• Jacob Webb

    That Time of Year Again: Big Goals, Bullpen Battles, and Hope in Abundance as Braves Start Spring

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The feeling sitting by the lake Sunday was quite comfortable, and it had little to do with my fishing line in the water, the sun breaking through the clouds and the temperature nudging past 70 degrees.

    It had everything to do with the sounds coming through my headphones. The crack of the bat, the thud of a ball hitting the mitt, the scattered rumbling of fans – real people, not cardboard facsimiles – clapping as a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays unfolded before their very eyes along Florida’s west coast.

    Spring training is off and running, and hopefully we continue rolling unabated toward April 1 and the Braves season opener in Philadelphia. Four games in the books – and if you care about the record, can I ask why, because it means absolutely nothing. Four afternoons of familiar sounds and warm thoughts of spring and welcoming voices on the mic and the hope that baseball season brings – a hope that feels a little more meaningful this time around.

    A few thoughts as the Braves continue their first week of Grapefruit League play:

    All Grown Up: I was struck listening to Freddie Freeman’s press conference Tuesday. It’s noteworthy when the reigning National League MVP speaks, certainly. But there was something in his voice, in his expressions, that depicted a man not only completely at peace with his present, but poised for the next step in his future.

    The MVP Is Here: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman spoke at length with the media Tuesday.

    The story of the Freeman family expanding from three to five is heartwarming and inspiring, and adds yet another compelling chapter to what was a notable 2020 for the Braves first baseman. He’s the face of the franchise, the captain – I still would love to see a C on his jersey, a la hockey – and now at 31 years old, undoubtedly one of the top 10 players in the majors.

    The only thing missing from Freeman’s resume is something he alluded to with confidence and openness in his remarks: a World Series ring. He’s got a heck of a shot to get it, considering the combination of talent in the organization and the lessons learned from the past three Octobers. I suspect Freeman will hold court with the media again before the team breaks camp, after Atlanta and its leader agree on a richly deserved contract extension.

    Right from the Right Side: The Braves watched a trio of valuable right-handed relievers depart this offseason. And while Mark Melancon headed to San Diego and Darren O’Day signed with the Yankees (Shane Greene curiously remains unsigned), there is no shortage of candidates to fill that void. Two names stand out to me, both who are on the 40-man roster and both with intriguing potential, if – and there’s the caveat – they can stay healthy.

    Victor Arano posted a 9.1 strikeouts-per-nine ratio across 60 games in 2018 for the Phillies, finishing with a 1.197 WHIP. His 2019 season ended after just three games due to elbow surgery that May, and the 26-year-old was limited to 10 innings in the Mexican League last year. While his fastball sat in the mid-90s before the injury, what set Arano apart was the movement on his heater, slider and changeup.

    Braves fans are quite familiar with Jacob Webb, who has made 44 appearances across two injury-derailed seasons. An elbow ailment ended his 2019 campaign after Webb posted a 1.39 ERA and a 1.113 WHIP in 36 games, and a shoulder strain last summer shelved the 27-year-old after eight appearances. Control has been an issue – Webb has issued 17 walks in 42 1/3 big-league innings – but his stuff is plenty good enough.

    Good health this spring for both Arano and Webb – the same can be said for non-roster invitee Carl Edwards Jr. – could ease the concerns about the offseason veteran exodus and make for some interesting decisions come the end of the month.

    Let The Kid Play: More than once during the NL Championship Series, I wondered what it would be like to have four major-league at-bats then, suddenly, find yourself in the lineup playing every day against the best team in baseball for a trip to the World Series.

    Freeman wondered that, too, joking that he had no idea how super prospect Cristian Pache acquitted himself so well during the NLCS. Yes, Pache went just 4-for-22 against the Dodgers last fall, but the organization’s top prospect registered a hit with a RBI in four games, belted his first big-league homer, and impressed with the poise he displayed in running down balls in center field and grinding out at-bats.

    His Time Is Now: Cristian Pache is expected to begin the season as Atlanta’s starting center fielder.

    Sure, the Braves weren’t going to come out in February and name Pache the starter, especially with the proud veteran Ender Inciarte (he with the $8.7 million price tag) still around and looking to salvage his career. But make no mistake: center field is Pache’s to lose. He took a pitch on the outer half of the plate Monday against Boston and drove it with authority to right-center field, yet another impressive sign that the 22-year-old is ready for everyday duty in the bigs.

    Don’t Forget About Me: On a roster oozing with young talent – Pache, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, William Contreras, et al – it’s easy to get overlooked. But another 22-year-old in camp definitely deserves attention and, potentially, a shot to line up on the foul line for opening day ceremonies four weeks from Thursday.

    Huascar Ynoa landed in the Braves organization after a trade deadline deal for Jaime Garcia in 2017. He made his big-league debut in a blowout victory over the Phillies in 2019 and has made 11 appearances – five starts – across the past two seasons. The casual observer will recall his 92-pitch, one-hit, four-inning relief outing in the Game 3 NLCS blowout loss, but those who have watched Ynoa work know there is tons of potential in that right arm.

    Ynoa impressed in his spring debut Monday. I don’t focus on results too much this early in camp, but every time I watch this kid pitch, I want to see more. Control has been an issue so far, but with upper-90s gas and an impressive slider, it’s not difficult to envision Ynoa having a role with the big-league team – especially if Atlanta wants another power right-hander in the bullpen and the Triple-A season not starting until May.

    —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.

    PARTY POOPERS: Dodgers Make Braves Pay for Missed Opportunities, Force NLCS to Game 6

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This has nothing to do with curses and jinxes and narratives long since exhausted, and everything to do with lack of execution and failure to seize opportunities.

    Leave third base a bit early on a ball caught in the outfield? Don’t drive home runners in the early innings? Fail to throw strikes during a tight spot? Sometimes in the regular season, those details get glossed over amid the blur of the daily march to October.

    But when you reach the 10th month of the year, you have to be on point at all times. The Atlanta Braves fell short in too many of those moments in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday, and that’s the biggest reason they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, instead of preparing for the World Series.

    The Braves had their chances but couldn’t take advantage, and the postseason-tested Dodgers made them pay in a 7-3 victory to keep their season alive. And while the Braves still lead the NLCS 3-2 and need just one win this weekend to capture the NL title and head to the World Series for the first time in 21 years, Friday served as a stinging reminder:

    Winning a pennant is not easy. They just don’t hand out trips to the Fall Classic like free samples at the mall food court. And the final win of a series is the hardest one to secure.

    If you get an opportunity, you best not waste it. If the disaster scenario unfolds this weekend and the Braves manage to lose games started by Max Fried (Saturday) and Ian Anderson (if Sunday’s Game 7 becomes necessary), they will rue the chances that slid through their fingers in Game 5.

    It started about as well as Brian Snitker could have dreamed. The Braves turned to A.J. Minter to kick off a bullpen game – welcome to life in 2020, with no off days in playoff series until next week. For Minter, it was his first start since his junior season at Texas A&M, and all the lefty did was strike out seven over three innings.

    Minter left with a 2-0 lead; it could’ve been more. The Braves collected five hits and two walks in the opening three innings, but scored only the pair of runs while stranding four runners on base.

    Atlanta actually put a third run on the scoreboard in the third, albeit briefly. Dansby Swanson’s sinking liner was snagged by Mookie Betts in right field, the former MVP stumbling as he picked the ball off his shoe tops. Marcell Ozuna, who began the inning with a single, left third base early and upon review was called out, the double play ending the inning.

    Regardless of how you feel about the whole momentum debate – which has raged across the airwaves and social media during this series – there’s no denying this game changed on the Ozuna blunder. The stumbles on this night don’t all fall on the loveable designated hitter, though.

    The Braves couldn’t cash in their chances in the early innings. It almost was jarring to see, considering Atlanta’s offense has scored four runs or more in one inning six times this postseason. In a bullpen game, a house of cards that can topple if just one reliever has an off night, three runs are not going to be enough most of the time.

    Not on this night, and certainly not against the Dodgers, who Friday played their 23rd NLCS game since 2016. And almost immediately after Ozuna’s run came off the board, Los Angeles did what the Braves could not.

    Take advantage.

    Corey Seager’s homer off Tyler Matzek in the fourth made it 2-1. And while the Braves still held the lead, you almost could feel what was coming next. Shane Greene wiggled out of trouble in the fifth, but left with two outs and one on in the sixth.

    Will Smith (the pitcher) came on and for the second straight night could not throw his slider for a strike, walking Max Muncy to extend the inning. That brought up Will Smith (the catcher), who golfed a 3-2 fastball into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and a 4-2 Dodgers lead.

    The Battle of Wills: The Dodgers catcher put Los Angeles ahead in Game 5 of the NLCS with a three-run homer in the sixth inning Friday.

    In the seventh, Jacob Webb was one strike away from getting out of the inning. Twice. Betts singled home a run on a two-strike pitch, and Seager followed with a two-strike, two-run homer.

    7-2 Dodgers. See you Saturday.

    Atlanta certainly wanted to spend the day shifting from pennant celebration to World Series preparation. There remains work to do, however. It’s playoff baseball, and the deeper you play, the more amplified the missed chances become. That’s part of it, a part the Braves and many members of their fanbase are learning on the fly.

    That’s not to suggest the Braves suddenly are gripped with overwhelming pressure. You can afford a stumble if you build a 3-1 series advantage, which the Braves did. Friday was Game 5, not Game 7. Fried pitched well in Game 1 and will be on full rest. Critical bullpen arms like Mark Melancon and Chris Martin also are fresh. Saturday is Snitker’s 65th birthday, and what would be a better present than a pennant and World Series berth?

    One also must think the Braves will have a heightened sense of urgency after a few stumbles Friday delayed the party for at least a day. The pressure remains squarely on the Dodgers, whose sole mission from the commencement of spring training is to win the World Series.

    But if this series isn’t over 24 hours from now, we’re having a completely different discussion.

    —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.