• Craig Kimbrel

    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.

    IT’S GAMEDAY: Embrace This Moment, Braves Country; You’ve Earned It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The oddsmakers have weighed in, the pundits and talking heads and bloggers and the rest of the world have offered their take on the National League Division Series, how one team is loaded with playoff experience – many of it gleaned from reaching the seventh game of the World Series last season – while the other team has shocked so many by just gracing the October stage.

    But baseball has a funny way of evening even the most lopsided playing fields, especially in the most pivotal month of the marathon season that begins amid the palm trees and desert sands in February and ends around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.

    Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave who finds himself on the eve of managing his first major-league postseason game, humorously corrected a reporter’s question during a Wednesday evening press conference at Dodger Stadium after the reporter said the Braves might not have as much playoff experience as the Dodgers, Atlanta’s opponent in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.

    “They don’t have as much; not even might about it,” Snitker said with a humble giggle in discussing his team.

    My, how far this franchise has come.

    The Atlanta Braves are going to play a playoff game in less than 24 hours, an honest-to-goodness, real-life, hot-dang-this-really-is-October-baseball playoff game. It will unfold in the same venue where the Braves played their last postseason contest, but even if we don’t want to think about what transpired that Monday night in October 2013, it doesn’t matter at all.

    Because of what’s transpired since.

    Do you remember the Braves trading so much of their controllable talent, the pain you felt when Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis were shipped away for prospects? What about the evening before the season opener in 2015, when Atlanta found the solution to rid itself of B.J. Upton and his albatross of a contract at the expense of Craig Kimbrel being included in the deal, mere hours before the first pitch of the season?

    How about the awful final two months of 2015 (18-37 before winning three of four to end the season), a stretch in which the Braves gave up 20 runs in a game and employed the lovable Jonny Gomes for an inning of relief in an 11-run defeat that, arguably, may have been the highlight of that season? Those two things happened two days apart! Or, losing the first nine games in 2016 en route to a 9-28 start that sent Fredi Gonzalez, a dead manager walking entering that spring, into unemployment, complete with a Delta flight notification sent to him before he was given the news?

    There are about five zillion other examples that I could cite, but the bottom line is this. When your feet hit the floor Thursday morning, you begin an Atlanta Braves Playoff Gameday. How does that sound, Braves Country? It’s something we took for granted for oh, so long, as the Braves of yesteryear piled up division titles like they were Beanie Babies (remember them?), but a half-decade away wading through the vast underbelly of the National League makes one appreciative when you find the light again.

    The smart money, the experts, those in the know, are going to tell you the Braves have little chance of winning this series. Los Angeles has more talent, more experience, owns the advantage in everything from matchups to home field, and is just better. I’m not going to dispute any of that, because it’s true. The Dodgers are a better team 1-through-25. They can deploy a starting-lineup worthy bench at all times and have a lineup built to face lefties and another one geared toward righties.

    That’s all well and good. It should not diminish your enthusiasm, your hopes, your spirits one iota entering this series. And here’s why.

    Baseball’s postseason history is littered with the burned-out remains of cars destined for ticker tape and champagne, all crashed out by a lesser team that had little-to-no chance at the start of the series, only to trip up the prohibitive favorite. Baseball’s postseason, while not one-and-done after you advance past the wild-card stage, is the closest approximation we have in pro sports to March Madness. Especially in the division series, where with a five-game series the underdog merely has to win once in the opening two road games to have a chance to win the series at home in four games.

    What makes baseball’s postseason so compelling is often, the best team does not win the championship. We haven’t had a repeat world champion since 2000. As mentioned in this space this week, think of all the franchises that have won a World Series since the Dodgers last captured the title in 1988. The drama of October is a stark contrast to the six-month grind that compresses 162 games into 187 days. The finality is sudden and jarring. Success is euphoric and exhilarating. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t just a trite saying, it’s a true strategy that more than one team has used to fuel a run deep into the year’s 10th month.

    That’s why these Braves aren’t just a nice turn-around story, one where we all should be happy just to be here. Yes, even if Atlanta loses three straight, there is no dulling the shine of what’s transpired in 2018. But don’t be fooled. The Braves are not just happy to be here, and privately there are plenty of people around baseball who will tell you they want no part of this bunch in a series, especially when three wins and not four is the ticket to advance.

    The feeling here is these Braves, with their blend of calming veteran leadership and youthful emotion, will fare just fine in their first foray into the madness of October. They might not win the series, but it won’t be easy for Los Angeles. This will not be a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Atlanta has the talent and the tools to push the Dodgers to the very brink. If L.A. wins this series, they will have to earn it.

    And there’s no guarantee it won’t be the Braves heading to Milwaukee or Denver for the NL Championship Series. That youthful ignorance, confidence and swagger of a team that defied all the predictions of a 75-to-80 win season to capture 90 victories (20 coming in their final at-bat), win the NL East, earn the NL’s best road record and respond to every stumble or wobble, gives this correspondent every reason to believe we’re about to embark on quite a series.

    It’s a series that has been a long time coming for everybody in Braves Country. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

    You deserve this.

    —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.

    The “Braves Way” Is Dead. Here’s the Path Forward from Scandal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the house of cards once called the Atlanta Braves front office collapsed, blown away by a chorus of gale-force gusts produced by Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into allegations of scandalous behavior.

    We shall not invoke the name of the former general manager who resigned on the opening day of the offseason. I frankly do not care if he ever is heard from again, to be quite honest.

    But at some point, no matter how angry or embarrassed or betrayed or brokenhearted one is, you must look around at the altered landscape and assess the way forward. As the Braves leadership – using that term quite loosely – gathered in Orlando for its annual October organizational meetings, the focus undoubtedly was not so much on the 2018 roster as it was on how to emerge from the worst scandal in franchise history.

    Yes, it’s bad. It quite possibly may get worse once MLB announces its findings and subsequent punishments. No, it won’t set the franchise back a decade. Yes, it may rattle the very foundation that cracked a week ago Monday.

    But keep this in mind: SunTrust Park will be filled to capacity on March 29, 2018, when the Braves open the new season against Philadelphia. Advertisers likely are not leaving. No company with a business in The Battery is going to shut its doors.

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    However, the Braves better be very aware their loyal fanbase – which has gone 22 years since experiencing a World Series title, 18 years without an NL pennant, 16 years with nary a postseason series triumph – looks at its baseball team with a skeptical eye in wake of this mess. Restoring that trust and unwavering support will not happen overnight, but there are a few things whoever is minding the store now and moving forward best keep in mind.

    Accountability

    We see it all the time, whether a public figure commits some sort of transgression or a corporation endures a security breach. Somebody gets behind a microphone, or writes a press release, or posts on social media some canned statement that says little.

    The Braves cannot go down that “blah, blah, blah” road. Somebody, be it John Hart or Terry McGuirk or John Schuerholz, better step up and own this. Pleasant? Nope. Necessary? Absolutely.

    Schuerholz is regarded by some as merely a figurehead driving deals for new stadiums and spring training complexes. Others think the Hall of Famer still is influencing baseball decisions. Hart, as director of the front office who was brought in to mentor the since-deposed GM, reports to McGuirk, the conduit between the faceless Liberty Media conglomerate and the baseball franchise it owns for purposes tax related.

    I have my doubts anybody on Liberty’s board of directors could name more than five players who wore an Atlanta uniform in 2017.

    Regardless, whoever serves as the mouthpiece moving forward better be open and honest. No corporate double-talk. The fans demand (and rightly deserve) to know who knew what, why this happened, what lessons have been learned and what is going to happen moving forward.

    And it better be sincere. If it’s bull, the fanbase will smell it from a mile away.

    Change

    Dumping the brash, somewhat disruptive and downright rude former GM was a no-brainer. Call it a resignation all you want, but the dude had no choice. In essence, he was fired, and he shouldn’t be the first one to pack their office.

    It is inconceivable to me and countless others I have talked to in recent days that this was a back-door, dimly lit, lone-wolf scenario. Those who knew the depth of the alleged transgressions had a moral obligation to speak up, and by not doing so, there must be payment.

    That payment amounts to taking a broom to the executive offices at SunTrust Park. Hart very well may view himself as a bridge to 2018. Schuerholz may fancy himself with a relevant role in the clean-up. McGuirk, who has not uttered a peep since the scandal broke, might feel far enough removed above the fray.

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Wrong, wrong and wrong. All three must go; if not now, certainly before spring training starts. If there ever was time to cut the cord from two decades ago, now is that time. Yes, that includes Bobby Cox, whose influence (along with Schuerholz) likely has played too much of a role in recent years, resumes and job titles be darned.

    And while we’re at it, once and for all, “The Braves Way” is dead and gone, never to be uttered again. It is worn out and rings hollower today than ever before.

    Contend

    This is easier said than done because, duh, every one of the 30 teams in baseball sets out to compete for a playoff spot each season. But arguably no team on the planet, in any league, at any level of the sport, needs a good 2018 season more than the Braves.

    Forty-eight months ago, Craig Kimbrel stood locked in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium as Los Angeles rallied for a victory that eliminated Atlanta from the NL Division Series. The great tear-down began a few months later, with the late years of this decade the target to return to the limelight with a team bolstered by young starts and a farm system plentiful in top prospects.

    There is no doubt the spotlight shines brightly on this franchise today, but for all the wrong reasons. Within that white-hot glow of scrutiny and skepticism, it may be easy to forget the Braves do have the best farm system in the majors, with several young players either already having ascended to the big leagues or sitting a year or two away.

    The right moves this offseason could accelerate the timeline to contention. That would not be a bad thing given how the Braves have screwed up the one thing that figured never to be shaken – its relationship with an adoring, loyal, generational fanbase that has waited patiently and trusted the process.

    That trust, that patience, is in scant supply these days. Even a run at a wildcard berth that carries beyond Labor Day would be a needed salve on the festering wound this scandal has left.

    The path forward may not be easy, but spare me the tears. The Braves deserve whatever punishment comes from this. The real question in my mind is how does the organization move forward.

    And you better believe we are watching. Closely.

    —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 family loses Tommy Hanson

    When news broke Monday that Tommy Hanson was in a coma in an Atlanta hospital after a friend found him not breathing, Braves Country became immediately concerned about the former Brave. The phrase ‘once a Brave, always a Brave’ has never meant as much as it does in times like this. News came Tuesday that Hanson, 29, had died.

    Hanson spent the 2009-2012 with the Atlanta Braves. After the first half of 2012, he was traded to the LA Angels of Anaheim.

    Hanson spent the 2009-2012 with the Atlanta Braves. After the first half of 2012, he was traded to the LA Angels of Anaheim.

    In 2009, Tommy Hanson burst on the big league scene after lighting up the minors with his unhittable fastball. His reputation preceded him. In 2008 while pitching for the Mississippi Braves, Tommy threw a no-hitter, earned a MiLBY for Class A Advanced Single Game Performance, was rewarded for a dominant season with a spot on the Baseball America’s Minor League Team of the Year, was the Arizona Fall League’s MVP and was named Braves Pitcher of the Year. It is no exaggeration to say the league was anxiously anticipating his debut.

    We often forget how promising Atlanta’s pitching staff was in the late 2000s. Jair Jurrjens, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Craig Kimbrel and Tommy Hanson were either on the roster or making their way through the minors to The Show. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado were only a year or two away. The front office had acquired Tim Hudson, Eric O’Flaherty, Kenshin Kawakami, Derek Lowe and Billy Wagner to round out the staff and offer veteran leadership to the up-and-coming arms. Of course, pitching rarely works out as planned. Kawakami was a bust, the Braves ate money to move Lowe, Medlen and Beachy required Tommy John and Tommy Hanson, well, Hanson saw the highest highs and lowest lows of the sport.

    Hanson did as everyone thought he would: He burst onto the scene in 2009 making his arrival noticed with a 3rd place running in the National League Rookie of the Year vote. That after having debuted in June! People forget that the Atlanta Braves brought Tommy in after cutting none other than Tom Glavine. They had a lot of hope for this young, 6’6″ red head from California. And he didn’t disappoint. His 2009 season is the kind pitchers’ dream of: 11-4, 2.89 ERA and 116 strikeouts (8.2 SO/9) in 127.2 innings pitched over 21 starts. But Tommy wasn’t just a line of stats to the Braves, he was a good clubhouse guy and a great teammate. You won’t find a former teammate that doesn’t say he was a joy to have around and one of the best guys to have on your side.

    In 2010, the Braves sent long-time manager Bobby Cox off in style. Their 91-71 record got them the Wild Card. Hanson’s 10-11 record on the season is hardly as telling of his season as his 3.33 ERA. He was a workhorse, going to the mound for 202-2/3 innings of work. Tommy was in or near the top 30 in both ERA and strikeouts that year. The Braves would go home after a mediocre loss to the Giants in the NLDS, but there was hope for a return to the postseason with such strong arms in the Braves’ system.

    The Braves did make it back to the postseason in the first ever National League Wild Card game, a game they lost. But Tommy Hanson didn’t pitch, his fellow Californian Kris Medlen did. And at this point, it was clear that something was very wrong with the righthander’s arm.

    By the end of 2012, even I, a fan of Tommy, was calling him “a shell of his former self.” In October of that year, I wrote:

    “Though it seemed injury was the likely culprit at the end of last season and again midway through the 2012 season, those who follow the Braves are fearful that Hanson’s drop in velocity and dominance is a sign that the Tommy of old will not be returning.”

    It was painful watching Tommy fall as quickly as he did. In 2009 he looked as if he had a long career in baseball and one that would, if not consistently at least flirt with dominance. At the end of 2011, Tommy dealt with a nagging injury that can reasonably be blamed for his late struggles.

    The trade that sent Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden was widely heralded as a wise trade and one that would be good for both players. Anaheim didn’t need Walden to close and the Braves hoped a change of scenery would return Tommy to the pitcher he was when he broke into the league. Tommy’s ERA had been growing, he had spent time on the disabled list with a back strain and he hadn’t looked himself. While it was hard for the team and their fans to part with Big Red, as he had come to be called, everyone was rooting for Tommy Hanson. It was impossible to not root for Tommy.

    Despite his struggles within the game, outside the game he remained a great friend and teammate. The outpouring of condolences to the Hanson family from members of the Braves, Angels and Rangers organizations are proof. Something former Brave Kris Medlen said in a text to Dave O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution struck me:

    “I also feel bad for anyone who didn’t get a chance to know the man. He was the kindest, most loyal person I’ve ever met. He loved his family more than anything in the world, and his friends felt like family when around them. He was not ‘like’ a brother to me, he was my brother and I’m going to miss him so much.”

    Tommy Hanson joined his teammates in Hawaii for the weddingKimbrel's teammates pose in tribute to the Braves' closer

    Tommy Hanson joined his teammates in Hawaii for the wedding of former (and now current) Brave Peter Moylan.

    We as fans may not have known Tommy personally, but we got to see these young Braves come up alongside him and we got to appreciate just how close they all were.

    I was reminded of when Braves fans everywhere were posting pictures of themselves doing “The Kimbrel” and one of those pictures came from the players themselves. Attending Peter Moylan’s wedding in Hawaii, Tommy joined Medlen, Moylan and Kimbrel to show their support for the unusual stance of their teammate. It is a reminder of something we often forget about these players we watch for 162 games a season: They are first and foremost people. They have friends. They have family. And yes, sometimes their teammates become their family, but that isn’t a given. That Medlen calls Hanson a brother speaks to the kind of man he was.

    Baseball is just a game. This comes as a surprise to some, I know, but after the toughest game, the worst loss, the high of winning and even the end of the season, it’s just a game. There is life outside baseball. Both the game and life outside it aren’t always easy. Tommy knew this better than most. As Braves Country heals from this loss and moves on to another season, the last at Turner Field, it’s important not to forget this.

    Personally, I will never forget Tommy’s brilliant first half in 2011 and how disappointing it was to not have him named to the All Star team. That summer his finest start came against Houston. He entered that game with 2 games already where he’d recorded 10 strikeouts. That didn’t stop him from topping his best. He went 7 innings with 14 strikeouts and 1 earned run. It was one of those games when you knew this kid was special. Not only was his pitching unbelievable, his spirit was contagious. All 6’6″ of him stood on that mound and in that dugout, his flaming red hair and brilliant smile on display, and showed us that there was truly something special about Tommy Hanson.

    May Tommy rest in peace and be forever in our hearts.

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

    In 11th hour trade, Braves send Kimbrel, Upton to Padres

    No, it isn’t April Fool’s Day. No, you read that headline correctly. With hours ’til Opening Day 2015, John Hart and the Braves’ front office pulled the lever sending closer Craig Kimbrel and outfielder Melvin Upton, Jr. (B.J.) to the San Diego Padres. In return, the Braves receive outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, Padres’ 4th best prospect Matt Wisler (RHP), outfielder Jordan Paroubeck and the 41st pick in this year’s draft.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres' top prospect.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres’ 4th best prospect.

    Let’s start with the good news: The Braves continue to rake in prospects. In what is now clearly a complete rebuild, Atlanta has brought in some of the best talent in the league and continue that with Matt Wisler. Wisler was ranked by Baseball America as the 4th best Padres prospect and at 22-years-old is knocking on the door of the big leagues after spending half of 2014 with Triple-A El Paso.

    In addition to Wisler, the Braves acquired another prospect in Jordan Paroubeck. An outfielder, Paroubeck is a switch hitter who made his debut last season in Rookie ball.

    The draft pick the Braves receive is an interesting addition to what has been a winter full of draft selection pick ups. They will now have 4 picks in the first 54 selections of the 2015 draft.

    The two big leaguers that the Braves acquired in this trade that are ready and capable of being placed on the field tomorrow are Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin. Speculation is that Quentin will be immediately DFA’d to make room on the roster and so that he can return to an AL team where his skill set is better suited. Quentin’s addition to the trade package evened out the financial sides. Cameron Maybin will be the extra outfielder the Braves had hoped to have on their Opening Day roster but simply didn’t have enough players for. With the absence of Cuban signee Toscano due to visa issues, the Braves had planned on taking the field tomorrow with one less outfielder and one extra pitcher. They will now place Maybin on the OD roster as a right-handed counter to Eric Young, Jr. in center field. The Braves will call up Brandon Cunniff to fill the vacated spot of Kimbrel.

    WHY THIS TRADE MAKES SENSE FOR ATLANTA…

    Though it’s hard to understand why a player like Kimbrel would be part of this trade package, especially after this winter John Hart said that Kimbrel was a piece he hoped to build the team around, there are financial upsides to this trade that will help the team as the opening of the SunTrust Stadium approaches.

    As the team’s all-time saves leader, Kimbrel has a place in Atlanta that will leave a hole for some time to come. His salary, however, will give the Braves opportunities to sign other players as they build for 2017. The Braves owed Kimbrel $33 million over the next 3 seasons. Additionally, they owed Melvin Upton, Jr. $46.35 million over that period from a deal that has turned out to be one of the worst in Atlanta’s history. Losing close to $80 million has a huge upside for a club with a sub-$100 million salary each season.

    In terms of what they pick up in salary, the Braves take on $11 million plus a 2016 buyout on Quentin and $16 million for 2 years of the services of Maybin.

    Keeping in mind that Upton would be starting the season on the disabled list, the Braves would be sending Eric Young, Jr. out to center field every day. While his defense is acceptable, his bat is not built for both right-handed and left-handed pitching. Adding Maybin gives the Braves flexibility in center as well as lineup options.

    In the offseason, the signings of Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli seemed to bolster the bullpen and create questions regarding what a team would do with essentially 3 closers. Now without Kimbrel, either Grilli or Johnson could slot in at closer. Both have worked in camp with Roger McDowell to get back to the form they were in when they were best with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively.

    The Opening Day roster appears to be as follows for Atlanta: Pitchers Avilan, Cahill, Grilli, Jaime, Johnson, Martin, McKirahan, Miller, Outman, Stults, Teheran, Wood; catchers Bethancourt and Pierzynski; infielders Callaspo, Freeman, Gosselin, Johnson, Peterson, Simmons; outfielders Gomes, Johnson, Markakis, Maybin, Quentin, Young, Jr.

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

    Phillies arrive to break up monotony of Marlins

    As schedules go, the Braves won’t have it easy facing the Nationals for 6 games in September and the Pirates for 4. However, the Braves get to face bottom-of-the pack Mets (3 games), Rangers (3 games) and Phillies (6 games) in the final month as well. The pesky Marlins don’t quite seem to be in either category, though with the last 3 games against them and the coming weekend series in Miami, the Braves have to beat the Fish to hang on to their division hopes and/or the wild card. Taking 2-of-3 from Miami at Turner Field is exactly what Atlanta needed to do over the weekend.

    If making a statement that Atlanta’s starting rotation is every bit as deep as the much-hyped Washington rotation, then Alex Wood did exactly that with his double digit shutout performance of Miami. His 12 strikeouts in his 8 inning outing Sunday matched a career high. Let’s talk about Wood’s last 7 starts: Over 48 1/3 innings, he has given up 34 hits, a mere 10 earned runs and has 48 K’s to his 14 walks. That’s a 1.86 ERA over 7 games. For those keeping track, Wood now has enough innings on the season to qualify among the league leaders in ERA (2.96).

    While Harang struggled in Saturday’s outing, it’s important to remember that the veteran has a respectable ERA at 3.64. His record of 10-9 reflects the offense’s inability to overcome Harang giving up 4 runs in an outing. True to that fact, the Braves were unable to score against the Marlins in the second game of the series.

    No discussion of pitching would be complete without mentioning that Craig Kimbrel notching his 40th save on the season against Miami. Kimbrel joins an elite group of closers including only Trevor Hoffman and Francisco Rodriguez as pitchers with 40 saves in 4 consecutive seasons. Last year Kimbrel became the first closer in MLB history to record 40 or more saves in 3 consecutive seasons to begin their career. Kimbrel now adds to that incredible record with his 4th consecutive season of 40 or more saves to begin a big league career. Including Sunday night’s save in relief of Wood’s gem, Kimbrel has 179 saves in his young career.

    Let’s stick to pitching this week and give the offense a breather to reassess. Boy, they’ve struggled to score runs consistently. It should come as no surprise that they struggled against the Marlins this series. Freeman improved to 6-for-61 against the Marlins on the season in the final game of the series, if that’s any indication of just how tough the offense is scuffling.

    BRAVES WELCOME PHILLIES TO BREAK UP VISITS WITH THE FISH…

    The Braves were dealt tough news this week about reliever Jonny Venters. Venters, who was having numerous setbacks while rehabbing following last year’s Tommy John surgery, has another torn UCL and will require his 3rd Tommy John surgery. The likelihood of Venters every pitching again are unknown and the likelihood of him ever pitching for the Braves again is slim. Venters was once a third of the group dubbed The Untouchables. With ex-Brave Eric O’Flaherty and closer Craig Kimbrel, he was a big part of how the Braves were known for the best bullpen in baseball. Unfortunately, there will always be questions about whether overuse contributed to Venters’ elbow issues.

    Going into September, the Braves continue to be without the services of reliever Shae Simmons. With ongoing shoulder problems, the Braves have decided to give Simmons extra time to rest rather than chance that he’ll go into the offseason with lingering issues. Due to the extra couple weeks of rest, Simmons may not rejoin the club down the stretch. Simmons shoulder has been bothering him since July when he had a stretch of relief appearances where he pitched with a 15.00 ERA. This after starting the season, his first 20 big league appearances, with a ridiculous 0.96 ERA. He has not pitched with the club since going on the DL on July 24th.

    Philly arrives in Atlanta for a 3-game set before the Braves have a rare Thursday off day as they travel to Miami. Monday’s series opener will feature veteran Hamels (7-6, 2.59) vs. Teheran (13-9, 2.90). Tuesday will pit Kendrick (7-11, 4.97) vs. resurgent Minor (6-8, 4.70). The series finale will feature Buchanan (6-7, 4.03) vs. Santana (13-7, 3.53).

    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 sending 3 to ASG, J-Up part of final vote

    The Braves learned Sunday that Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel would represent the team at the upcoming All Star Game at Target Field in Minnesota. They, like the rest of us, were also thrilled that Justin Upton is one of 5 players vying for the final roster spot. The Final Vote closes at 4 p.m. (ET) on Thursday.

    Justin Upton is one of 5 vying for a final roster spot representing the NL in Minnesota.

    Justin Upton is one of 5 vying for a final roster spot representing the NL in Minnesota.

    Justin Upton has put up exceptional numbers despite deep slumps in the first half of the season. He has a .275/.350/.505 slash with a club-leading 17 homers and 50 RBIs. He has hit .318 at home this season, notching 11 homers and 31 of his RBIs at the Ted.

    Fans can vote at MLB.com or by tweeting #VoteJUp. Upton is up against Justin Morneau of the Rockies, Anthony Rendon of the Nationals, Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs and Casey McGehee of the Marlins.

    Freddie Freeman will now have two All Star appearances in his young career. This year he was selected by the NL players. As you will remember, Braves Country put Freddie in the game last year with the Final Vote. Freddie’s numbers are by far the best offensive numbers on the club in the first half. He has a .299/.390/.507 line with 26 doubles, 13 homers and 47 RBIs. Freddie already has a career high 3 triples on the season. His best numbers have come in clutch situations. He has hit .345 when the game is tied, .297 with 14 RBIs in the 7th inning or later and a ridiculous .313 with 16 RBIs in at-bats when there are 2 outs. And his .344 average when the Braves win is, of course, a huge reason for their success.

    Julio Teheran has been the ace that the Braves needed this season with the loss of Beachy and Medlen at the beginning of the season and Floyd recently. While his 8-5 record doesn’t quite reflect just how good Teheran has been, his 2.29 ERA does. In 126 innings pitched before the all-star break, Teheran has struck out 108 batters while walking 26. He has thrown 2 complete game shutouts this season to add to his clear dominance.

    The Braves have already said that Teheran will attend the All Star Game in Minnesota. However, it is unlike that Teheran will pitch in the game.

    It’s no surprise to the baseball world that Craig Kimbrel is making his 4th ASG appearance in as many seasons. Kimbrel has a lights-out 2.04 ERA and is tied above the NL leader board with 27 saves. In 35 1/3 innings, Kimbrel has 60 strikeouts. In addition to putting up shining numbers, Kimbrel surpassed future hall-of-famer John Smoltz to take the franchise record in saves this season.

    A player that wasn’t selected to the All Star Game and could have been had he not been injured is Evan Gattis.

    Prior to going on the disabled list with a right rhomboid spasm that they eventually learned was a bulging disc, Gattis was putting up exceptional numbers. In 63 games as the everyday catcher for the Braves, he put together a .290/.342/.558 line. Prior to the injury, his 16 home runs led all MLB catchers. He had 10 doubles, a triple and 39 RBIs.

    With Gattis behind the plate, the Braves pitching staff has a 49-40 record with a 3.22 ERA (third best in the National League). Against other NL teams, the Braves have a 3.08 ERA, good for second in the league behind their rivals the Washington Nationals. In teams won by the club, the pitching staff has a 2.02 ERA.

    Gattis has morphed into a great all-around catcher. His footwork behind the plate has improved immensely, much of it thanks to the tutelage of veteran Gerald Laird, and he is calling consistently good game behind the dish. It is only a matter of time before we can say Evan Gattis, all star catcher.

    All Star Game festivities include the All-Star Futures Game and the All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game on Sunday, the Gillette Home Run Derby Monday night and the 85th MLB All Star Game on Tuesday.

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

     

     

    Fresh off sweep of Marlins, Braves welcome Mariners

    While nothing seemed to be going right for the Braves in the long split-series with the Boston Red Sox, every break seemed to go their way at Marlins Park. While the defense was shaky in moments, it was unequivocally improved over the Red Sox series. While the bullpen made fans hold their breath when a game sat on the broad shoulders of new addition Shae Simmons, that moment was one of the only moments where the bullpen looked questionable–a great improvement from the Red Sox series when the ‘pen blew leads in late innings in three of the four games.

    Craig Kimbrel secured the 154th save of his young career tying John Smoltz for franchise record.

    Craig Kimbrel secured the 154th save of his young career tying John Smoltz for franchise record.

    The biggest story coming out of the Marlins’ series came in the second game when Craig Kimbrel entered the game for what turned out to be his 154th save as an Atlanta Brave. Kimbrel tied John Smoltz for the franchise record in saves at 154 and will enter the upcoming series against the Mariners with the hope of taking sole ownership of the record while at the Ted in front of Altanta’s fans.

    Kimbrel has been nothing short of dominant since his first save in 2010. Kimbrel has received numerous honors since his big league debut including NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, named to the National League all-star roster in each of his three full seasons (2011, 2012, 2013), has shown well in Cy Young balloting (9th, 5th and 4th in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively) and has appeared on MVP ballots in each of his three full seasons including as high as 8th in 2012. In addition to what will likely be the record for saves in the Atlanta Braves franchise, Kimbrel holds the record for rookie saves with 46.

    A bit of a comparison between Craig Kimbrel and John Smoltz on the numbers alone: Kimbrel has a career 1.42 ERA to go with his 154 saves, including 418 strikeouts and a ridiculous SO/9 ratio of 15.2. Now, bearing in mind that Smoltz was a starter both before and after his time as a closer for some amazing Braves’ teams, the numbers are still interesting. It took Smoltz a bit longer to reach the 154 saves mark–285 1/3 innings to Kimbrel’s 247 2/3 innings. Smoltz put up a 2.65 ERA with 300 strikeouts and a SO/9 ratio of 9.5. Their WHIP when compared is interesting as well. Smoltz posted a 1.106 and Kimbrel? 0.913. There are few stats where Kimbrel doesn’t come out looking better than Smoltz and this in itself is impressive. Sure, they’re different pitchers with different approaches, but when you think about the dominant arms of franchise history, Smoltz is in the top 5. Which begs the question: Just how good will Craig Kimbrel be in his Atlanta career and where will he end up on that list of dominant arms in franchise history? Lucky for Kimbrel and the Braves, we have through the 2017 season, thanks to the 4 yr./$42 million deal signed in the offseason, to find out.

    Kimbrel was not the only story of the series in Miami. Jason Heyward continues to be the best bat in the Braves’ arsenal and one that is reminding folks around baseball just how how the ceiling is on his potential. In Heyward’s past 10 games he has posted a reliable .293 average with 12 hits, 2 homers, 6 RBIs and 6 walks. His .383 on-base percentage has been very important to the Braves.

    Like Heyward, B.J. Upton has been steadily improving upon his on-base percentage. One of the stats that sticks out with the new and improved numbers is how he has struck out in 1 in every 7 plate appearances in his past 13 games. In the first 39 games of the season, B.J. put up a 2.8 PA/K rate. While his batting average in the last 10 games has been a more than respectable .282, it is his reliable on-base percentage of .341 that has proven most impressive.

    It can’t go without noting how Evan Gattis performs against the Marlins. Once again stepping up in a big situation, with the Braves and Marlins tied 2-2 in the finale, Gattis launched the 6th homer of his career in 63 career at-bats against the Fish. He now has a .333 average with those 6 homers and 20 RBI in his career (18 games) against Miami. El Oso Blanco now leads all MLB catchers with 11 homers. Strangely, Gattis has less walks (9) than homers.


    BRAVES WELCOME MARINERS TO TURNER FIELD…

    A 2-game series at home against an American League team isn’t exactly how the Braves would like to take on after the series last week with the Red Sox. However, the Braves are facing a much different team Tuesday and Wednesday. The Mariners come into the series with a 29-28 record, tied with the decimated Rangers for 3rd in the AL West.

    The Braves will luck out and miss Felix Hernandez in the 2-game set against the Mariners as well as injured hurlers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. However, they will have to face Hisashi Iwakuma who is returning to the fine form he showed in 2013. Iwakuma missed the first month of the season after breaking a finger on his pitching hand in spring training.

    Iwakuma had 3 rough outings since rejoining the team in May, giving up 4 or more runs in each. However, he matched those 3 outings with 3 solid performances where he was able to hold opponents to 6 or fewer hits. He has been an innings eater, going 7 or more innings in 4 of his 6 starts.

    Fresh off a late-inning walloping of the Yankees in a makeup game, the Mariners finally have back perennial all-star Robinson Cano who had been held out of 5 games with a bone bruise to his hand. In the absence of Cano, the M’s have found steady offense from the surging Kyle Seager who has improved his batting average from .230 to .253 in the month of May. In his last 12 games, Seager has hit .342 with 2 doubles, 3 triples and 2 homers.

    The Mariners and Braves have been seeing reverse trends in their bullpens in recent weeks. For the Braves, David Carpenter has had a string of terrible luck. He had been one of the most reliable options for Fredi Gonzalez up until recently, but has allowed 7 hits and 4 runs while only being able to retire 2 batters in the last 10 men he has faced. Lloyd McClendon has seen the opposite from one of the arms in his ‘pen. Yoervis Medina has recorded a 1.08 ERA with 11 strikeouts in his last 9 appearances, rapidly improving his season ERA. Medina had been unreliable for McClendon and wild in high pressure situations. Both arms will be interesting to watch as the two teams square off.

    Seattle sends Erasmo Ramirez (1-4, 6.00) against Gavin Floyd (0-2, 2.37). Floyd has been outstanding since joining the club, but has been unlucky in run support. It’s time the boys get Gavin his first win as an Atlanta Brave. The second and final game of the set will pit Hisashi Iwakuma (3-2, 3.09) against Mike Minor (2-3, 3.41).

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

     

    Braves swept by Boston in split series, looking for consistency

    Despite quality outings from many of the Braves’ starters and a shakeup at second base, the Braves continue to lack consistency among the offense and shutdown innings from their bullpen. The Red Sox arrived at Turner Field with a 10-game losing streak and after 2 games at the Ted and 2 games back home at Fenway, they walked away from the 4-game series with a sweep. In 3 of the 4 games, the Braves handed a lead to their bullpen and watched it disappear including the walk-off in the finale. It was a tough series for Braves fan who not only watched the sweep, but also watched more Red Sox fans than ever before flood into the Ted to outnumber Braves Country.

    Tommy La Stella was called up during the series with the continued shakeup at 2B. He went 2-for-3 in his debut.

    Tommy La Stella was called up during the series with the continued shakeup at 2B. He went 2-for-3 in his debut.

    In another attempt to shake things up with the offense, Fredi Gonzalez and GM Frank Wren called up Tommy La Stella from Triple-A Gwinnett to man second base. Sending Tyler Pastornicky back down and leaving Dan Uggla on the bench (where he will likely stay until his time with Atlanta has closed), the Braves hoped the hot bat La Stella was swinging in Triple-A would carry over to the big leagues. La Stella brings his minor league .322/.407/.474 slash line to the club, numbers that more than replace those of Uggla (.177/.254/.257), Pena (.164/.243/.299) or Pastornicky (.200/.300/.257). Fredi hopes La Stella’s numbers will transfer as an everyday second baseman in the bigs. He also hopes that Pena and Uggla will offer flexibility off the bench and occasional match-up numbers that warrant a start.

    Heading into the finale with the Red Sox, In the last 11 innings for the Braves bullpen, they’ve given up 11 runs (10 earned) and walked 11 batters. The Braves seem to be hurting with Walden on the disabled list and have still not established a definitive timetable for the return of Jonny Venters. Avilan has not been the Avilan of 2013 when he was all but perfect. Varvaro has been the most consistent, aside from Kimbrel. However, the Braves really need Thomas to not be costly in high pressure situations. They also need to decide what they are going to with David Hale. They have said he would be their long man, but in situations of high pressure it would seem that he would be a better option than Thomas. That doesn’t seem to be the thinking of Fredi, however. Whatever the Braves do, they can’t rely on arms from Triple-A to fix the problem. The recent minor league signing of Kameron Loe is thankfully not for a big league spot. Whatever fix the Braves are going to do to the ‘pen will be done with the arms they have.

    While Braves fans are largely happy with the demotion of Dan Uggla from everyday second baseman, many continue to call for less playing time for B.J. Upton. This is problematic for the Braves because of his contract and fans should understand that. Also, B.J. Upton has been much improved in recent weeks. Hitting .222 at home may not seem like a great stat, but for B.J. that is a huge improvement and one that is showing up in the box score. His average on the season has improved to .208 (.284 on-base). In his last 8 games, B.J. is hitting .258 with 8 hits (4 of them extra-base hits) and only 6 strikeouts. Every little improvement from hitting with runners in scoring position to strikeouts is a step closer to the player the Braves they thought they were getting when they signed him to his $75 million contract.

    BRAVES RETURN TO MIAMI, SIGHT OF SIGN-STEALING SWEEP…

    The Braves will send three of their best to the mound in Miami against a rotation that is now without ace Jose Fernandez. Teheran (4-3, 1.77) takes his 15 inning scoreless streak into the opener vs. Koehler (4-4, 3.10). Santana (4-2, 4.06) hopes to get back on track in the pitcher-friendly lime green confines against Turner (1-2, 5.35). And veteran Harang (4-4, 3.29) will close out the series against Eovaldi (4-2, 3.36).

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