• Gerrit Cole

    2020 Season Preview: Braves are Built Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Entering Unprecedented Campaign

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nobody could have predicted what we have been through the past few months. Nobody could imagine the impact the coronavirus would have on every single aspect of our everyday lives, on things far more serious than the doings of a baseball franchise seeking its first World Series title in a quarter-century.

    Yet, in some weird way, Alex Anthopoulos built an Atlanta Braves team that seems poised to handle baseball’s 60-game sprint quite well. It certainly wasn’t foresight into what this 2020 baseball season would look like – one that will be as unprecedented as any baseball campaign in the history of the sport – but rather, by how the Braves general manager viewed his team after back-to-back National League East championships.

    Anthopoulos felt the Braves needed depth in their bullpen. He first addressed it with three moves at last season’s trade deadline, and further bolstered it by signing Will Smith in early November. There is the seemingly never-ending supply of pitching prospects gurgling in the upper levels of the minor leagues, including some arms the Braves hope are ready for prime-time duty under the bright lights of the majors.

    The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League automatically lengthened Atlanta’s lineup, a lineup that saw a logjam at third base with Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, plus a logjam in the outfield. Certainly, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be in the lineup almost every day, and even with Nick Markakis electing not to play, the Braves still have Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall (plus Cristian Pache waiting in the wings).

    Adding the designated hitter also can help these Braves address a deficiency that could be an Achilles heel – bats that mash right-handed pitching. Often those guys are left-handed hitters, and the Braves brought Matt Adams back this week hoping to see the type of power he displayed here three seasons ago. The reported and rumored signing of Yasiel Puig would have addressed that, too (the erstwhile Dodgers slugger bats right-handed, but features reverse splits). But once again, COVID-19 and 2020 reared its ugly head, Puig testing positive for the virus and announcing the news via social media just minutes after the Braves captain – Freddie Freeman – joyously trotted onto the field Friday at Truist Park, following his harrowing journey through having the virus.

    Freddie Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times, but the four-time All-Star found himself sick from COVID-19 in early July.

    Freeman embarks on his 10th season in the majors; how has it been that long? Without question this is his team, much as Terry Pendleton led the early 90s Braves, much as Chipper Jones carried that torch for more than a decade. Thankfully, Freeman looks healthy and his swing looks great. A week ago, we all wondered what a Freeman-less Braves would look like embarking on a truncated schedule that begins with 20 games in 20 days, against plenty of great pitching.

    Consider who the Braves may see in those opening 20 games: Jacob deGrom (twice) and Steven Matz of the Mets, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Rays, Hyun Jin-Ryu of the Blue Jays, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees. That’s nine of your first 20 games against a group of pitchers who are on many people’s short list of All-Star hurlers.

    It’s all going to be different. This isn’t going to be your father’s baseball season. The methodical marathon that frames our spring and summer evenings? Not this year, folks. This is a 400-yard dash for a sport accustomed to logging 26.2 miles. Teams that start quickly are going to be positioned to potentially steal playoff spots. But before crying doom and gloom if the Braves arrive at their first off day on Aug. 13 at 8-12, consider two schedule quirks across the final 40 games that might prove more important than having to start 14-6.

    The middle 20 games: Atlanta faces Philadelphia and Washington 12 times. Six of the other eight are against Miami and Boston (this Red Sox team certainly is not of the ilk of the 2018 champs). Even if the Braves stumble a bit out of the gate, not only do they have an opportunity to catch up against two subpar teams in the middle part of the schedule, they also play 60 percent of their games in that stretch against the two teams I feel will challenge them for the NL East title.

    The final 20 games: The Braves play 13 against the Marlins, Orioles and Red Sox. Atlanta ends the season with a seven-game homestand against Miami and Boston. The Yankees and the Rays are likely to rule the AL East, and Boston’s pitching is quite suspect. Miami will be better; its young pitching is maturing, and the Marlins have a few guys who are developing into good players (they’re a couple of years away from being a real problem for the NL East). If you’re going to wrap up the season with a week at home, other than Baltimore, there are no two teams in the combined East you want to face than the Marlins and Red Sox.

    What will it take to get to that point, 53 games in the books, one week to go, with a shot at October? The more I look at it, the more I think the Braves are built for this.

    Atlanta’s youthful exuberance, a hallmark of the Braves resurgence the past two seasons, remains (minus the hugs and high-fives). Acuna remains an emerging megastar. Ozzie Albies is developing into a star in his own right. The rotation is fronted by two of the better young arms in the game: Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in modern Braves history to earn an opening-day starting assignment, and Max Fried, who could develop into a sneaky Cy Young candidate if his change-up continues developing.

    22-year-old Mike Soroka finished second in NL rookie-of-the-year voting in 2019 and sixth in Cy Young voting, providing a cool presence at the top of Atlanta’s rotation entering his second full big-league season.

    There are question marks. Can Cole Hamels get healthy? Can Dansby Swanson replicate his 2019 first half and postseason while staying healthy? Can Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz settle the middle of the rotation? Will Ender Inciarte start the season hitting like it’s April or July? Can Smith, who is out with the virus but asymptomatic, test negative twice and get back on the mound?

    We are forced to acknowledge the 50,000-pound weight hanging over all this. What happens after three weeks of play, of flying into different cities and staying in hotels then returning home, if positive tests spike and a team (be it the Braves or another team) finds itself with an outbreak? Nobody knows, and that’s part of the trepidation I feel in offering a projection of where this Braves team lands when this season like no other reaches its conclusion on Sept. 27.

    But we’re going to hope and pray things go well – for every team in the majors – and we’ll forge ahead with a best guess. And it’s just that: a guess. We have no clue what’s going to happen. There is no playbook, no guideposts. This is the strangest season preview I’ve ever authored, fitting for the strangest year of my life.

    This incredibly unpredictable sprint rests on simple math. Each singular game is worth 2.7 times one regular game in a 162-game season (subscription required). If you win 37 games, that’s a .616 win percentage (a 99-win pace over a full season). Win 27 games? That’s a .450 win percentage (a 74-win pace).

    I don’t see these Braves reaching either that peak or that valley. Even with an 8-12 start, I think they’re good enough – based on their depth, Freeman being ready from the jump, the young talent on the roster, and motivation after choking away what should have been the franchise’s first postseason series victory in 18 years – to finish 34-26.

    That’s a 91-win pace over 162, and I think that’s just enough to land the Braves one game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Philadelphia. That would put Atlanta into the postseason party, and in a world where everything seems to have changed, the overarching goal has not:

    Win 11 games in October and capture the World Series title. There is no telling who will do it, or what will happen along the way, but it’s time to start the journey.

    After all we’ve been through, how sweet that sounds.

    —30—

    On deck as we preview the 2020 Atlanta Braves season: A Braves Opening Day like no other.

    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 Meetings Wrap-Up: No Power Boost, but Braves Have Time as Market Takes Shape

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves left baseball’s Winter Meetings in San Diego on Thursday without adding anyone to their major-league roster. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos did not acquire one single power hitter, or an impact left fielder, or even another pitcher.

    Heck, I bet he didn’t even visit the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld or the beach.

    Sounds like a monumental waste of four days spent doing nothing to bolster the Braves chances to win the 2020 World Series. Heck, those gaping holes at third base and in the power department make completing a hat trick of National League East titles all the more daunting. Right?

    Y’all. Settle down.

    Look, I get it. The lack of completed work upsets some fans. There wasn’t a “podium moment,” where Anthopoulos stood behind a microphone in a packed press conference to announce the completion of a trade or signing of a free agent.

    But baseball’s offseason didn’t end when the general managers and their staffs flew out of San Diego. Believe it or not, there are more than two months until spring training begins, some 3 ½ months before the first pitch of the season zips toward home plate in Arizona (hopefully Ronald Acuna Jr. smacks that baby into the pool at Chase Field).

    In a normal offseason – and hopefully, we’re resumed normalcy after the snooze-fest of the previous two winters – deals are announced throughout the rest of December and well into January. Many of those deals either were sparked or advanced by conversations held at the Winter Meetings. And while the advancement of technology has taken away the romanticism of smoked-filled lounges, trade proposals scribbled on cocktail napkins, or late-night scrums with other teams in hotel suites, the fact remains the movers and shakers in the sport who get these deals done all are in one place for four days.

    Anthopoulos has zero to gain by saying anything outside of his very measured, now predictable comments that provide no gauge of what he’s thinking. And that’s by design. He may have been born and raised in Canada, but you would think the Braves general manager spent his young days developing his poker face in Vegas.

    What’s next? Here are a few of my thoughts on the Winter Meetings, how it impacts the Braves, and where do they go from here:

    The Hot Corner is Scorching

    Josh Donaldson already was a popular commodity after a bounce-back, injury-free season in 2019, one that resulted in 37 homers and the NL comeback player of the year honor. It sparked a love affair with Braves Country that led the Bringer of Rain to dance through the dugout with an umbrella after homers late in the season. A reunion is a perfect match, but if it happens, it’s going to cost far more than the one-year, $23-million “bet on myself” deal the now 34-year-old signed last November.

    And that price tag got significantly heftier in San Diego. With star pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole going off the board, and with Anthony Rendon agreeing to a deal with Anaheim, Donaldson arguably is the brightest unsigned star on the market. Quite the Plan B for those who unsuccessfully courted Rendon. At least three teams who must/could add a third baseman – the Braves, Washington and Philadelphia – reside in the NL East. The Rangers may be out. The Dodgers may be in. The thought that a three-year deal would be enough to secure Donaldson is out the window. It’s going to take four years.

    I’ve long stated paying for the fourth year (Donaldson’s age 37 season) represents quite the risk, especially considering he is just one season removed from an injury-marred two-year stretch. In fairness, 2017-18 represent the only significant medical issues of his big-league career. Plus, Donaldson’s impact on the 2019 Braves almost makes me think Atlanta must lean in here and guarantee that fourth year. Donaldson found success here and was healthy, developing a good approach with the Braves medical and training staff. That says nothing of how his grit/edge infused itself into the roster.

    Donaldson absolutely could end up with a $100-million deal (perhaps more) across four years. The Braves feel like they have almost no choice but to go there. Right?

    Unless …

    Kris Crossing the “What If”

    I’ve beat the drum on Twitter all offseason that if the Braves can add not one but two impact bats – one via trade, one via free agency – it would vault Atlanta right into the short circle of bona fide World Series championship contenders. You not getting there hitting Travis d’Arnaud fourth and Nick Markakis fifth, that’s for darn sure. And while the thought process has been to re-sign Donaldson at third and perhaps trade for a corner outfield upgrade in left field, the escalation of the Donaldson market may lead to a shift in mindset.

    The Cubs find themselves in quite the situation. Several of their key young stars are going to hit free agency soon, and their farm system isn’t exactly teeming with future stars. Kris Bryant – maybe you’ve heard of him, the former college player of the year, NL rookie of the year, NL MVP – reportedly is available in the right deal.

    Bryant was limited to 102 games due to injuries in 2018, but has hit 29 or more homers in each of his other four seasons. He’s topped .900 OPS three times, and slashed .282/.382/.521 last season when he hit 35 doubles with 31 homers and 108 runs scored. Oh, did I mention he plays third base, corner outfield, and first base?

    How long he’s under club control is an issue given the pending grievance, but assuming Bryant remains under club control for two years, this is the type of bat Atlanta needs, and at a position of need. It’s going to hurt. The rumored price of one bat and two pitching prospects feels a bit light, to be honest, not to mention something about the $40-$45 million the Braves would pay Bryant in arbitration in 2020 and 2021.

    But it’s Kris Bryant, and you’re a legit contender in need of a big bat.

    Should Donaldson sign elsewhere and the Cubs dangle Bryant, the Braves should pounce.

    The Pivot Point – Look Left?

    Marcell Ozuna has his flaws and certainly didn’t endear himself to Braves Country during the NLDS. But he posted a .800 OPS last season while hitting 29 homers and 23 doubles, is two seasons removed from a 37-homer, 124-RBI campaign with Miami, and just turned 29 years old. His defense is adequate enough (he’s not a butcher out there; and yes, I’ve seen the highlight of him scaling the wall and then falling ever so gracefully when the ball changed flight).

    Nicholas Castellanos destroyed opposing pitching in 51 games after being traded from Detroit to the Cubs, slashing .321/.356/.646 with a 1.002 OPS. His defense is less than desirable; of his 312 career games in the outfield, just 20 have come in left. But he smashed 58 doubles in 2019, one season after hitting 46 doubles and 23 homers while playing half his games in Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park.

    Both players figure to get four-year deals, and that’s the problem. The Braves will have top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters at Triple-A to start the season; Pache likely is in center in the majors by late summer, with Waters not too far behind. If given a choice to sign either Ozuna or Castellanos, I’d take Ozuna if that’s the only way to get an established power bat into the lineup. The end of the contract would worry me and certainly there’s not room for four full-time outfielders once Pache and Waters are ready.

    All Eyes on Alex

    Anthopoulos has been praised for being aggressive since the offseason began, but not adding a legit power bat to replace Donaldson should he leave – as I’ve said repeatedly – would be a massive failure. A lineup featuring Johan Camargo and Austin Riley platooning at third base with Adam Duvall and Markakis in left simply is not going to generate enough offense to support Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman in the top three spots.

    Think a fourth year of Donaldson at $25 million in 2023 or dealing Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson as part of a Bryant package is risky? Risky is walking into Arizona on March 26 with d’Arnaud hitting fourth and Markakis fifth.

    Sure, maybe Camargo bounces back after a lost season in which physically and mentally he wasn’t good. Of course, Riley is a very talented player who doesn’t turn 23 years old until April and possesses great potential.

    But “maybe” and “potential” don’t win the World Series. And even though this franchise has not won a playoff series since 2001, winning it all should be the single unabashed goal. The Braves choked away a series win in October that would’ve put them eight victories from the grandest prize in sports.

    The bullpen is vastly improved. The feeling here is the rotation will be solid even if the Braves do not add another starter. But without that power bat to protect Freeman – again, I’ll argue for two bats to further lengthen the lineup – it will be a huge roll of the dice that Anthopoulos cannot take.

    And he won’t.

    The Braves will hit their new spring training home with at least one significant impact bat added to the roster. It didn’t happen at the Winter Meetings. That’s OK. It’s December. But it will happen before camp opens.

    Because Anthopoulos has no choice.

    —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.