• Drew Smyly

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    It’s Opening Day! The Window is Open and The Time is Now

    Play Ball!: The Atlanta Braves open the 2021 season Thursday at Philadelphia, kicking off a campaign the Braves hope will end with the franchise’s first World Series title since 1995.

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I close my eyes, and I can feel the chill of that circular ballpark on that last Saturday night in October. I can hear the swell of anticipation in 51,000 voices, nervous and frantic and frightened simultaneously. I can see Marquis Grissom gliding to his right, a baseball off Carlos Baerga’s bat tumbling toward his glove, a season in its final breathless moment and a dream becoming reality.

    Winning the World Series. It’s the ultimate moment. Nothing beats it. Nothing tops it. Nothing compares to it. And you can hope and dream and envision and imagine what it is like, but nothing compares to that moment when it happens.

    It’s been 9,286 days since I sat in the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, a 1-0 victory on Oct. 28, 1995. Not a day has passed since when I haven’t thought about the next title, the next celebration, the next parade, the next moment this franchise will stand again in the hall of champions.

    The Glory Never Fades: The newspapers may be yellowed from time, but the feeling of winning the World Series never goes away.

    The Braves of 2021 arrive at Thursday’s first pitch in Philadelphia carrying the pain of falling five victories shy last season of becoming the fourth team in franchise history to win the World Series. That 3-1 lead in the NLCS to Los Angeles stings, a lesson learned in painful fashion, but oftentimes an apprenticeship of sorts must be served before the grandest reward is realized.

    Entering the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos had two absolute, must-dos on his list: improve the starting rotation, and re-sign Marcell Ozuna. Teams this close to a championship can’t play the “hope some of the kids figure it out” card, and teams certainly can’t let a guy like Ozuna – the perfect fit behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman in the lineup and in the clubhouse – get away.

    Back in the Mix: Marcell Ozuna flirted with the Triple Crown in 2020, and returns to the Braves on a four-year deal.

    To Anthopoulos’ credit, he accomplished both. Drew Smyly is a curious gamble that could pay big dividends at the back end of the rotation. Charlie Morton made sense on every level – his postseason pedigree the biggest lure of all. They join ace-in-the-making Max Fried, ace-on-the-mend Mike Soroka, and the wunderkid Ian Anderson – one of the young arms who at 22 years old appears to have figured it out – to form one of baseball’s best starting quintets.

    Ozuna contended for the Triple Crown in his first season with Atlanta, making more than enough of a case for the Braves to swallow hard while he plays left field in 2021 (he’s not looked bad in camp; with that said, hurry back, designated hitter). With Ozuna mixing it up and back in the fold, the top six in Brian Snitker’s batting order is as good as any in the sport. Certainly, there figures to be some regression from the output across a 60-game season, and while Atlanta won’t have to average 5.8 runs per game to win 90-plus games, this offense will generate plenty of support. Given the bolstered rotation – further boosted by Soroka’s possible return from a torn Achilles by the end of April – the Braves look every bit like a World Series championship contender.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. showed up at camp looking leaner than a season ago, when a wrist injury hampered his otherwise otherworldly skill set. Acuna looks like he’s on the verge of a breakout season, a laughable statement considering he hit 41 homers with 37 steals in 2019. He’s one of the sport’s brightest stars at 23 years old, a generational talent who figures to push heavily for his first MVP award in 2021.

    He’ll try to wrestle that trophy away from Freddie Freeman, the lifelong Brave who finally is getting his flowers nationally following a spectacular 2020. One of the great joys of last season was seeing the laurels cast upon the face of the Braves (sorry, Johan Camargo), the one pillar who endured through the rebuild. Freeman shined in the NLCS and looks poised to have another fantastic year, and the Braves will need it.

    Chasing the Ring: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman comes into 2021 after winning the NL MVP award, and takes aim at the one thing missing from his resume: a World Series title.

    There are a few chinks in all this shiny armor, and they provide enough reason to at least pause. Can Austin Riley find his footing offensively? It’s the biggest X-factor for me entering the season, and it’s the one place where I could see the Braves pivoting by the trade deadline. Can the bullpen overcome the losses of three veteran right-handers? I’m pretty bullish here. Will Smith looks like the Will Smith we saw slamming the door for the Giants in 2018-19, and all Chris Martin does is throw strikes. Can A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek come close to their stellar – and surprising – 60-game campaigns of last season? Jacob Webb will play a big role, after starting the season at the alternate site because he has options.

    Webb has been brilliant the past two seasons, but health has been an issue. Health indeed is critical for this team; it is for every team, but it’s amplified for the Braves because of a bench that looks underwhelming at the moment, to put it nicely. It may seem a small quibble for a team so good, but the difference between winning a World Series and losing the first week of October is razor thin. The bench will evolve; it always does. But the thought of Pablo Sandoval or Ehire Adrianza (both who earned their roster spots with amazing springs) playing every day due to a significant injury is not pleasant.

    They say strength up the middle of the diamond is foundational to building a good team. For the brilliance of Acuna and the steadiness of Freeman and the potential of Riley, I keep coming back to that saying. Travis d’Arnaud was amazing in the shortened season, the catcher arguably becoming one of the steals of the previous free-agent market. Cristian Pache and his jaw-dropping defense take over in center field. He doesn’t have to hit for this team to win, albeit his at-bats in the NLCS were impressive. He will win games with an elite glove and a cannon of an arm, helping offset some of Ozuna’s limited defensive capabilities in left.

    Ready, Aim, Fire: Cristian Pache and his outstanding defensive skills take over in center field.

    Up the middle, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson begin their fourth full season together. Albies was banged up for the first two months of 2020, missing 31 games, but hit .338 with a .953 OPS upon returning in September and shined in the NLCS, batting .333 with two homers and five runs scored. Swanson enjoyed his best full season, posting a .274/.345/.464 slash line (all career highs, along with a career-best .809 OPS). The kid from Marietta finally was healthy, playing in all 60 games and leading the NL with 237 at-bats.

    Roll it all together, and you’ve got something. I’ve watched this franchise for more than 40 years. It means I’m old. It also means these aging blue eyes have seen a lot of Braves squads, good and bad, roll out of spring training. This is one of the best ones on my watch, and while there’s nits to pick, this team is good.

    Dang good.

    Good enough to win the World Series?

    In my opinion, absolutely.

    Getting out of the National League won’t be easy, even for a team as talented as the Braves. The Dodgers have seemingly unlimited resources and are baseball’s best squad. The Padres were the most active team this winter. The NL East has been billed as baseball’s best division, and it will be as tough as advertised.

    The Marlins aren’t that far away and would be a .500 team if they were in three of the other five divisions. Is this the year the Phillies put it together, with a bullpen that has to be better and a lineup featuring Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto? Philadelphia will find a way to stumble at some point, landing around .500 or a shade above.

    The other three teams will jockey for first place all summer. Washington’s hopes hinge on if Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg stay healthy. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber join a lineup that includes the tremendous Juan Soto and the pesky (meant as a compliment) Trea Turner.

    The Mets made noise throughout the offseason, landing the brilliant Francisco Lindor and bolstering a bullpen that, if healthy, is going to be really good. Jacob deGrom is baseball’s best pitcher, but can that rotation survive a first half without Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco? And then there’s the “Mets” factor. They always seem to find a way to turn wine into water.

    Make no mistake: the Mets should be really, really good. But it won’t be enough to overtake the Braves. Not this year. In what will be a thrilling race not decided until the final week of the season, Atlanta captures its fourth consecutive division crown with 93 wins, four ahead of New York and six clear of the Nationals.

    As difficult as it will be, the East is just the appetizer. The main event comes in October. Yes, getting there is a big part of the battle, and the Braves will get that done. From there, it will be quite the gauntlet, especially considering the two behemoths out West. And the playoffs are the ultimate roll of the dice, a short sprint based on matchups and health and luck and weird bounces as much as sheer talent. That’s what makes winning the World Series – that glorious moment now more than 25 years ago – so difficult.

    But for the Braves of 2021, that’s the solitary objective:

    Win the World Series.

    For this team, this season, winning the ring is the only thing.

    —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.

    OZUNA-PALOOZA: Braves make statement, sign Ozuna to four-year deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Braves winter of great discontent ended on the first Friday evening in February, giving the fanbase reason to Marcellebrate and dream of October.

    After a quiet two-month period in which option after option to fill the gaping hole in the Braves lineup landed elsewhere, Alex Anthopoulos finally checked off the most important box of his tenure as Atlanta’s general manager, re-signing Marcell Ozuna to a reported four-year deal Friday with a fifth-year option. It was worth the wait, as the $64 million deal comes out to an average annual value of $16 million, and features a $16 million club option (with a $1 million buyout) for 2025. Early reports hinted Ozuna’s salary for 2021 would be $12 million.

    For Ozuna, it returns him to the team where he flirted with the Triple Crown during the truncated 2020 season. He led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while hitting .338 (third) with a 1.067 OPS. Ozuna, who turned 30 in November, struggled defensively in left field –  while that’s a concern considering at this moment there is no DH in the NL in 2021, the Braves are banking his offense will more than make up for any shortcomings in the field.

    It’s absolutely worth that defensive risk, as I wrote two months ago today in this space. Ozuna helped the Braves get within one win of the World Series last fall. He returns to slot into the third spot in the batting order behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman, lengthening a lineup that desperately needed another impact bat on Brian Snitker’s lineup card. The top three of Ronald Acuna Jr., Freeman and Ozuna is as good as any in baseball. There simply was no way the Braves could go into 2021 without adding a bat, be it Ozuna or someone else.

    And make no mistake: from the final out of Game 7 of the NL Championship Series loss to the Dodgers, there wasn’t a better realistic option available to the Braves than Ozuna. His right-handed bat behind Freeman in the lineup helped unlock a phenomenal season for the longtime Atlanta first baseman. Ozuna looked more like the hitter who broke out for a big year with Miami in 2017 before two decent, if not spectacular, seasons in St. Louis in 2018-19. He certainly fit in well, his signature faux selfies during the playoffs energizing the team and fanbase.

    The Braves struck early in free agency this offseason, inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to one-year deals in November. Then came two months of silence, driven in part by the indecision by MLB on whether to bring back the DH to the NL, in part by questions around whether the 2021 season would start on time due to the pandemic, and in part by whether the Braves had the flexibility to commit the dollars and length of years needed to secure Ozuna coming off a career season.

    Credit to Anthopoulos here, who absolutely was ripped across social media daily for the past eight weeks. Let’s face it – it didn’t matter whether Atlanta signed Ozuna on Dec. 5, Jan. 5, or Feb. 5. The early reports of the deal structure show that, despite the outcry from a whole bunch of Twitter GMs, patience paid off in a massive way for the Braves and their GM.

    This is the type of commitment a World Series champion has to make at some point in time. It was fair to wonder if the Braves actually would do it. Honestly, they had to push in at some point.

    It might not have come as quickly this winter as some wanted but, in the end, Anthopoulos and the Braves got their man. Ozuna got his contract. And while the NL will be as rugged as ever, starting with a ridiculously stacked NL East, the Braves are right there among the favorites to get to where they haven’t been since 1999, and do what they haven’t done since 1995.

    Reason enough on a winter Friday night to Marcellebrate.

    —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 o

    Anthopoulos, Braves Enter Winter Meetings With Holes To Fill

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    WOODY GAP, Ga. — A brisk December afternoon finds winter’s chill riding the northwest breeze across the North Georgia mountains. A scattering of bundled-up hikers cross Ga. 60 at the Union County/Lumpkin County line, navigating the rocky trails at a site where snow fell for most of the afternoon just five days earlier.

    This place sits 88 miles from my upper-deck seats at Truist Park. As with so many things in 2020, that slice of normalcy feels a million miles away.

    Today’s view, a stop on this Saturday’s winding journey around and over the hilly terrain of my home state, is perfect for pause and perspective. The Winter Meetings — often a point of both decision and pivot for baseball’s offseason — kick off Sunday. Much like everything else in this year unlike any other, it will be different. Virtual. No meeting in suites. No hallway conversations. No ideas bandied about while sharing a drink or a meal.

    Looking Ahead: A brief pause before the Winter Meetings begin.

    Like the hikers determining which path to take after crossing the highway, the Atlanta Braves sit pondering choices of direction at a couple of key checkpoints in filling out the 2021 roster. You can cross the starting rotation off Alex Anthopoulos’ shopping list, the Braves general manager inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton last month to a pair of one-year pacts for $26 million.

    That last part stands out to me. The naysayers who lean on the worn-out narrative that the Braves don’t spend money conveniently forget the spending spree of last offseason, when Atlanta bolstered its roster to the point it would’ve hit opening day with a payroll of around $155 million.

    Atlanta has 11 players under guaranteed contracts for approximately $95.05 million in 2021 (including Smyly and Morton), with an estimated potential (per FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors) of $13 million more to four players in arbitration. Add in the up to $4.16 million if the contracts tendered to Luke Jackson, Johan Camargo and Grant Dayton become full, and that’s a 2021 number so far of approximately $112.21 million.

    Spending $26 million of that on the Smyly/Morton duo leads me to think even with pandemic-impacted finances, the Braves still have significant money to spend. They certainly have needs to add to a core that came within one win of the NL pennant.

    Pause and perspective; two words that at times are hard for fans to grasp. A few thoughts as I gaze at the mountains in the distance and think about a franchise aiming to reach the summit.

    We Should Marcellebrate: I know Anthopoulos doesn’t like long-term deals. I know the organization is loath to pay top dollar over a lengthy timeframe. I know the ongoing — and ridiculous — fact MLB and the Players Association have yet to determine if the DH remains in the NL for 2021 plays a factor not just for the Braves, but for every Senior Circuit club.

    I also know what I saw from Marcell Ozuna in a Braves uniform. No, I do not expect a Triple Crown-contending campaign to be the baseline. No, I admit his defensive shortcomings in left field give me pause.

    I also know the impact of having that type of right-handed bat behind reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman (if I may briefly digress: how awesome it was to type that). It’s why I advocated re-signing Josh Donaldson last winter, a player almost five years older and one with a longer injury history.

    I don’t anticipate something happening with Ozuna until the DH is decided. It’s immaterial to me. Sure, it’s not my money, but I’d pony up a four-year deal at $88 million ($22 million average annual value, or AAV). I think that’s what it will take to sign him. I’d live with the defense in left field for one season to know the biggest hole in the lineup is filled through 2024.

    It’s a Marcellebration: Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna’s selfies became a symbol of the 2020 postseason.

    Anthopoulos likes to jump the market. I’d love to see him do it with Ozuna. Do I think it will happen? Honestly, no. I expect the Braves to fill the lineup hole via trade, perhaps a one-year “rental” of former MVP Kris Bryant to play third base and/or left field, citing one oft-mentioned example that doesn’t excite me like it did last winter or the winter before.

    Either way he goes, Anthopoulos has no choice but to nail this move. It’s his biggest to date in his tenure. The bat acquired has to be impactful. And while it shouldn’t have to be said, just for the record, piecing together a solution in-house is unacceptable. All the more reason in my opinion to be aggressive and maybe a bit uncomfortable here, and stretch to give Braves Country a reason to Marcellebrate.

    Gold Glove Bullpen Piece: One of the more memorable (and enjoyable) images from the NLCS was closer Mark Melancon gloving not one, but two Ozzie Albies homers belted into the Braves bullpen.

    No Bull, This Glove’s Legit: Braves closer Mark Melancon caught two Ozzie Albies homers in the bullpen during the NLCS.

    Melancon, a free agent expected to net somewhere between $4 million and $8 million, has spent the offseason cracking up the masses on social media. From my perspective, he should spend next season cracking down on opposing hitters in the ninth inning for the Braves.

    I’ve heard multiple people I trust say they expect the 35-year-old (he turns 36 in late March) to re-sign with Atlanta. Melancon’s return would provide the Braves one more impactful arm needed to go with Will Smith and Chris Martin — plus lefties Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter — to form another formidable bullpen.

    I’d think $6 million-$7 million gets it done, but be patient. The reliever market is flooded, even more so now after the non-tender deadline. It might be mid-January, but unless someone blows him away with an offer, I expect Melancon back in 2021.

    One More Bloom: Atlanta needs a backup catcher, but for multiple reasons there is zero reason to spend significant money here.

    Travis d’Arnaud figures to catch a majority of the time — Braves catchers typically split duties in part to the toll of the Atlanta summer heat, but d’Arnaud could be in line for 130 starts after his breakout 2020. Atlanta has two highly regarded catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, but the loss of minor-league ball in 2020 dictates both need to catch every day somewhere in 2021 and not ride the bench in Atlanta.

    Alex Jackson could handle the staff fine for 35 starts at the major-league minimum salary. But I know how highly the organization regards Tyler Flowers. With roots in Atlanta and likely limited opportunities elsewhere if he wanted to try and catch on with another organization, I could see the Braves bringing Flowers back for cheap (say, $1.5 million, or roughly $1 million more than Jackson’s salary).

    California Dreamin’: There was a little buzz when the Angels tabbed Braves exec Perry Minasian as their GM, in particular given a certain Braves star and newly minted MVP who has California roots and an expiring deal.

    Dream on. I don’t see any scenario in which Freeman leaves the Braves. My feeling all along has been a contract extension will be done before the season begins. Doing so avoids Freeman’s status being a talking point all season, and gives the Braves cost certainty at the position for the foreseeable future.

    M-V-Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final year of his contract after winning NL MVP honors.

    Until I see otherwise, I think Atlanta will do right for Freeman and the two sides will settle somewhere around $185 million for seven years ($26.4 million AAV). And no, the first baseman should not take a “hometown discount,” and fans have no right to expect that he should.

    Doting on Duvvy: Closing out today with a hat tip to Adam Duvall, whose pinch-hit homer off Jack Flaherty in Game 2 of the 2019 NLDS was such a cool moment to experience. Cool beyond how the crowd shifted from annoyance with Brian Snitker’s decision to hit Duvall for Mike Foltynewicz to euphoria when Duvall deposited a 3-2 offering over the wall in center, but because of the ease that comes with rooting for a guy like Duvall and the significance of him delivering in that moment.

    Duvall’s story — his living with Type 1 diabetes, his work at Triple-A after not breaking camp with the team in 2019, his prolific 10-game span this season in which he belted nine homers (including two three-homer games) — is well known. He made quite an impression on this fanbase. To this day, I have not met one person who does not like Duvall.

    I was surprised he got non-tendered, but I hope he lands a starting gig and a good payday somewhere. He’s certainly deserving.

    —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.

    Back Where It Started: Braves, Morton Reunite With One-Year Deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A dozen years is a long, long time. I’m reminded of that every time I look at my kids … or look in the mirror.

    How long is a dozen years? Let’s go back to 2008. Some dude (me) started a lonely little Braves blog called BravesToday.com. He thought it would be fun to write about the ballclub every day. He even opened an account on some weird, new social media site called Twitter to occasionally promote the blog.

    Timing is everything in life, and the timing wasn’t great in this instance. Those Braves lost 90 games, the first time an Atlanta team had dropped that many games since 1990, the year before the worst-to-first Miracle Braves kicked off the franchise’s magical run. The company who hosted the blog went bankrupt. That Twitter account got ignored for a year or two.

    There wasn’t a whole lot to write about in that summer of ‘08. Chipper Jones was hitting .400 in June and ended up winning the NL batting title at .364. Otherwise, it wasn’t much fun. But there were a couple of bright spots.

    One came on a Saturday in Anaheim in June, when one of the Braves projected future aces made his major-league debut by holding the Angels to three runs on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in six strong innings. 24-year-old Charlie Morton, who the club selected in the third round of the 2002 draft, threw 64 of his 104 pitches for strikes that night in besting future Brave legend Ervin Santana and pulling Atlanta within one game of .500 at 34-35.

    The rest of the story: not as fun. Morton gave up five runs or more four times in his other 14 starts, finishing 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA. By the following June, he was gone from the organization. The Braves finished 72-90, 20 games out of first place in the NL East. Their next playoff appearance was two years away.

    Now we hit the fast-forward button to today. The Braves and Morton have reunited, agreeing to a one-year, $15-million deal. It’s the second move in eight days Atlanta has made to add to a starting rotation that endured a death march of injuries and underperformance in 2020, following last week’s one-year, $11-million agreement with Drew Smyly.

    Smyly is a nice piece based on his short body of work down the stretch in 2019 for Philadelphia and seven appearances in 2020 for San Francisco.

    Morton is much, much more impactful.

    Charles in Charge: Charlie Morton won his first three postseason starts in 2020, including striking out six in 5 2/3 shutout innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to pitch the Rays to the World Series.

    After being dealt to Pittsburgh in the awful Nate McLouth deal in June 2009, Morton had surgeries on both hips with Tommy John surgery mixed in for good measure across the next five seasons. Once he finally got healthy, he shifted from pitching to contact (6.3 strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratio from 2008-2015) to relying on velocity.

    Since the start of 2017, Morton has a 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and owns a 3.34 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 97 starts for the Astros and Rays, posting a 1.159 WHIP, 7.4 hits-per-nine innings and a 3.57 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. From his debut through 2016, Morton threw more than 145 innings twice. He’s surpassed that in each of his previous three full seasons (146 2/3 in 2017, 167 in 2018, 194 2/3 in 2019).

    It’s paid off in more ways than one. Morton closed out Game 7 of the 2017 World Series for Houston and in 12 postseason appearances since 2017 has posted a 3.40 ERA with a .644 OPS. He made the All-Star team in 2018 and 2019, finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019, and signed a two-year, $30-million deal with Tampa Bay after the 2018 season.

    Now, a dozen years after those six innings in Anaheim, Morton returns to where it all began.

    —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.