• Jesse Biddle

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The first full month of the season sits in the rear-view mirror, 31 games are in the books and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a position they did not reach at any one point during their glorious run to the 2018 NL East championship.

    Under .500.

    The Braves have befuddled many of us through the first five weeks of 2019, looking at times like a World Series contender and at other times like an also-ran – sometimes within an inning or two of each other – as they now begin their first extended road trip. A 10-day, 10-game, three-city journey begins Friday night in Miami, where old friend Jose Urena awaits his assured retribution for his gutless plunking of Ronald Acuna Jr. last season. From there, Atlanta flies west for three games against the pennant-winning Dodgers and four at Arizona, against the same Diamondbacks squad that swept a three-game series two weeks ago at SunTrust Park.

    Often, the first weeks of the season begin answering the questions we all have about a team throughout the offseason and spring training. In some respects, I think we can begin drawing early conclusions on some topics. For others, I have no better clue now than I did in late March, before attending 11 games in person and watching/listening to every pitch of the season to this point.

    Atlanta leaves town for a while, but questions remain. Such as …

    Is this team where you’d thought it would be at this point of the season?

    In a word, no. I didn’t expect the Braves to be below .500 through 19.1 percent of the season. Granted, they’re one game under. It’s not like their buried in the East. But I thought if there was a month early in the season that might challenge them, it would be the month we’re in now, and not the one that preceded it. That concerns me a bit, to be honest.

    What’s the most disappointing part of Atlanta’s start?

    Duh! It’s the pit of misery … eh, the bullpen. Look, many of us – myself included – thought the Braves needed to upgrade their relief corps and were disappointed Alex Anthopoulos could not secure at least one upgrade for the bullpen. But did I think that group would be this bad? No, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as they’ve shown.

    But they’re not great, either, and they’ve already cost the Braves games they can ill-afford to blow in a tightly contested division. A.J. Minter has shown rust and inconsistency after missing most of spring training. Darren O’Day remains missing in action. Jesse Biddle hit a funk you wouldn’t wish on anybody. Others have taken their turns struggling to throw strikes.

    There have been signs, albeit small ones, that a correction is coming. Minter looked good in Wednesday’s save. Jacob Webb earned a win and a save on back-to-back days. Josh Tomlin has become a revelation once he started getting work. And what else to say of Luke Jackson, who has gone from fanbase whipping post to downright lovable? Action Jackson is the most unexpected singular aspect of this season.

    Is what we’ve seen from Max Fried and Mike Soroka real?

    In my opinion, yes. That’s not to say Soroka will pitch to a sub-2 ERA all season and Fried will win 22 games and the Cy Young. But both young hurlers have filthy stuff, which we’ve seen in flashes.

    But now, we’re seeing it every fifth day. Fried isn’t getting yanked between the rotation, the bullpen, and Gwinnett. Soroka is healthy. Both are pitching with a ton of confidence, and guided by veteran catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers, each is showing the ability to trust their stuff, pound the strike zone, shake off the inevitable mistake, and keep on rolling.

    Fried reminds me so much of a young Steve Avery, it’s scary. Soroka has the poise and makeup of a young Tom Glavine. High praise, yes, but these two kids are good. Really good. Legit, rotation-anchoring good.

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

    A little bit, but only because he’s made just two big-league starts and we’re roughly 1/5th of the way through the season. Folty’s fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and today his slider was flat against San Diego. Coupled with some shaky defense (including a bad throw of his own doing), and it’s easy to see how today came off the rails.

    But he was locked in for much of his first start against Colorado. If Folty has five, six starts under his belt and he’s still sitting 94 mph, then I’d be more concerned. Hard to read too much into two starts, for a guy who won 13 games and made the All-Star team a season ago, then spent four weeks in Triple-A going through his spring training. Give it time and let him get into a rhythm.

    Is the offense better than you thought?

    Absolutely, and it’s not just because of Josh Donaldson (who is so much better defensively than I realized) or Freddie Freeman or Acuna, even though the superkid has struggled the past two weeks. It’s because Ozzie Albies has solidified himself at the top of the lineup – and credit Brian Snitker for recognizing the second baseman needed to hit leadoff regardless of that night’s starter – Nick Markakis has regained his early-2018 form, and the strides Dansby Swanson has made offensively.

    Add in the production out of the veteran catchers, and the Braves 1-through-7 in the order have been every bit as tough as any lineup in the game. There has to be a bit of regression somewhere, at some point, but even if Markakis and the catchers cool off their opening-month pace, this still is a very good offensive team that can help carry it through some bumpy nights pitching-wise.

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

    I’ve preached patience with Swanson since his struggles in 2017. Last year he was hindered (more so than we realized at the time) by a wrist injury. He’s healthy now, and he’s blistering line drives all over the field. His power has expanded, he’s hitting the ball just as hard to right-center as left-center, and he’s still playing outstanding defense.

    It’s 31 games, so let’s see it continue to play out. But I think it’s real. And if Swanson continues to hit like this – and you have to expect some of those liners right at folks are going to find grass at some point – you suddenly have an elite shortstop to add to the linchpins of this lineup. The Braves already have locked up Acuna and Albies. A continuation of this type of play for Swanson the rest of the season certainly makes his next-man-up to sign on the dotted line long term.

    There’s one hitter not mentioned yet … why does Ender keep getting playing time?

    Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he’s won three straight Gold Gloves in center field and he’s historically a poor offensive performer in April? There are plenty of people who have cried for Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to be promoted to the majors after their hot starts at Double-A Mississippi. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.

    Inciarte infuriates the fan base with grounders to second and swinging at the first pitch. He also collected 200 hits two seasons ago and does his best offensive work once school lets out. Some of the patience asked for with Swanson the past two years can be applied here. You have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Inciarte. You just have to … wait for it.

    If Ender still is struggling in six weeks, maybe you have a conversation. For now, the pseudo-platoon of putting Acuna in center and sitting Inciarte against some lefties is doable. Credit Snitker for putting Inciarte lower in the order, and we’ve started to see some signs of life with the bat and a few more balls hit to left and left-center.

    What else has stood out to you in the first five weeks?

    Sean Newcomb had to go back to Triple-A to try and find his rhythm, and he’s turned it around with back-to-back outings with zero walks. … Matt Joyce, signed late in camp, actually has been a nice asset off the bench from the left side. … I’ve been pleased that Snitker has given Johan Camargo starts all over the field, and the two hits today hopefully signifies he’s getting right at the plate. … Julio Teheran hasn’t been that bad, actually, but cannot afford outings like his doubleheader debacle in Cleveland. … The Gwinnett shuttle has worked out for the most part, although I remain befuddled and upset Bryse Wilson didn’t get a longer look in the major-league bullpen before being demoted last weekend. … I hope Wes Parsons gets back and continues to excel. … Charlie Culberson is my favorite position-player pitcher of all time, and his work off the bench – despite too few at-bats – has been impressive.

    What needs to happen this month?

    The other three contenders in the East have flaws just as damning as the Braves, so I don’t expect anybody to have an 18-8 month and pull away. Given Atlanta makes two separate trips to the coast, plays six games against St. Louis and three with Milwaukee, I wouldn’t be upset with .500. That means you don’t stub your toe against Miami or San Francisco, get some payback at Arizona, and hold your own against the Dodgers.

    That keeps you well within striking distance once June begins, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. I think teams falling out of the race are going to look to move guys earlier. The Giants already are listening on several bullpen pieces. Does the Corey Kluber injury shift the balance of power in the AL Central? Will Baltimore cave in on dealing Mychal Givens? And with the draft in early June, does that finally push somebody to sign Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel?

    Those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Braves have plenty of questions of their own as they fly toward South Beach, and the sprint to October ramps toward full speed.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Baby Braves Ready for October Baptism

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Together, they will stand along the first-base line at Dodger Stadium on Thursday evening, adorned in road uniforms and no doubt will feel the full volume of disdain from 56,000 fans in Chavez Ravine to watch what most feel will be the first step in the home team’s return to the World Series.

    One by one, every member of the Atlanta Braves has applied a brushstroke of some sort onto this portrait of stunning arrival, the Braves surging from rebuilding also-ran to division champion in a breathtaking six months. They will grace the postseason stage, amid the increased glare of baseball’s most intense spotlight, as they will face the defending National League pennant winners in Thursday’s opening game of the NL Division Series.

    The talk tracks surrounding this team quickly converge into one irrefutable conclusion: Without the performance of several of Atlanta’s much-ballyhooed younger players, the squadron of young talent Atlanta built while spending four years buried in the standings, it’s unlikely Braves Country would be watching their team play a postseason game for the first time in five years Thursday. And while the headlines have focused on the spell-binding Ronald Acuna, the All-Star Ozzie Albies, the fiery (yet injured and unlikely to play in this series) Dansby Swanson, the emerging Johan Camargo, the ace-in-the-making Mike Foltynewicz and the promising Sean Newcomb, this goes way beyond those marquee names.

    Think about how different the fortunes of this team would have been without four rookies – Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard and Bryse Wilson – winning their big-league debuts. Where would Atlanta be without A.J. Minter grabbing hold of the closer’s gig in mid-summer, or without the 60 appearances from Jesse Biddle?

    This young core is vastly talented, and now has logged time at the highest level. But those names together have exactly zero innings of major-league postseason experience, a daunting fact considering the Dodgers reached Game 7 of the World Series last fall and have won six consecutive NL West titles.

    The Braves have defied the odds all season long, and if this magical run is to continue beyond the next seven days, they will need to continue to buck conventional wisdom. At every turn, be it when Albies stopped hitting homers or Acuna landed on the disabled list or Swanson fell into one of his offensive funks, or Minter and Biddle struggled to find the strike zone, there were other guys who picked up their pace at precisely the right time.

    Consider this: Did anybody four weeks ago think Chad Sobotka (yep, another rookie) would not only make the postseason roster – it will be announced at some point Wednesday or even early Thursday – but that the tall right-hander likely is going to throw very important innings, in close games, in October? This is what has made this Braves journey so special, so improbable. Many felt the talent was there, but how would it react to the pressures of a major-league season, a half-year grind of travel and no days off and late-night flights and competing against 29 other teams comprised of the best players on the planet?

    As the Braves worked out at SunTrust Park on Tuesday afternoon before flying to the west coast, Brian Snitker spoke to the assemblage of reporters about the need to keep things simple, to not try and change the style of play, to keep doing what delivered a 90-win season and the NL East championship. And while the postseason is a different animal altogether, with brighter lights and higher consequences and enhanced pressure, there is validity in Snitker’s words.

    The Braves of ’18 already have made an indelible mark on the hearts of their city and their fanbase. Nothing that happens in this series changes any of that. But these Braves are good. They may not have the postseason pedigree of their opponent. They may have a bunch of playoff newcomers getting their first taste of October baseball. They may not have the odds in their favor.

    But all season, the kids on this team have found a way, a testament backed up by all the one-run wins, the late-inning comebacks, the outstanding road record, the general feeling that yes, it may seem improbable, but sometimes being young enough to not know better is a blessing and not a curse.

    If these Braves are going to reach the NLCS, the kids are going to have to step up yet again. If the past 162 games have shown us anything at all, it’s that they have the ability, the swagger and the confidence to make it happen.

    And now, they get the chance to put it all on display, for all the world to see.

    —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.

    Braves at the Break: Good grades, but Work Remains to Reach October

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A quiet Wednesday evening finds me at the keyboard, and as I think of encapsulating the first 94 games of this remarkable Braves season, my mind drifts back to another Wednesday evening, exactly 17 weeks ago.

    That late afternoon and evening were filled with food, tailgating plans, blogging, podcasting and the Christmas Eve-type anticipation that comes on the night before Opening Day. Another journey about to begin, another trek into the vast unknown of the marathon that covers 162 games in 187 days. And on that late March evening, I opined these Braves would begin to shed the rebuilding moniker and take steps – albeit measured ones – toward contention, finishing with 80 victories while displaying the promise of better days and October nights to come.

    Here we sit, 119 days and nights later, and the Braves sit one-half game out of first place in the National League East, tied in the loss column with Philadelphia, already at 52 victories (65 percent to my predicted total) and poised to enter the final 68 games of this season as a contender for their first postseason berth since 2013.

    We have time to explore what’s to come. Tonight, on the quietest night of the sports year, we grade the roster, coaching staff and front office on the journey to this point.

    Braves 2018 All-Star Break Report Card

    The Roster

    Nick Markakis (A+): Even the most ardent supporter of Young Nick Outta Young Harris (looking at you, Knockahoma Nation) could not have scripted this breakthrough for the 34-year-old, free-agent to be. Markakis earned his first career All-Star berth and leads the National League in hits.

    Freddie Freeman (A+): Freeman was authoring an MVP season in 2017 before a broken wrist cost him seven weeks. All the veteran has done this season is play every game, hit .315, earn his third All-Star nod and look every bit like a frontrunner for the NL’s best player.

    Ozzie Albies (A): Some scouts wondered about Albies power as a minor-leaguer. Nobody’s questioning the 21-year-old anymore, not after he’s belted 20 homers and collected a NL-best 52 extra-base hits, to go with game-changing speed, outstanding defense and a poise well beyond his years.

    Mike Foltynewicz (A-): The first-time All-Star gets this grade because he’s second in the NL in hits per nine innings (6.285) and has dominated in stretches while finding new-found perspective from the birth of his first child. But Atlanta’s postseason hopes rest in part on the rotation’s ability to pitch deeper in games, and 5 2/3 innings per start on average must improve.

    Anibal Sanchez (A-): Were it not for a hamstring injury, the last-minute spring signing could have merited All-Star consideration. He’s been that good, pitching to a 2.60 ERA with a 1.020 WHIP while serving as a needed mentor to a stable of young pitchers. Simply put, Sanchez has been a God-send.

    Charlie Culberson (A-): Considered just a throw-in as part of the Matt Kemp salary dump, Young Charlie Outta Calhoun etched his place in Braves fans’ hearts with two walkoff homers against division rivals in a seven-day span. Versatile and dependable, he’s one of the unsung heroes of the first half.

    Sean Newcomb (B+): This was a solid A until a recent couple of hiccups before the break, but Newcomb has lowered his walk rate (4.5 per nine vs. 5.1 last season) and has displayed dominant stuff for parts of the first half. A strong second half could propel Atlanta into October, but watch his innings (105 this season; 157 2/3 between Triple-A and the majors in 2017).

    Kurt Suzuki (B+): Injuries gave him the bulk of playing time early, but even with the increased workload the defense has been solid, he’s belted eight homers in 66 games, is drawing more walks and continues to be a stabilizing force for Atlanta’s young pitching staff.

    Jesse Biddle (B+): One of the more unheralded arms in Atlanta’s pitching-rich system, Biddle has earned a spot in higher-leverage situations. He holds right-handers to a .128 average, averages 10 strikeouts per nine innings and deserves more meaningful innings in the second half.

    Dansby Swanson (B): His offense has been frustrating for some (79 strikeouts in 79 games), but he sports a .882 OPS with runners in scoring position, a .324 average from the seventh inning on, and teams with Albies up the middle to form one of the most exciting double-play combos in the game.

    Johan Camargo (B): As I’ve tweeted many times, “that’s my third baseman!!” After an early-season injury and the Jose Bautista experiment flopped, Camargo has made the most of his chance. His outstanding defense and 1.020 OPS with runners in scoring position, plus a higher walk rate, may have provided the final answer at the hot corner.

    Arodys Vizcaino (B): News flash – dude’s been good, 15 saves and a 1.65 ERA good. The bad news is that barking right shoulder and a second DL stint for inflammation, an area of great concern as the Braves approach the trade deadline.

    Shane Carle (B-): The last player to make the team out of spring training, Carle came out of nowhere to post a nice 0.69 ERA in his first 20 appearances. There’s been expected regression since – 5.09 ERA and 11 walks in his last 23 innings. If Carle can recapture his first six weeks form, it could go a long way to settling Atlanta’s bullpen.

    A.J. Minter (B-): Many consider the left-handed Craig Kimbrel clone as Atlanta’s closer of the future. We’ve seen it in flashes (four saves, 43 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings), but the walk rate (3.4 per nine innings) is something to watch for a guy with all the raw tools to become a dominant back-end arm.

    Dan Winkler (B-): Simply one of the best stories in all of baseball, the oft-injured Winkler has shined for much of the first half, owning a sub-1 ERA in mid-June. Three multi-run outings the past month hurt his numbers, but his stuff – like Minter’s – is good enough to make him a critical piece of the roster down the stretch.

    Ronald Acuna (B-): Yes, there are 56 strikeouts in 43 games. There also are seven homers, five tools on display, a recovery from what could’ve been a season-ending injury and the ability to change a game at any moment with his bat, speed, glove and arm. Did we mention he’s 20 years old?

    Preston Tucker (B-): Hard to fault the job Tucker did in the opening weeks in hitting three big homers. Sent to Gwinnett to get needed at-bats, he returned last weekend and belted a pinch-hit homer. He can change a game with one swing.

    Luke Jackson (B-): One of the riders of the Atlanta/Gwinnett shuttle, Jackson actually has settled in as a dependable long man in his latest stint. He’s allowed two runs in 11 1/3 innings in his last 10 appearances with 13 strikeouts in that stretch.

    Julio Teheran (C+): It’s hard to tell what you’ll get every fifth day and there seems to be no middle ground. It’s either great (like six no-hit innings against the Mets) or awful (seven runs allowed in his next start). Two encouraging items: His last two starts before the break were solid and his fastball velocity is back into the low 90s.

    Ender Inciarte (C): The two-time Gold Glove-winning defense in center field remains, but Inciarte’s first half was marred by too many stretches of offensive struggles (his .649 OPS is lowest among Atlanta regulars) and simmering frustration that resulted in his being benched for not running out a pop up. One of my absolute favorites (and I’m sorry, Jayme), but we need more in the second half.

    Tyler Flowers (C): He got hurt on opening day and has scuffled offensively (.165 average against right-handers screams matchup platoon), but the veteran has provided steady defense while teaming with Suzuki to give the Braves the luxury of two capable defensive backstops to steady a young staff.

    Max Fried (C): The Braves continue to do a disservice to the powerful lefty by trying to pitch him out of the bullpen. In three starts, he’s pitched to a 3.07 ERA while averaging 11 strikeouts per nine innings. On the DL with a blister, Fried could bolster the rotation in the second half, or be dangled at the trade deadline.

    Matt Wisler (C): This grade isn’t all his fault, as he’s pitched to a 3.63 ERA with a 1.212 WHIP in three starts. His relief numbers, like Fried, are awful and the Braves have no business throwing him in relief. At this point, he’s a starter who likely will be offered as part of a trade at the deadline or in the offseason.

    Lane Adams (C): Look who’s back in the organization, one of the more popular Braves social media guys (look away, Braves Ninja). Adams hit .275 and went 10-for-10 in steals a season ago but was cut despite posting a .793 OPS in 15 games early this season. Likely to get a look again sooner rather than later.

    Brandon McCarthy (C-): He went 4-0 with a 3.09 ERA through his first six starts, but has pitched to a 6.17 ERA and a .906 OPS in his next nine starts before right knee inflammation landed him on the disabled list. With no timetable set for his return, it’s fair to wonder if the veteran has made his last appearance in an Atlanta uniform.

    Ryan Flaherty (D): Yes, he led the NL in hitting for a brief time. Yes, he is a great veteran presence in the locker room. Yes, he is Markakis’ brother-in-law. No, there are better options for a bat off the bench and backup corner infielder.

    Danny Santana (D-): He needs a three-game stretch like last summer in Oakland, where the speedy reserve outfielder took over a series. Nothing like that has happened this season. An 80-grade Twitter hashtag from last summer, this summer finds the Braves needing better than a 30-grade bench option.

    Sam Freeman (F): He was a bright spot last season, but Freeman’s control issues should move the Braves to upgrade in the bullpen. His ERA is above 4.75 for three of the first four months of the season, including an unsightly 8.49 mark in June and six walks in 3 1/3 innings in July. Enough, already.

    Peter Moylan (F): Everybody loves the Aussie and rightly so, but this ship long since has sailed. A 1.846 WHIP and 10.7 hits per nine innings on the season, and a 12.00 (TWELVE!) ERA in his past five appearances, screams crikey! Enough is enough.

    Lucas Sims (F): A kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, Sims has been awful at the major-league level (7.84 ERA, 1.935 WHIP). He’s pitched to a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts at Triple-A. A change of scenery would serve him well and give him a chance to break through the ceiling of a Four-A arm.

    Evan Phillips (INC): He’s made but two appearances in the majors, neither in high-leverage situations, and the unsightly 14.73 ERA reflects that. Phillips owns intriguing stuff and closed games at Gwinnett. A promising young arm to watch in the second half.

    Mike Soroka (INC): One of Atlanta’s most-prized pitching prospects – he should be untouchable regarding trades – he made only five starts before being shut down with injury. But the Pride of Calgary has a bright future and showed plenty of glimpses of it at times in his initial major-league outings.

    Luiz Gohara (INC): A 21-year-old with arguably the best stuff in the Braves system, Gohara endured an awful personal offseason, then was hurt in spring training. His stuff plays at the major-league level and getting him on track could be akin to trading for a dominant starter.

    The Staff

    The Manager (C+): The players love Brian Snitker and certainly there’s something to be said for that. Having players who will run through a wall for you is important. Snitker is stubborn to change at times, a byproduct of loyalty I don’t want to fault but I must, as some of his in-game decisions have hurt. The infusion of analytics has helped – albeit I think at the pushing of his staff. At times he seems more comfortable in the lead chair than in the past two seasons and, let it be known, I’m rooting for him. He’s one of the nicest guys you ever could meet. With that said, I see too many questionable decisions to buy in long term. Will Snitker be here in 2019? My heart says yes, but my head says no.

    The Coaching Staff (A): It’s clear this organization needed an infusion of new blood, and with the addition of Walt Weiss, Eric Young and Sal Fasano, the Braves have constructed one of the best coaching staffs in baseball. Ron Washington is the unsung MVP of this team, helping to forge one of baseball’s best defenses. Young has helped the roster push the envelope on the bases, using speed Atlanta has not had in years to pressure defenses.

    The Front Office (B-): Maybe a bit of a harsh grade, yes, given this team was picked by most to win between 75 and 82 games. The good: New GM Alex Anthopoulos took the right, measured approach to learn of his assets at his disposal, rather than trying to make a move for the sake of headlines. An analytical approach, embraced by the staff and players, has led to better defense. Also, and this must be said, the environment around the entire organization is so much better. The bad: Snitker has been handcuffed at times by dead weight on the bench and the bullpen. That’s on Anthopoulos, and it must be addressed at the deadline if Atlanta wants to play into October.

    —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.