• Corey Kluber

    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.

    Settling on Markakis cannot signal end of Braves moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s funny, if not downright ironic. Nick Markakis is the consummate professional, a man’s man who never shows emotion, speaks quietly to the media (when they can drag a quote out of him), and just goes out and does his job, for better or for worse. This is not the type of player who sparks divisive debate and impassioned argument among a fan base.

    But in the moments after the Atlanta Braves announced the 35-year-old right fielder would return on a one-year, $4-million deal for 2019, social media became lit, as the kids say. And there was no middle ground, with reaction falling into one of two camps:

    • Absolutely outstanding to bring back a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner who earned his first career All-Star berth.
    • Absolutely inexcusable to bring back a mid-30s outfielder who slashed .258/.332/.369 in the second half and went 1-for-12 in the NLDS.

    The stats in the second bullet were pulled from a notes file I compiled in looking back on 2018, a season that saw the Braves slam shut the rebuild and fling open the window to compete. In no way was Atlanta capable of a World Series run a season ago, but entering 2019, expectations have changed. Hence why, within that notes file buried on my hard drive, I typed the following in my Markakis section:

    “Expect him to be elsewhere in 2019.”

    Yeah, about that …

    I am among those who voiced my, shall we say, displeasure with what I feel on the surface is the Braves settling for the status quo one season later, in a division that is markedly better, with a team that cannot be satisfied with just a winning season in 2019. Markakis’ second-half swoon may be a by-product of fatigue from his insistence to play every single day – an approach that absolutely cannot be repeated – or it could be a signal of regression for a player who slashed .272/.350/.391 in his two seasons before 2018.

    And that’s not bad. Not at all. But it’s nowhere close to the .323/.389/.488 slash line Markakis put up through the first half of the season. In other words: the feeling that Markakis’ first four months were more of an anomaly than the norm isn’t just a stance to back up an opinion. It’s a fact.

    What’s also a fact is this team, like it or not, now is viewed through a different lens. Sorry folks, that what happens when you start winning. And if you’re going to have a mid-30s outfielder posting a season OPS+ of 97 (his average for 2016-17 before a 117 last season), you’re going to need big-time offensive performances from several other spots in the lineup to be a World Series contender.

    Yes, Ronald Acuna Jr. turned the baseball world upside down, Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate until a late-season slump, Ozzie Albies was an All-Star (he also struggled in the second half), and in Josh Donaldson, Atlanta has the potential to possess the MVP-caliber thumper this lineup needs to go with Freeman in the lineup. But Acuna enters his first full big-league season, Freeman turns 30 in September, Albies begins his second full major-league campaign, and Donaldson has battled injuries the past two seasons.

    In other words, right field felt like a natural place to chase an upgrade. And let it be known, the Braves chased. Michael Brantley wasn’t coming here because he wanted to play in Houston, with no state income tax and for a team that won 103 games last season and the World Series the autumn before. Atlanta was not going to pay Andrew McCutchen the stupid money Philadelphia did (rightly so). They like A.J. Pollock but not at the years/money for a talented yet oft-injured outfielder on the other side of 30. Carlos Gonzalez’s splits away from Denver scared them (again, rightly so). Adam Jones arguably is as big of a regression candidate as Markakis.

    Don’t like the Markakis signing and want to be mad about it? Direct your anger toward Phoenix and Seattle. Arizona tore down part of its core and yet, insists on not trading David Peralta as the Diamondbacks front office holds illusions of competing. Seattle has “reimagined” its roster but refuses to deal Mitch Haniger – understandable considering the club control of the rising star.

    On the surface, Atlanta realistically never could have been in on Bryce Harper, although I’ve said all winter he would be the absolute perfect fit in right field and the cleanup spot. The Braves, even if they were awash with a $200 million payroll, could not do a 10-year deal for anybody, not with the names hitting free agency after 2021 (Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz), 2022 (Dansby Swanson), 2023 (Albies, Sean Newcomb, Johan Camargo), 2024 (Acuna, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint), etc.

    A shorter deal with opt-outs and a high AAV always was the only realistic path, and there is no doubt in my mind Atlanta went there with Harper. Whether it was shot down immediately or considered somewhat seriously, who’s to say? Harper, of course, remains unsigned.

    Markakis truly is one of those guys you want on your team, but his presence should not preclude Atlanta from trying to bolster the offense as we approach spring training. Does that mean J.T. Realmuto and the never-ending soap opera with the dysfunctional Miami front office reaches its long-overdue finale? Does that mean another push for Peralta or Haniger? Or, using some reverse thinking here, does it mean Atlanta finally trades some of its prized prospects for a true ace (Corey Kluber)? With Markakis signed for a small price, do the Braves look to the reliever market (hey, aren’t you Craig Kimbrel)?

    There are positives in bringing back Markakis, of course. You know what you’re going to get. Hard work. Discipline. Leadership. No distractions.

    It would be folly to expect a full season of what Markakis provided in the first half of 2018. But let’s hope what we see this season is closer to that and not a continued downward trend toward the final three months of last season. Because at the end of the day, the answer to that question may turn out to be the biggest one in determining if October baseball awaits for a second consecutive season.

    There will be plenty of rightful second-guessing of Alex Anthopoulos for this signing if it doesn’t.

    —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 Go Cyber Monday Shopping, Bolster Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There were plenty of people who did their research, scoped out the best buys, figured out their budget and set their sights on Cyber Monday, one of those holiday events where many of us upgrade our wardrobe, electronics or household.

    Who knew Alex Anthopoulos also had that day circled on his calendar?


    Now granted, the Braves general manager probably did not set out specifically to make the first two moves of this pivotal offseason on the same day you were saving 30 percent on a pair of jeans and a flat-screen TV. But when you slip on those new jeans and fire up that TV come April, you’re going to see a familiar face and a hugely impactful face wearing Atlanta Braves jerseys.

    Atlanta welcomed home longtime catcher, Duluth (Ga.) native and eternal fan favorite Brian McCann on Monday, signing the veteran catcher to a one-year, $2 million deal. Injuries and decreased offensive production diminished his impact the past two seasons in Houston, but one of the better framing catchers in the game did help the Astros win the 2017 World Series. Reportedly, the soon-to-be 35-year-old turned down more lucrative offers for the chance to play in front of family and friends in his hometown.

    Certainly, this move did not move the needle holistically as much as it did for sentimental reasons. This correspondent even tweeted that this move did not look great at the moment, but likely would in a month or two given the moves that would come, taking care of the catching position, not spending but a mere pittance (in baseball terms) to get it done. After all, this is not the same player who made seven All-Star appearance wearing an Atlanta uniform earlier in his career.

    Then came news – merely minutes after McCann’s signing was announced by the club – that made adding a catcher who hit .212 in 63 games last season much more tolerable, sentiments be darned.

    The Braves inked slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal late Monday, reuniting the former Blue Jay with Anthopoulos, the general manager who acquired the Auburn University product after the 2014 season to help Toronto reach back-to-back AL championship series.

    That’s a lot of money for a guy who, like McCann, has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. But any return to form for Donaldson, who will be motivated to parlay this one-year deal into a huge free-agent contract come next winter, would pay tremendous dividends for an Atlanta lineup that – for all its sizzle and shine a season ago – lacked the right-handed power threat to slot behind Freddie Freeman in the cleanup spot.

    There’s a lot to like about these deals together, from an inward and an outward perspective.

    Inward, the Braves are a better team now than they were at sunrise. McCann will provide tremendous leadership behind the plate for Atlanta’s youthful staff, the catcher certainly benefitting from working with the likes of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander since he left the Braves after the 2013 season. He gained valuable experience playing in the postseason with the Yankees (who he signed with after leaving Atlanta) and Houston, including the 2017 World Series title.

    Likewise, Donaldson has his share of playoff experience, including the aforementioned two years with Anthopoulos north of the border. The soon-to-be 33-year-old only played 52 games a season ago, but slugged 33 homers with a .944 OPS in 113 games the year before, and only is three years removed from a MVP campaign in which he blasted 41 homers and drove in 123 runs. Anything approaching those numbers in 2019 gives the Braves one of the absolute most dangerous lineups in the NL, hands down.

    And what of Johan Camargo, the young fan favorite whose anchoring of third base the final four months of 2018 is hailed as one of the reasons the rebuilding Braves transitioned into the playoff-clinching Braves? Folks, I can’t see Camargo going anywhere. He has experience playing three infield positions, will get some work at first base and corner outfield in camp, and profiles exactly as the type of player Martin Prado was at one time and Marwin Gonzalez (McCann’s former Houston teammate) is at this time.

    Those guys are incredibly valuable. Baseball today has changed. Used to be, the best eight guys played every day. Not anymore. Remember the NLDS, where the Braves fell in four games to Los Angeles? Atlanta’s bench was piecemeal, while the Dodgers routinely brought guys off the bench who could’ve started for the majority of teams in the majors.

    Camargo will see time on the bench, sure, but also will get plenty of starts spelling Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Donaldson (the beauty is Donaldson does not have to play 150 games for this deal to be a winner for the Braves), a few starts in a corner outfield spot. Social media lit up immediately after the Donaldson news broke with questions of whether Camargo or Swanson would be moved.

    My feeling is neither. Anthopoulos and Brian Snitker – ironically, the man who as a minor-league manager told a 21-year-old McCann at Double-A Mississippi in 2005 that he was going to the majors for the first time – realize depth is a need if this franchise is going to play deeper into October in 2019. Donaldson’s addition allows that to happen. Consider that on a particular night, you could have Camargo (or Swanson, or Albies, or Donaldson) as your top option off the bench, with McCann as the second catcher on days Tyler Flowers starts, along with the ever-versatile Charlie Culberson?

    Beats Ryan Flaherty and Danny Santana.

    It’d be foolish to think the Braves are done, either. Certainly, Anthopoulos will take some of the remaining payroll flexibility and save that dry powder for spring training or the trade deadline, but Atlanta still has money to spend (even more so if it can find a taker for Julio Teheran, knowing it likely will have to eat some of his $11 million owed for 2019). Were Donaldson an everyday player last season, there is no way he takes a one-year deal. McCann three years ago would not have come home for $2 million.

    But here they are, and there still is room for the Braves to work.

    Not to mention Atlanta has dealt exactly zero prospects from its overflowing pantry of young talent. The capabilities are there to make a major move on the trade front, and I think that’s where the Braves will strike next. Could Cleveland’s Corey Kluber be had for a high prospect price, giving Atlanta three years of control of a perennial Cy Young candidate who is a bona fide ace? Could Seattle be enticed to deal outfielder Mitch Haniger and/or closer Edwin Diaz for a big package, allowing the Braves to address corner outfield and closer with long-term controllable pieces?

    Anthopoulos filled two needs on Cyber Monday. Time will tell if he got the most bang for his buck. And with the Winter Meetings looming and plenty of options on the table, today’s spending spree likely is only the beginning.

    —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.