• Cleveland Indians

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The first full month of the season sits in the rear-view mirror, 31 games are in the books and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a position they did not reach at any one point during their glorious run to the 2018 NL East championship.

    Under .500.

    The Braves have befuddled many of us through the first five weeks of 2019, looking at times like a World Series contender and at other times like an also-ran – sometimes within an inning or two of each other – as they now begin their first extended road trip. A 10-day, 10-game, three-city journey begins Friday night in Miami, where old friend Jose Urena awaits his assured retribution for his gutless plunking of Ronald Acuna Jr. last season. From there, Atlanta flies west for three games against the pennant-winning Dodgers and four at Arizona, against the same Diamondbacks squad that swept a three-game series two weeks ago at SunTrust Park.

    Often, the first weeks of the season begin answering the questions we all have about a team throughout the offseason and spring training. In some respects, I think we can begin drawing early conclusions on some topics. For others, I have no better clue now than I did in late March, before attending 11 games in person and watching/listening to every pitch of the season to this point.

    Atlanta leaves town for a while, but questions remain. Such as …

    Is this team where you’d thought it would be at this point of the season?

    In a word, no. I didn’t expect the Braves to be below .500 through 19.1 percent of the season. Granted, they’re one game under. It’s not like their buried in the East. But I thought if there was a month early in the season that might challenge them, it would be the month we’re in now, and not the one that preceded it. That concerns me a bit, to be honest.

    What’s the most disappointing part of Atlanta’s start?

    Duh! It’s the pit of misery … eh, the bullpen. Look, many of us – myself included – thought the Braves needed to upgrade their relief corps and were disappointed Alex Anthopoulos could not secure at least one upgrade for the bullpen. But did I think that group would be this bad? No, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as they’ve shown.

    But they’re not great, either, and they’ve already cost the Braves games they can ill-afford to blow in a tightly contested division. A.J. Minter has shown rust and inconsistency after missing most of spring training. Darren O’Day remains missing in action. Jesse Biddle hit a funk you wouldn’t wish on anybody. Others have taken their turns struggling to throw strikes.

    There have been signs, albeit small ones, that a correction is coming. Minter looked good in Wednesday’s save. Jacob Webb earned a win and a save on back-to-back days. Josh Tomlin has become a revelation once he started getting work. And what else to say of Luke Jackson, who has gone from fanbase whipping post to downright lovable? Action Jackson is the most unexpected singular aspect of this season.

    Is what we’ve seen from Max Fried and Mike Soroka real?

    In my opinion, yes. That’s not to say Soroka will pitch to a sub-2 ERA all season and Fried will win 22 games and the Cy Young. But both young hurlers have filthy stuff, which we’ve seen in flashes.

    But now, we’re seeing it every fifth day. Fried isn’t getting yanked between the rotation, the bullpen, and Gwinnett. Soroka is healthy. Both are pitching with a ton of confidence, and guided by veteran catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers, each is showing the ability to trust their stuff, pound the strike zone, shake off the inevitable mistake, and keep on rolling.

    Fried reminds me so much of a young Steve Avery, it’s scary. Soroka has the poise and makeup of a young Tom Glavine. High praise, yes, but these two kids are good. Really good. Legit, rotation-anchoring good.

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

    A little bit, but only because he’s made just two big-league starts and we’re roughly 1/5th of the way through the season. Folty’s fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and today his slider was flat against San Diego. Coupled with some shaky defense (including a bad throw of his own doing), and it’s easy to see how today came off the rails.

    But he was locked in for much of his first start against Colorado. If Folty has five, six starts under his belt and he’s still sitting 94 mph, then I’d be more concerned. Hard to read too much into two starts, for a guy who won 13 games and made the All-Star team a season ago, then spent four weeks in Triple-A going through his spring training. Give it time and let him get into a rhythm.

    Is the offense better than you thought?

    Absolutely, and it’s not just because of Josh Donaldson (who is so much better defensively than I realized) or Freddie Freeman or Acuna, even though the superkid has struggled the past two weeks. It’s because Ozzie Albies has solidified himself at the top of the lineup – and credit Brian Snitker for recognizing the second baseman needed to hit leadoff regardless of that night’s starter – Nick Markakis has regained his early-2018 form, and the strides Dansby Swanson has made offensively.

    Add in the production out of the veteran catchers, and the Braves 1-through-7 in the order have been every bit as tough as any lineup in the game. There has to be a bit of regression somewhere, at some point, but even if Markakis and the catchers cool off their opening-month pace, this still is a very good offensive team that can help carry it through some bumpy nights pitching-wise.

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

    I’ve preached patience with Swanson since his struggles in 2017. Last year he was hindered (more so than we realized at the time) by a wrist injury. He’s healthy now, and he’s blistering line drives all over the field. His power has expanded, he’s hitting the ball just as hard to right-center as left-center, and he’s still playing outstanding defense.

    It’s 31 games, so let’s see it continue to play out. But I think it’s real. And if Swanson continues to hit like this – and you have to expect some of those liners right at folks are going to find grass at some point – you suddenly have an elite shortstop to add to the linchpins of this lineup. The Braves already have locked up Acuna and Albies. A continuation of this type of play for Swanson the rest of the season certainly makes his next-man-up to sign on the dotted line long term.

    There’s one hitter not mentioned yet … why does Ender keep getting playing time?

    Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he’s won three straight Gold Gloves in center field and he’s historically a poor offensive performer in April? There are plenty of people who have cried for Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to be promoted to the majors after their hot starts at Double-A Mississippi. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.

    Inciarte infuriates the fan base with grounders to second and swinging at the first pitch. He also collected 200 hits two seasons ago and does his best offensive work once school lets out. Some of the patience asked for with Swanson the past two years can be applied here. You have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Inciarte. You just have to … wait for it.

    If Ender still is struggling in six weeks, maybe you have a conversation. For now, the pseudo-platoon of putting Acuna in center and sitting Inciarte against some lefties is doable. Credit Snitker for putting Inciarte lower in the order, and we’ve started to see some signs of life with the bat and a few more balls hit to left and left-center.

    What else has stood out to you in the first five weeks?

    Sean Newcomb had to go back to Triple-A to try and find his rhythm, and he’s turned it around with back-to-back outings with zero walks. … Matt Joyce, signed late in camp, actually has been a nice asset off the bench from the left side. … I’ve been pleased that Snitker has given Johan Camargo starts all over the field, and the two hits today hopefully signifies he’s getting right at the plate. … Julio Teheran hasn’t been that bad, actually, but cannot afford outings like his doubleheader debacle in Cleveland. … The Gwinnett shuttle has worked out for the most part, although I remain befuddled and upset Bryse Wilson didn’t get a longer look in the major-league bullpen before being demoted last weekend. … I hope Wes Parsons gets back and continues to excel. … Charlie Culberson is my favorite position-player pitcher of all time, and his work off the bench – despite too few at-bats – has been impressive.

    What needs to happen this month?

    The other three contenders in the East have flaws just as damning as the Braves, so I don’t expect anybody to have an 18-8 month and pull away. Given Atlanta makes two separate trips to the coast, plays six games against St. Louis and three with Milwaukee, I wouldn’t be upset with .500. That means you don’t stub your toe against Miami or San Francisco, get some payback at Arizona, and hold your own against the Dodgers.

    That keeps you well within striking distance once June begins, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. I think teams falling out of the race are going to look to move guys earlier. The Giants already are listening on several bullpen pieces. Does the Corey Kluber injury shift the balance of power in the AL Central? Will Baltimore cave in on dealing Mychal Givens? And with the draft in early June, does that finally push somebody to sign Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel?

    Those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Braves have plenty of questions of their own as they fly toward South Beach, and the sprint to October ramps toward full speed.

    —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.

    Notes from Braves sweep of the Tribe

    The Braves swept the visiting Tribe at the Ted this week, bringing their total number of sweeps this season to 12. They now hold a record of 81-52 (.609), the best record in Major League Baseball, with a 13 game lead in the National League East.

    Here are a few notes from the Braves’ sweep of the Indians:

    Medlen on Thursday: 7 inn, 6 hits, 6 K's, 0 BB, 0 ER.

    Medlen on Thursday: 7 inn, 6 hits, 6 K’s, 0 BB, 0 ER.

    • With his 3-run home run in the series finale, Brian McCann has not recorded 19 homers on the season. He now has 4 HR and 18 RBI in situations where there are 2 outs and RISP this season.
    • In Kris Medlen‘s 5 August starts, he pitched 33 innings, gave up 11 earned runs, walked only 4 batters, struck out 28 and had a 3.00 ERA. The series finale got Kris Medlen his 4th win of the month, including the strange outing when he was needed in the ‘pen and recorded the win. In Thursday’s win, Medlen went 7 innings, giving up 6 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 6 and strikeouts on 96 pitches.
    • On Wednesday, Dan Uggla (2B) was activated from the 15-day DL after undergoing successful Lasik surgery to correct his vision. Todd Cunningham (OF) was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett.
    • Atlanta is 16-3 with 2.21 ERA in their past 19 home games.
    • As a starter this season, Joey Terdoslavich (OF) is hitting .375 (12-for-32). As a bench bat, he is hitting a poor .192 (5-for-26).
    • Luis Avilan, one of the most dependable set-up men in the league, has allowed a run in 3 of his past 7 appearances. He had just 1 unearned run in his previous 35 appearances.
    • In Tuesday’s home opener, Elliot Johnson‘s first home at-bat with the Braves resulted in a 2-run triple. Before that 2-run triple, Elliot had 1 hit in his previous 39 ABs when facing American League pitchers.
    • Justin Upton left Thursday night’s game with a left hand contusion after being hit by a pitch at the plate. While the x-rays were negative, he is listed as day-to-day. Each of the Braves starting outfielders (Upton, Upton and Heyward) have sustained injuries this season, as have backup outfielders Schafer, Johnson and Gattis.
    • Craig Kimbrel continues to dominate opponents. In the series finale, he recorded his 43rd save of the season, 32 of those saves consecutive. Kimbrel’s ERA is now a ridiculous 0.97. Despite having what appears to be his best season yet, Kimbrel has 12.9 Ks per 9 innings, his lowest SO/9 rate of his young career. He is on pace to surpass his Rookie of the Year season high of 46 saves.

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

    Braves avoid sweep, reset for visiting Tribe

    St. Louis and Atlanta have a recent history of rivalry dating back to the collapse in 2011 when the Braves lost the Wild Card to the Cardinals on the last night of the regular season. Added to that disappointment was the chaotic one-game Wild Card game of 2012 that hinged on a blown infield fly call. There is no love lost between these two teams. However, the Braves arrived in St. Louis with a team that didn’t like it could compete. Losing the series, 1 win to their 3, the Braves were more than happy to get on the plane back to the ATL where they have an off day before facing the Cleveland Indians for a 3-game series.

    Atlanta’s worst fears were realized in New York when Jason Heyward was nailed by a fastball that fractured the right side of his jaw in two places. After surgery in Atlanta, Heyward is set to miss the rest of the regular season. He will hopefully be in shape to return for the postseason, if the Braves make it. The question of if the Braves will make it to the playoffs seemed silly just 4 days ago, but their visit to St. Louis was an eye-opener. The 15 1/2 game lead the Braves had in the division is now 13 games. They were a lock for the NL East division win. Hopefully without Heyward they can hold on.

    There have been other injuries that have felt crippling for the Braves’ lineup. In addition to Heyward, the Braves still don’t have Dan Uggla and while in St. Louis, batting crown contender Chris Johnson injured his toe stepping on a base. Johnson missed the final game of the series with turf toe. Johnson’s bat has been the most consistent in the lineup and the Braves need him healthy quickly.

    One thing the Braves are looking forward to, somewhat surprisingly, is the return of Dan Uggla who recently had Lasik surgery to correct his vision. He will play in two rehab games Monday and Tuesday and then join the big club on Wednesday. Given that the Braves are playing with a lineup that resembles a split-squad spring training game, having Uggla’s bat back in the lineup might help the struggling offense. In his absence, the Braves have had immediate returns with Elliot Johnson who was acquired off waivers from the Kansas City Royals. He contribute 2 hits in his first game with the Braves, snapping an 0-for-31 drought.

    The Braves acquired RHP Freddy Garcia from the Orioles for cash. Garcia had been pitching with Baltimore's Triple-A affiliate.

    The Braves acquired RHP Freddy Garcia from the Orioles for cash. Garcia had been pitching with Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate.

    In 10 starts with the Orioles, Garcia went 3-5 with a 5.77 ERA (53 innings). Once the Orioles decided Garcia didn’t fit into their young rotation, they sent him to Triple-A Norfolk where he went 8-3 in 13 starts with a respectable 2.84 ERA. Garcia’s trade was arranged by Baltimore’s GM Dan Duquette who realized Garcia would not have a starting job with the big club and appreciated the veteran starter’s career enough to part ways. The Braves could benefit from the 15-year veteran’s presence, especially in the postseason, given that the oldest member of the starting staff is the 31-year-old Paul Maholm who doesn’t have any postseason experience. The acquisition of Garcia came on the heels of news that Brandon Beachy would be returning to see Dr. James Andrews who performed his Tommy John surgery. Beachy has been placed on the 15-day DL.

    While there is plenty to be concerned about with the current state of the Braves, there are also highlights to note.

    In the series finale in St. Louis, Mike Minor took the mound on long rest in Beachy’s place and reminded us why he has been the most consistent starter in the rotation this season. Minor dominated the Cardinals over 7 innings, allowing only 6 hits and 1 run. He turned over the game to Luis Avilan in the 8th inning with a lead of 5-1. Also in the finale, Craig Kimbrel took the mound in an unusual 4-out save situation. Kimbrel notched his 31st consecutive save and 41st save of the season. Kimbrel joins John Smoltz as the Atlanta Brave with 3 seasons of 40 or more saves, but even more importantly, Kimbrel is now the only player in MLB history to have 40 or more saves in his first 3 consecutive seasons in the big leagues.

    The Braves loss of the series was a far cry from their sweeps of late, but in their win of the finale, they avoided matching their longest losing streaks of the 2013 season. The have had 4-game skids June 10-14 and April 24-28. Luckily, the Braves didn’t leave St. Louis the gift of a series sweep. Things could have been worse.

    BRAVES WELCOME THE TRIBE…

    Entering Sunday, the Braves rotation had a 2.59 ERA in August. That ERA ranks 2nd in the National League. Their collective 176 strikeouts are tied for 2nd for the month. With Freeman’s first-inning homer in game 3 in St. Louis and Simmons’ bomb in the finale, the Braves now have 23 home runs in the month of August, tied for 2nd in the NL.

    Of the players that have faced the Cleveland Indians the most in their career, Gerald Laird and Elliot Johnson have had terrible luck. Laird has hit .188 in 160 at-bats over his career against the Tribe and Johnson has hit .231 in 39 at-bats. Strangely enough, in his career in the AL, B.J. Upton never faced the Indians. The rest of the active roster has not faced the Cleveland Indians at all.

    The Braves will send Kris Medlen to the mound Thursday after a controversial ending to his last start. After being pulled in the 7th inning with the Cardinals ahead 2-1, Medlen spoke to reporters about the early exit and criticized manager Fredi Gonzalez’ decision. Medlen said after the game, “I don’t know what kind of mentality we’re trying to create for our starters., but I feel like I should be able to work out of some jams.” Medlen’s frustration stemmed from the fact that he had only thrown 78 pitches and was in his first jam of the game. After his comments went viral, Medlen apologized to Gonzalez Saturday and the two put the incident behind them. In Medlen’s last 6 starts, he a 4-2 record with a 3.60 ERA. His season has been impacted by lack of run support in similar ways to Mike Minor last season. Medlen has been given an average of 3.68 runs of support per start, but has had 10 starts when he has received 2 or fewer runs to back his effort. Medlen’s second half has not been as strong as his first half over all, but his last several starts have shown promise. A good start against Cleveland would continue the turn around of his second half.

    While the outfield appears to be cursed this season, the Braves have seen production from unlikely sources. As the Cleveland series gets underway, the Braves will need to continue to see production from Terdoslavich, Gattis and Schafer as they get starts in the outfield. When starting, Joey Terdoslavich is batting .355 (11-for-31). This has been an important development for the Braves as their injury-depleted outfield has relied heavily on the rookie. Schafer had a good series in St. Louis that showed signs of good things to come. Schafer has a triple and a double through the first two innings Sunday. He recorded those 2 hits as well as an RBI. Jordan entered Sunday 3-for-34 since he returned from the ankle/foot injury that put him on the disabled list. Evan Gattis had not been contributing since returning from the disabled list with the strained oblique. He is 20-for-100 with only 1 homer since his return. Prior to the injury, he went 41-for-156 with 14 homers. The Braves need all 3 backup outfielders to produce.

    When the Cleveland series gets underwary Tuesday, third baseman Chris Johnson hopes his sprained left big toe will not prevent him from being ready to play. Obviously, his bat will be important in the upcoming series and as the Braves make the final push.

    The Braves will get underway on Tuesday with Salazar (1-1, 3.52) vs. Wood (2-2, 2.50). Wednesday will pit ace Masterson (14-9, 3.50) vs. Maholm (9-10, 4.51). The season finale Thursday will feature Jimenez (9-8, 3.95) vs. Medlen (10-12, 3.74).

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