• Darren O’Day

    RISE AND SHINE: Acuna Plunking Awakens Braves in Game 1 Victory

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It took him about 10 seconds to race 270 feet, from a first base he occupied after wearing another fastball from another Marlins pitcher to a head-first slide at home plate.

    Safe at home, Ronald Acuna Jr. jumped up with a spin and gazed toward the third-base dugout at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Like somebody who leaps from bed as their snooze alarm goes off for the third time, the Braves outfielder might as well have told the opposition his team was awake.

    The Braves smashed their NL East rivals 9-5 in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, scoring eight unanswered runs after falling in an early 4-1 hole. Staff ace Max Fried stumbled for the first time this season, but Miami resorted to a tired tactic after Acuna’s leadoff homer in the first gave Atlanta a short-lived 1-0 advantage.

    Miami starter Sandy Alcantara buried a fastball in Acuna’s left hip, the fifth time Atlanta’s 22-year-old outfielder has worn one against Miami in three seasons.

    “He hit a long homer, and got hit by 97 (mph),” Braves manager Brian Snitker – choosing his words carefully – told reporters in his postgame press conference aired on MLB Network. “In that situation, if you’re going to go in there, you’ve got to make sure you don’t hit him.

    “It’s happening too much.”

    Slow Start, Fast Finish: The Braves trailed Game 1 of the NL Division Series 4-1 before scoring eight unanswered runs in Tuesday’s 9-5 victory.

    Leading 4-1 after touching Fried for one run in the second and three in the third, all the early momentum sat with the upstart Marlins, who are in the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons. But there was a discernable shift in the tenor of the game after the HBP. And the Braves responded immediately, using back-to-back doubles by Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud to trim the deficit to a lone run.

    “Three-run lead, then give two runs right back,” Miami manager Don Mattingly told the media in his postgame comments, adding he did not think Alcantara intentionally hit the Braves young star. “We had the momentum.”

    But with one wayward inside pitch, it was gone. There is a time and place for everything. If Miami was trying to send some sort of message after Acuna became the youngest player in MLB history to lead off a first inning in a playoff game with a homer, it’s mind-boggling the Marlins would do it in this situation. Even with the recent history between the two division foes, there wasn’t anything leading into the series to foretell something would happen.

    (In case you’re wondering, the Braves host a four-game series against the Marlins on April 12-15, 2021. Mark your calendars accordingly.)

    Alcantara’s fastball may have been a sucker punch, but four innings later the Braves delivered the knockout blow for the game and, perhaps, the series. Honestly, it felt like just a matter of time once Acuna trotted to first base.

    The deficit stayed at one run thanks to two aspects of Atlanta’s game that’s been fantastic all season: its defense and its bullpen. Ozzie Albies made two sensational plays in a row in the fourth inning, and added a basket catch in short center field to open the fifth. Freddie Freeman ended the frame by diving to his right and snagging a Miguel Rojas chopper, flipping to Darren O’Day for the out.

    O’Day restored order after Fried scuffled through four innings (four runs allowed on six hits), needing only nine pitches in a scoreless inning. Tyler Matzek added another impressive frame to his postseason resume, striking out the side on 11 pitches in the sixth. Will Smith threw only eight pitches to sail through a clean seventh.

    Then the Braves offense, which scored just two runs in the first 20 innings of the Wild Card series against Cincinnati, exploded. It started with Austin Riley and Acuna recording singles to chase Alcantara, who otherwise kept the Braves in check with a high-90s fastball and nasty changeup. Ozuna and d’Arnaud came through after Yimi Garcia recorded an out, Ozuna’s single to left tying the game before d’Arnaud – who finished 3-for-3 with two walks and four RBIs – belted a 421-foot homer to dead center.

    Braves 7, Marlins 4.

    Braves wide awake. Marlins one step closer to bedtime.

    d’Arnaud Doubt About It: Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s three-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Braves the lead for keeps in Game 1 of the NL Division Series Tuesday.

    “We just got it going,” d’Arnaud told Fox Sports 1 after the game. “No matter how far we’re down, we’re never out of it.”

    As d’Arnaud’s homer sailed over the fence, Acuna jumped out of the far end of the dugout, waving a white towel in his right hand. Ozuna and Riley raised their arms in celebration. d’Arnaud turned toward the dugout after rounding first base, doing the Braves patented mix-it-up hand gesture. There would be another faux selfie in the dugout upon his return and, two hitters later, Dansby Swanson launched a two-run shot to push the Braves lead to 9-4.

    Perhaps by that point, Miami needed to wave something white. Through the first 2 ½ innings, the Marlins looked like they belonged on the postseason stage. Then they did something an underdog absolutely cannot do:

    Wake up the favorite.

    “Our focus remains on winning and moving forward,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    The Braves have won three playoff games in a seven-day span, matching their win total from the past six years. They look every bit the favorite now in this series, and odds are they won’t need another wakeup call.

    —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.

    FREE IN 13! Braves Outlast Reds in Classic Game 1, Sit One Win from NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Pardon me if it takes a minute to gather my thoughts. I’ve been watching and writing about the teams from here for a long time.

    So take it from me: Atlanta teams aren’t accustomed to winning this type of game.

    Certainly not in the postseason.

    Yet there the Braves were Wednesday, four hours and 39 minutes into a tight, tense scoreless fight with Cincinnati in Game 1 of the National League Wild Card series at Truist Park. At some point, the urgency of jumping to a lead in the rapid-fire best-of-three series with two rookies slated to start the next two days faded into a blur of strikeouts, history, stranded runners until, finally, a soft single to center from the probable NL most valuable player ended the stalemate.

    Freddie Freeman flicked a 1-2 pitch from Amir Garrett over the second base bag, chasing home top prospect and pinch runner Cristian Pache to give the Braves a 1-0 victory in 13 agonizing, nerve-jangling, life-shortening innings. What happened between Max Fried’s first pitch at 12:08 p.m. ET and Pache becoming the first – and only – player to touch home plate on this day was thrilling.

    And torturous. At some point, I imagine even the most loyal Braves fan looked skyward and said out loud, “in what macabre way will we lose this one?”

    Not on this day, though! For once, a team based in Georgia’s capital city managed to avoid the type of crushing, soul-stealing heartbreak that fans in this part of the world not only expect, but accept as a birthright. Like closing school for one inch of snow, sweet tea at every restaurant, and a non-stop countdown to the start of SEC football, devastating postseason losses are our thing. Just ask the Hawks, the Bulldogs, and of course, the Falcons.

    But not on this day. And how the Braves managed to reach sundown with two shots to win a playoff series for the first time in 19 years is a story that will be told for a long, long time. Asked to try and put the series opener into some semblance of perspective, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker chucked.

    “I don’t know if we’ve got enough time,” he told reporters.

    Captain Clutch: Freddie Freeman delivered the RBI single in the 13th inning that lifted the Braves to a 1-0 victory over Cincinnati and a 1-0 lead in the NL Wild Card series Wednesday.

    Just consider the first glance at the box score: 12 ½ scoreless innings, the longest 0-0 contest in MLB postseason history. The two teams combined for 37 strikeouts, another playoff record. The mere fact the Atlanta offense, which led the majors in OBP this season, whiffed 21 times and still won the game is mind blowing. The Braves finished with all of six hits, three coming in a 13th inning that turned up lucky for Atlanta at long last.

    Honestly, the Reds weren’t much better offensively despite recording 11 hits. Cincinnati hitters struck out 16 times, and finished 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position with 13 left on base. Time and time again, the Reds put pressure on the Braves bullpen, a relief corps completely remade in the past 14 months.

    Consider this for a moment: the closer on July 30, 2019 was Luke Jackson. Wednesday, he was left off the playoff roster.

    Snitker gets plenty of criticism (some of it well deserved) for bullpen management, but he made all the right moves in Game 1. The guys he called upon responded, even if they walked a tightrope to get to the other side of the canyon. Darren O’Day gave up a double and issued two walks in the 11th. Tyler Matzek kept it scoreless, striking out Mike Moustakas to end the threat, then whiffed the side in the 12th after allowing consecutive singles.

    In the 13th, Shane Greene gave up two singles and threw a wild pitch. A.J. Minter came on and walked Moustakas to load the bases before a strikeout and groundout got the Braves out of trouble again. Somehow, someway, the bullpen avoided the wrong steps that so often have plagued this franchise in postseasons past.

    As the strikeouts in the scorebook and zeros on the scoreboard piled up, it became easy to forget the two pitchers who set us down this path. Cincinnati starter Trevor Bauer backed up his big talk with a command performance, striking out 12 with no walks and two hits allowed in 7 2/3 innings. The Braves handed the ball to Fried for his first postseason start – I mean, who else was going to start the opener – and the lefty responded with five strikeouts and no walks in seven shutout frames.

    Fried found himself in a jam right off the bat as Cincinnati opened the game with back-to-back singles. But as soon as Braves fans immediately started recoiling at the thought of another awful opening inning in a home playoff game, the 26-year-old induced two groundouts and a flyout to set the tone. Fried threw 53 of his 78 pitches for strikes across seven innings – one more than he pitched the final three weeks of the regular season – then sat back and watched the madness unfold like the rest of us.

    Pair of Aces: Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer and Atlanta’s Max Fried put on a show in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card series Wednesday.

    “It was so much fun to watch,” Fried told reporters postgame.

    It was a demoralizing loss for the Reds, but don’t expect any Atlanta fan to gloat too soon. There’s at least one, and perhaps two, games left to play in this series. But Game 2 and (if needed) Game 3 will have a hard time living up to the opener.

    It was the type of game Atlanta teams just don’t win.

    It was a game the Braves won anyway.

    —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.

    Restarting Baseball Won’t Be Easy, But There’s a Way to Get There

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The weekly Zoom call with some of my tailgate buddies is finished. I am watching a replay of a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) game on ESPN2. The Kia Tigers are playing, and Preston Tucker is in the lineup – remember when he hit a homer off Max Scherzer to cap the season-opening homestand in 2018, a homer my oldest son actually called from our seats in Section 431 on a Wednesday get-away day in early April?

    OK, quit lying. You do not remember it. Tucker would be replaced in a few weeks in left field by some hot-shot prospect. Think his name was Acuna? I don’t know. But my kid will not let me forget the moment he told me, “Tuck’s going yard here.”

    We so wish random memories from a game a couple of years ago could dominate our thoughts right now. That’s not the case, obviously. I admit, we are reaching here as we dive into the ninth week of the Coronavirus shutdown that has shuttered North American sports. And yet there are signs – as we hopefully are reopening to get folks back to work while keeping the curve flattened – that some leagues are ramping up. NASCAR, which embraced online technology brilliantly with its iRacing series, plans to run a real race next weekend. NBA training facilities are staring to open, gradually. Same with MLS.

    And Major League Baseball apparently has a plan. It’s a plan that makes sense, given this different time in which we’re living, and given that the decision makers for not just sports leagues, but corporations and local municipalities and state governments and up to the federal level, have no baseline by which to measure the decisions they’re making. I have my opinions, but let me say this: this ain’t easy for any of them. In this time, kindness and grace carries the day, the way I see it, regardless of anything else. And they’re trying, folks.

    As far as firing up MLB again, I know it also is not easy. But there is a plan that was reported by The Athletic (subscription required) on Saturday that feels like it just might work. In summation, MLB is going to present the bones of the plan to the owners on Monday and, provided it gets owners approval, could be presented to the players association as early as Tuesday.

    Of course, there are far more questions than answers. I get that. And those questions are fair. The owners and players could halt this movement if they do not agree to some sort of revenue-sharing agreement, with the likelihood no fans will be in the stands. I do think neither side wants to come across as greedy in this moment. Actually, collaboration between the owners and players association could lay groundwork toward a collective bargaining agreement, considering the current CBA expires after the 2021 season.

    In summation, the plan would produce a shortened season – and without fans to start, obviously. Let’s hope we can get fans back in the stands at some point. The number of games thrown around, dictated by basic math, is 78 games (81 games is ½ of a normal MLB season). Teams would be limited to play only their division opponents, plus the teams who make up their corresponding division in the other league. The Braves play in the National League East, so that means your schedule is comprised of the other four teams in the NL East, plus the five teams in the American League East.

    You play four three-game series against your division opponents, and two three-game series against each team in the other corresponding division. So, 48 games within division, and 30 games against the other division. I would like to see if we could expand that schedule to include a few series with Central division opponents. You’d love to see the Braves play three games against the Cubs at Wrigley, or host three games against the Cardinals. But if 78 games is the limit, we will take it.

    And sure, the “AL and NL East” division would be a tough sled for anybody. Look at last year’s standings. Yes, you have the Marlins and Orioles (two rebuilding franchises) in there, but you also have the Nationals, Yankees, Rays, Mets and Phillies. The Jays have tons of young talent. For the Braves, it would be a tough slog, but they also are among the really good teams.

    And honestly, do you care if the teams in your division are better than the other divisions right now?

    There have been rumors MLB told teams to tell their players to start ramping up, and I noticed evidence of that on social media. Late this week, I watched an Instagram story from Ronald Acuna Jr. in which he shared a pic he took outside Truist Park. Over the next two days, there were IG stories of Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo hitting together.

    Camargo had stayed in Tampa – where he worked this offseason to shed weight and get ready for spring training – and Acuna had traveled to the Miami area after the shutdown. Albies had returned to the Atlanta area after camp was halted. The three of them hitting together was the first sign to me that things might be about to fire up again.

    The conventional wisdom is spring training would start in early-to-mid June, with games beginning in early July. The thought is teams would play in their home stadiums, unless the COVID-19 virus spikes in a particular venue – sadly, New York City comes to mind – and the people involved (players, coaches, umpires, trainers, doctors, PR staff, bat boys, etc.) would get tested frequently.

    Here in Georgia, the governor has told us that anybody who wants a test now can be tested. There was open testing at the park today where I coached my kids in youth baseball for a decade, for example. The City of Orlando has told the NBA’s Orlando Magic to go ahead and test their people freely, as the city now has enough testing for frontline workers to allow for testing for something as frivolous as a basketball team’s personnel.

    We must shift our perspective from what we have experienced previously. It truly is an unprecedented time in our nation’s and our world’s history. Baseball in this moment will not be the same. Let’s embrace that first and foremost. Provided it can happen, this season will be like no other. That statement applies to life in general in these strange days and nights. And there are plenty of salient questions that require answers before an umpire shouts, “play ball!” What happens if a player tests positive? What if a city – be it New York City or Phoenix or Minneapolis or Atlanta – experiences a sudden surge in cases, as more and more locales ease lockdown restrictions? What happens if a baserunner slides hard into second base, gets tangled up with the second baseman, and one of them tests positive the next day?

    I’m not looking for answers right now because, honestly, none of us have those answers. What we do know is this; our sport is going to be different. That’s fine. Lean in here, and get creative. Nodding to the NHL daily roster model, I would love for MLB to have an active roster (thinking 30 guys) plus an inactive list (an extra four players) for each game, with the ability to interchange guys from one day to the next. I also wonder how we handle the minor leagues, which very well may not happen in 2020. If you’re the Braves, do you have Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, and the rest of the prospects playing intrasquad games at North Port, ready to be called up to the MLB inactive list or the 30-man roster if a need arises?

    Starting pitchers, even with a three-week spring training, only will be able to go three, maybe four innings at the onset of the season. One of my centric baseball concerns in this time is starters trying to go deeper than they should and blowing out, and getting lost for most of 2020 and 2021. I think you have to let starters piggy-back each other. The Braves depth helps here. So, Mike Soroka starts a game in early July? He goes three frames, then give the ball to Sean Newcomb or Felix Hernandez (or Josh Tomlin) to try and get you through six, then turn it over to arguably the deepest bullpen in the NL.

    In a truncated schedule, starting quickly is going to be critical. And I think the Braves are well positioned here. They have plenty of depth pitching wise – remember the arms that really stood out before camp shut down? Newcomb. Hernandez. Kyle Wright. Touki Toussaint. Then think about the bullpen. If you use Will Smith, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin on one day, you can come back the next day with Shane Greene, Darren O’Day and Luke Jackson. Each has experience closing games in the majors.

    Alex Anthopoulos never could have have envisioned this environment – heck, who could have? – but the Braves arms are positioned well as anybody for the remarkable, memorable, strange season that we all hope is about to unfold. And, if the season unfolds like we think it might, the Braves might be as positioned as well as any team.

    Hope everyone is safe. Hope everyone is well. Hopefully, we are covering ball here soon. Thank you for reading. Thank you for reaching out via social media. Take care, and hopefully we get to write about baseball soon.

    —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.

    Cole for Christmas is Nice, but Braves Must Pump Up Power

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Many Braves fans felt they were left with coal in their offseason stockings last spring after the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November, then did little else.

    But a different type of coal – Cole Hamels, to be specific – became the latest acquisition of a busy shopping spree for general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday. And while it’s not Gerrit Cole, who figures to sign for a bazillion dollars given the established price of free-agent starters, this Cole will fit into the Braves rotation just fine.

    Atlanta inked a one-time nemesis – stemming from Hamels’ 10 years in Philadelphia – to a one-year, $18-million contract, landing the Braves youthful rotation a veteran left-hander with 422 career games, a career 1.18 WHIP and 2,694 2/3 innings. Add in his 17 postseason games, a World Series MVP award and four All-Star appearances, and it would appear Anthopoulos has satisfied his desire to add an experienced arm to the trio of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

    Since the World Series ended, Anthopoulos has spent like a shopaholic carrying five new credit cards on Black Friday. He remade the bullpen by signing Will Smith, the best closer on the market, and bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. He grabbed Travis d’Arnaud to team with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, after re-signing Flowers and Nick Markakis.

    Including Hamels, Anthopoulos has added $56.25 million to the 2020 payroll. To this point, it’s mostly money well spent (we’ll know for sure after next season). What we do know in early December is this: The bullpen, a source of so much pain and hand-wringing for the first four months last season, is markedly better. d’Arnaud figures to get more than his share of starts following a healthy and resurgent season in a platoon with Flowers. Markakis will work with Adam Duvall in a left field platoon that likely will see Markakis get more starts than he should (because Brian Snitker remains manager, after all).

    Everybody knew Cole (Gerrit, not Hamels) and Stephen Strasburg would command mega deals on the open market, which in turn forced many teams to focus on a second tier centered around Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner. It became clear to the Braves quickly that landing either the East Paulding High alum (Wheeler, who signed a $118-million, five-year pact with Philadelphia later Wednesday) or the Hickory, N.C. native (Bumgarner) would require a heavy investment in years and AAV (average annual contract value).

    So Anthopoulos pivoted quickly to Hamels, who had expressed a desire early in the offseason to take a one-year deal with a contender. And while that World Series MVP award was 11 autumns ago, the soon-to-be 36-year old showed in 2019 he still is capable of pitching at a high level. Hamels posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.39 WHIP with a 3.0 bWAR in 27 starts for the Cubs, both numbers taking a hit after he returned too quickly from an oblique injury.

    Through his first 17 starts (pre-injury), Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP across 99 2/3 innings, allowing nine homers with a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his 10 starts after returning, he pitched to a 5.79 ERA with eight homers surrendered in 42 innings and an unsightly 1.88 WHIP. Most of that damage came in three starts; in the other seven, he gave up a total of 10 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings – a 2.67 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hamels closed the season by giving up three runs on nine hits in 11 2/3 innings across his final three starts.

    Just as important is the influence the Braves hope Hamels will have on their young pitchers. Fried in particular resembles a younger Hamels in both stature (both are 6-foot-4) and mechanics. Another southpaw, Sean Newcomb, figures to get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training (barring acquisition of another starter between now and March). Both should benefit from having an experienced lefty mentor in the locker room.

    Yes, Anthopoulos has accomplished a lot so far this winter. As baseball’s glacier-like pace of offseason moves thankfully has sped up this winter, the Braves are showing signs of a team making progress along the journey from rebuilding franchise to bona fide World Series contender.

    But at this point, it’s just that. Progress.

    Work remains to be done, and now is when things get tricky. Baseball’s Winter Meetings kick off Sunday evening in San Diego. For the moves Braves have completed, a glaring hole remains in the middle of the batting order. Donaldson (who was named NL comeback player of the year Wednesday) is one of the hottest commodities on the open market, viewed as the second-base third baseman behind Anthony Rendon and even more in demand now that Mike Moustakas has signed with Cincinnati.

    I expected payroll to rise this offseason, but it’s moving up at a dizzying rate when compared with the historical thriftiness of Liberty Media. Adding Hamels (and sadly subtracting fan favorite Charlie Culberson, who was non-tendered Monday) to the opening-day locks list, I project 21 players who will be owed approximately $128.62 million for 2020.

    Suffice to say, the work cannot stop now. Especially after all the moves of the past month, Atlanta simply cannot settle with a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley platoon at third base without adding a power bat elsewhere. Ideally, it’s Donaldson at third base, which would mean re-signing the Bringer of Rain for something around $25 million AAV for at least three years (if other camps offer a fourth season, I’m concerned the rain will fall elsewhere in 2020).

    Re-signing Donaldson is the simplest path, one that would take the payroll north of $153 million with four spots left (two on the bench; two in the bullpen). Maybe the Auburn football program could put in a good word for the Braves, considering Donaldson watched his alma mater win Saturday’s Iron Bowl from the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    But if he lands elsewhere, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to trade some of the prospect stockpile and likely Ender Inciarte (and perhaps a bullpen piece) to land a power bat, perhaps Starling Marte from Pittsburgh or Jorge Soler from Kansas City or Mitch Haniger from Seattle, provided he can make the deal sweet enough to compel the other side to jump). The trade market is so much harder to pin down, but every GM in baseball will be at the same place in Southern California for four days next week.

    Given the activity we’ve seen across the sport this offseason, it might be quite a week.

    Regardless, the Braves have no choice. Adding Hamels to the rotation, bolstering the bullpen, and addressing catcher early puts the Braves in a great position with the Winter Meetings approaching. But as long as that hole in the lineup remains, Anthopoulos cannot stop doing everything possible to deliver Braves Country the ultimate prize next autumn, one far greater than coal (or Cole).

    —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.

    Gettin’ Jiggy with Smith, Payroll Numbers and Offseason Impact

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Will Smith learned his 2017 season would end on the operating table before it could begin thanks to a spring training injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, he tweeted a note of gratitude to San Francisco Giants fans, including the message, “Nothing a little hard work can’t fix!”

    Spoken like a true Georgia kid, whose hard work has brought him home.

    The Atlanta Braves seized the opportunity Thursday to make the first big strike of baseball’s offseason, signing Smith – the unquestioned top closer candidate on the free-agent market – to a three-year, $39 million contract, with a $13 million option for 2023. In doing so, not only did the Braves further vault their bullpen – such a source of consternation as recently as late July – toward elite status, they brought the Newnan product and Northgate High alum back to North Georgia.

    But this signing goes way beyond adding to the number of Peach State players on the roster (and Smith has plenty of company, from Tyler Flowers to Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and Charlie Culberson). It sends the message that the Braves are ready for the next stage of their emergence, they are ready to spend the money it takes to win, and are ready to make amends for an October gone so terribly wrong just a few short weeks back.

    How the Bullpen Looks

    Smith fully recovered from that left elbow injury that derailed his 2017 season and has dominated since, posting a 2.66 ERA (2.71 FIP) with a 1.006 WHIP, a 12.7 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, 48 saves, and 167 strikeouts against 36 walks in 118 1/3 innings across the past two seasons. The 30-year-old, who turns 31 in July, earned All-Star honors in 2019 and finished with 34 saves, a 2.76 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 21 walks in 65 1/3 innings.

    Smith held right-handers to a .212 average in 165 at-bats last season, but did give up nine homers (contributing to an OPS of .709). He absolutely was lethal against lefties, who posted a .157/.167/.229 slash line and a .395 OPS in 70 at-bats. His overall numbers were better away from pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, posting a 0.910 WHIP with a 13.7 strikeout-per-nine ratio in away games.

    Braves fans (not to mention fanbases of several other contenders) clamored for Smith at the trade deadline, but the Giants opted not to deal the lefty. Instead, veteran right-hander Mark Melancon was shipped to Atlanta. Smith now joins him and the other remaining trade-deadline acquisition, Shane Greene, to form a strong back end that has combined for 309 career saves.

    Suffice to say, Luke Jackson isn’t getting the ball in the ninth inning this season.

    Add in the re-signing of Darren O’Day – who impressed with his work in September and October – plus Jackson serving as a matchup righty, and perhaps Sean Newcomb, who will get a chance to start in spring training but was a revelation in relief in 2019, and the Braves bullpen is as good as anybody’s in the National League.

    Certainly, Braves Twitter will lead the league in Will Smith references next season, one year after Tiger Woods evolved from Masters champion to unofficial fanbase symbol.

    And this Will Smith isn’t going to Miami.

    He’s on his way back to Georgia.

    How the Payroll Looks

    Given some of the contracts doled out to relievers in recent years, the $13 million AAV (Average Annual Value) investment in Smith is a good deal for Atlanta. And while $13 million for 2020 may seem like a big chunk considering the salaries of Melancon ($14 million next season) and Greene (projected to make $6.5 million in arbitration per MLB Trade Rumors), the Braves payroll at the moment remains fine.

    How? Smith’s signing gives Atlanta 19 “locks” to make the 25-man opening-day roster. A breakdown:

    Starting Lineup (all dollars in millions): Freddie Freeman ($22.36), Ozzie Albies ($1), Dansby Swanson (projected in arbitration by MLBTR at $3.3), Nick Markakis ($4), Ender Inciarte ($7.7), Ronald Acuna Jr. ($1). Note: Markakis is listed as the starter, but he will platoon (he better platoon).

    Total: $39.36 million

    Open spots: Catcher, third base (more on this shortly).

    Bench (all dollars in millions): Charlie Culberson (projected $1.8), Johan Camargo (projected $1.6), Tyler Flowers ($4), Adam Duvall (projected $3.8).

    Total: $11.20 million

    Open spots: One

    Starting Rotation: Mike Soroka (MLB minimum $564,000, rounded to $570,000 for simplicity), Max Fried ($570,000), Mike Foltynewicz (projected $7.5 million), Newcomb ($570,000).

    Total: $9.21 million

    Open spots: One (assuming Newcomb is in the rotation).

    Bullpen (all dollars in millions): Smith ($13), Melancon ($14), Greene (projected $6.5), O’Day ($2.25), Jackson (projected $1.9).

    Total: $37.65 million

    Open spots: Three (again, assuming Newcomb is in the rotation)

    Grand total: 19 players, $97.42 million

    How Does Smith’s Signing Impact the Rest of the Offseason

    It certainly will have some impact, but I’d caution against some of the reactionary, absolute statements I saw on social media saying this means the Braves cannot pursue a reunion with third baseman Josh Donaldson. On the contrary, it’s my take the Smith signing should embolden those who want the Braves to think big and back it up by raising the payroll.

    The Braves window just now has opened. Yes, October sucked. I get it. But this team is set up to be right there for the next several years. For the value Melancon and Greene add – and yes, there was comfort in knowing that, for a change, there would be no worry about finding a closer entering 2020 – both are free agents after next season. Now the Braves have a closer through at least 2022. To sign a closer to this type of deal, even if closer wasn’t a priority just a few days ago, the Braves would have missed an opportunity if they didn’t act.

    The vast majority of the remaining members of the Braves 40-man roster (currently at 33 players) all will make the MLB minimum next season (except for catcher John Ryan Murphy, who is arbitration eligible but likely will be non-tendered, and reliever Grant Dayton, who is arbitration eligible and projects to an $800,000 salary). If, say, Austin Riley or Kyle Wright or A.J. Minter or Cristian Pache make the opening-day roster, the payroll impact will be minimal.

    There remains work to be done at three key areas: catcher, third base and one rotation spot. As I wrote last night, I still believe the Braves will sign Donaldson (the value I opined is $26 million AAV for three years; let’s say three years at $24 million per year brings him back) and should heavily pursue Yasmani Grandal (I speculated AAV would be between $16 million and $20 million; let’s split the difference at $18 million).

    If the Braves did sign those two and Grandal costs my midpoint, the opening day payroll would be at $139.42 million, with the need to add a starter. That’s where I think Mike Moustakas (my guess is three years at $40 million; an AAV of $13.33 million) could make a lot of sense, especially if the demand for Donaldson carries his deal into four-year territory or an AAV north of $26 million. Adding the combo of Moustakas and Grandal (at my midpoint) pushes the opening day payroll to $128.75 million, again with the need to add a starter.

    I wrote last night if the Braves go the free-agent route to find a front-line catcher and a third baseman, they likely would explore the trade market for a starter. I think that’s even more likely now, unless they look for a value signing at catcher (say, Jason Castro at perhaps $6 million) to form a true platoon with Flowers at a rate much lower than signing Grandal.

    Those numbers will draw some skepticism, and that’s fair. After all, Atlanta’s opening day payroll has exceeded $120 million just once this century ($122 million in 2017) according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. But at some point, the Braves must push the payroll north to further enhance their chances of pushing deeper into October, with the goal of grabbing the pot of gold that awaits the last team standing come Halloween.

    Thursday’s signing signals the Braves indeed are pushing, and the thought here is acquiring Smith is the first salvo of a transformational winter.

    —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.

    Winter is Here, but Work for 2020 Starts Now

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – We’re knee-deep into the offseason and, if you weren’t 100 percent sure after a painful choke in the NLDS, a World Series title signed with a curly W that has made me moved our prescriptions from Walgreens to CVS, and the missing daily backbeat of live baseball, just walk outside.

    It’s cold enough to snow. In North Georgia. In November.

    Pardon me while I throw up in my mouth.

    Welcome to winter. Or, to be more specific, welcome to baseball’s offseason. Recency bias tells us it’s a long, slow slog that will continue well into spring training. It shouldn’t be that way, but if the dispatches we’re seeing on Twitter from the MLB General Managers meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week are any indication, we may see a shift back to a more normal cadence of moves.

    Heck, four free agents have signed already, all four with Braves connections! Atlanta technically made Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis free agents for about 17 seconds thanks to some creative bookkeeping – a smart move that freed up an extra $4 million for the 2020 payroll – then the Braves brought back right-handed reliever Darren O’Day for $2.25 million (a good move in my opinion) and the Cardinals signed former Braves first-round draft pick and the pride of St. Simons Island, one Adam Wainwright.

    I shared some personal thoughts on the St. Louis righty during our NLDS coverage. He’s a pillar of the St. Louis baseball community, but if there is any other place he would pitch besides under the Gateway Arch, it would be in his home state. That won’t happen in 2020, but plenty of moves remain to be made for the National League East champs.

    Let’s get into a few topics as we stoke the coals in the hot stove on this chilly November evening:

    Is There Rain in the Forecast?

    I’ve made it known far and wide for months that objective numero uno this offseason for the Braves is to re-sign third baseman Josh Donaldson. The soon-to-be 34-year old bet on himself in 2019 and the move came up aces, as he slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS in a (still mind-blowing to me) 155 games.

    The good folks on Braves Twitter are losing their minds with every passing day, hitting refresh every four seconds hoping to see the tweet that the Bringer of Rain has re-upped with Atlanta. People, relax! Donaldson is going to take his time, rightly so, and for a reason. There are numerous contenders who need a third baseman and have money to spend. Donaldson has vaulted himself into the No. 2 position in the market, only behind Anthony Rendon and the massive contract the former Washington third baseman will land.

    Donaldson has earned this right to take his time. A tweet from Jon Heyman of MLB Network (who blocked this author because, well, he’s a boob) on Wednesday indicated what I long suspected, and what didn’t throw me into a tizzy while every tweet reporting Donaldson interest scuttlebutt sent Braves fans into cliff-diving mode: Donaldson’s camp is talking to other teams, but he will circle back to the Braves once that’s done. At that point, Atlanta will measure the market and make what I think will be a strong offer.

    Will it be enough? I still think it will be. There is strong interest on both sides to re-sign with Atlanta. If somebody swoops in with, say, three years at $30 million a year (or a fourth year guaranteed), that’s likely too much for the Braves. But three years at $26 million? I see the Braves doing that. Just relax. This process will play out.

    What if the Forecast is Clear?

    And yet, it’s quite possible Donaldson dons a new jersey next season – push me for odds, and I still think it’s 65%-35% he returns to Atlanta. If he does go elsewhere, then contrary to the tone on social media, the franchise will not fold. There actually is a Plan B out there that, in some respects, is quite attractive vs. sinking $26 million into a soon-to-be 34-year old.

    If there is a poster child for the free-agent freeze in recent years, it’s Mike Moustakas. After hitting 38 homers for Kansas City during an All-Star season in 2017, Moustakas could not find the deal he wanted on the open market and returned to the Royals, signing in spring training. Four months later he was shipped to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, finishing 2018 with 28 homers and 33 doubles between the two teams.

    He re-signed with the Brewers as spring training opened in February for $10 million, a salary that netted 35 homers, 87 RBIs, an .845 OPS and a 3.2 bWAR season. Back on the open market again, Moustakas figures to finally land a multi-year deal as the third-best third baseman behind Rendon and Donaldson, and the Braves figure to be all over him, especially if they feel Donaldson may sign elsewhere.

    FanGraphs Steamer projections paint Moustakas as a 35-homer guy against in 2020 with a .260 average, a 2.8 fWAR (same fWAR as he posted in 2019) and an .824 OPS. Yes, it’s a step down from Donaldson but not as much as people think. He will play the bulk of 2020 at age 31, and most projections peg Moustakas earning an AAV somewhere between $11 million and $14 million. It’s a sizable reduction in salary for production that comes pretty close to what Donaldson provided. If Donaldson isn’t back, you could do far worse than a three-year, $40 million deal with Moustakas.

    Making Up for the Lost Offense

    I’d look no further than where Moustakas played 197 games the past two years. Milwaukee catcher Yasmani Grandal is on the open market, and in my mind he – combined with either Donaldson or Moustakas – would give the Braves the most length we’ve seen in an Atlanta lineup in close to two decades.

    Grandal just turned 31, is a switch hitter, and would give Atlanta a legit front-line catcher – relegating Tyler Flowers to 35-40 starts (which I think is optimal). Grandal has hit at least 22 homers in each of the past four seasons, is regarded well defensively – despite a hiccup with the Dodgers in the 2017 playoffs – and last season in Milwaukee posted an .848 OPS and 2.5 bWAR, which from the catcher’s spot totally is acceptable.

    Grandal would be a great addition, regardless of who plays third base. Yes, catchers are scary when they cross age 30. Yes, it won’t be cheap, as he projects to make somewhere between $16 million and $20 million per year. And yes, Atlanta has two strong catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, both of whom could be in the majors in two years. But a switch-hitting catcher who produces offensively and can shoulder a large bulk of the workload (126-plus games in five of the past six seasons) would be well worth the investment.

    For Starters, How About a Starter?

    There’s no question Alex Anthopoulos wants to fortify the starting rotation. Atlanta figures to enter 2020 with three starters locked into the rotation: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz. A fourth arm from the rebuild, Sean Newcomb, will get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training after spending 2019 as a valuable lefty relief arm.

    There is no shortage of arms available on the open market, from World Series hero and North Carolina native Madison Bumgarner, to East Paulding High alum Zack Wheeler, to resurgence candidate Jake Odorizzi. But if the Braves fill third base and catcher via free agency, I think they will pivot and try to trade for a veteran starter.

    Perhaps that’s Matthew Boyd of Detroit, whom the Braves were rumored to be in on at the trade deadline and whose performance plummeted in the second half (3-6, 5.51 ERA, 20 homers in 78 1/3 innings after the All-Star break). Perhaps that’s Corey Kluber, the Cleveland ace whose 2019 was scuttled after he took a line drive to his arm.

    And perhaps the final rotation piece resides in house, be it Kyle Wright (whose 90 mph slider was very impressive in a couple of late-season relief appearances), or Bryse Wilson (who was inconsistent in the majors, yet dominated the Phillies in a July start), or Touki Toussaint (who endured a completely lost season in 2019, but whose raw stuff remains tantalizing). Ian Anderson probably needs more time at Triple-A; same with Tucker Davidson.

    What About the Big Targets?

    There is plenty of chatter about superstars nearing free agency who could be on the trading block, partly because their teams know they cannot afford them once club control expires, and partly to pivot toward keeping other stars on their roster. Three names bantered about have created quite the stir: Boston outfielder Mookie Betts, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor.

    Betts is a non-starter for the Braves, even though he is 12 months removed from a MVP award. He’s under contract for only one year with a projected arbitration price of $27.7 million. Anybody who thinks Atlanta should open its prospect vault for one year has lost their grip on reality. This isn’t a team whose winning window is about to close; it’s just opened. Dealing multiple top prospects to Boston for one year of Betts would undercut the years Atlanta spent trying to rebuild its franchise and farm system.

    Bryant is more interesting. The Cubs have a slew of talent that helped Chicago break their 108-year World Series curse in 2016, but with guys like Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo getting close to free agency, there simply isn’t enough money to go around. I expect Bryant to be moved this offseason, but a projected $18.5 million salary for 2020 with his injury history gives me cause to pause. Perhaps striking out on both Donaldson and Moustakas changes my tune.

    The one I’m fascinated by is Lindor. A two-time Gold Glove winner (remember, he plays in the same league as Andrelton Simmons) who has playoff and World Series experience, who turns 26 on Thursday, who has placed in the top 10 in AL MVP voting (likely to be there again when the award is announced Thursday evening). Lindor has slugged 32-plus homers with at least an .842 OPS in each of the past three seasons, with 22 or more stolen bases each of the past two years, and he hit .284 in 2019 with 22 steals (thrown out just five times), 40 doubles and 101 runs scored.

    Lindor truly is a generational talent, and he’s under club control for 2020 and 2021. There is a thought process that putting him with the Braves makes Atlanta the most dynamic lineup in the NL. I see it. Can you imagine that dude with Acuna and Albies and Freeman and perhaps Donaldson or Moustakas, and perhaps Grandal?

    There will be a price, certainly from a money perspective (Lindor is projected to make $16.7 million in arbitration, a figure that could soar above $20 million in 2021), and certainly from a fanbase perspective (as Atlanta native Dansby Swanson absolutely would be included in the deal, and perhaps center fielder Ender Inciarte as well, to help offset the money). But Lindor is a game-changing talent, and one under control for two years. If there is a risk to take on the trade market, this makes sense for Atlanta to explore.

    Patience is a Virtue

    There has been far more chatter this November than the past two autumns. Sure, some of it is agent-driven noise, designed to try and accelerate the market. But the feeling is this offseason will unfold differently, and quicker.

    Traditionally, there are few moves made during the GM Meetings. But it’s the first chance for general mangers to get together in one place, compare notes, discuss needs and wants and desires. It feels like the weeks between now and the early December Winter Meetings will see more action than recent years, with a flurry of activity happening between now and Christmas.

    The Braves figure to be right in the middle of it, shaking off the chill of winter’s onset with a burning desire to get to 2020 as quickly as possible, with an evolving roster that by spring better be capable of winning the World Series.

    Anthopoulos has been on the job for two years. He’s been splendid in many ways, frustrating in others. This is the offseason to make his mark.

    The market is ripe, and the time is 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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —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.

    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.