• Cole Hamels

    As Braves Close In On East Clinch, A Moment To Appreciate The Journey Here

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two years ago today, I stopped by a cigar shop and liquor store on a bright autumn Saturday morning. I bought two expensive stogies, four bottles of champagne, and cruised toward what was then called SunTrust Park.

    A few hours later, Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field, the Braves raced out of the first-base dugout, and tears of joy fell as Atlanta celebrated the 2018 National League East championship. Amid the mosh pit behind the pitcher’s mound, hugs were exchanged, T-shirts and hats were handed out, and Braves Country exploded in joy as the long five-year nightmare had ended.

    The rebuild was over.

    My, how things have changed as we sit here on this Tuesday in late September, the Braves potentially being able to clinch a third-consecutive division crown in just a few hours. I won’t be inside what’s now called Truist Park. You won’t be, either. We haven’t attended a Braves game all season, but while the pandemic has kept fans at home throughout this truncated 60-game season, we can take solace in two things:

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

    The “we” in the previous sentence isn’t just applicable to the Braves, but all of Major League Baseball. I certainly had my doubts and fears in the early days of this season like no other, especially after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experienced outbreaks in the initial weeks of this campaign. But here we are with six games left to go, a four-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins!) in the East standings, and another date with October looming on the horizon.

    It pales in comparison to what so many have endured the past six months, but these Braves have relied on a ton of resiliency to reach this point. They watched their pitching rotation fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane – the latest shoe dropping Monday when Cole Hamels, the biggest mistake of the Alex Anthopoulos era, landed back on the injured list and being done for the season after getting 10 outs in a Braves uniform. He joins the laundry list of hurlers who won’t help the Braves moving forward, a list that if you knew in mid-July would be a thing, nobody would blame you for wanting Atlanta to tank the season or just forget it altogether and move on to 2021.

    But these Braves had other plans. We wondered how the offense would look with Marcell Ozuna replacing Josh Donaldson, with the platoon of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo playing every day, with Adam Duvall and the ageless Nick Markakis getting some semblance of regular playing time. It’s turned into arguably the best Braves lineup top-to-bottom since the team moved to Atlanta 55 years ago, Ozuna earning himself a big payday on the open market this winter and Duvall looking like an extension candidate and Acuna and Ozzie Albies overcoming injuries to shine and Dansby Swanson – a recent slump notwithstanding – continuing his offensive progression and Travis d’Arnaud looking like the steal of last winter.

    And of course, Riley winning the third-base job and showing a much better approach at the plate. He’s never going to hit .280 in my opinion, but the power is real and the plate discipline has been much better and he’s showed he can play above-average defense at the hot corner. Duvall is a legitimate comeback player of the year candidate, ranking among the league leaders in homers. Were it not for the massive focus the front office must have (that’s not negotiable at this point, Alex) on starting rotation in the offseason, the Braves would be justified to hand Ozuna a huge four-year deal.

    But as always, the story of these Braves centers not on the prolific offense, the swagger of Acuna, the emergence of Riley and Duvall, the lock-down bullpen, or the way Max Fried has developed into a co-ace with the injured Mike Soroka. No, this story circles back to a tall first baseman from California who has been the one constant in the Atlanta lineup for a decade.

    Freddie Freeman didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball less than three months ago, stricken with COVID-19 and a 104-degree fever. We laughed when he took 30-plus at-bats in a five-day span across intrasquad games and two exhibitions against the Marlins, attempting to ramp up for the season opener. He struggled through the first 13 games, hitting .190 with a .656 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

    Since then, the Braves captain has slashed .382/.492/.711 for a scorching hot 1.202 OPS in 41 games, with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 41 games. The DH coming to the NL spurred manager Brian Snitker to move Freeman to the second spot in the batting order, where the 31-year-old is hitting .407 with a 1.233 OPS and 20 walks in 102 plate appearances.

    Freeman has placed in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times in his career; in my opinion, he should finish no lower than first this time around. The list of Braves who have helped move Atlanta to the verge of another East title is lengthy, but as always, steady Freddie stands front and center.

    Two years ago today, as Acuna gloved the final out of the division clincher, my enduring memory was of Freeman walking away from first base, both arms extended in the air, an expression of unbridled joy and relief awash across his face. He’ll soon have an opportunity to revel in another division crown, another punched ticket to the postseason.

    Who knows what awaits come October? We’ll worry about that soon enough. The moment that will come in the next day or two is one we wondered if we’d see. But it’s here now, as it was each of the past two Septembers. At least that hasn’t changed.

    For Freeman, for the Braves, for their legion of fans, the moment in and of itself is worthy of celebration.

    —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.

    Puig’s Your Friend Now, Braves Country, and Other Notes as Camp Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yasiel Puig does not exactly blend in with the crowd, be it the gregarious way he plays baseball, his larger-than-life personality, and the fact he’s built like a nose guard.

    So it wasn’t exactly stunning when the rumor began Tuesday on Twitter that Puig – or his long-lost twin brother – had been spotted in The Battery, adjacent to Truist Park, where the Atlanta Braves would play their fourth intrasquad game later Tuesday evening. The Braves would do so missing left-handed hitting outfielder Nick Markakis, who last week elected not to play the shortened 2020 season. They also took the field without Freddie Freeman, one of the best hitters in the game, who remains sidelined with the coronavirus.

    The news broke later Tuesday afternoon: Puig and the Braves had agreed to terms on an unspecified deal, one that won’t be announced until Puig passes a physical. Certainly, that will include a coronavirus test that even Puig himself probably won’t enjoy – trust me, I found out for the second time Monday that it’s not fun – but the newest Braves outfielder will have plenty of fun soon after things are official.

    The 29-year-old teaming with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna is going to drive some opposing fan bases crazy, especially with the Braves poised to be a contender in the wild setup of a 60-game sprint. The Braves Way has been dead for quite some time, thankfully. Now, the oomph meter just shot to 11, “let the kids play” should be shouted louder than ever, and let’s face it: some folks are going to be mad about it. Big mad.

    But if you’re a Braves fan, I don’t see how you can be mad about this. Puig’s Your Friend now, after all.

    If there’s a nit to pick with this Braves squad as it’s assembled in 2020, it’s hitting against right-handed pitching. It goes without saying not having Freeman and his .304 career lifetime average against right-handers is a considerable blow. Remember, there’s no template or blueprint for a baseball player returning from coronavirus. Is it two weeks from now before Freeman can stride into the left-handed batter’s box? Four weeks? Seven weeks? We just don’t know.

    And with Markakis deciding the risks of playing this season weren’t worth it – and I’ll never blame any player for looking at this landscape and saying, “nah, I’m out” – Atlanta lost another valuable bat against right-handed pitching. So while some will opine that Puig is yet another right-handed bat in a right-handed heavy lineup, he also is a career .285 hitter against rightys with a .845 OPS and, with the presence of the designated hitter in the NL in 2020, the Braves lineup looks more formidable than it did this morning.

    It also looks more fun. Yes, Puig is loud and plays the game with an edge that sometimes boils over. He’s also approaching age 30 and free agency, so the thought here is he’ll behave himself. There will be far fewer dollars on the open market this winter than in years. And if you truly believe Puig is going to poison his limited chances at a good deal for 2021 by poisoning the Braves culture, well, in my opinion that’s a ridiculous thought.

    We play ball in 10 days at Citi Field. At least we hope. A few other notes from the past few days:

    Do the Braves remain the Braves? I wrote my thoughts about the tomahawk chop a few months ago. The manufactured chop beaten relentlessly into fans’ heads needs to go. But the name of the team? I don’t think it will change, a stance backed up by the team to season-ticket holders and the media Sunday.

    Wither Cole Hamels? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. I talked with somebody in February whose opinion I trust; that person doubted Hamels would be ready for the scheduled opening day in late March. When I spoke to that person last month weeks ago, their perspective had not waivered.

    At this point, 10 days before the season commences, Hamels still has not thrown as much as a BP session. I think you must cross him out for the rotation for at least the first two times through, which is 10 games – or 16.66% of the regular season. I’m happy the team signed Josh Tomlin – who looked pretty good in four innings during Monday’s intrasquad matchup – and I’m really excited with what I saw out of Kyle Wright in spring training. It’d be great to see Wright on the mound, however. Like Hamels, we’re still waiting. Speaking of the rotation:

    What about Folty? It was hard to see from watching the feed of the intrasquad game Wednesday, considering the camera was positioned at the top of the ballpark, but the lanky right-hander returned to the mound at Triuist Park for the first time since the infamous Game 5 NLDS meltdown and shoved for three innings, only allowing a walk to Culberson but nothing else.

    We’re so quick to forget just how good Folty was after he came back from his demotion to Gwinnett: 2.65 ERA, .211 opponents batting average, 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings across 10 starts (6-1 record). That does not include seven shutout innings with no walks and three hits allowed in Game 2 of the NLDS. His work in 2020, in my opinion, will be critical to the Braves success. To that point, Folty made sure he would be ready for this unprecedented season. To that point:

    Cheers to the Spartans: I got a message from someone in mid-April, saying a handful of Braves pitchers had secured a high school to work out at while practicing social distancing. As we’ve learned publicly last week via comments made to Atlanta media, it wasn’t just throwing.

    Several Braves hurlers took the shutdown seriously.

    When you go through the annuals of Atlanta sports, Campbell High in the northwestern suburb of Smyrna probably would draw mention for Brian Oliver, the shooting guard who helped lead Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four (teaming with Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson to form the vaunted “Lethal Weapon III”). But if the Braves reach the postseason in 2020, give a hat-tip to the Campbell Spartans and their staff.

    Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Mike Soroka threw at Campbell High six days a week during the shutdown, firing full bullpens twice weekly. They were joined on occasion by teammates Acuna, Albies.  Johan Camargo, Charlie Culberson and others.

    With 20 games in 20 days to begin the season, starting fast is going to be more critical than ever. If the Braves ride solid pitching to a good start, don’t forget the work these guys did at a Cobb County high school field, one the baseball coach and athletic director made sure was ready and open for their MLB neighbors, while also working to keep that news quiet.

    What if Freddie can’t go out of the gate? Losing a solid bat and elite defender at a key position, not to mention the captain of the team, is not a good thing. Let’s all hope the Freddie, and Chelsea and Charlie, stay well and get over the virus.

    We have no playbook, as I referenced on ESPN Coastal last week and earlier in this piece. We’re going into this blind. But I think the Braves turn first at first to Austin Riley and his potential power if Freeman is not well enough to start the season. Riley has played a little first base, and after taking grounders a little bit at first base in spring training, has put in some work at first base during summer camp and in intrasquad contests.

    Yes, Atlanta has a couple of first basemen on non-roster invites in Peter O’Brien and Yonder Alonso – both of whom are getting time in some intrasquad games. But If either of them are on the active roster come opening day on July 24, this team is in trouble. Let’s all hope Freddie is OK and ready to go in Queens when the season starts. If not, we’ll hope some semblance or Riley and Adam Duvall and Camargo can cover first base till Freeman is back.

    To the Max: Unsolicited private comment from somebody who was in Trust Park watching Max Fried pitch in last Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage. “Fried looks poised to be a bad ass upper-tier pitcher.” Glad he’s on my fantasy team, and my favorite team, one that is hopefully a few days away from kicking off a season the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before.

    —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.

    Cole for Christmas is Nice, but Braves Must Pump Up Power

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Many Braves fans felt they were left with coal in their offseason stockings last spring after the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November, then did little else.

    But a different type of coal – Cole Hamels, to be specific – became the latest acquisition of a busy shopping spree for general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday. And while it’s not Gerrit Cole, who figures to sign for a bazillion dollars given the established price of free-agent starters, this Cole will fit into the Braves rotation just fine.

    Atlanta inked a one-time nemesis – stemming from Hamels’ 10 years in Philadelphia – to a one-year, $18-million contract, landing the Braves youthful rotation a veteran left-hander with 422 career games, a career 1.18 WHIP and 2,694 2/3 innings. Add in his 17 postseason games, a World Series MVP award and four All-Star appearances, and it would appear Anthopoulos has satisfied his desire to add an experienced arm to the trio of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

    Since the World Series ended, Anthopoulos has spent like a shopaholic carrying five new credit cards on Black Friday. He remade the bullpen by signing Will Smith, the best closer on the market, and bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. He grabbed Travis d’Arnaud to team with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, after re-signing Flowers and Nick Markakis.

    Including Hamels, Anthopoulos has added $56.25 million to the 2020 payroll. To this point, it’s mostly money well spent (we’ll know for sure after next season). What we do know in early December is this: The bullpen, a source of so much pain and hand-wringing for the first four months last season, is markedly better. d’Arnaud figures to get more than his share of starts following a healthy and resurgent season in a platoon with Flowers. Markakis will work with Adam Duvall in a left field platoon that likely will see Markakis get more starts than he should (because Brian Snitker remains manager, after all).

    Everybody knew Cole (Gerrit, not Hamels) and Stephen Strasburg would command mega deals on the open market, which in turn forced many teams to focus on a second tier centered around Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner. It became clear to the Braves quickly that landing either the East Paulding High alum (Wheeler, who signed a $118-million, five-year pact with Philadelphia later Wednesday) or the Hickory, N.C. native (Bumgarner) would require a heavy investment in years and AAV (average annual contract value).

    So Anthopoulos pivoted quickly to Hamels, who had expressed a desire early in the offseason to take a one-year deal with a contender. And while that World Series MVP award was 11 autumns ago, the soon-to-be 36-year old showed in 2019 he still is capable of pitching at a high level. Hamels posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.39 WHIP with a 3.0 bWAR in 27 starts for the Cubs, both numbers taking a hit after he returned too quickly from an oblique injury.

    Through his first 17 starts (pre-injury), Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP across 99 2/3 innings, allowing nine homers with a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his 10 starts after returning, he pitched to a 5.79 ERA with eight homers surrendered in 42 innings and an unsightly 1.88 WHIP. Most of that damage came in three starts; in the other seven, he gave up a total of 10 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings – a 2.67 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hamels closed the season by giving up three runs on nine hits in 11 2/3 innings across his final three starts.

    Just as important is the influence the Braves hope Hamels will have on their young pitchers. Fried in particular resembles a younger Hamels in both stature (both are 6-foot-4) and mechanics. Another southpaw, Sean Newcomb, figures to get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training (barring acquisition of another starter between now and March). Both should benefit from having an experienced lefty mentor in the locker room.

    Yes, Anthopoulos has accomplished a lot so far this winter. As baseball’s glacier-like pace of offseason moves thankfully has sped up this winter, the Braves are showing signs of a team making progress along the journey from rebuilding franchise to bona fide World Series contender.

    But at this point, it’s just that. Progress.

    Work remains to be done, and now is when things get tricky. Baseball’s Winter Meetings kick off Sunday evening in San Diego. For the moves Braves have completed, a glaring hole remains in the middle of the batting order. Donaldson (who was named NL comeback player of the year Wednesday) is one of the hottest commodities on the open market, viewed as the second-base third baseman behind Anthony Rendon and even more in demand now that Mike Moustakas has signed with Cincinnati.

    I expected payroll to rise this offseason, but it’s moving up at a dizzying rate when compared with the historical thriftiness of Liberty Media. Adding Hamels (and sadly subtracting fan favorite Charlie Culberson, who was non-tendered Monday) to the opening-day locks list, I project 21 players who will be owed approximately $128.62 million for 2020.

    Suffice to say, the work cannot stop now. Especially after all the moves of the past month, Atlanta simply cannot settle with a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley platoon at third base without adding a power bat elsewhere. Ideally, it’s Donaldson at third base, which would mean re-signing the Bringer of Rain for something around $25 million AAV for at least three years (if other camps offer a fourth season, I’m concerned the rain will fall elsewhere in 2020).

    Re-signing Donaldson is the simplest path, one that would take the payroll north of $153 million with four spots left (two on the bench; two in the bullpen). Maybe the Auburn football program could put in a good word for the Braves, considering Donaldson watched his alma mater win Saturday’s Iron Bowl from the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    But if he lands elsewhere, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to trade some of the prospect stockpile and likely Ender Inciarte (and perhaps a bullpen piece) to land a power bat, perhaps Starling Marte from Pittsburgh or Jorge Soler from Kansas City or Mitch Haniger from Seattle, provided he can make the deal sweet enough to compel the other side to jump). The trade market is so much harder to pin down, but every GM in baseball will be at the same place in Southern California for four days next week.

    Given the activity we’ve seen across the sport this offseason, it might be quite a week.

    Regardless, the Braves have no choice. Adding Hamels to the rotation, bolstering the bullpen, and addressing catcher early puts the Braves in a great position with the Winter Meetings approaching. But as long as that hole in the lineup remains, Anthopoulos cannot stop doing everything possible to deliver Braves Country the ultimate prize next autumn, one far greater than coal (or Cole).

    —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.