal works for Atlanta in several ways:

     

    1. The Budget

    The Braves would have owed Kemp $31.5 million over the final two years of his current deal. In taking on three players entering the final year of existing deals, Atlanta will pay Gonzalez ($22.357 million), McCarthy ($11.5 million) and Kazmir ($17.66 million) a total of $51.517 million. The Dodgers kicked in $4 million in the deal, but the biggest thing is at the end of next season, all that money comes off the books.

    Entering the 2018-19 offseason, one that is chock full of marquee stars (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, etc.), the Braves are going to have enormous flexibility. The only guaranteed deals on the Atlanta roster after next season are for Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte. There always is a chance Teheran could be shipped elsewhere.

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Even if the Braves were to make long-term offers to a couple of their core internal pieces (say, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna), Atlanta still will have a massive amount of money freed up to play in the free agent market in maybe the most intriguing offseason in years.

    2. The Outfield

    Speaking of Acuna, moving Kemp now frees up a corner spot for the top prospect in the Braves organization. Acuna boat-raced through three levels of the minors as a 19-year-old, then won MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League.

    Yes, the Braves may opt to keep him at Triple-A Gwinnett for the first few weeks of the season to gain an additional year of control. Culberson gives you a viable option in left field for that timeframe, but make no mistake. Acuna will be up and contributing early in 2018, and now he has a spot.

    3. The Rotation

    Yes, we all know how that worked out last season. Jaime Garcia was serviceable before netting a prospect in a trade deadline deal. R.A. Dickey pitched well at times and really helped the rotation’s younger members by serving as a mentor. Bartolo Colon was a disaster and eventually was sent packing.

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    McCarthy made 19 appearances (16 starts) with a sub-4 ERA last season. A decent showing in spring training slots him into a rotation spot, helping to anchor a group that figures to include two rookies who debuted last season in Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara. It also moves a couple of younger arms, most notably Max Fried, into the bullpen to further bolster a group that struggled mightily at times a season ago.

    Kazmir is best described as a flyer, the left-hander missing all of last season with a hip injury. If he is healthy and can produce anything, it would be a bonus.

    4. The Bench

    Culberson, a graduate of Calhoun High, comes home to fill the role Jace Peterson held before the Braves non-tendered him earlier this offseason. Culberson hit .455 in the NLCS and was 3-for-5 in the World Series, and has made 29-plus career appearances at shortstop, second base, third base and left field. Anthopoulos said Saturday that Culberson plays “Gold Glove caliber” defense at shortstop, which largely explains his interest in adding the utility man to Atlanta’s bench.

     

    I have a feeling the Braves are not done yet. There still is the thought of a bridge at third base to get to Austin Riley, especially a right-handed bat with power to slide behind Freeman. Atlanta still could look to move Nick Markakis from right field, but would need now to get an outfielder in return (I know a guy on South Beach who would great in left field with a tomahawk across his chest). The Braves could benefit from another veteran arm or two for the bullpen.

    But after bemoaning the lack of action at the Winter Meetings, the Anthopoulos Era kicks off with a bang: A creative, compelling deal that should show Braves fans the new guy is pretty sharp.

    —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.