• Daniel Winkler

    SEASON PREVIEW: Can Acuna, speed and defense carry Braves to .500?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Hope springs eternal, so goes the old saying, but in the cruel reality of Major League Baseball, that optimism runs dry for all but a few select squads.

    While it is true everybody plays to be the last one standing in early November and to bring home that golden trophy with the 30 pennants, truth serum served in 162 doses wears away the shine of spring dreams for most.

    So, when will that moment arrive for the Atlanta Braves, who are not ready to crash the postseason party but figure to be at least more intriguing this year than the last three (90-loss) seasons?

    Maybe deeper into summer than you think.

    Maybe.

    The Braves open the season at home on Thursday, hosting the Phillies at 4:10pm

    The Atlanta Braves open the 2018 season at home on Thursday, hosting the Philadelphia Phillies at 4:10pm

    Once in my young days as a sports writer, I wrote in a game story about an error a high school player made. My wise, older editor pointed out the error was inconsequential to the game’s outcome, and thus there was no need to call out the young gentleman in such a way. “Remember Bud, you played this sport,” said the sage editor, who loved this sport as deeply as myself. “It’s a hard game.”

    Indeed, it is. Coaching my 13- and 14-year old team last spring and summer did not allow me to provide any, “I remember when I was your age” moments. My career in uniform ended before then, when pitches started bending off a straight plane and when the speed, skill, athleticism and mental toughness to play at a high level surpassed any level this wannabe athlete growing up in the Atlanta suburbs could attain.

    I digress back to the present, as the Braves tick down the final days before Julio Teheran’s first pitch crosses home plate at SunTrust Park around 4:10 p.m. ET on Thursday. It will mark Atlanta’s second season inside its shiny new home, and most expect more wins than last year’s total of 72.

    Certainly, I feel this team will win more games. Last year’s Braves held things together through a remarkable first 90 games – walking out of SunTrust Park following a post-All-Star Game sweep of Arizona at 45 up and 45 down. Then the bottom dropped out as an overexposed bullpen and a shaky back end of the rotation ran out of pixie dust in the final 72 games.

    There is reason to be hopeful of improvement in both areas, especially behind the gate in right-center field. Atlanta has assembled a core of young arms that exemplify the flavor of the game right now: hard throwers coming in waves to dominate the late innings. Whether A.J. Minter is ready to close, whether Daniel Winkler is ready for 55 appearances, whether Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez can avoid control issues, and whether the outlier, the sage old sidearming Aussie Peter Moylan, can spot his sinker effectively, will go a long way to solidifying the final innings of games in Atlanta’s favor.

    The Braves figure to need it, with a rotation that is more stable in some respects but at the same time possessing just as many question marks and stopgaps as a season ago. Gone are the ageless (and miserably ineffective) Bartolo Colon, the underwhelming Jaime Garcia, and R.A. Dickey, whose knuckleball fluttered and floated enough for another solid season. Replacing them is the witty veteran Brandon McCarthy, the promise of Sean Newcomb and a gaping hole in the fifth spot with the powerful and, eh, robust, Luiz Gohara sidelined with an injury for at last the first month.

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    Slotting in at the top are two arms new general manager Alex Anthopoulos undoubtedly will watch closely in the season’s opening months. Teheran, whose struggles last season at home were much maligned, fashioned an outstanding spring and showed renewed confidence in his slider. Mike Foltynewicz, who for two months in the middle of last season looked like an emerging ace but at times continued to let his surroundings get the best of him, simplified his delivery over the winter and produced a stellar spring himself.

    An effective Teheran and Foltynewicz (the later perhaps grounded by the arrival of his first child shortly before camp began), teamed with a healthy McCarthy and the version of Newcomb who cut down on his walks in spring action, forms a solid four-man rotation. But again, there are questions, the type which cannot be answered until the team comes north and the lights kick on.

    Pitching is the key to this massive rebuild, and as we know, pitching develops later than hitting. But in some of the younger arms who acquitted themselves well during February and March – most notably Kyle Wright and an ace-in-the-making in Mike Soroka – Atlanta is awash in potential franchise-altering talent on the mound. It’s not here yet in full, but those two could be big-league-ready by late summer.

    Everybody knows the Braves are not going to lead the league in homers. The power deficit is notable, with Freddie Freeman and his healed wrist having little protection in the opening day lineup. That figures to change somewhat when 20-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna ascends to the majors for keeps once mid-April arrives, the outfielder dazzling even long-time observers with dominance of Grapefruit League action and five tools that could result in superstardom. Unlike the fickle nature of pitching, Acuna’s skillset, as 20-year-olds go, looks as close to a sure bet as possible for a guy who legally cannot buy a beer in one of The Battery’s sprawling watering holes.

    Acuna’s debut season – which will be chronicled unlike arguably any rookie in franchise history – is one of three reasons why this correspondent is somewhat bullish on this team’s chances. The impact of Acuna in another area is another optimistic point. In Acuna, the exciting Ozzie Albies at second base and the emerging steady star of Ender Inciarte in center field, Atlanta suddenly has three players capable of stealing 20-plus bases. A franchise long committed to station-to-station, wait-for-the-blast baseball, it will be fascinating to watch the employment of analytics brought by Anthopoulos and the impact of Eric Young Sr. – one of baseball’s better basestealers of the past 30 years – on the Braves’ offense.

    The third aspect plays toward thepitching, but is not centered on the mound. Rather, take a lookaround the diamond. Atlanta is light years better defensively than it was this time last year. It is fair to question whether Johan Camargo can hit consistently at the major-league level, but his arm and range dictate he plays third every day upon returning from an oblique injury. Gone from left field is Matt Kemp, whose anchor of a contract was outweighed only by his defensive liabilities. Acuna will slot there after the first couple of weeks, and he legitimately could be a Gold Glove candidate, while the guy next to him in center chases his third consecutive Gold Glove award.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Brandon Phillips played well at second base in 2017 but Albies, with his range and instincts, is a defensive star on the rise. Having him for a full season, plus having Freeman – who missed a quarter of last season with the wrist injury and actually impressed during the creative impulse that led him to play third base for a while upon his return – anchoring first base 155 games vastly improves the right side of the infield.

    Is Acuna, plus the speed in the lineup, plus the improved defense, worth an extra 1.5 wins per month? I think it is. That would be nine more wins than a season ago, which would put the Braves all even at the end of the season, 81-81. A .500 record would be welcomed in these parts, and yet, it feels like there are enough question marks where maybe that’s just a bit ambitious.

    If you gaze at the ceiling, you also must recognize the floor. Teheran hangs too many sliders to lefties at home, Foltynewicz struggles to channel his emotions, Newcomb can’t hit the corners and the bullpen is a mish-mash of guys moving in and out of roles due to inconsistency. Acuna struggles for long stretches as most mortal rookies will, teams pitch around Freeman, Albies hits a sophomore slump, Dansby Swanson does not recover from his, and a couple of key injuries mix in to send this team to a 74-win campaign.

    Best-case scenario is the bullpen arms settle into their roles, Vizcaino and Ramirez and Minter forming a dynamite trio for the final six-to-nine outs, Teheran and Foltynewicz bring their spring performances north and have consistent seasons, Newcomb’s control continues improving as he makes 27 starts, and Atlanta is a nightmare for opponents on the bases. Freeman puts forth a season worthy of MVP consideration – he was well on his way before being hit with a pitch last May – Acuna wins rookie of the year and the Braves play meaningful baseball into the final two weeks before settling with 85 wins.

    I think as often is the case, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. Mixing in elements from both scenarios (I personally don’t expect Acuna to hit .220, but him hitting .300 may not be realistic, as an example), I see this Braves team winning 80 games for the first time since winning the NL East in 2013. And while an 80-82 season will not put the Braves into this October, it would represent the right type of progress as Atlanta heads into a winter where it will be awash with cash for the blockbuster free-agent class of the coming offseason and, with it, the ability to extend its season far beyond the end of September come next autumn.

    —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.

    Philadelphia

    7 Key Questions for Braves as Critical Offseason Looms

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Tailgating alongside Circle 75 Parkway in the shadow of SunTrust Park on Saturday, hours before the penultimate game of the Atlanta Braves’ debut season in their new home, the news flashed across the Twitter-verse that catcher Kurt Suzuki had punted pending free agency in favor of a one-year deal to return in 2018.

    Approximately 20 hours later, my trip to the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 for the final game of the first year in the Braves’ new home was postponed due to a dead battery and a broken battery connection. It laid waste to plans for the day, but as I settled into the Braves room at home after performing the auto repair necessary in advance of a busy week, I realized my unplanned vehicle issues served as a poignant reminder that for all the planning in the world, things can go in a different direction.

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Hence, we arrive at the final week of the Braves’ 2017 season, one in which some felt Atlanta might push to contend for a National League wild-card spot. Many more felt this would be a season of progression; this correspondent predicted this edition of Atlanta baseball would win 78 games. It is a goal mathematically still attainable, provided the Braves win eight games in seven days to close this campaign.

    My point being this: You can plan for the future all you want, lay out the best path forward but, at the end of the day, things happen that can throw off that plan. You have to be able to adjust, to learn from what occurred and shift direction accordingly.

    There is no denying the Braves of 2017 have been equally tantalizing and frustrating. So it goes in a rebuild, especially with an influx of young talent in a new stadium, with flashes of brilliance and ineptitude equally woven into the day-to-day tapestry of the six-month marathon known as a baseball season.

    As the final week of this season dawns, a look at some of the hot-button issues surrounding this franchise as winter is (nearly) here, a season in which the decisions made will help define what is to come in future summers.

    Who is manager in 2018?

    Everybody was thrilled when Brian Snitker – who is the definition of a Braves lifer – was brought back for 2017, with an option for 2018. Atlanta’s passionate finishing kick to close 2016, winning 20 of its final 30 games, gave Snitker the chance to manage a full major-league season this year.

    But a series of tactical errors and some questionable handling of the Braves’ young talent leads me to believe he will not be retained. That is not an indictment of a man who does not have a job guaranteed after next Sunday. He managed attempting to win every night, even if that mentality ran counter to playing younger players for development of the rebuild.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Should this team fulfil its appointed prophecy and win a World Series, Snitker deserves a ring. He served his role in the rebuild and, for the most part, served it well. The players love him. But the franchise needs a manager now who will be here in 2022. That is not Snitker.

    Who comprises the rotation in 2018?

    Atlanta rolled the dice on veterans to cover innings in 2017 – a sound strategy given the time needed to let the first really big wave of young talent to continue percolating in the minors. R.A. Dickey has proven to be steady. Jaime Garcia pitched well at times before netting a prospect at the trade deadline. Bartolo Colon was an unmitigated disaster, as much as we all wanted him to be good.

    General manager John Coppolella is quoted today in published reports that the Braves will look to their young arms to take a step forward in 2018. That tells me Julio Teheran, who was awful for most of the year at home but has turned around his season the past month, will be here. Mike Foltynewicz and Luiz Gohara look like locks for the 2018 rotation, with Sean Newcomb likely to be in the top five, too.

    That leaves one spot. The feeling here is R.A. Dickey rides off into the sunset and heads home to Nashville, leaving the opening as a battle between Max Fried, Lucas Sims and a cast of others who with an impressive camp could start the year in Atlanta (and while I think it’s unlikely they skip Triple-A, I would not discount Kolby Allard or Mike Soroka emerging in March).

    Who pitches out of the bullpen?

    Atlanta’s relief corps in the second half of the season has been a motley mix of veterans (Jason Motte, Rex Brothers, Jim Johnson) and promising young arms (A.J. Minter, Daniel Winkler, Akeel Morris). For now, it appears both closer Arodys Vizcaino and set-up man Jose Ramirez are likely to be in the bullpen to start 2018, but the other five or six slots are up for grabs.

    Sam Freeman certainly has earned a long look next spring, the left-hander proving effective time and time again. Minter, with an offseason of rest, should be ready to unleash his high-90s velocity on back-to-back days. Winkler has impressed now that he is healthy again. Coppolella indicated the Braves will pursue one or two bullpen pieces. Adding a Brad Hand to the core group would go a long way to settling the final innings.

    Which corner outfielder has played his final game at SunTrust Park?

    I do not envision a scenario where the Braves trade Matt Kemp. For one, his contract (through 2019) and the money owed makes it difficult to move the oft-injured right-handed slugger. More importantly, for better or worse, this lineup at this moment is much better with a healthy Kemp hitting cleanup behind Freddie Freeman.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The thought here is the Braves retain Kemp at least through 2018, using Lane Adams – who has enjoyed a breakthrough season and should be the fourth outfielder coming out of camp – to fill in when Kemp is out. That leaves Nick Markakis as the odd-man out, and with one year at $11 million left on his contract and another solid year offensively, there should be plenty of suitors on the market.

    So an outfielder gets traded … who takes that spot?

    Like seriously? Short of leaving baseball for soccer – and his speed would fit in nicely with Atlanta United – Ronald Acuna will be in the Braves outfield on opening day March 29, 2018. And while he will be a 20-year-old rookie who will experience the inevitable ups and downs from playing in the highest league in the world, there is little doubt Acuna is going to be a difference maker … and soon.

    What does Atlanta’s lineup look like in 2018?

    There often is debate online whether the Braves would be better served by putting Ozzie Albies at the top of the lineup. But when you have Ender Inciarte – who is three hits shy of becoming the first Atlanta player in 21 years to reach 200 hits – it is a moot point. Inciarte, for all the teeth-grinding by the sabermetric folks, is a very good hitter who gets on base. He hits leadoff. Stats are great. Results are great, too.

    Albies has impressed in the two-spot and is a switch hitter. He stays there, with the thought he will adjust to the league as it adjusts to him. Freddie Freeman and Kemp are anchored in the 3-4 spots. No doubt there.

    Beyond that, there are options. The catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Suzuki, who will be back in 2018 (Atlanta is almost certain to pick up Flowers’ club option) could slot fifth or sixth. Acuna likely hits sixth or seventh. Dansby Swanson’s adjustments to breaking balls on the outer third since returning from Gwinnett leads me to believe he should hit sixth or seventh.

    OF Ender Inciarte could become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    OF Ender Inciarte could soon become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    The one thing that could turn this around would be if Atlanta trades for or signs a power-hitting third baseman. Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas was interesting, but his big power surge this season and the fact he is a free agent in the prime of his career very well may price him out of Atlanta’s range.

    And with the emergence of Johan Camargo, and the flashes seen from Rio Ruiz, it may be a good thing Moustakas will command a long-term, high-money deal. Atlanta could do far worse than a Camargo/Ruiz platoon next season.

    How patient should be fanbase be in 2018?

    For all the pomp and circumstance as we look back to 1991, the fact remains that Atlanta squad which won the NL pennant had its foundation laid over a four-season period (1987-90). In this age of instant gratification and less-than-zero patience, Braves fans should be cautioned that it is possible a fifth-consecutive sub-.500 season could loom in 2018.

    Rebuilds take time and do not produce instant results. Yes, I know the good folks in Braves Country have suffered since the midpoint of the 2014 season. That is a long time to struggle. But there are good signs this rebuild is progressing as designed. Sure, there will be forks in the road in which decisions that will define this franchise have to be made.

    Several of those decisions loom as this summer descends into the offseason. In the coming weeks, I will reach out to members of the fanbase to discuss the points raised above. It is my goal to communicate the raw feelings of the fanbase as we enter what I feel may be the offseason that defines the coming years of this franchise, and whether this great rebuild results in what we all hope.

    Running the risk of hyperbole, I feel the next few months will be critical in determining the future of this franchise and how history will judge this era of Braves baseball.

    —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