• Felix Hernandez

    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.

    Play Ball: Plenty to Watch as Braves Open Spring Slate

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN WATERLOGGED NORTH GEORGIA – Some 136 days have elapsed since the Atlanta Braves 2019 season ended far earlier than many hoped, in a manner no one could imagine.

    And through the offseason that’s followed, there has been one constant, recurring theme serving as a backdrop as a division rival won the World Series, the front office worked to bolster the 2020 roster, and the name of the ballpark changed.

    It has rained. Every single day (or at least it feels that way).

    So when the skies cleared and the sun emerged Friday morning, it not only gave us a chance to walk outside without need of a floatation device, it also provided a hint of spring. The Braves will play a baseball game Saturday for the first time since that horrific Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series, opening their Grapefruit League schedule against the Baltimore Orioles at Atlanta’s new spring digs in North Port, Fla.

    What am I doing on this final evening of quiet before the long journey begins anew? Thinking about where my focus lies regarding this team across the next 33 days.

    I Don’t Know is on Third: No, not the famous Abbott & Costello skit from yesteryear. The Braves third base situation, now that Josh Donaldson has signed with Minnesota (he left all his rain behind, though). Johan Camargo showed up in shape and motivated this spring, after looking sluggish and disinterested far too often in 2019. Austin Riley spent the winter working to tweak a swing that took the world by storm for six weeks, then crashed and burned with frightening brutality.

    That’s OK. Riley turns 23 in early April. I still think if he’s not traded at some point, he’s the long-term solution at third because he’ll hit enough with plenty of power to offset a high strikeout rate. But that’s not going to be this year, at least not initially. The kid needs steady playing time, and barring a breakout spring, it’s likely going to be at Triple-A Gwinnett to start.

    Which shifts the focus to Camargo. He cut 18 pounds off his frame from last spring by focusing on his body and his diet. And while manager Brian Snitker has said publicly he will split playing time between Camargo and Riley in spring, don’t be surprised if that mix of time starts shifting in Camargo’s favor in a couple of weeks.

    Camargo doesn’t have to have the type of season he had in 2018. I’m not convinced that’s who he is (at least offensively). But he – and the Braves – cannot afford for the 2019 productivity, or lack thereof, to show up again.

    Long Live the King? We Will See: Felix Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training with something to prove. It is a no-risk flyer for the Braves, but with Cole Hamels likely missing at least the first two or three turns in the regular-season rotation due to a shoulder injury, Hernandez emerging as somebody capable of holding down a back-end rotation spot – even if for a month – would be helpful.

    Here’s my problem. The King has steadily declined each of his past three years. He joked with reporters this week that he’s not old, although he turns 34 in early April. It’s more the mileage on that once-dynamic right arm, one that’s pitched 2,729 2/3 innings in the majors, one that debuted in the bigs the same year (2005) broadcaster Jeff Francoeur and recently retired Brian McCann reached the show.

    Many say the Hamels injury increases the odds of Hernandez making the opening-day roster. I disagree. It increases the opportunity, but if the once mighty King pitches to a 6.40 ERA with a 1.53 WHIP in camp (as he did across 15 starts for Seattle last season), this feel good story will end with a release before the March 26 opener in Arizona.

    Filling Out the Pen: Thanks to the aggression of Alex Anthopoulos at the trade deadline and again in the early days of the offseason, Atlanta’s bullpen arguably is one of the best in baseball. There are six locks in my opinion for the eight spots, and all six have closed at the big-league level. Five are right-handed, and lefty Will Smith likely will be closing for this team sooner rather than later. As for the final two openings? There are a lot of directions in which Snitker may opt to go.

    The bullpen does not have a traditional long man at the moment. Josh Tomlin filled that role admirably last season and is back in camp on a non-roster invite. But with so much depth on the 40-man roster, it’s plausible to not have a “break glass in case of emergency” guy, knowing fresh arms can be shuttled in should somebody have to wear it for two or three innings due to an injury or in a blowout.

    A couple of guys I’m watching closely this spring: Jacob Webb, who needs to cut down on the walks and was injured at times last season, but showed flashes of brilliance stuff-wise. A.J. Minter, the co-closer at the start of the season, whose spring 2019 was marred by a fender-bender that tweaked his shoulder, kicking off a lost campaign for the hard-throwing lefty. And I’ll offer a wild card: 27-year-old lefty Phil Pfeifer, who impressed the Braves enough at three levels of the organization last season (1.16 WHIP, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings) that Atlanta added him to the 40-man roster this winter.

    Acuna, Ozuna, and Who: Ronald Acuna Jr. will lead off and play mostly right field, with some duty in center against left-handers. Marcell Ozuna will anchor left field and hit cleanup while looking to rediscover his 2017 production, when he was one of the more feared sluggers in the NL. But what of the final outfield spot, with three veterans on the roster looking for playing time?

    If healthy, Ender Inciarte should play the majority of games, keeping Acuna in right while providing the Braves with a three-time Gold Glove winner in the middle. Inciarte struggled with lower body injuries in 2019, not a good sign for an outfielder whose age (he turns 30 at season’s end) and salary ($7.7 million this season; $8.7 million in 2021) are increasing. Historically a slow starter offensively, Inciarte can ill-afford to not get going at the plate until June.

    Adam Duvall, one of the few Braves who performed in the NLDS, figures to man right field more often than not when lefties are on the mound. But Duvall has struggled when not playing full time, and his $3.25 million deal is not guaranteed (meaning he could be cut in camp and the team recoup a cost savings). If Duvall has a good spring, he certainly will be a trade target. Nick Markakis is back on a one-year deal and finally in the role best suited for him: a good left-handed bat off the bench who, due to injuries, would be fine to start every day for three weeks (not six months, Snit).

    It will be different this year for the dude from Woodstock by way of Young Harris. So too for these Braves, who not only are expected to win now, but win in the most important month of all. But you must get there first, and that journey starts in mere hours.

    —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.

    Felix Hernandez signed to minor league contact, huge upside

    The Braves have signed Felix Hernandez to a minor league deal with a spring training invite. Should he make the 40-man roster out of spring training he would secure a $1 million contract.

    Felix Hernandez, 33, signed a 1-year minor league contract with Atlanta

    In 2019, long-time Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez pitching 71.2 innings. In comparison, in the prior 14 seasons, Felix averaged 224 innings pitched per 162 games. If ever there were a player who defined ‘workhorse’ it would be Felix. In what is considered his prime, Felix had a 127-83 record (.605% winning percentage) in 291 games started. This number hardly represents just how dominant he was as he played for a club that struggled mightily in those years and game him very little run support. He put up a 3.00 ERA in 1987 innings pitched, recording 1889 strikeouts. He was a 6-time all-star in his prime. He won 1 Cy Young award and arguably should have won 3 (he was robbed in 2014). Felix broke the mold for winners of the CYA, the very mold that would pave the wave for other CYA winners like Jacob DeGrom, to no longer be disadvantaged by their win-loss record due to poor run support. He won the CYA with a 15-14 record. In his prime he finished in the top 25 of the MVP vote 4 times. He held the ERA title in 2 seasons. He is also one of only 23 pitchers who have thrown a perfect game. I would argue he was the best pitcher in baseball in his prime. Yet he was the least known ace in baseball.

    Hernandez is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, nobody could expect as such. The thing about workhorses is that they eventually break down. Look at the recently retired CC Sabathia for instance. Shoulder injuries crop up. Felix has not been immune to this. In the last 3 seasons, he has battled shoulder soreness, a lingering calf injury and a crisis of acceptance of his new reality. A drop of velocity, fastball command and an inability to stay healthy are often talked about. With a 5.42 ERA in only 60 appearances (a handful out of the bullpen when demoted from the rotation) in the last 3 seasons, he has not been himself. It was painful for Seattle fans, myself included, to watch the King fall. However, he has much still to give as a 33-year-old righty.

    When King Felix took his final bow to the fans and his court at T-Mobile Park in 2019, there was a big question mark as to whether it would be the end of his career. Long expected to be a lifetime Mariner, he could have quit the struggle and retired in the city he loved so much that he gave the Mariners a significant discount for his services to remain there. But the thing people who don’t follow the Mariners don’t know is King Felix is one of the most competitive players in Major League Baseball. He is as much a competitor as, say, Max Scherzer. He made clear to the press in his final game for Seattle that he had no interest in retiring and he would pitch as long as he could. The question at the end of the season was whether a team would take a chance on him. Now Atlanta has.

    What does Felix have to offer the Braves? He is expected to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation in spring training beginning next month. He will not be able to give the club especially long outings like those of years past. But as we know, with stronger and deeper bullpens, the way games are managed has changed since Felix first entered the scene as a 19-year-old Venezuelan prospect in 2005. Could Felix give the club 5 innings an outing? This isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

    The x-factor with Felix that few analysts are mentioning is the leadership and mentorship that the righty brings to a club, particularly a young pitching staff. There have been countless pitchers who have come and gone through Seattle in his time there—James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery, Edwin Diaz, Marco Gonzalez—and those pitchers have benefited from his understanding of the craft of pitching. He has taught his changeup to them and talked pitching with them on the bench every day he wasn’t pitching. There have been many young, promising prospects who have found a friend in Felix, a guy who knows what it is like to come to this country as a teenager and be asked to compete at the highest level. He might be exactly what the young guys on both sides of the ball need.

    Can he still be effective? Changing leagues has advantages. National League clubs, aside from perhaps the Padres, have not seen much of Felix. Consider the successes of Javier Vasquez, Rafael Soriano or, most recently, Anibal Sanchez moving to Atlanta after American League mileage. Felix has the potential to do the same. His unusual changeup and better than average curveball can be effective if, and here lies the question he will have to answer in spring training, his fastball command returns. He has long battled a drop of fastball velocity and will have to continue to transition to a different kind of pitcher than he was a young flamethrower.

    If he can’t beat Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright for the 5th roster spot, can he be useful to the Braves in the ‘pen. This was something the Mariners had to explore in 2018 until another injury on the pitching staff forced the Mariners to return Hernandez to the rotation after he made his one and only career appearance out of the ‘pen.

    Can Felix stay healthy? Here is where I think the biggest question mark is for Atlanta and even for Felix himself who has fought to stay on the mound in the last 3 seasons. If I had to guess, I suspect the low-risk contract Felix signed with Atlanta is rooted in his understanding of the failures of his body in recent years. If he can manage shoulder pain, inflammation and fatigue, the best-case scenario for the Braves is to have a repeat of Tim Hudson who was believed to be unlikely to rebound in 2010 at the age of 32. What if the Braves get from Felix what they did from Ben Sheets in 2010 when for 9 starts he carried the club? That would well be worth the $1 million risk.

    As an aside, I am a life-long fan of the Atlanta Braves as well as the Seattle Mariners. Living in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, there was no sports figure bigger than Ken Griffey, Jr. While he was stunning fans at the Kingdome, the Braves were having their record 14 division championships. While the Braves are my first love, the Mariners are special to me and I would love to see Felix return to Seattle at the end of May as an Atlanta Brave, receiving a hero’s—no, a king’s—welcome.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and former beat writer for BravesWire.com.