• John Hart

    Snitker the Brave Receives Well-Deserved Extension

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was a moment that otherwise would be forgotten amid the wreckage of a lost season, the 72nd game of a campaign in which the Atlanta Braves would win but 68 times, would finish 26 ½ games out of first place, would promote an organizational lifer to the manager’s seat after a 9-28 start merely to steer the listless ship toward October and incoming certain change at the helm.

    The Braves hosted the New York Mets on June 23, 2016, at Turner Field, Brian Snitker filling out the lineup card as a major-league manager for the 35th time since replacing the fired Fredi Gonzalez six weeks earlier, 39 years after debuting as a minor-league catcher for Atlanta’s rookie-league affiliate in Kingsport, Tenn., 34 years after starting his first season as a manager for Atlanta’s Single-A affiliate in Anderson, S.C. The Braves were hosed out of the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, a blown call that (surprise!) replay upheld.

    Mets announcers, not surprisingly, were pleased with the call …

    But Snitker promptly strolled onto the field for an explanation from umpire Mike Everitt, who promptly ejected the interim skipper.

    Then, we saw it. Yes, it’s been there since 1977 and those days squatting behind the plate in the Appalachian League, but here on a major-league diamond was Snitker, stomping behind Everitt, arms flailing violently, Braves cap in his left hand, screaming at the top of his lungs, fighting for the team that brought him up only to keep a seat warm in the dugout, a demonstrative outpouring of passion and loyalty to the lone franchise he’s known, an outburst that made the 22,324 in the ballpark that night sound like 40,000.

    It truly feels like a fairy tale, this 2018 season that culminated in a National League East championship, a trip to the NL Division Series, the confluence of veteran leadership with young blooming talent. And in the midst of it all stood Snitker, who long shed the interim label, who Monday sat proudly in a red shirt and a blossoming offseason beard (mustache, too!) as the Braves announced a two-year contract extension with a third-year option for 2021.

    When Snitker was summoned from Triple-A Gwinnett to take the helm after Gonzalez was relieved of his duties, I joked on Twitter that he should bring Ozzie Albies with him. No way did I ever think this stint would last beyond the final game of 2016, but lo and behold, we saw something else that muggy June night in the ballpark that now is the home of Georgia State football.

    We saw the Braves rally. Adonis Garcia belted a two-run homer an inning after Snitker was sent to the showers, the come-from-behind 4-3 victory serving as foreshadowing for how Atlanta would become the battling Braves in years to come. Atlanta has won 57 games in its last at-bat since Snitker became manager, including 20 this season as the Braves raced past expectations and past the rest of the NL East, fashioning one of the most memorable campaigns in these parts since the franchise relocated from Milwaukee in 1966.

    For context, that was 11 years before Snitker joined the Atlanta organization.

    He deserves a ton of credit, and it started during those dark days of 2016. The Braves were an embarrassment in the final two months of 2015 and it continued through the early weeks of the next season, Atlanta going 34-76 in Gonzalez’s final 110 games as manager. Certainly, it wasn’t all his fault, with a stripped-down roster as the organization dove head-long into rebuild mode. Snitker managed 52 games before the All-Star break, the Braves going 22-30, then put together a 37-35 second half and knocked Detroit from the playoff race in the final game before home plate at Turner Field was dug up and transported via police escort to the dirt pile that would become SunTrust Park.

    Snitker found himself at the helm for 2017, an evaluation year that certainly would end with bumbling executives John Coppolella (trying to circumvent MLB rules) and John Hart (trying to lower his handicap) seeking a new manager for 2018, the man who would lead the Braves out of the darkness. Holes remained in the roster, of course, but Snitker helped squeeze a 45-45 start before Atlanta finally ran out of gas, and by late summer there was every indication the lifelong organization man would be in a different role come 2018. We’ve heard the stories by now, how right fielder Nick Markakis stood up for Snitker after Hart screamed at the manager following a loss in August, how Coppolella’s lack of people skills pushed Snitker to the point of telling a clubhouse attendant to pack his stuff while the Braves were finishing the season on the road, the affable lifelong Brave so disgusted, he had no desire to even return to his home ballpark.

    We all know how the story played out from there. Snitker, the beacon of steadiness, one beloved by players and staff alike, was the perfect person to guide the Braves one more season while new GM Alex Anthopoulos assessed the reeling organization top-to-bottom in 2018. Loyal to the brand to the very end, Snitker embraced the new regime’s reliance on analytics, formed tight bonds with several new members of the coaching staff brought into the dugout in the offseason, and continued to hold the steering wheel with a steady, firm hand as the trickle of young, promising talent reaching the majors grew into a wave.

    And his confidence grew, too. Two years on the job, more comfortable with the media, more relaxed. Brian Snitker had a chance – a real, fair chance – to manage for his job in 2018. He seized it. He benched Ender Inciarte, one of Snitker’s more vocal proponents, for failing to run out a ground ball. It didn’t change the center fielder’s feeling for his manager, but helped spark him to a strong second half. Snitker tried to single-handedly tear through the Miami Marlins roster to get at Jose Urena after Ronald Acuna Jr. was nailed on purpose with a pitch, his emotional postgame comments in which he described the Braves boy wonder as “my kid … I’m going to protect him,” resonating throughout baseball.

    And of course, the crowning moment, fighting back tears on the infield at SunTrust Park moments after the Braves won the East, saying simply, “I’m a Brave.” It’s a moment I’m not ashamed to say has made my eyes water every time I’ve watched it.

    He’s a Brave, indeed, and the gig is his. There are times where the tactical decision-making leads me to shake my head. I guess you could say that about any manager, coach, boss, person in power. But there is no denying this: I coached my kids in baseball for more than a decade. I would be honored for them to play for this man.

    Brian Snitker, the good company man, finally has his just reward. It’s not a retirement party or a gold watch or a farewell pat on the back. It’s this opportunity, one that made all those long bus rides and rain delays and time spent away from family across four decades worth the sacrifice.

    It’s a chance to manage a team that very soon figures to be a World Series contender. It’s a chance richly earned and well deserved.

    —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.

    Anthopoulos Hiring Restores Hope

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Alex Anthopoulos may never lead the Atlanta Braves to a World Series championship. But amid a dark and stormy winter, the new general manager of the disgraced franchise provided something during his first day on the job Monday that felt completely unattainable through the first six weeks of the worst offseason in team history.

    Hope.

    Capping a process that accelerated over the weekend and culminated in news breaking in the overnight hours, the 40-year-old sat behind a microphone at SunTrust Park on Monday afternoon, the 12th general manager in Braves history beginning a tenure that starts under immense scrutiny and the looming storm clouds of Major League Baseball’s investigation looming on the horizon.

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    But even though there undoubtedly will be stiff penalties handed down and time will be needed for the paying public to move beyond the scandal, Anthopoulos and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk sounded all the right notes in Monday’s announcement. And for this organization, getting the optics right is almost as critical in the healing process.

    McGuirk began by apologizing to the Braves fanbase for the front office scandal that forced disgraced former general manager John Coppolella to resign on Oct. 2.  He remained tight lipped about the nature of the misdeeds, revealing only that he expects Major League Baseball to announce the findings of its investigation into the Braves’ rules violations, along with resulting penalties, within the next two weeks.

    As notable as who appeared during the 30-minute press conference was who did not speak. Team president John Hart was not on stage, having been removed of any influence on baseball decisions beyond an advisory role, a necessary move for a baseball lifer who either was guilty of letting Coppolella run amuck, or too disengaged to notice.

    Longtime general manager John Schuerholz was not present on stage, either. Longtime manager Bobby Cox sat in the audience along manager Brian Snitker.

    Let’s now pause to consider this for a moment. Today has to be the first time the Braves made a major announcement without Cox, Schuerholz and/or Hart offering the voice of the franchise since 1985, the season before Cox returned to Atlanta as general manager and a decade before Atlanta won its lone World Series title.

    For a disenchanted fanbase long-since sick of hearing about “The Braves Way,” this was the right move.

    So, too, is hiring Anthopoulos, who made his mark in Toronto as a general manager not afraid to swing and miss in firing on a big deal. There were more hits than misses in building a team that reached the AL championship series in 2015-16, and time spent in the Dodgers’ front office helping bring Los Angeles its first pennant since 1988 certainly helps, too.

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    The fact Atlanta was able to hire Anthopoulos, one of the brighter young minds in baseball with a desire to win, is impressive. Given the current climate surrounding the franchise, it’s nothing short of a best-case scenario. For the fans, bloggers and columnists who have screamed for weeks about cleaning house and steering clear of a list of former GMs closer to retirement than relevance, this is about as good as it gets.

    Certainly, there is risk. Unless the Braves already have an idea what level of sanctions will be passed down, there is that uncertainty looming over whoever landed in the GM’s chair. There clearly are holes on the major-league roster, including the bullpen and third base and the needed move to clear room for Ronald Acuna in the outfield by March.

    But the upside is enormous, which Anthopoulos mentioned repeatedly in his opening address as GM. With baseball’s best farm system and opening revenue streams and a major-league roster already sprinkled with promising young and controllable talent, the national narrative on this day started shifting back to the pre-October storyline.

    The Braves are getting close. The better days are coming, and soon.

    The baseball decisions to come in the next few weeks will loom large for the 2018 season, one in which Atlanta looks to snap a four-season string of 90-plus losses while appeasing fans and business partners who will sting from the scandal and pending sanctions for some time to come. But at least Anthopoulos fills the gaping hole in the front office, consolidating control into a single voice, one that has built a pennant contender, one that was involved in a World Series run last month.

    And that guy holds the keys to the kingdom, one that does not seem as dire as it did before the weekend began. The honeymoon will not last long and he surely will be tasked with trading some of the overpacked pantry of prospects to address immediate needs. But in Anthopoulos the Braves have their man for the next four years.

    Again, they have hope.

    —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.

    Fan Frustration Builds as Braves’ Winter of Discontent Continues

    Braves Wire – Budman’s Braves Beat

    Angst, Frustration Builds as Braves’ Winter of Discontent Continues

     

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Thirty-eight days ago, running on short sleep and fresh off my first airplane flight in several years, I sat in a meeting room in Austin, Texas, locked into planning sessions for a day job I truly love.

    Then my phone started vibrating uncontrollably. After ignoring the first two or three alerts, I became alarmed and diverted my attention briefly to a bevy of text messages and tweets that started the worst offseason in the history of Braves baseball.

    And now here we sit, on a chilly Thursday night in the North Georgia foothills, two weeks away from Thanksgiving and not one bit closer toresolution of our winter of discontent.

    The news, or lack thereof, grew worse earlier in the day, amid rumors Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into alleged improprieties committed by the Atlanta front office – leading to the ouster of the general manager – may run into December.

    That information is the latest punch in the gut for a Braves fanbase that has endured more than its fair share of jokes, rips and criticism the past 5 ½ weeks. To be honest, it is starting to show in social media, as the frustration boils over the surface.

    And who can blame them? Consider:

    Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart will continue serving as general manager until a GM is hired

    Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart will continue serving as general manager until a GM is hired

    • The expectation was MLB would dole out punishment shortly after the World Series. Houston held its parade six days ago.
    • The rumors MLB required more interviews, with further reports of testimony that differed from one source to another.
    • The questions around who comprises the coaching staff, while other teams complete their coaching assignments.
    • The gaping hole in the general manager’s chair, days before the General Manager meetings begin.
    • The opening of free agency in what many viewed as a critical offseason in Atlanta’s rebuild.
    • The lingering questions around whether John Hart will remain a part of the front office (I am on record as saying he should have clean out his office yesterday).

    And now, today’s reports. A December resolution very well could send the Braves to the Winter Meetings – one of the biggest events on baseball’s calendars – in Orlando without any indication of punishment, and perhaps the inability to hire a general manager.

    For all the greatness of technology, there is nothing that replicates being in the same room, talking face to face. Hence why I was nearly 1,000 miles from SunTrust Park when news of the scandal broke. The GM meetings and the Winter Meetings bring baseball executives to one place, where late-night chats over cocktails and long sessions in hotel suites stoke the hot stove and fuel the rush to opening day – and for some, glory next October.

    But at this point, the Braves appear to enter the two most important weeks of the offseason with Hart as the top representative of a damaged franchise. There is no indication he even will have a job when spring training starts. There is no way of knowing what penalties MLB will impose on the team.

    And not a single word from the organization, other than an email I received from my season-ticket rep the day all of this became public. I get it. As several on social media have opined today, you do not pay lawyers big money to talk to the press – or your fanbase.

    If one subscribes to the theory that silence is golden, you get a sense of how bad this is going to be. There is little doubt MLB is going to make an example of the Braves, that no team ever will dare to approach the transgressions committed by this organization. This is going to hurt. Bad.

    As many of us can relate, this is like sitting outside the principal’s office, but we have absolutely no idea when that door is going to open and we are going to be summoned from the lobby.

    All we know is the outcome is not going to be pleasant. And the waiting makes it even more infuriating how this happened in the first place.

    —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

    The “Braves Way” Is Dead. Here’s the Path Forward from Scandal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the house of cards once called the Atlanta Braves front office collapsed, blown away by a chorus of gale-force gusts produced by Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into allegations of scandalous behavior.

    We shall not invoke the name of the former general manager who resigned on the opening day of the offseason. I frankly do not care if he ever is heard from again, to be quite honest.

    But at some point, no matter how angry or embarrassed or betrayed or brokenhearted one is, you must look around at the altered landscape and assess the way forward. As the Braves leadership – using that term quite loosely – gathered in Orlando for its annual October organizational meetings, the focus undoubtedly was not so much on the 2018 roster as it was on how to emerge from the worst scandal in franchise history.

    Yes, it’s bad. It quite possibly may get worse once MLB announces its findings and subsequent punishments. No, it won’t set the franchise back a decade. Yes, it may rattle the very foundation that cracked a week ago Monday.

    But keep this in mind: SunTrust Park will be filled to capacity on March 29, 2018, when the Braves open the new season against Philadelphia. Advertisers likely are not leaving. No company with a business in The Battery is going to shut its doors.

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    However, the Braves better be very aware their loyal fanbase – which has gone 22 years since experiencing a World Series title, 18 years without an NL pennant, 16 years with nary a postseason series triumph – looks at its baseball team with a skeptical eye in wake of this mess. Restoring that trust and unwavering support will not happen overnight, but there are a few things whoever is minding the store now and moving forward best keep in mind.

    Accountability

    We see it all the time, whether a public figure commits some sort of transgression or a corporation endures a security breach. Somebody gets behind a microphone, or writes a press release, or posts on social media some canned statement that says little.

    The Braves cannot go down that “blah, blah, blah” road. Somebody, be it John Hart or Terry McGuirk or John Schuerholz, better step up and own this. Pleasant? Nope. Necessary? Absolutely.

    Schuerholz is regarded by some as merely a figurehead driving deals for new stadiums and spring training complexes. Others think the Hall of Famer still is influencing baseball decisions. Hart, as director of the front office who was brought in to mentor the since-deposed GM, reports to McGuirk, the conduit between the faceless Liberty Media conglomerate and the baseball franchise it owns for purposes tax related.

    I have my doubts anybody on Liberty’s board of directors could name more than five players who wore an Atlanta uniform in 2017.

    Regardless, whoever serves as the mouthpiece moving forward better be open and honest. No corporate double-talk. The fans demand (and rightly deserve) to know who knew what, why this happened, what lessons have been learned and what is going to happen moving forward.

    And it better be sincere. If it’s bull, the fanbase will smell it from a mile away.

    Change

    Dumping the brash, somewhat disruptive and downright rude former GM was a no-brainer. Call it a resignation all you want, but the dude had no choice. In essence, he was fired, and he shouldn’t be the first one to pack their office.

    It is inconceivable to me and countless others I have talked to in recent days that this was a back-door, dimly lit, lone-wolf scenario. Those who knew the depth of the alleged transgressions had a moral obligation to speak up, and by not doing so, there must be payment.

    That payment amounts to taking a broom to the executive offices at SunTrust Park. Hart very well may view himself as a bridge to 2018. Schuerholz may fancy himself with a relevant role in the clean-up. McGuirk, who has not uttered a peep since the scandal broke, might feel far enough removed above the fray.

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Wrong, wrong and wrong. All three must go; if not now, certainly before spring training starts. If there ever was time to cut the cord from two decades ago, now is that time. Yes, that includes Bobby Cox, whose influence (along with Schuerholz) likely has played too much of a role in recent years, resumes and job titles be darned.

    And while we’re at it, once and for all, “The Braves Way” is dead and gone, never to be uttered again. It is worn out and rings hollower today than ever before.

    Contend

    This is easier said than done because, duh, every one of the 30 teams in baseball sets out to compete for a playoff spot each season. But arguably no team on the planet, in any league, at any level of the sport, needs a good 2018 season more than the Braves.

    Forty-eight months ago, Craig Kimbrel stood locked in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium as Los Angeles rallied for a victory that eliminated Atlanta from the NL Division Series. The great tear-down began a few months later, with the late years of this decade the target to return to the limelight with a team bolstered by young starts and a farm system plentiful in top prospects.

    There is no doubt the spotlight shines brightly on this franchise today, but for all the wrong reasons. Within that white-hot glow of scrutiny and skepticism, it may be easy to forget the Braves do have the best farm system in the majors, with several young players either already having ascended to the big leagues or sitting a year or two away.

    The right moves this offseason could accelerate the timeline to contention. That would not be a bad thing given how the Braves have screwed up the one thing that figured never to be shaken – its relationship with an adoring, loyal, generational fanbase that has waited patiently and trusted the process.

    That trust, that patience, is in scant supply these days. Even a run at a wildcard berth that carries beyond Labor Day would be a needed salve on the festering wound this scandal has left.

    The path forward may not be easy, but spare me the tears. The Braves deserve whatever punishment comes from this. The real question in my mind is how does the organization move forward.

    And you better believe we are watching. Closely.

    —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 rebuild costs Gonzalez managerial job

    The rumor that began in spring training and got louder as the Braves struggled through April and the first two weeks of May came to fruition Tuesday with the firing of manager Fredi Gonzalez.

    GM John Coppolella, architect of the Braves' rebuild, will seek a permanent manager to start the 2017 season.

    GM John Coppolella, architect of the Braves’ rebuild, will seek a permanent manager to start the 2017 season.

    Off to their worse start in a century, the Atlanta Braves, in full rebuild mode at the direction of CEO John Hart and GM John Coppolella, could no longer continue with Fredi Gonzalez, 52, in the dugout. While the responsibility falls on many shoulders, the manager is often first on the chopping block in these situations and so was the case this week for Atlanta.

    Gonzalez took the helm of the club in 2011 following the retirement of his mentor Bobby Cox. Moving from one NL East club to another, Gonzalez left the Marlins to lead the Braves to early successes. In 2012, the Braves played in the Wild Card game against the St. Louis Cardinals. They would go to the playoffs again in 2013, this time as the NL East champion. Since it became obvious that the Braves were going to commit to a rebuild, trading away Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Evan Gattis, Alex Wood and Andrelton Simmons over two off-seasons, the Braves have struggled to put together wins. They began this season in an 0-9 hole and currently have a horrendous 9-28 record.

    Going forward, the Braves have promoted from Gwinnett’s coaching staff Brian Snitker to serve as interim manager. Joining him from Triple-A is Marty Reed to serve as bullpen coach. With Gonzalez’s firing was also the firing of bench coach Carlos Tosca. It is assumed that both bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who will now serve as first base coach, and Terry Pendleton, now bench coach, will be candidates for the permanent manager position this off-season.

    Gonzalez leaves the Braves with a 434-413 record.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

    How The Braves Can Win In 2016

    As the Braves’ 2015 season draws to a merciful close, it’s time to start thinking about next year. Well, okay … it was time to start thinking about next year a long time ago. But now that the offseason is almost upon us, let’s have a closer look at what next year’s roster might look like.

    After chatting with many Braves fans on Twitter, it has come to my attention that some are pessimistic about the direction of this ball club. Twitter, as you know, is a wonderful place defined always by thoughtful discourse, level-headed debate and rational, well-reasoned viewpoints. So imagine my surprise when some took to calling Braves Director of Baseball Operations John Hart an “idiot”—or worse—for his execution of the team’s deconstruction and reconstruction over the past year. “This team still going to suck in 2017,” some told me. (Opening Day, 2017 being the target date when the Braves’ front office plans for the team to once again be strong postseason contenders.)

    Braves Director of Baseball Operations, John Hart

    Braves Director of Baseball Operations, John Hart

    Look, it’s been a long year in Braves Country. Fans who attend the remaining home games at Turner Field should receive a t-shirt emblazoned with a Braves logo and the words “I survived 2015!”  It’s been tough. I get it. But I think pessimism about the Braves’ long-term future is unfounded. And while feeling less than giddy about next season is far more understandable, I wouldn’t write off 2016 as another 6-month-long drinking game waiting to happen (A Braves reliever just served up another run-scoring hit… “SHOT!”  Wait, two runs scored? “DOUBLE SHOT!”).

    In fact, I think the Braves can win in 2016. Will they? I have no earthly idea. But I believe it’s quite possible. Now, that might seem hard to swallow on the heels of season in which Atlanta will have lost well over 90 games, but it’s not nearly as far fetched as it might sound at first blush.

    Here are the keys to a winning 2016 season:

    BRING IN AN ACE:

    I’m on record as predicting that the Braves will pursue one of the available free agent aces this winter. They are: David Price, Zach Grienke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann. Other quality free agent starters will include Mike Leake and Jeff Smardzija.

    But why, you might ask, would the Braves pursue a free agent ace this winter, rather than waiting for 2017? There are several reasons:

    1 – They would like to build some momentum heading into the new ballpark. If the Braves are coming off of back-to-back terrible seasons when SunTrust Park opens its gates, it’s could be tougher to get fans excited about the new beginning.

    LHP David Price is one of several top-end starting pitchers on the free agent market.

    LHP David Price is one of several top-end starting pitchers on the free agent market this winter.

    2 – Why not? They have the money. In a recent interview, John Hart pointed out that the Braves have shed a lot of payroll and now have a lot more flexibility to spend money on talent, adding “I think, again, what we do with that financial flexibility remains to be determined. But I think it’s going to be something where we’ll be aggressive in our approach.”  Also, consider the fact that any free agent starting pitchers the Braves might pursue are going to be looking for 5+ year deals. If need be, Atlanta could structure a deal to pay a little less in year-one of the contract and make up the difference over the balance of the deal when the new ballpark revenue is flowing.

    3 – The opportunity may not be there a year from now. There are at least a half-dozen quality starting pitchers, including several aces, available via free agency this winter, but the 2016-2017 free agent pitching market is shaping up to be a thin one. So if the Braves want to add a veteran free agent ace to anchor this young rotation going forward, it makes sense to do it now–this winter, rather than wait.

    4 – Acquiring another top-of-rotation starter opens up the possibility of trading Julio Teheran for a bat, if/when the Braves feel another young hurler is ready to replace him in the rotation. And who knows? That opportunity could arise at some point during the 2016 season.

    BETTER PERFORMANCE FROM MIDDLE/BOTTOM OF ROTATION:

    A free agent ace, together with Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran, could form a heck of a trio. But, they’ll need to have Terhan back on track. It’s been a tough year for Julio, but you have to remember that this is the same guy who posted an ERA right around 3.00 over 400+ innings though the two seasons prior. He posted a 2.89 ERA in 2014 and opposing hitters batted .232 against him. And he looks to be finishing strong this season.

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

    Hey, he’s 24 years old. Perhaps it’s a bit reactionary to write him off after one substandard season, don’t you think?

    The Braves need Teheran to step up, and there is reason to hope that he will, but they’ll also need better performance from the bottom of the rotation. Rookie starters Williams Perez, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos all currently feature ERA’s north of 5.00. Now, it is worth noting that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery all posted 5.00+ ERA’s in their rookie seasons too. That should tell you that first-year stats are not a reliable predictor of future performance.

    But while early-career struggles are entirely normal, if the Braves are going to win in 2016, they’ll have to get more out of the bottom of the rotation than they what they got this season. They don’t need anyone to compete for a CY Young award here at the back end of the group. ERA’s well down into the 4.00’s would suffice.

    REVAMP BULLPEN:

    The Braves bullpen has been terrible. So bad, in fact, that it may be hard to believe that the Braves can turn it around in a single winter. But consider a few things:

    First, the bullpen, as bad as it’s been, isn’t barren. Arodys Vizcaino has been a huge ray of light. If he continues to dominate, the Braves may have their closer for years to come. He gives Atlanta something to build around as they reconstruct the bullpen. Also, Matt Marksberry has shown himself to be a highly effective left-handed specialist as long as he’s limited to that role. Lefty hitters are batting just .154 against him. And Peter Moylan might be able to hang around as a groundball specialist for double play situations.

    RHP Jasn Grilli

    RHP Jasn Grilli (right) With catcher A.J. Pierzynski (left)

    Second, some of that cash the Braves will have to spend could be invested in relief help.

    And finally, the Braves have several quality bullpen arms on the DL right now, who are expected to return to action early next year:

    • Jason Grilli expects to be healthy and ready for training camp in February.
    • Chis Withrow, who the Braves acquired earlier this year from the Dodgers, has back-end-of-the-bullpen stuff. He is recovering from Tommy John surgery and should join the team early next season.
    • Shae Simmons also underwent Tommy John surgery, and like Withrow, has the potential to be a late-inning guy in this Atlanta ‘pen. He will likely be ready for spring training.
    • Paco Rodriguez, a hard-throwing lefty also acquired from the Dodgers, is rehabbing from elbow surgery (not Tommy John) and should be ready in the spring as well.

    When you consider the relief arms the Braves have on the shelf, as well as the ability to spend some cash on a free agent reliever (trades, of course, are also a possibility), there is every reason to believe the Atlanta bullpen could be vastly improved next year.

    OLIVERA MUST HIT:

    The Braves rolled the dice over the summer in trading for 30 year old Cuban standout Hector Olivera. John Hart and Co. believe Olivera can provide offense at the hot corner and be a consistent middle-of-the-order bat to protect Freddie Freeman in the lineup. The Braves think he has a good chance to be the offensive equivalent to Scott Rolen or Travis Fryman. The Dodgers, of course, believe in him as well, having inked him to a deal worth more than 60-million dollars before he ever took his first swing in the big leagues.

    3B Hector Olivera

    3B Hector Olivera

    Here’s hoping they’re right about him. He’ll be a big key for 2016. If he hits, that could make a big difference for this lineup.

    SCRATCH OUT RUNS:

    Even if Olivera lives up to expectations, the Braves lineup won’t set the world on fire. But if the pitching is solid next season (and it has a chance to be), the lineup only has to approximate its performance through the first half of 2015. At the midway point of this season, Atlanta was squarely middle-of-the-pack in runs scored and on-base percentage, and they were 5th in the NL in team avg. They made it happen with a scrappy lineup that was willing and able to put pressure on opposing pitchers and play A-B-C baseball. If the pitching staff does its job, that kind of offensive output would likely be enough to push the Braves over .500.

    If you feel good about the possibilities for next season, you’re not crazy. After all, the Braves were a .500 ball club halfway through the 2015 season. Injuries to Freeman and Grilli led or contributed to a midseason skid, followed by the selloff of veteran anchors like Jose Uribe and Kelly Johnson along with multiple relievers, at which point the wheels came off. Again, the Braves have a lot of bullpen help on the way, and other veteran help can once again be imported.

    I’m not predicting that the Braves will win next year. The only thing I can say with confidence is that next season will be better than the present one. But that’s not saying very much. They may very well finish near the cellar once again. My point is simply that there is a realistic scenario in which they could win.

    If the front office brings in a high-end starting pitcher and a few people step up next season, the Braves could turn things around in 2016. Don’t look for them to compete for a World Series ring, but eclipsing .500 would be a vast improvement over the torturous season Braves fans have just endured. And that may be an attainable goal.

    Will the Braves win in 2016? Tell me what you think: @FriedbasballATL

    Kent Covington is a national radio news reporter and BravesWire Editor.

    J. Upton, Northcraft traded to Friars for 4 prospects

    In a much anticipated move, the Braves traded away slugger Justin Upton for a package of prospects. Friday the front office completed a 6-player trade with the San Diego Padres. Joining Upton in the trade to San Diego is Aaron Northcraft, minor league RHP prospect. In return from the Padres, the Braves receive much-touted prospect Max Fried (LHP), Jace Peterson (INF), Dustin Peterson (INF), and Mallex Smith (OF).

    northcraft

    Aaron Northcraft was ranked 14th among Braves’ prospects prior to the trade and won’t be in the top 20 prospects of the Padres’ organization.

    The headliner headed to San Diego is Justin Upton, of course. But the Padres also receive 24-year-old pitching prospect Aaron Northcraft. Northcraft had a rough 2014 season when he went from a pitcher with a 7-3 record and 2.88 ERA while at Double-A to an 0-7 pitcher with an elevated 6.54 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett. He never had the speed or power to be a piece of the Braves’ bullpen and given his struggles in AAA, he wasn’t projected to be a possibility for the rotation. While he could add depth eventually to the Padres’ young rotation, his loss isn’t one the Braves can’t absorb.

    In 2 seasons with the Braves, the 27-year-old Upton hit 27 and 29 home runs, some would say at the cost of 160+ strikeouts per year. His .263 and .270 averages came up short of the marks he tallied the previous 4 seasons in Arizona. His defense seemed to be down while in Atlanta, though that could arguably be due to the shadow of the greatest defensive right fielder in the league–Jason Heyward–to compare him to. While playing with his big brother B.J. didn’t seem to hurt or help his game, the opposite was true for B.J. There is always the possibility that B.J. might play better without his brother on the roster with him. Time will tell.

    Upton’s bat will be replaced in the lineup by the full-time bat of Evan Gattis, presumably. Gattis will man LF while rookie Bethancourt takes on the responsibility of being behind the plate full-time.

    BRAVES MOVE AHEAD IN PUSH FOR 2017 STADIUM OPENING…

    For fans who don’t quite grasp what the Braves are doing with their offseason moves, it is helpful to understand that in 2017 the Cobb County stadium (SunTrust Park) will open. This isn’t the type of fire sale that would see the team sell off their highest valued pieces for a load of young prospects to restock the farm. This is simply letting go of players that they would otherwise only have control of for a year before they left for free agency, the case with both Heyward and Upton. In return, the Braves may not be receiving pieces that are big-league ready (which is the case with all but Max Fried in the Padres trade), but they will be by 2017 when the team hopes to have a club that can not only only compete, but can win it all.

    That said, don’t count Atlanta out. Adding Shelby Miller makes for a young, talented rotation with Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and possibly David Hale. Adding Nick Markakis gives the Braves’ lineup some pop, pop that will come with less strikeouts than the Braves’ OF has brought to the equation in the last 2 years. With the signing of Callaspo, the Braves add a sure hand that can provide leadership for the up and coming young players like Pastornicky, Gosselin and Perraza.

    Trading with the Padres brought 4 prospects to the club that will help in various ways with the current plan to build for a great 2017 run. Max Fried, the prospect most likely to break into the big leagues first, had Tommy John surgery near the end of the 2014 season. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for Atlanta, however. Fried was the No. 7-overall pick in the 2012 draft by San Diego and with the TJ surgery behind him, he could prove to be similar to Alex Wood in his availability once healed. At 20-years-old, Fried had a successful 147 innings in Class A rookie ball this year before being shutdown with elbow soreness. He posted a 3.61 ERA in 38 appearances.

    With Fried come 3 fielders. Jace and Dustin Peterson, of no relation, are both infield prospects. Jace played 27 games with the Padres last season and Dustin was the second round pick of the Friars in 2013. Mallex Smith is the 3rd position player in the group and was drafted in 2012. He hit .327 in 55 games in A-ball in 2014. All 3 of the fielders are 24 or under.

    Going forward John Hart hasn’t ruled out additional trades, but he has suggested that they’ll “circle back” on free agents. For now and likely for the 2015 season, Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson will remain with the club.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves sign Markakis, Johnson

    In a much anticipated move, the Atlanta Braves made a deal for a right fielder today with long-time Oriole Nick Markakis. It was the second move of the day for John Hart and the front office in Atlanta after signing former Oriole closer Jim Johnson. Markakis agreed to a 4-year, $44 million deal while his former Baltimore teammate signed for 1-year, $1.6 million.

    Markakis, a 9-year veteran of the AL, is coming home to Georgia with today's signing.

    Markakis, a 9-year veteran of the AL, is coming home to Georgia with today’s signing.

    While it was clear after the Braves traded Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins that they would be looking for a replacement for Heyward in right field, it wasn’t clear where they would look to fill that hole. The possibility of moving Justin Upton back to right field while utilizing Evan Gattis in left field was the only in-house scenario available. On the trade market, the free agents available included Markakis, Nori Aoki, Michael Morse, Melky Cabrera and Torii Hunter. With Hunter signing yesterday with the Twins, it was clear the pieces were going to begin falling. Enter the talks with Nick Markakis.

    Markakis, who attended high school and college in Georgia, has spent his entire big league career with the Baltimore Orioles. He has 9 years of service on his stat sheet with a career .290 average, .358 on-base percentage and .435 slugging. He has averaged 152 games per season, notching 155+ games in all but two of those seasons. He is coming off his second Gold Glove season in right field and a season where he batted .276.

    Atlanta has not had the best luck with long-term contracts in recent years, eating significant money on Derek Lowe and Dan Uggla as well as continuing to watch the B.J. Upton disaster play out. The structuring of Markakis’ deal could turn out to be a bargain during an offseason that finds nearly every team needing OF help. The signing of Markakis also leaves many wondering if this was merely setting up the club for a further move that would send Justin Upton elsewhere for pitching help and prospects. If this is to be the case, the Braves’ outfield would presumably be Gattis, the elder Upton and Markakis.

    Prior to the Markakis signing, the Braves announced that they had signed former Orioles and A’s closer Jim Johnson to a 1-year deal. Johnson, also a 9-year veteran of the league, spent 2006-13 with the Orioles before signing a big contract with the Oakland A’s that fizzled. He ended last season with the Detroit Tigers.

    Over his career, Johnson has posted a 3.57 ERA. Though he was unlikely to return to closing duties with any club after losing command of his sinker when he signed with Oakland, his services were needed by the Braves with the departure of Walden. He will likely serve as set-up man for Kimbrel. The hope is that Roger McDowell, who lived and died with an exceptional sinker in his big league career, will be able to straighten out Johnson and get him back on track.

    When his career went off the rails with the A’s, Johnson posted a 7.14 ERA with 2 saves in 38 appearances for the A’s. His time in Detroit, beginning in August, saw him appear in 16 games where he posted a 6.92 ERA. While both of those numbers are elevated, his ERA was inflated by a few games of no command when he was left in. Many baseball commentators contend that 2014 was an anomaly for Johnson.

    The two former Orioles round out several new additions or returning additions to the club and could still be joined by other new faces before the winter is over.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

     

    Braves begin offseason amidst change

    On August 1st, the Braves were 6 games over .500 and had lost in spectacular fashion to the offense-challenged San Diego Padres on a night that the team once again trotted out the struggling Mike Minor amid the worry that his downhill slide could be costly to Atlanta down the stretch. As it would turn out, Mike Minor was only one part of the behemoth that kept the Braves out of the playoff and began a huge shakeup in their front office.

    Since September 22nd when the Braves announced quite suddenly that they had fired general manager Frank Wren, they have made several additional moves.

    Hitting coach Greg Walker resigned after three seasons with the club. Given how poorly the bats performed this season, especially the bats of high-potential players Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, Justin Upton and the high-contract players B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, the resignation of Walker wasn’t nearly as surprising as the departure of Wren. In addition to Walker leaving the coaching staff, the Braves hired recent Astros manager Bo Porter to be the third base coach under returning manager Fredi Gonzalez. His duties will include working with the outfielders and serving as base running coach. Porter served on the coaching staff of Gonzalez during his time with the Marlins. Gonzalez has been assured of his return in 2015, backed by his predecessor and mentor Bobby Cox.

    With John Hart as the interim GM while a search for Wren’s replacement continues, the Braves have shuffled the front office beginning with the hiring of the former renowned Yankees scout Gordon Blakely. Blakely will serve under the yet to be found GM as the special assistant to the GM.

    Blakeley and assistant GM John Coppolella have a history together going back to their days together with the Yankees. Blakely has a strong track record of successful international signings including now-Mariners’ slugger Robinson Cano.

    All of this change has certainly fed speculation about two potential candidates for open jobs within the organization: Dayton Moore and Chipper Jones.

    Dayton Moore, currently the GM of the ALCS-bound Royals, began his career with the Braves as a scout. He went on to be Atlanta’s assistant director of scouting, assistant director of player development, director of international scouting, director of player personnel development and eventual assistant GM. He left the Braves organization in 2006 when he was offered the GM gig in Kansas City. His contract with the Royals will expire this year.

    Chipper Jones, of course, hasn’t been gone long from the club. Since his retirement in 2012, Jones has been around the club during spring training and throughout the season. He has worked with B.J. Upton on his swing and has been willing to offer advice to his former teammates. However, now may not be the time for Chipper to return to the club as hitting coach. Despite his credentials, he seems to be set on continuing to raise his sons and take over his family’s ranch in Texas. If he were interested, he certainly would be an attractive candidate to the club and a respected voice by the players.

    Until decisions are made for the open positions and, honestly, the postseason concludes, the rumors will continue to fly about the future of the Braves. There are times when an organization needs change and as the team begins building for the big debut of their Cobb County stadium now seems to be the right time.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves fire GM Frank Wren

    With the Braves out officially out of contention and the blame game beginning, the Atlanta Braves made the first cut of the long offseason Monday morning by firing General Manager Frank Wren.

    Frank Wren game 15 years to the Braves organization, including 8 as assistant to John Schuerholz.

    In Wren’s 7 years as GM, the Braves made it to the postseason 3 times. However, in his 7 years with the club, 2 contracts will inevitably be linked to his downfall–those of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Wren, who took over as GM from former GM and now team president John Schuerholz, signed Uggla to a 5-year $62 million deal that the Braves will continue to pay on despite cutting ties with Uggla after the trade deadline this year. B.J. Upton, who remains with the club for the time being, signed a 5-year $75 million deal (the largest free agent signing with the club at that point) and has been even worse on offense than the dismissed Uggla.

    While the Braves made 3 postseason appearances in Wren’s tenure as GM, they won only 2 postseason games in those appearances and were unable to make it through the first round of division play. The infamous Wild Card game that saw the fans revolt at a controversial infield fly call also came during Wren’s tenure.

    Wren’s tenure will not be marked by only the faults of the Atlanta Braves system, however. As GM, Wren led spending last winter with the signings of young talent by way of Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward. The signings have set the club up going forward as they begin a new era at the new SunTrust Park in Cobb County set to open on Opening Day 2017.

    A search for a new GM will begin in earnest. In the meantime, former Indians and Rangers GM and current Braves senior advisor John Hart will serve as Atlanta’s interim GM.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.