• Dansby Swanson

    Braves Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It would’ve been folly back in spring to pinpoint the final Sunday of August in Miami and consider it a seminal moment, but in this 2018 Atlanta Braves season that toggles between fanciful and frightening, it makes perfect sense.

    Game No. 130 on the 162-game schedule found the Braves wrapping up a seven-game road trip against the National League East cellar-dwellers, having won 12-of-21 during a hellish 22-game-in-20-day stretch that some feared would exhaust the pixie dust that seemingly has been sprinkled on this team.

    And yet, there was plenty of dread entering the series finale after Atlanta scored exactly one run in its previous 22 innings, losing 1-0 and 3-1 contests to Miami as Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis – the veteran linchpins in the middle of the lineup – both fighting significant slumps at the same time. Not an optimal situation at this time of the year, especially considering the dynamic Ozzie Albies has been awful against right-handed pitching this month.

    But as the case has been with this team, it’s never nearly as bleak as it seems despite the constant roar on social media, a volume that surely will build as September dawns and the sprint to the finish begins.

    The Braves scored four times in the final four innings Sunday, earning a 4-0 victory that sends Atlanta into its first off day since Aug. 6 with a three-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. When the gauntlet of games every day (including two doubleheaders) commenced Aug. 7, the Braves sat 1 ½ games in arrears of the Phillies.

    Sunday concluded with the Braves owning a three-game advantage for the fifth consecutive day. No ground gained – Saturday marked an ample opportunity after the Phillies choked a five-run lead, but Atlanta only could scratch a Dansby Swanson solo homer – but overall it’s still a win for the Braves, considering five days have elapsed from the calendar and the Phillies remain at arm’s length.

    It’s a short arm, though, and seven of the final 10 games of the season loom against the lone challenger to the Braves (yes, you can administer last rites to the ghost of the Washington Nationals, who trail Atlanta by 8 ½ games and who dealt Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in waiver-wire deals this week that signified everybody’s favorite paper champion raising the white flag). It’s not the time for the offense to turn south, and the Braves averaged 2.5 runs per game on the road trip while hitting .226 as a team with nearly as many strikeouts (44) as hits (45) entering Sunday.

    But recall the old saying that pitching and defense wins championships. It applies here, as the Braves have been outstanding on the mound in recent days. Atlanta allowed six runs total in seven games on the swing, pitching to a 0.89 ERA as a staff with only nine extra-base hits allowed. Kevin Gausman, the Plan B after Pittsburgh overpaid grossly for Chris Archer at the trade deadline, owns a 1.69 ERA in five Atlanta starts after throwing five scoreless, one-hit innings Sunday to win his fourth consecutive decision.

    Gausman’s short outing Sunday can be attributed to being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, when the Braves were trying to break through offensively nursing a 1-0 lead. It came one night after Brian Snitker left Anibal Sanchez hit for himself with runners on and two outs in a scoreless game, a decision that bit the manager when Sanchez – who is hitless on the season – struck out, then allowed the eventual game-winning run before leaving with a hamstring injury.

    The Braves have been outstanding offensively for large stretches of the season, but in the past month the pitching staff – bolstered by the acquisition of Gausman and relievers Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, the steadying of Sean Newcomb and the sudden consistently good Julio Teheran – has given Atlanta a needed shot in the arm. That says nothing of the contribution by Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, who excelled in winning their major-league debuts during the 22-in-20 stretch. Coupled with stellar defense – Ronald Acuna made another web-gem worthy catch Sunday, one night after Swanson made an acrobatic field-and-throw from short left field – the Braves are in a great position entering the final 32 games.

    Now, it gets serious. A getaway day in Miami resulted in the perfect outcome for a team that desperately needs a day off, that only has two more the rest of the way. A surging Tampa Bay team, fresh off a sweep of Boston, arrives at SunTrust Park for two games starting Tuesday. The Cubs pop in for a makeup game, followed by three at home with the Pirates and then those aforementioned Red Sox for three games.

    That precedes a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco, two locales where the Braves historically do not play well. That carries us into the next off day Sept. 13. Sixteen games in 16 days, pretty close to the grind Atlanta just concluded.

    It would be nuts to suggest the Braves will gain 4 ½ games in the standings in that span, as they did during the stretch just ended. It is a brutal schedule, as the heat of the pennant race ratchets up to a temperature Braves Country has not experienced in half a decade. And once through that stretch, the final maddening sprint features series with the hottest team on the planet (St. Louis), the wounded but still dangerous corpse of the Nationals, and those seven head-to-head meetings with Philly (four in Atlanta; the final three games of the regular season on the road).

    Suffice to say, if the Braves pop champagne and don celebratory T-shirts, they will have earned it. On the final Sunday of August, they found a way to grind out a much-needed victory.

    They will need more of that in the final five weeks.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Braves at the Break: Good grades, but Work Remains to Reach October

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A quiet Wednesday evening finds me at the keyboard, and as I think of encapsulating the first 94 games of this remarkable Braves season, my mind drifts back to another Wednesday evening, exactly 17 weeks ago.

    That late afternoon and evening were filled with food, tailgating plans, blogging, podcasting and the Christmas Eve-type anticipation that comes on the night before Opening Day. Another journey about to begin, another trek into the vast unknown of the marathon that covers 162 games in 187 days. And on that late March evening, I opined these Braves would begin to shed the rebuilding moniker and take steps – albeit measured ones – toward contention, finishing with 80 victories while displaying the promise of better days and October nights to come.

    Here we sit, 119 days and nights later, and the Braves sit one-half game out of first place in the National League East, tied in the loss column with Philadelphia, already at 52 victories (65 percent to my predicted total) and poised to enter the final 68 games of this season as a contender for their first postseason berth since 2013.

    We have time to explore what’s to come. Tonight, on the quietest night of the sports year, we grade the roster, coaching staff and front office on the journey to this point.

    Braves 2018 All-Star Break Report Card

    The Roster

    Nick Markakis (A+): Even the most ardent supporter of Young Nick Outta Young Harris (looking at you, Knockahoma Nation) could not have scripted this breakthrough for the 34-year-old, free-agent to be. Markakis earned his first career All-Star berth and leads the National League in hits.

    Freddie Freeman (A+): Freeman was authoring an MVP season in 2017 before a broken wrist cost him seven weeks. All the veteran has done this season is play every game, hit .315, earn his third All-Star nod and look every bit like a frontrunner for the NL’s best player.

    Ozzie Albies (A): Some scouts wondered about Albies power as a minor-leaguer. Nobody’s questioning the 21-year-old anymore, not after he’s belted 20 homers and collected a NL-best 52 extra-base hits, to go with game-changing speed, outstanding defense and a poise well beyond his years.

    Mike Foltynewicz (A-): The first-time All-Star gets this grade because he’s second in the NL in hits per nine innings (6.285) and has dominated in stretches while finding new-found perspective from the birth of his first child. But Atlanta’s postseason hopes rest in part on the rotation’s ability to pitch deeper in games, and 5 2/3 innings per start on average must improve.

    Anibal Sanchez (A-): Were it not for a hamstring injury, the last-minute spring signing could have merited All-Star consideration. He’s been that good, pitching to a 2.60 ERA with a 1.020 WHIP while serving as a needed mentor to a stable of young pitchers. Simply put, Sanchez has been a God-send.

    Charlie Culberson (A-): Considered just a throw-in as part of the Matt Kemp salary dump, Young Charlie Outta Calhoun etched his place in Braves fans’ hearts with two walkoff homers against division rivals in a seven-day span. Versatile and dependable, he’s one of the unsung heroes of the first half.

    Sean Newcomb (B+): This was a solid A until a recent couple of hiccups before the break, but Newcomb has lowered his walk rate (4.5 per nine vs. 5.1 last season) and has displayed dominant stuff for parts of the first half. A strong second half could propel Atlanta into October, but watch his innings (105 this season; 157 2/3 between Triple-A and the majors in 2017).

    Kurt Suzuki (B+): Injuries gave him the bulk of playing time early, but even with the increased workload the defense has been solid, he’s belted eight homers in 66 games, is drawing more walks and continues to be a stabilizing force for Atlanta’s young pitching staff.

    Jesse Biddle (B+): One of the more unheralded arms in Atlanta’s pitching-rich system, Biddle has earned a spot in higher-leverage situations. He holds right-handers to a .128 average, averages 10 strikeouts per nine innings and deserves more meaningful innings in the second half.

    Dansby Swanson (B): His offense has been frustrating for some (79 strikeouts in 79 games), but he sports a .882 OPS with runners in scoring position, a .324 average from the seventh inning on, and teams with Albies up the middle to form one of the most exciting double-play combos in the game.

    Johan Camargo (B): As I’ve tweeted many times, “that’s my third baseman!!” After an early-season injury and the Jose Bautista experiment flopped, Camargo has made the most of his chance. His outstanding defense and 1.020 OPS with runners in scoring position, plus a higher walk rate, may have provided the final answer at the hot corner.

    Arodys Vizcaino (B): News flash – dude’s been good, 15 saves and a 1.65 ERA good. The bad news is that barking right shoulder and a second DL stint for inflammation, an area of great concern as the Braves approach the trade deadline.

    Shane Carle (B-): The last player to make the team out of spring training, Carle came out of nowhere to post a nice 0.69 ERA in his first 20 appearances. There’s been expected regression since – 5.09 ERA and 11 walks in his last 23 innings. If Carle can recapture his first six weeks form, it could go a long way to settling Atlanta’s bullpen.

    A.J. Minter (B-): Many consider the left-handed Craig Kimbrel clone as Atlanta’s closer of the future. We’ve seen it in flashes (four saves, 43 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings), but the walk rate (3.4 per nine innings) is something to watch for a guy with all the raw tools to become a dominant back-end arm.

    Dan Winkler (B-): Simply one of the best stories in all of baseball, the oft-injured Winkler has shined for much of the first half, owning a sub-1 ERA in mid-June. Three multi-run outings the past month hurt his numbers, but his stuff – like Minter’s – is good enough to make him a critical piece of the roster down the stretch.

    Ronald Acuna (B-): Yes, there are 56 strikeouts in 43 games. There also are seven homers, five tools on display, a recovery from what could’ve been a season-ending injury and the ability to change a game at any moment with his bat, speed, glove and arm. Did we mention he’s 20 years old?

    Preston Tucker (B-): Hard to fault the job Tucker did in the opening weeks in hitting three big homers. Sent to Gwinnett to get needed at-bats, he returned last weekend and belted a pinch-hit homer. He can change a game with one swing.

    Luke Jackson (B-): One of the riders of the Atlanta/Gwinnett shuttle, Jackson actually has settled in as a dependable long man in his latest stint. He’s allowed two runs in 11 1/3 innings in his last 10 appearances with 13 strikeouts in that stretch.

    Julio Teheran (C+): It’s hard to tell what you’ll get every fifth day and there seems to be no middle ground. It’s either great (like six no-hit innings against the Mets) or awful (seven runs allowed in his next start). Two encouraging items: His last two starts before the break were solid and his fastball velocity is back into the low 90s.

    Ender Inciarte (C): The two-time Gold Glove-winning defense in center field remains, but Inciarte’s first half was marred by too many stretches of offensive struggles (his .649 OPS is lowest among Atlanta regulars) and simmering frustration that resulted in his being benched for not running out a pop up. One of my absolute favorites (and I’m sorry, Jayme), but we need more in the second half.

    Tyler Flowers (C): He got hurt on opening day and has scuffled offensively (.165 average against right-handers screams matchup platoon), but the veteran has provided steady defense while teaming with Suzuki to give the Braves the luxury of two capable defensive backstops to steady a young staff.

    Max Fried (C): The Braves continue to do a disservice to the powerful lefty by trying to pitch him out of the bullpen. In three starts, he’s pitched to a 3.07 ERA while averaging 11 strikeouts per nine innings. On the DL with a blister, Fried could bolster the rotation in the second half, or be dangled at the trade deadline.

    Matt Wisler (C): This grade isn’t all his fault, as he’s pitched to a 3.63 ERA with a 1.212 WHIP in three starts. His relief numbers, like Fried, are awful and the Braves have no business throwing him in relief. At this point, he’s a starter who likely will be offered as part of a trade at the deadline or in the offseason.

    Lane Adams (C): Look who’s back in the organization, one of the more popular Braves social media guys (look away, Braves Ninja). Adams hit .275 and went 10-for-10 in steals a season ago but was cut despite posting a .793 OPS in 15 games early this season. Likely to get a look again sooner rather than later.

    Brandon McCarthy (C-): He went 4-0 with a 3.09 ERA through his first six starts, but has pitched to a 6.17 ERA and a .906 OPS in his next nine starts before right knee inflammation landed him on the disabled list. With no timetable set for his return, it’s fair to wonder if the veteran has made his last appearance in an Atlanta uniform.

    Ryan Flaherty (D): Yes, he led the NL in hitting for a brief time. Yes, he is a great veteran presence in the locker room. Yes, he is Markakis’ brother-in-law. No, there are better options for a bat off the bench and backup corner infielder.

    Danny Santana (D-): He needs a three-game stretch like last summer in Oakland, where the speedy reserve outfielder took over a series. Nothing like that has happened this season. An 80-grade Twitter hashtag from last summer, this summer finds the Braves needing better than a 30-grade bench option.

    Sam Freeman (F): He was a bright spot last season, but Freeman’s control issues should move the Braves to upgrade in the bullpen. His ERA is above 4.75 for three of the first four months of the season, including an unsightly 8.49 mark in June and six walks in 3 1/3 innings in July. Enough, already.

    Peter Moylan (F): Everybody loves the Aussie and rightly so, but this ship long since has sailed. A 1.846 WHIP and 10.7 hits per nine innings on the season, and a 12.00 (TWELVE!) ERA in his past five appearances, screams crikey! Enough is enough.

    Lucas Sims (F): A kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, Sims has been awful at the major-league level (7.84 ERA, 1.935 WHIP). He’s pitched to a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts at Triple-A. A change of scenery would serve him well and give him a chance to break through the ceiling of a Four-A arm.

    Evan Phillips (INC): He’s made but two appearances in the majors, neither in high-leverage situations, and the unsightly 14.73 ERA reflects that. Phillips owns intriguing stuff and closed games at Gwinnett. A promising young arm to watch in the second half.

    Mike Soroka (INC): One of Atlanta’s most-prized pitching prospects – he should be untouchable regarding trades – he made only five starts before being shut down with injury. But the Pride of Calgary has a bright future and showed plenty of glimpses of it at times in his initial major-league outings.

    Luiz Gohara (INC): A 21-year-old with arguably the best stuff in the Braves system, Gohara endured an awful personal offseason, then was hurt in spring training. His stuff plays at the major-league level and getting him on track could be akin to trading for a dominant starter.

    The Staff

    The Manager (C+): The players love Brian Snitker and certainly there’s something to be said for that. Having players who will run through a wall for you is important. Snitker is stubborn to change at times, a byproduct of loyalty I don’t want to fault but I must, as some of his in-game decisions have hurt. The infusion of analytics has helped – albeit I think at the pushing of his staff. At times he seems more comfortable in the lead chair than in the past two seasons and, let it be known, I’m rooting for him. He’s one of the nicest guys you ever could meet. With that said, I see too many questionable decisions to buy in long term. Will Snitker be here in 2019? My heart says yes, but my head says no.

    The Coaching Staff (A): It’s clear this organization needed an infusion of new blood, and with the addition of Walt Weiss, Eric Young and Sal Fasano, the Braves have constructed one of the best coaching staffs in baseball. Ron Washington is the unsung MVP of this team, helping to forge one of baseball’s best defenses. Young has helped the roster push the envelope on the bases, using speed Atlanta has not had in years to pressure defenses.

    The Front Office (B-): Maybe a bit of a harsh grade, yes, given this team was picked by most to win between 75 and 82 games. The good: New GM Alex Anthopoulos took the right, measured approach to learn of his assets at his disposal, rather than trying to make a move for the sake of headlines. An analytical approach, embraced by the staff and players, has led to better defense. Also, and this must be said, the environment around the entire organization is so much better. The bad: Snitker has been handcuffed at times by dead weight on the bench and the bullpen. That’s on Anthopoulos, and it must be addressed at the deadline if Atlanta wants to play into October.

    —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 Offensive Swoon Just a Blip or Something More?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was “Sandlot Day” at SunTrust Park on Saturday, complete with a postgame showing of the classic movie following the Braves loss to Arizona. And in the midst of that iconic 90s classic, a famous four-word phrase was uttered on two occasions when Scotty Smalls’ ignorance left his buddies in exasperated shock.

    But safe to assume, those weren’t the only two times on this muggy, cloudy July afternoon when that phrase left the lips of Braves fans as another Atlanta hitter trudged back to the first-base dugout, bat in hand. Eight losses in the past 10 games for a team that had yet to blink in a pennant race joined sooner than expected has everybody on the edge of frustration, and Atlanta’s maddening offensive slump has become a flashpoint for the (insert sarcasm font) always-composed, mild-mannered, slow-to-panic denizens of Braves Country.

    Consider:

    • In the past 10 games, the Braves are hitting .241 as a team with 33 runs scored – six of ’em coming in one inning Wednesday against Toronto – while striking out 100 times and leaving 76 runners on base.
    • The Braves have mustered a grand total of one run in dropping the first two games of this weekend set to Arizona, the type of team Atlanta would see should it reach the playoffs, collecting 11 hits while striking out 23 times.
    • Atlanta has belted two homers in its past eight games, after hitting 98 in its first 87 contests, and both of those came off Ozzie Albies’ bat three innings apart Wednesday.

    It isn’t hard to look at any successful team and find a 10-game stretch where the wheels come off one aspect of the game, be it offensive production or starting pitching or bullpen execution. But when it comes to these Braves, with so many young players performing at a high level for the first time, with older veterans who are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, it begs the question:

    Is this merely a bump in the road, or is it regression to the mean?

    I don’t have the answer, and none of us will know until the final tale of 2018 is told and we see how this week and a half impacted the final, finished product. But I do think there are elements of both in play here.

    This team looks like a squad that needs the All-Star break. Desperately. Like, last week.

    There are several areas offensively where the production consistently is falling short of what’s expected or what’s needed (or both). Each one puts more pressure on the guys who are hitting, and what I’ve noticed the past two weeks is – for the first time this season – the Braves pressing a bit. Baseball’s hard enough without trying to hit a five-run homer with nobody on base.

    Some counter by saying the Braves have faced good pitching during this rough stretch – and Zack Greinke was outstanding for Arizona on Saturday, no question – but one of the hallmarks of Atlanta’s early-season success was beating good pitchers (Sale, Scherzer, et al). Playing in May as a feel-good story is one thing. Playing in July with more eyes and, yes, more pressure on every at-bat, is different.

    I don’t believe this team is as bad offensively as it’s shown of late. Nor, do I think it’s sustainable or realistic to expect this team to lead the National League in batting average and homers and slugging percentage, as it did in barnstorming its way to 15 games above .500 at one point a couple of weeks ago.

    That’s not to say there isn’t offensive talent available here.

    Did Ender Inciarte forget how to hit? No. He brought a career .295/.341/.733 slash line into this season, but he’s not performing at all in the leadoff spot. He’s better than a .241 hitter, but at this moment in this season that’s what he is. It’s time to move him down in the lineup, remove some of the pressure of having to set the table and let him get back on track.

    Is Dansby Swanson a .302 hitter, as he was in 38 games at the end of 2016? Most likely not, but is he the .249 hitter he is now (and that’s after collecting two of Atlanta’s five hits Saturday)? Perhaps he is, but his defense and a .327 average from the seventh inning on this season make it easier to roll him out there every day.

    The above two gentlemen are the first names that fly off the lips and fingertips of a fanbase that spends far too much time in panic mode and far too few minutes enjoying this ongoing emergence from the rebuild. Yes, there will the pain as the scar tissue from four straight losing seasons and an embarrassing front-office scandal is broken through.

    And if you think that hurts, sunshine, just wait until the end of this month, or this offseason, when some of the prized prospect possessions this team has amassed are sent off to fix the holes some of you yell about from sunrise to bedtime.

    The key to making any team successful is putting the parts in the best place possible to contribute to the maximum level for the common good. In baseball, that means determining the right prospects to deal and the right ones to keep. It also means putting players in the best spot to succeed, foregoing personal preferences or comfort levels to amplify a positive impact on the sum of the parts.

    For baseball teams, that comes down to wins and losses. And that squarely sits on the manager’s shoulders. There are inputs from various sources, be it the mountains of data now available in every front office or the weathered eyes and gut of a 40-year baseball lifer. But at the end of the day, I wonder (and in a way, fear) that some of the stubbornness we’ve seen from Brian Snitker these past few weeks will cost him a chance to run this show next spring.

    The players love Snitker, and there is something to be said for that. At the same time, there are instances – be it overreliance on Sam Freeman as the first lefty out of the bullpen or leaving Inciarte at the top of the batting order – that certainly must give Alex Anthopoulos pause. The new Braves general manager has no tethers to Snitker or your favorite prospect.

    Prepare yourself accordingly.

    Anthopoulos spent part of his Saturday entertaining questions from season-ticket holders, with many of the queries focused on the July 31 trade deadline. Every inquiry certainly was reinforced by the pain of a magical season suddenly feeling as if it’s souring by the day (news flash: it’s not, for if nothing else the rest of the NL East is every bit afflicted with its own warts and flaws).

    There will be plenty of work done over the four-day All-Star break this week regarding the rest of 2018 and setting the table for 2019. The players need to be as far away from baseball as possible (save the four Atlanta All-Stars who head to D.C. on Sunday), but for this front office and coaching staff, there will be a lot to discuss before the “second half” begins Friday in Washington.

    There are sensible moves the Braves can make at the deadline that won’t gut the farm system (granted, it would take a lot to gut a system more stocked than a hoarder’s supply of canned goods). It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds for Atlanta over the next two-plus weeks. Some of that groundwork gets laid this week, while the sport pauses to celebrate its best and brightest, while most of the Braves hopefully hit the refresh and relax buttons.

    And no, I’m not expecting Manny Machado to have a tomahawk on their jersey come Aug. 1. The bullpen needs an upgrade (or two, to be honest). It doesn’t take the biggest name. It takes the right player in the right position at the right time.

    So, put away those dream proposals floating all over social media. Atlanta is no more likely to meet Baltimore’s asking price for eight weeks of Machado than the Mets are likely to deal Jacob deGrom – in division – for a haul of Atlanta prospects – again, in division.

    In other words: “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”

    —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 Drawing Attention from Near and Far

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    AUSTIN, Texas – There are moments when, in the midst of transitioning from rebuilding to contending, something happens that illustrates the shift in fortunes is grabbing attention.

    For me, it occurred some 965 miles west of SunTrust Park earlier this week.

    On a business trip to Austin, I strolled into the lounge at my hotel Monday night after arriving a few hours earlier. Relieved of deadline and work activities on arrival day, I grabbed a seat at the bar and looked forward to some quiet time while watching the NCAA Super Regionals. I ordered dinner and a beverage, and upon delivering my food, the bartender noticed my Braves shirt and hat.

    “You have one heckuva baseball team there,” he said, which sparked a conversation that lasted more than an hour. In that time, between bites of food and sips of Austin amber brew – which, for the record, really is good – I learned from the bartender and a couple of waiters that while they still are riding the emotional wave of the Astros winning the World Series, they recognize what’s happening in North Georgia.

    The bartender, who appeared to be around my age, kept referencing the big arms that defined the Braves for the better part of two decades – Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine, Avery, Neagle, Millwood. But the difference is those references to yesteryear began to intertwine with comparisons to the present day.

    Foltynewicz. Newcomb. Soroka, Nearly 1,000 miles away from home, these folks rolled those names off the tip of their tongue at every opportunity.

    What to take from that conversation while bellied up to the bar on the second floor of the Intercontinental in downtown Austin?

    It shows just how far the Braves already have come.

    In the words of the older bartender – who obviously knows his stuff about ball, from mentioning Jeff Blauser to Charlie Leibrandt to, gasp, Dion James and Damaso Garcia – he’s watched the Braves a few times this season and summarized, “this team is about to burst through and ascend toward the top of the majors.”

    Walking out of SunTrust Park late Sunday afternoon – six days after that conversation – the Braves only had added more validation to this phenomenal surge. Atlanta wrapped up a 5-1 homestand by downing the Padres 4-1, as Julio Teheran returned from the disabled list with six no-hit innings.

    Here are the Braves, 13 games above .500 for the first time in five seasons, leaders of the National League East by 3 ½ games. Sample size bias? Nah, not now. Atlanta has played 71 games, nearly 44 percent of its schedule, and it sits on a 95-win pace with a favorable schedule.

    Back to Austin a few days ago. There were conversation tracks focused on Ozzie Albies, on Freddie Freeman, on Dansby Swanson and on Ronald Acuna. But the talking points kept coming back to pitching. And can you blame them? These folks watched Houston’s dominant rotation pave the way to a world title last fall that brought so much joy to this part of the world.

    To step away from the biased viewpoint of tweets and text messages, to hear folks I never had met before and may never meet again, hit on the same observations, leads me to realize that what the Braves are doing is resonating far beyond the borders of Braves Country. In this part of the world, the Astros endured a miserable rebuild that featured three consecutive seasons of 106-plus losses and finishes in the division of 40-plus games out of first.

    Houston’s win total jumped from 51 games in 2013 to 70 games in 2014, to 86 and 84 the following two seasons, then 101 wins and the world championship in 2017. A dynamic pitching staff with young star power aplenty has the Astros poised to compete deep into autumn for years to go.

    But they’re not the only team following such a blueprint. There’s another team, one based in Georgia’s capital city, that is on the rise. And people far from SunTrust Park are starting to take notice.

    —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 off to Red Hot Start … and It’s Been Fun

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – High-fives in the middle of the diamond, a happy mid-afternoon crowd cheering into the cool Georgia air and another game that feels like something not seen often in these parts recently.

    The Atlanta Braves opening homestand of the season is complete, and it goes in the books as a resounding success. The team currently leads all of Major League Baseball in runs scored with 48, and team batting average, .297. The pitching, on balance, hasn’t been bad either. Braves pitchers boast a 3.86 ERA through 6 games.

    The result: Four victories in six games, a fifth victory just sliding away thanks to a bad slide at home plate. Good crowds, thirsty for signs of spring and perhaps a little more edgy for some winning baseball. Two series victories against NL East rivals, one that dominated Atlanta like Sherman last season, the other who occupies the division’s penthouse suite.

    And yet, as I made my way from the chilly confines of SunTrust Park after the Braves 7-1 thrashing of Washington on Wednesday, I kept thinking about one thing:

    It’s been one week.

    Four words made famous in song by the Bare Naked Ladies 20 years ago, but four words that fit here.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday's 13-6 win over the Nationals.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday’s 13-6 win over the Washington Nationals.

    What to make of these Braves, who sit 4-2 on the season and head out for the Frozen Tundra Trip – let’s face it, who doesn’t yearn for an early-April trip to Denver, Washington and Chicago – looking far more entertaining than the squads that combined to win a total of one game across the opening six contests the past two years?

    For any team to overachieve, there must be surprises. And while it’s been one week, it’s been one week a few guys wearing the tomahawk likely won’t forget.

    Or repeat. Consider:

    Charlie Culberson: Born in Rome – home of Atlanta’s Low-A affiliate – Culberson showed brief flashes of being able to produce offensively to go with his outstanding defensive abilities. He hit .293 in 99 at-bats for Colorado in 2013 and batted .299 three seasons later in 67 at-bats with the Dodgers. A 5-for-11 showing with three extra-base hits in the NLCS last season helped lift Los Angeles to the pennant, but those moments have been few and far between.

    The 28-year-old only has six at-bats in three games, but has made the most of them with two hits and two runs scored. Culberson has matched last season’s hit total (2-for-13 in 15 games). Any offensive production at all is a bonus from a guy who took his one season of regular playing time in Colorado (233 plate appearances in 2014) and promptly slashed .195/.253/.290.

    Ryan Flaherty: I bashed this signing endlessly on Twitter. The Braves already had a guy on the roster, Culberson, who plays great infield defense but can’t hit. Flaherty brought his career .215 batting average in 1,270 career plate appearances to town, and promptly raised that career average by five points in six games.

    How? By going 10-for-23 with four doubles and six runs scored. He became the third Atlanta third baseman to score four times and collect four hits in one game, joining a couple of fellas you may have heard of (Terry Pendleton, and some dude named Chipper). His on-base percentage, which was .284 in six seasons with Baltimore, sits at .500.

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves' bullpen Wednesday

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves’ bullpen Wednesday

    Preston Tucker: He made the team out of spring training as the DDTFIUAT (Dude Designated To Fill In Until Acuna Time). The 27-year-old has flashed promising power – 13 homers in 300 at-bats with Houston in 2015, and 100 career minor-league homers in 535 games – but strikes out in bunches. Like 40 strikeouts in 140 plate appearances in 2016 with Houston bunches, and 102 whiffs in 128 games in Triple-A last season.

    Now? Tucker has struck out four times in 21 at-bats, but when he hasn’t whiffed, he’s produced. Two homers, four runs scored and eight RBIs. Not bad for a guy who drove in 41 runs in his first 146 games before this season. His first-inning homer Tuesday into the Chop House flipped the script after the Nationals built a 3-0 lead, and his three-run opening-frame blast after a Washington error off the impenetrable Max Scherzer Wednesday launched Atlanta ahead for keeps.

    Shane Carle: Admit it, you had no clue who this dude was two weeks ago. Acquired in a quiet offseason deal with the Pirates for the ever-famous “player to be named later or cash considerations,” Carle earned a roster spot by not allowing a run in five of his final seven spring-training appearances.

    He took the loss Friday against Philadelphia by allowing one run in a two-inning stint, but he absolutely saved Julio Teheran and the Braves in Tuesday’s slugfest. Summoned in the third inning, Carle threw 26 of his 37 pitches for strikes and allowed only one hit in 3 1/3 steady innings of relief as the Braves bludgeoned the Nationals.

    The catchers? Nobody could see this coming.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    Atlanta already has started four guys in six games, as Tyler Flowers is on the disabled list and Kurt Suzuki is lucky he didn’t land there. Chris Stewart came on to replace both after injuries in the first two games, made three starts – complete with a two-hit, two-RBI performance Saturday – then was designated for assignment.

    Wednesday’s starting catcher? Carlos Perez. He was in the Angels organization Saturday.

    It’s been one week. An interesting one, for sure. And yet, a successful one for the Braves, who found themselves 1-5 after six games last season and 0-6 en route to a 4-17 start in 2016.

    Surely, there will be regression back toward the mean for these guys. Right?

    Here’s what we do know. Freddie Freeman may be putting the opening brushstrokes on a MVP-caliber season. Dansby Swanson looks confident at the plate. Ozzie Albies, albeit hitting just .172, is putting together solid at-bats. Nick Markakis, whose ninth-inning homer on opening day capped a furious late-inning comeback, owns a .934 OPS.

    And reinforcements are coming. Suzuki should be back early on the road trip. Third baseman Johan Camargo, provided all goes well in his injury rehab, could join the team in Denver. And there’s that Acuna kid, who we presume is a little more than a week away from making his much-ballyhooed debut.

    By then, it will have been more than one week. At this juncture, it’s been one week.

    And it’s been fun to watch.

    —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.

    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

    Big Decisions Ahead for Braves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Shagging fly balls at my baseball team’s first fall practice of this season tonight, a random thought crossed my mind. It took me back to about this time last year, and sparked an idea that – on a rare night without deadlines or work stuff to occupy my sleepless evening hours – intrigued me.

    I mention no deadlines because deadline came early on this 29th day of August. The Atlanta Braves were rained out in Philadelphia, a postponement announced two hours before first pitch, a pronouncement that meant for one blessed night, the Braves would not be tormented by the worst team in Major League Baseball.

    So, after a little digging, I confirmed that the 29th day of August last year also featured no Braves baseball. Atlanta was off that day, beginning that idle date on the schedule with a 48-83 record. Tonight’s unexpected evening off the diamond found the Braves with a 57-72 mark, far better than where this team sat a season ago.

    Will Brandon Phillips be in a Braves uniform on Sep 1?

    Will Brandon Phillips be in a Braves uniform on Sep 1?

    But you never would know it from the blogosphere, from social media, from sports talk shows and water cooler chats (do people still chat around the water cooler? Let’s assume they do somewhere) that have doom and gloom falling all over a team that, to be frank, has stunk the past six weeks. The Braves reached .500 on July 16 at 45-45, but have won just 12 times since.

    As Atlanta approaches September, we are reminded last year’s team would start a 20-10 run on Aug. 30, closing out Turner Field in style with victories that knocked the Tigers out of the American League playoffs while whetting the appetite of Braves Country for a 2017 that would feature a new stadium and a new beginning.

    And while there is little doubt SunTrust Park has lived up to its preseason billing, the same cannot be said for this team that – while in the midst of rebuilding – had at least planted a seed that this season would be a breakthrough to respectability. And sure, while being nine wins better than 365 days ago is impressive improvement, it should be better.

    September dawns soon. The active roster expands, several players are expected to return from the disabled list and a handful of prospects may merit promotion for the proverbial cup of coffee (Ronald Acuna will not be one of them, this correspondent continues to say). There is little optimism that these Braves will replicate the spirited final kick of a September ago, and honestly, that’s OK.

    The season’s final month is a time to start answering questions. The Braves have more than their fair share:

    What to do when Johan Camargo comes off the disabled list?

    Camargo, long impressive with his glove and cannon of a right arm, has shocked all of us with a .292 batting average and .781 OPS in just 185 at-bats. Those offensive numbers are better than anything he produced in the minors. The Braves seem serious about Camargo being part of their long-term plans, a pronouncement that cannot be based on two months’ worth of ABs.

    When he returns, Camargo needs to play every single day.

    Where does Camargo play once he is healthy?

    This one is easy, and hard, at the same time. He has to be the starting third baseman for the final four weeks of the season. Period.

    Why is playing Camargo daily an easy decision?

    Braves IF Johan Camargo is expected to return to the lineup September.

    Braves IF Johan Camargo is expected to return to the lineup September.

    This has less to do with Camargo and more to do with the two players lining up in the middle of Atlanta’s infield. Dansby Swanson’s demotion to Triple-A, where he got regular at-bats, gave him the time needed to adjust his swing and stance at the plate. He has been outstanding at shortstop since returning from the minors to replace the injured Camargo.

    At second base, Ozzie Albies has adjusted to major-league pitching after a rough beginning. His speed is breathtaking to watch. His smile lights up a ballpark on its own. Seeing Albies and Swanson up the middle is something Braves fans have dreamed of since the great teardown of this franchise three years go. Both are cornerstone pieces. They have to play, together, every single day.

    Why is playing Camargo daily a hard decision?

    It is hard to describe the impact Brandon Phillips has made on the Braves in his first season with his hometown team. The Redan High product has produced offensively, served as a veteran presence for the younger players in the clubhouse, and moved to third base – where he has looked every bit like a guy who has spent his entire major-league career at the hot corner.

    Phillips is one hit away from 2,000 for his career. He has more than proven he can play every day and produce on offense and defense. He most likely will get a chance to extend his career elsewhere. As much as it would be an incredible story for it to continue in his hometown, Phillips’ journey in 2018 almost certainly will unfold elsewhere.

    Unless Phillips were to take a one-year deal as a bench bat and mentor, he won’t be back in Atlanta next season. As much as we all love him and respect him, the greater good of the organization dictates a serious reduction in his playing time once September arrives.

    Is Julio Teheran here next season?

    Teheran’s 2017 season has been maddeningly inconsistent. Yes, his numbers at home still stink (2-9, 6.54 ERA). Yes, he’s allowed a career-high 29 homers and posted a career-worst 1.374 WHIP and 4.90 ERA since becoming a full-time starter in 2013.

    On the flip side, he’s four starts away from his fifth consecutive season of 30-plus starts, 35 innings away from his fifth consecutive season of 185-plus innings, is signed to a club-friendly deal through 2020 and is a two-time All-Star.

    Will the Braves explore  trading troubled ace Julio Teheran this winter?

    Will the Braves explore trading their inconsistent ace Julio Teheran this winter?

    I think of what somebody once said of Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, that when he’s good, he’s great, and when he’s bad, he’s terrible. That’s been Teheran in 2017. This will not be an easy call either way, but I lean toward this: in a rotation that figures to feature plenty of young arms in the next two years, Teheran has 156 career starts and is 28 innings shy of 1,000 pitched in the majors.

    Who pitches out of the bullpen?

    This is where the Braves should rely heavily – and I mean heavily – on youth. Yes, it may impact the overall win-loss number, but again, for the greater good of the franchise, Atlanta needs to see how some of its young arms fare late in games.

    For Jason Motte, Rex Brothers and Jim Johnson, this means nothing more than mop-up duty. The Braves feel they have viable candidate for the late innings in Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez. But there is a long list of guys who need opportunities in high-leverage situations, including Sam Freeman, Akeel Morris, Dan Winkler, A.J. Minter, Ian Krol and Luke Jackson.

    Depending on how those arms fare in September, the bullpen could be a very big – and expensive – focus in the offseason.

    There are decisions to be made, some unpopular, some necessary, all with a focus on making the next Aug. 29 we encounter not a day to ponder how bad things are, but to enjoy positive results that this franchise and its fanbase deserve.

    And the discovery process needs to begin right now.

    —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.

    Healthy or Not, Freeman Stays Focused

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was an innocent-enough comment in an interview during the dog days of August, one in which Freddie Freeman invoked images of Jim Mora standing behind that podium nearly 16 years ago.

    To jog your memory, Mora – then the coach of the Indianapolis Colts and the father of Jim Mora Jr., who guided the Atlanta Falcons to the cusp of a Super Bowl in early 2005 – answered a reporter’s question inquiring about his team reaching the AFC playoffs during a press conference in November 2001. Mora’s memorable response, complete with his high-pitched response to the “playoffs?” question, has long been played on sports talk shows and TV ever since.

    Which brings us to Freeman, the Atlanta Braves first baseman who thusly answered a question from an Atlanta media member before Tuesday’s 4-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners about the team’s goal for the remainder of a season, a campaign that finds the rebuilding Braves buried in the races for the National League East title and a NL wild card spot:

    1B Freddie Freeman enters play Wednesday batting .327 with 22 HR in 303 at-bats

    1B Freddie Freeman enters play Wednesday batting .327 with 22 HR in 303 at-bats

    “Playoffs. Until you’re eliminated, that should be your goal.”

    Let it be known, if there was any doubt in the matter, that Freddie Freeman comes to play.

    He played at a MVP-level until a pitch hit his left wrist in late May. Projected to miss 10 weeks, Freeman missed just seven. Not only did he get back sooner than expected, he returned to the other side of the infield, after he approached management to advocate putting him at third base – mostly because of the success Matt Adams enjoyed at the other corner of the diamond after Freeman’s injury.

    Fast forward to August. The Braves regained their senses – not because of Freeman’s play at the hot corner, which was better than many of us expected – and moved their franchise cornerstone back to his normal position. The road for Atlanta has been rocky since reaching .500 right after the All-Star break, a nadir that briefly piqued dreams of a stunning playoff run long since lost as the schedule and a lack of offense and shaky pitching derailed those far-fetched hopes.

    And yet, on this fourth Tuesday of August, here was Freeman, acknowledging that wrist of his is “80-to-85 percent” in his estimation. He will need the break provided by the offseason to heal fully the wrist. In a way, it is a shame that Aaron Loup’s pitch rode up and in and plunked off his wrist in May, because he was laying the foundation for one of the best individual seasons in Atlanta Braves history.

    Even with the wrist issues, there has not been much dropoff after Freeman’s return. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, Freeman would be in the top five in the National League in hitting. He likely would be closing in on 30 homers at this point. After finishing sixth in the NL MVP voting a season ago, Freeman certainly would be in the conversation for the award were it not for the time missed.

    But the Braves’ captain presses on. That label is applied by me, for if this were a hockey team (RIP Thrashers, and may the Atlanta Spirit Group burn in hell for selling out the franchise, but I digress), there is no doubt which player would wear the “C” on his sweater.

    Freddie Freeman's 1.048 OPS would lead all NL hitters. (Lacks at-bats needed to qualify)

    Freddie Freeman’s 1.048 OPS would lead all NL hitters. (Lacks at-bats needed to qualify)

    Freeman, with the wrist aching and his team miles out of playoff content, went out Tuesday and collected two hits against a Seattle team fighting for a wild-card spot. He extended his hitting streak to 11 games, raised his average to .327 and, through his words before the game and his actions after first pitch, further cemented his standing as the centerpiece of the greatest rebuild in Atlanta since Sherman rode through town.

    For all the great young pitching bubbling at or just below the surface – Lucas Sims showing yet more promise of a brighter day with six shutout innings Tuesday – and the position players who are sparking plenty of conversation – Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson in the middle of the major-league infield; outfielder Ronald Acuna continuing his destruction of Triple-A pitching – Freeman remains the linchpin.

    News that his wrist is not 100 percent caused plenty of angst amongst Braves fans. I for one took to Twitter to express my opinion that Freeman is too important to run out there for nine innings every day the rest of the way in a season that will end with a losing record. I’m old; I remember Bob Horner, the curly-haired promising third baseman in the 1980s whose career was derailed by wrist injuries. It makes me cringe to this day what he – and his team – may have accomplished had he stayed healthy.

    But seconds after the TV broadcast crew mentioned the wrist summation given by Freeman in the first inning, he lined an opposite-field single to start his evening. Freeman continues showing up for work and putting forth the effort one would expect from a guy trying to get his team into the playoffs. The captain is in place, and his focus is on October.

    That workman-like approach, that leadership, will serve these Braves well as they continue their development from rebuilding to relevance to championship contenders.

    —30—

     

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

     

     

    Braves at the Trade Deadline … Do They Have a Dance Partner?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — In the spring of 1986, the Atlanta Hawks were on their way to another playoff exit, the Atlanta Braves were on their way to another losing season, and I was on my way to the bustling metropolis of Macon, Ga., for the state junior beta convention.

    The final night of the convention ended with a dance. I spent the majority of the evening tugging uncomfortably at my tie, filling up on snack food and talking sports with a group of fellow awkward teenagers, including a girl from my school with whom I was friends.

    When the night’s final song cued up, she grabbed my hand, led me on the dance floor and we slow danced. I never asked her why, I don’t remember the song, I certainly didn’t kiss her (I think I was paralyzed with shock) and I don’t think either one of us spoke of the incident again. The only thing I could figure in the days and weeks that followed is she really wanted to dance with somebody, she seized the moment, and I was present at the right place at the right time.

    Welcome to baseball’s Trade Deadline, the time of year where the pressure of finding that right piece of a pennant-winning puzzle – or the opportunity to shed veteran payroll and snag future talent to accelerate a rebuild – brings together general managers and scouting directors, while 30 fanbases simultaneously salivate and shiver.

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    And tweet. Lord have mercy, do they ever.

    The deadline arrives at 4 p.m. Monday and, with all apologizes to science fans anxiously counting down to the solar eclipse three weeks from now, this is the world-altering, awe-inspiring Monday on the calendar. It is circled on the calendar of every GM – real, wannabe or armchair – from coast to coast.

    My Twitter feed in recent days has been fueled by almost every form of speculation possible, from the Braves acquiring a controllable ace that would vault Atlanta from the outside of the wild-card race squarely into the hunt for the World Series (or at least that’s the logic applied) to the queries of whether Player X could be dealt, even though Player X probably wouldn’t net more than a six-pack of Natty Light, a stale pretzel and a leftover ham sandwich.

    (My apologizes to ham sandwich lovers everywhere. Cheese and mayo on toasted bread, please).

    Look, here’s the truth of the matter: The Braves have lost seven of their past eight games. The latest in a series of hellish road trips that has dotted the schedule finally appears to have torpedoed any fleeting glimpse of contending in the season’s final two months. Even a .500 finish seems tentative at this point, but remember January and February and ask yourself if you’d be happy sitting at break-even on the evening of Oct. 1 (don’t lie; you’d be thrilled).

    It is a time of contrasting emotions. I get it. You love Brandon Phillips, the ATLien whose infectious smile and resurgent season has caused many of us to fall in love with the pride of Redan High. You are thrilled the Braves rescued Matt Adams from the end of the Cardinals’ bench when Freddie Freeman got hurt, and Adams responded by turning the right-field seats at SunTrust Park into his own driving range.

    But now that Freeman’s back and Johan Camargo has emerged with a breakout season – so much so, Dansby Swanson is clean shaven and manning shortstop for Gwinnett – you want to see Phillips and Adams moved. You want Freeman, who honesty compels me to say has looked better than expected at third base, back at his natural position. You want Swanson promoted and back at shortstop as soon as he can string a couple of hits together for the G-Braves (who will be the Buttons or Sweet Teas or heaven knows what next season).

    You want Ozzie Albies, who cannot legally buy alcohol but has raked Triple-A pitching, manning second base in the Northwest Atlanta suburbs and not the Northeast burbs. And with every at-bat he gets at Triple-A, 19-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna draws louder comparisons to Andruw Jones, whose 1996 season started in the low minors and ended with a World Series debut for the ages.

    Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the deadline

    Knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the non-waiver trade deadline

    I get it. I feel ya. There’s just one problem.

    There is precious little demand for Adams, who only can play first base and who has cooled off somewhat since his white-hot start. There is not a market for Phillips, a veteran who has played only nine postseason games in his 16-year career and is a free agent come October. Whatever market for closer Jim Johnson, he of the back-to-back 50-save seasons in 2012-13 but he with the eight blown saves in 2017 and the $5 million price tag for 2018, has evaporated quicker than the hottest of hot takes burning up social media.

    R.A. Dickey? He’s a 42-year-old knuckleballer with an $8 million team option for next season and, to be frank, likely should be given a chance to make the Braves’ roster in 2018 given the way he’s pitched the past two months. Nick Markakis, who mans the position we all expect Acuna to take come April (or September, or yesterday)? That’s $11 million for next season for a singles/doubles hitter with limited power.

    Much like that cute gal who led me onto the dance floor so many years ago, you need a partner who wants to dance. You can offer the grandest of all packages, but if the other side says no, there is no deal.

    So for all the folks with the patience of a gnat and the buildup of angst from a bad week of baseball, I say this: relax.

    Yes, 4 p.m. Monday will come and go, and the world will keep spinning. The Braves will be wrapping up their road trip when the deadline passes. No matter what does or does not happen, they will fly back to Atlanta Monday evening and hit the field for Tuesday’s game with the Dodgers.

    Maybe John Coppolella walks across the floor and takes somebody’s unsuspecting hand in the hours leading up to the deadline. You know, I know, we all know he’s trying, looking to uncover every possibility and explore every scenario. The feeling here says nothing major happens, that for Braves County the deadline will pass uneventfully.

    But at the same time, I had no idea I’d be on that dance floor so many years ago.

    —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.