• Darren O’Day

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The first full month of the season sits in the rear-view mirror, 31 games are in the books and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a position they did not reach at any one point during their glorious run to the 2018 NL East championship.

    Under .500.

    The Braves have befuddled many of us through the first five weeks of 2019, looking at times like a World Series contender and at other times like an also-ran – sometimes within an inning or two of each other – as they now begin their first extended road trip. A 10-day, 10-game, three-city journey begins Friday night in Miami, where old friend Jose Urena awaits his assured retribution for his gutless plunking of Ronald Acuna Jr. last season. From there, Atlanta flies west for three games against the pennant-winning Dodgers and four at Arizona, against the same Diamondbacks squad that swept a three-game series two weeks ago at SunTrust Park.

    Often, the first weeks of the season begin answering the questions we all have about a team throughout the offseason and spring training. In some respects, I think we can begin drawing early conclusions on some topics. For others, I have no better clue now than I did in late March, before attending 11 games in person and watching/listening to every pitch of the season to this point.

    Atlanta leaves town for a while, but questions remain. Such as …

    Is this team where you’d thought it would be at this point of the season?

    In a word, no. I didn’t expect the Braves to be below .500 through 19.1 percent of the season. Granted, they’re one game under. It’s not like their buried in the East. But I thought if there was a month early in the season that might challenge them, it would be the month we’re in now, and not the one that preceded it. That concerns me a bit, to be honest.

    What’s the most disappointing part of Atlanta’s start?

    Duh! It’s the pit of misery … eh, the bullpen. Look, many of us – myself included – thought the Braves needed to upgrade their relief corps and were disappointed Alex Anthopoulos could not secure at least one upgrade for the bullpen. But did I think that group would be this bad? No, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as they’ve shown.

    But they’re not great, either, and they’ve already cost the Braves games they can ill-afford to blow in a tightly contested division. A.J. Minter has shown rust and inconsistency after missing most of spring training. Darren O’Day remains missing in action. Jesse Biddle hit a funk you wouldn’t wish on anybody. Others have taken their turns struggling to throw strikes.

    There have been signs, albeit small ones, that a correction is coming. Minter looked good in Wednesday’s save. Jacob Webb earned a win and a save on back-to-back days. Josh Tomlin has become a revelation once he started getting work. And what else to say of Luke Jackson, who has gone from fanbase whipping post to downright lovable? Action Jackson is the most unexpected singular aspect of this season.

    Is what we’ve seen from Max Fried and Mike Soroka real?

    In my opinion, yes. That’s not to say Soroka will pitch to a sub-2 ERA all season and Fried will win 22 games and the Cy Young. But both young hurlers have filthy stuff, which we’ve seen in flashes.

    But now, we’re seeing it every fifth day. Fried isn’t getting yanked between the rotation, the bullpen, and Gwinnett. Soroka is healthy. Both are pitching with a ton of confidence, and guided by veteran catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers, each is showing the ability to trust their stuff, pound the strike zone, shake off the inevitable mistake, and keep on rolling.

    Fried reminds me so much of a young Steve Avery, it’s scary. Soroka has the poise and makeup of a young Tom Glavine. High praise, yes, but these two kids are good. Really good. Legit, rotation-anchoring good.

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

    A little bit, but only because he’s made just two big-league starts and we’re roughly 1/5th of the way through the season. Folty’s fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and today his slider was flat against San Diego. Coupled with some shaky defense (including a bad throw of his own doing), and it’s easy to see how today came off the rails.

    But he was locked in for much of his first start against Colorado. If Folty has five, six starts under his belt and he’s still sitting 94 mph, then I’d be more concerned. Hard to read too much into two starts, for a guy who won 13 games and made the All-Star team a season ago, then spent four weeks in Triple-A going through his spring training. Give it time and let him get into a rhythm.

    Is the offense better than you thought?

    Absolutely, and it’s not just because of Josh Donaldson (who is so much better defensively than I realized) or Freddie Freeman or Acuna, even though the superkid has struggled the past two weeks. It’s because Ozzie Albies has solidified himself at the top of the lineup – and credit Brian Snitker for recognizing the second baseman needed to hit leadoff regardless of that night’s starter – Nick Markakis has regained his early-2018 form, and the strides Dansby Swanson has made offensively.

    Add in the production out of the veteran catchers, and the Braves 1-through-7 in the order have been every bit as tough as any lineup in the game. There has to be a bit of regression somewhere, at some point, but even if Markakis and the catchers cool off their opening-month pace, this still is a very good offensive team that can help carry it through some bumpy nights pitching-wise.

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

    I’ve preached patience with Swanson since his struggles in 2017. Last year he was hindered (more so than we realized at the time) by a wrist injury. He’s healthy now, and he’s blistering line drives all over the field. His power has expanded, he’s hitting the ball just as hard to right-center as left-center, and he’s still playing outstanding defense.

    It’s 31 games, so let’s see it continue to play out. But I think it’s real. And if Swanson continues to hit like this – and you have to expect some of those liners right at folks are going to find grass at some point – you suddenly have an elite shortstop to add to the linchpins of this lineup. The Braves already have locked up Acuna and Albies. A continuation of this type of play for Swanson the rest of the season certainly makes his next-man-up to sign on the dotted line long term.

    There’s one hitter not mentioned yet … why does Ender keep getting playing time?

    Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he’s won three straight Gold Gloves in center field and he’s historically a poor offensive performer in April? There are plenty of people who have cried for Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to be promoted to the majors after their hot starts at Double-A Mississippi. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.

    Inciarte infuriates the fan base with grounders to second and swinging at the first pitch. He also collected 200 hits two seasons ago and does his best offensive work once school lets out. Some of the patience asked for with Swanson the past two years can be applied here. You have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Inciarte. You just have to … wait for it.

    If Ender still is struggling in six weeks, maybe you have a conversation. For now, the pseudo-platoon of putting Acuna in center and sitting Inciarte against some lefties is doable. Credit Snitker for putting Inciarte lower in the order, and we’ve started to see some signs of life with the bat and a few more balls hit to left and left-center.

    What else has stood out to you in the first five weeks?

    Sean Newcomb had to go back to Triple-A to try and find his rhythm, and he’s turned it around with back-to-back outings with zero walks. … Matt Joyce, signed late in camp, actually has been a nice asset off the bench from the left side. … I’ve been pleased that Snitker has given Johan Camargo starts all over the field, and the two hits today hopefully signifies he’s getting right at the plate. … Julio Teheran hasn’t been that bad, actually, but cannot afford outings like his doubleheader debacle in Cleveland. … The Gwinnett shuttle has worked out for the most part, although I remain befuddled and upset Bryse Wilson didn’t get a longer look in the major-league bullpen before being demoted last weekend. … I hope Wes Parsons gets back and continues to excel. … Charlie Culberson is my favorite position-player pitcher of all time, and his work off the bench – despite too few at-bats – has been impressive.

    What needs to happen this month?

    The other three contenders in the East have flaws just as damning as the Braves, so I don’t expect anybody to have an 18-8 month and pull away. Given Atlanta makes two separate trips to the coast, plays six games against St. Louis and three with Milwaukee, I wouldn’t be upset with .500. That means you don’t stub your toe against Miami or San Francisco, get some payback at Arizona, and hold your own against the Dodgers.

    That keeps you well within striking distance once June begins, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. I think teams falling out of the race are going to look to move guys earlier. The Giants already are listening on several bullpen pieces. Does the Corey Kluber injury shift the balance of power in the AL Central? Will Baltimore cave in on dealing Mychal Givens? And with the draft in early June, does that finally push somebody to sign Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel?

    Those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Braves have plenty of questions of their own as they fly toward South Beach, and the sprint to October ramps toward full speed.

    —30—

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

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —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 Deadline: Anthopoulos boosts October odds, Protects Future

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – This is the day made for Alex Anthopoulos, and certainly it has been circled on his calendar since he took over as Atlanta Braves general manager in November. The aggressive gunslinger who never has shied away from a major deal spent the next eight months evaluating his new organization, all with an eye toward Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.

    But when the asking price for Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer – owner of the power strikeout arm and friendly, controllable contract – bubbled beyond the point of comfort, Anthopoulos made the smart move.

    He pushed away from the table.

    Contrary to what he told the assembled media early Tuesday evening at SunTrust Park, the Braves were in on Archer throughout the day. But Pittsburgh offered the duo of Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, a price that would have been akin to Atlanta offering two top-six prospects. That was too much for Anthopoulos, who resisted the emotion of the Braves stunningly sitting ½ game out of first place in the National League East and the pleas of a starving fanbase to overpay for one piece.

    And while there was an initial tinge of disappointment Archer headed toward western Pennsylvania and not north Georgia, at the same time the Braves new head man accomplished what he set out to do. In the five days leading up to the deadline, Anthopoulos improved the bullpen by adding two groundball machines (Jonny Venters and Brad Brach), a right-handed power bat (Adam Duvall), an intriguing starting pitcher (Kevin Gausman) and a veteran reliever who will be available next spring (Darren O’Day).

    The most important part of the past 120 hours or so is the Braves improved the major-league team without so much as tearing the plastic wrap from a minor-league system that is the envy of baseball. Atlanta did not touch 28 of its top 30 prospects. Venters and Brach were acquired for international signing pool money, funds of otherwise little value to Atlanta given MLB’s sanctions against the team. Duvall came at the price of fourth outfielder Preston Tucker and a pair of pitchers (Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims) whose production waned with every failed attempt at big-league success. Tuesday’s deadline deal – announced shortly after the clock expired – sent No. 14 Jean Carlos Encarnacion and No. 30 Brett Cumberland and two unranked prospects (Bruce Zimmermann and Evan Phillips) to the Orioles.

    Trade deadlines are hard to judge. I like to take a timeframe approach when grading the deadline:

    The Immediate (B+): Had Anthopoulos added Archer, Braves fans would have built a statue to their GM outside SunTrust Park tomorrow. It would have been a seismic move, but it would have come at quite the cost. At least two top-10 prospects, plus a prospect ranked somewhere in the 15-to-25 range. It wasn’t from a lack of trying, but Anthopoulos didn’t let the emotion of the day cause a detour from the appointed plan.

    That plan is contingent on ensuring the Braves use their minor-league depth at the right time. There will be a time, perhaps this offseason, where long-loved prospects are shipped away in return for valuable major-league assets. At the deadline, Anthopoulos filled several needs of his team without ripping up four years of careful cultivation of young talent.

    The Short Term (A): The Braves, as currently constituted, have a better chance to reach the playoffs than a week ago. Even without acquiring a top-end starter or a closer, Anthopoulos immediately fixed two glaring needs. First, he shored up a bullpen that’s threatened to sabotage this fantastic season. Venters and Brach are ground-ball machines, good fits with a very good infield defense playing behind them. Swapping Venters and Brach for a pair of recent (wink, wink) additions to the disabled list – Sam Freeman and Peter Moylan – automatically makes the Braves much better in the late innings.

    The second need has become all the more apparent in the past two months. Center fielder Ender Inciarte banged out 201 hits a season ago in hitting .304, but has been awful against left-handed hitters (hitting .207). Duvall – who has struggled to a .205 average in 2018 but does have 15 homers – gives the Braves the opportunity to slide Ronald Acuna into center when a left-hander starts, and Duvall’s presence in the lineup provides a right-handed power source who belted 64 homers in 2016-17. And regardless of whether Duvall or Inciarte are in the starting lineup, the bench automatically is better than a week before.

    Gausman is the wild card. A budding star out of LSU and the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, he sports a 4.22 ERA in 150 career games and struggled at times to find his way in Baltimore (not necessarily a strange thing given how some Orioles hurlers have excelled after leaving town). The Braves view him as an innings-eating dependable arm, one who has worked into the seventh inning seven times in 21 starts – that will thrive away from the AL East and the murderous lineups residing in Boston and New York. Time will tell, but the Braves certainly have a desperate need for more length from their starting rotation, especially given only two off days between now and Sept. 13.

    The Long Term (B-): The hardest grade to give on deadline day. What is the end result of the season? What about the next year? How did the assets you gave up turn out? I’m going B-minus for now mainly because the prospects remain virtually intact, and Atlanta did get players with control. While Venters and Brach are pending free agents, Gausman is under contract through 2020 and Duvall is on a deal through 2021. O’Day is on the shelf with a hamstring injury and won’t contribute in 2018, but is under contract through next season and taking on his $9 million salary for 2019 helped minimize the prospect cost of today’s deal.

    The Braves, through their play through the season’s first 103 games, earned the right for their general manager to make the team better. Anthopoulos delivered, maybe not with star power or  big names, but enough quality to give the Braves a better shot at extending its season beyond game 162.

    —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.