• John Smoltz

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 3 and 4

    There are plenty of ingredients needed to create a championship team. Some are well known. Others lurk under the surface. All have to come together if a team wants to win its final game of the season, and stand forever in the hall of champions.

    The Atlanta Braves fell five victories shy of the summit in 2020, a season unlike any other amid the challenges of playing during a global pandemic. With a greater sense of normalcy looming as the 2021 campaign kicks off, Braves Country turns its focus to a team looking to do something only three teams in franchise history have accomplished – and not since the 1995 Braves brought Atlanta its first major pro sports title.

    This is my look at some of the critical pieces of Atlanta’s championship hopes. Yes, it takes good baseball and good health and certainly a dash or two of good luck. But for the Braves to win the World Series, these guys have to play a prominent role.

    – Bud L. Ellis, Braves Wire

    Part 3: The Question

    The Name: Austin Riley, 3B

    The Objective: Establish himself as a viable offensive option, avoiding the wild swings from his first two seasons that alternated between unconscious and unplayable.

    The Story: He has the boyish smile, the Southern drawl, the broad shoulders and the ability to hit a baseball a country mile while flashing an underrated glove. He also has stretches of offensive futility that are so rough, no matter how much you want to see him succeed – and for my money, Austin Riley may be the easiest guy to root for on the Atlanta Braves – you have to bench him.

    Here is the intersection of promising young player trying to figure it out and baseball franchise with a realistic shot to win its first World Series in 26 years. Riley stands in the middle, and there is no way to determine with certainty which way this will go.

    On one hand, there is the optimism of seeing Riley look better against offspeed pitching last season – the pitches that overwhelmed him after he destroyed opposing pitchers in the early weeks of his 2019 debut. His strikeout rate dropped from 36.8 percent as a rookie to 23.9 percent a season ago. On the other hand, his ground-ball rate rose from 26.2 percent in 2019 to 41.7 percent, while his hard-hit percentage dipped to 33.6 percent from 42.3 percent.

    Those are a lot of numbers to say this: we don’t know what Riley is as a hitter. It’s asinine to deliver definitive pronouncement on a player who has 462 career big-league at-bats and doesn’t turn 24 years old until the day after the season opener. And while the sage GMs on social media want to pass their final judgement – or demand a trade, most likely for a player who isn’t available – the fact is the Braves have to hitch their wagon to the kid from Mississippi, let him play third base every day, and see what happens.

    An Important Season: Braves third baseman Austin Riley enters a critical season starting Thursday, one day before his 24th birthday.

    The Upside: There’s reason to believe this, his third season in the majors, is the year Riley takes the step toward consistency at the plate. He’s probably not going to have a 15 percent strikeout rate and he’s likely never going to hit .300, but he doesn’t have to do either to help the Braves reach their ultimate destination. Belting 25 homers and nudging into positive WAR territory with a WRC+ reaching triple digits would be enough. Getting to play every day at third base could be the factor that unlocks that upward progress.

    The Downside: There’s reason to believe this, his third season in the majors, is the year Riley shows the Braves they can’t play him 150 games at third. Riley’s slumps so far have been deep, long slumps, and even as the seventh-best hitter in one of baseball’s best lineups, there’s only so long the Braves can ride that train.

    The Feeling: The Braves are past being able to let players figure things out in the majors for long. It may sound unfair to Riley, but that’s what happens when your World Series window is wide open. It’s even more of a challenge with a at-the-moment unproven offensive player, rookie center fielder Cristian Pache and his otherworldly defense, hitting behind him in the lineup. A slow start only raises the pressure on Riley to produce. If he doesn’t, he’s not this team’s third baseman by Aug. 1.

    Part 4: The Homecoming

    The Name: Charlie Morton, RHP

    The Objective: Provide veteran leadership in the rotation and deliver the type of performances in October that have made him a postseason standout.

    The Story: In a way, Charlie Morton is the link from the Braves vaunted Hall of Fame rotation of yesteryear to the hopes of this generation’s young hurlers.

    Morton was drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 2002 draft and debut six years later. That 2008 season saw Morton make 14 starts for Atlanta, while Tom Glavine (13 starts) and John Smoltz (six games, five starts) made their final appearances in a Braves uniform amid injury-marred campaigns.

    Thirteen years later, Morton is back with his original organization, having experienced his share of injuries, reinvention, and October success. The Braves signed the right-hander to a one-year, $15 million contract the week of Thanksgiving after Tampa Bay did not pick up his option, providing their promising young rotation of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson (and their squadron of other young hurlers) with a valuable source of pitching wisdom.

    Traded from the Braves to Pittsburgh in 2009, Morton’s career stayed stuck in neutral until he landed in Houston in 2017. He won 14 games in the regular season and twice more in the postseason, pitching the final four innings of the Astros’ World Series clinching victory over the Dodgers in Game 7. In 12 career postseason starts, Morton has given up three runs or fewer 10 times, including 5 2/3 shutout innings in Tampa Bay’s Game 7 ALCS win over the Astros last season.

    Morton’s quest for a second ring fell short, and his Game 3 start against the Dodgers was an uncharacteristically poor one: five runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. This very well could be his final season of an accomplished career, adding even more motivation to finish things with a championship.

    Back Where It Started: Charlie Morton will start Saturday’s second game of the season, 13 years after making his major-league debut with the Braves.

    The Upside: Morton turned 37 in November, but he’s proven to be more durable as he’s aged. He logged a career-high 194 2/3 innings in 2019, and Morton averaged 29 regular-season starts from 2017-19. The Braves will monitor his usage carefully given his age and the heightened value he can provide in October, but 25 regular-season starts certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.

    The Downside: He is 37, and there always is the chance he gets hurt and turns into Cole Hamels (it’s not a high bar to surpass, I admit). And at some point, father time catches up to everybody, as Morton saw with Glavine and Smoltz during his rookie season.

    The Feeling: Morton is a likely candidate to get a bit of extra rest here and there, especially once Mike Soroka returns to the rotation. He’s here to help guide the Braves aces of the present and future, and he’s really here to help Atlanta win in October. With good health, he’ll get the chance to deliver on those goals, and end his career in crowning fashion.

    —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.

    Waiting on a Familiar Foe as NLCS Approaches

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A gray T-shirt caught my eye in the pile of laundry sitting by the washing machine Friday afternoon, one I hadn’t noticed in a while, one my kid wore this week.

    On it is emblazoned the logo of the final season at Turner Field, with the caption, “final game Oct. 2, 2016.” As I loaded the washer, I thought about Freddie Freeman’s words the day before, moments after the Atlanta Braves clinched its first berth in the NL Championship Series in 19 years. Freeman talked about how different things were now, the three-time NL East champion moving on to play for the pennant in its deepest October penetration since 2001.

    It’s been quite the ride the past few years. Indeed, Freddie, how far we’ve come.

    Five wins down and eight to go in this crazy, expanded postseason, capping a season that started with the real worry that we wouldn’t reach the finish line. But here it is, an October where the Braves are playing into the middle of the month, four little wins from the World Series.

    Those four little wins won’t come easy, of course. Make no mistake, the Dodgers are quite the jump in competition from the Reds or Marlins. That’s not to diminish either squad Atlanta vanquished, because they found a way to make the playoffs in this upside-down season.

    All 30 teams played in this environment; 16 of them got at least a taste of playoff baseball (more than I prefer under normal circumstances, but we can discuss this winter). Whichever teams wins this World Series title will have earned it in a way that no champion has before, and we hope with everything we have that no champion ever has to again. I’d say that if the Braves had cleaned out their lockers on Sept. 28. I’ll say that if the Dodgers, Rays or (puke) Astros lift what Rob Manfred affectionally calls, “a piece of metal.”

    The pandemic robbed my hometown of hosting the Final Four this spring, but baseball’s Final Four is set. A few random items to opine about as I watch Georgia pull away from Tennessee on this fine Saturday evening, some 48 hours or so before the Braves and Dodgers meet in Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Ah, The Dreaded Blue Menace: So we meet again, the first team I learned to loathe. In the words of Sophia from the Golden Girls TV show (Google it, kids), “picture it. Atlanta. 1982.” A 13-0 start under new manager Joe Torre. A 2-19 stretch in late summer to tighten the old NL West between the upstart Braves and the defending world champions from L.A.

    The race ended on the final day of the season, the Braves losing in San Diego before Joe Morgan’s homer lifted the Giants over the Dodgers at Candlestick Park. That whole season was captured in a great documentary by TBS called, “It’s a Long Way to October,” which I watched during the early weeks of the lockdown. It’s worth your time, especially if early 80s baseball is before your time.

    Party Like It’s 1982: A clip from “It’s a Long Way to October,” from the final day of the 1982 regular season.

    Nine years later, the Braves trailed the Dodgers by 9 ½ games at the All-Star break before catching fire. You know the rest of the story: the Miracle Braves going from worst to first, beating out the Dodgers for the West crown before knocking out Pittsburgh in the NLCS to clinch their first World Series berth since coming to Atlanta. The division race ended with the Braves beating Houston on the final Saturday of the season, then famously gathering on the infield and watching on the big screen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as the Giants (again!) knocked out the Dodgers to clinch the division title.

    The 1991 team is my favorite sports team of all time. I covered a week of spring training in 2006 for The Brunswick (Ga.) News, and I wrote a story on the 15-year anniversary of the 1991 team. Talking to Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, John Smoltz and Bobby Cox took me back to being an 18-year-old kid who watched every pitch of that pennant race. Of all the stories I wrote during my newspaper career, that’s one of my absolute favorites.

    The Miracle Season: The Atlanta Braves stunned the world by winning the NL pennant and reaching the World Series in 1991.

    Under Pressure: The Braves won their World Series title in 1995, four years after the 1991 team stunned the world. It snapped a 38-year drought for the franchise, or six years longer than the Dodgers current streak without a world title. Every time I see the replay of Kirk Gibson’s famous homer in Game 1 of the 1988 Series, my first thought is, “how have the Dodgers went this long without winning it all?”

    If there’s pressure based on expectations in the NLCS, it’s solely on Los Angeles. The Braves did what they needed to do: they made amends for last fall’s disaster against the Cardinals and won the NLDS, they snapped the playoff series losing streak, they’ve made it as far as they have in nearly two decades.

    The Dodgers? Not so much. World Series losses in 2017 and 2018, followed by a stunning NLDS upset by Washington a year ago. Pandemic and short season notwithstanding, the Dodgers are expected to win the pennant and the world championship. Just something to watch if the Braves win one or two of the first three games (which, not to give away too much, is absolutely critical to Atlanta’s pennant hopes).

    The Right Moves: There are times where Brian Snitker’s tactical decisions drive me crazy – the Patrick Weigel debut followed by Charlie Culberson on the mound this season is one example. With that said, I am a huge fan of the way he handles the clubhouse. There’s no denying his love for the organization, and him getting to manage in the World Series after 4 1/2 decades with the Braves would be amazing.

    There have been plenty of Braves who have enjoyed a fantastic postseason. Snitker’s name belongs right at the top of the list. He’s been aggressive with his bullpen and stuck with a lineup that’s done enough to get Atlanta through two rounds. I’d say if the Braves win the World Series he would retire, but I honestly think Snit enjoys this bunch so much, he’d come back even if he and his team win a ring.

    That Ring, It’s the Thing: Look how that previous sentence ended.

    Win a ring.

    That’s why teams play, to win the World Series. These Braves are eight wins away, the closest they’ve been since 2001.

    Can you believe it? Absolutely.

    Can they take the next step? Stay tuned.

    Coming Sunday: Five keys to the Braves/Dodgers series, who wins and why.

    —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.

    Cooperstown Bound: The Incredible Career of Chipper Jones

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The crowd gathered around the 23-year-old peach-fuzzed kid, who stared into the sea of microphones and cameras, and responded to question after question following a four-hit, four-RBI performance to help lift his team to victory.

    Part of that media scrum late in the evening on June 6, 1995, inside the cramped no-frills locker room of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, included a 22-year-old peach-fuzzed kid holding a pen and a notepad. At some point amid the back-and-forth, the novice reporter summoned up the courage to ask the young baseball player what he hit to drive in two runs in a bases-loaded fourth inning, and followed up with a question about approach given that hit came on the first pitch while the other four at-bats of the night were worked deep into the count.

    The kid in the spotlight provided a quick analysis of his performance, giving the kid holding the notebook a couple of quotes that would land in a college newspaper’s weekly summary of recent Braves games.

    Some 277 months after that exchange, both those kids have kids of their own, are immersed into new realities, carry a few extra pounds and, yes, both have facial hair tinged with gray. Welcome to middle age, Chipper Jones, who Sunday will take his rightful place in baseball’s Hall of Fame, the crowning achievement of a 19-year career which produced a World Series title, an MVP award, All-Star games and 10,614 plate appearances – all with one team.

    The blunt numbers scream Hall of Famer, but for Chipper Jones – a kid from Pierson, Fla. – it goes far beyond just the raw data. It goes to something etched on a plaque hanging in my Braves Room, a quote that sums up the essence of Jones’ relationship with the team he signed with in 1990, the team I’ve loved since the late 1970s and a team that I covered a bit from time to time during a previous life.

    “I’m a southern kid and I wanted to play in a southern town where I felt comfortable.”

    That comfort level brings much discomfort for opposing fanbases, most notably the one who pledges allegiance to the New York Mets. Chipper made a livelihood out of crushing the Mets, from hitting 49 career homers against the team from Flushing in 245 games to his famous smash job against New York during the 1999 race for the National League East title, in which he belted seven homers while hitting .400 with a 1.510 OPS in 12 games.

    But this story goes beyond the numbers. It goes to a relationship between father and son, the elder imparting wisdom and spinning yarns of heroes of yesteryear, of games watched together, of batting practice and little league and travel ball, of going away to play baseball in high school, of growing up and making mistakes and learning to be a man – lessons we have to learn regardless of athletic prowess or lack thereof.

    For me, it goes to the moments. I saw his first major-league hit – Sept. 14, 1993 against the Reds, in the midst of the last great pennant race, a chopper to third base that Juan Samuel could not field in time to throw out the fleet-footed switch-hitter. I saw his last major-league hit – Oct. 5, 2012 against the Cardinals in the NL wild-card game (a game remembered for the worst officiating call I’ve witnessed in 40 years of attending and covering sporting events), another infield single in his final at-bat as a major-leaguer.

    In between, I was fortunate to be in the building when Chipper celebrated winning two pennants and a World Series championship, was a member of the press asking him about the disappointment of losing the first two World Series games at home in 1999, covered him belting a home run in Atlanta in the 2000 All-Star game, and countless other moments as fan and sports writer that are blurred by the passage of time.

    During that stretch, I grew up, got married, became a dad, changed careers and started coaching baseball. Chipper is one of a select few I always pointed to when players and parents would ask for somebody in the majors for their children to watch and learn how to play the game. He never took a pitch off, wanted to be in the lineup every day, wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and put his heart and soul into every game in which he took the field.

    Friday night, I sat in SunTrust Park with my oldest son. Jonny Venters, who the Braves acquired from Tampa Bay the night before, made his first appearance with Atlanta since that 2012 wild-card game. When I showed my son a tweet by Kevin McAlpin of 680 The Fan and 93.7 FM stating how long it had been since Venters pitched for the Braves, my son immediately replied: “Chipper’s final game.”

    It was interesting to watch the All-American boy with the good looks and the immense talent grow up before our eyes. Consider the greats of that era of Braves baseball. Glavine was drafted in 1984. Smoltz was traded for in 1987. Neither transaction moved the needle because, to be blunt, the Braves were irrelevant in a town captivated with Hawks basketball (and I loved me some Atlanta’s Air Force back then) and college football and little else, especially a baseball team that finished buried in the old NL West every year from 1985-1990.

    Maddux? Sure, that was a huge move, but it came in the winter following the 1992 season, after the Braves had captured the city’s heart and soul with two consecutive NL pennants. Cox? He managed here from 1978-1981, left for Toronto, then came home to serve as general manager starting in 1986 until he moved back to the dugout in 1990, during the aforementioned awful years. Even Schuerholz, the architect of that worst-to-first 1991 squad, had been here nearly three full seasons before Chipper arrived.

    The point being: Chipper went from start to finish in the midst of one of the greatest runs in American pro sports history, with all eyes on him, with the pressure of a city and a fanbase eager to shake its reputation of being a bad sports town. And Chipper delivered, often in dramatic, “did you see that?!” fashion. Even his last homer, the walkoff blast off Jonathan Papelbon on the Sunday before Labor Day in 2012, still elicits tremendous emotion nearly six years later.

    I started my third year of college as a 20-year-old when I sat in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched Chipper leg out an infield single for his first knock in the majors. I sat in Turner Field as a 39-year-old husband and father of two, with my oldest son by my side, when Chipper legged out an infield single in the ninth inning of the 2012 wild-card game in his final at-bat.

    Off the field, Chipper made his share of mistakes. His biography, “Ballplayer,” written by the fantastic former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Carroll Rogers Walton – who was more than kind to a young sportswriter trying to find his way once upon a time – is a tremendous tell-all of that side of the guy who went from hot-shot, cocky top prospect to franchise icon.

    And now the journey arrives this weekend in Cooperstown, and enshrinement in the hall of baseball immortals. I’ll spend Sunday in a hotel room next to SunTrust Park at a private watch party before the Braves game with the Dodgers, and I’ll lift a glass in honor of a player who brought this fanbase so much joy for two decades.

    Seventy-eight days after Chipper’s first big-league hit, a song was released that played constantly on radio during my college days. “Mr. Jones” became Counting Crows’ biggest hit, and I think often of this lyric from that song anytime I think about Chipper’s journey:

    “We all wanna be big stars,

    “But we don’t know why, and we don’t know how,

    “But when everybody loves me,

    “I wanna be just about as happy as I can be.”

    Suffice to say, Chipper became one of the biggest stars of all. And it sounds like he’s happy with his life. Any of us who go through life pray for happiness and contentment. That transcends any success we find in our chosen profession. As someone who is in that place, I’m so happy Chipper has found that peace.

    Sunday, in a small village in upstate New York, he will cement his rightful place amid the greatest of the greats. And to think, we’ve been watching this journey for a quarter-century.

    Well done, kid.

    —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 Drawing Attention from Near and Far

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    AUSTIN, Texas – There are moments when, in the midst of transitioning from rebuilding to contending, something happens that illustrates the shift in fortunes is grabbing attention.

    For me, it occurred some 965 miles west of SunTrust Park earlier this week.

    On a business trip to Austin, I strolled into the lounge at my hotel Monday night after arriving a few hours earlier. Relieved of deadline and work activities on arrival day, I grabbed a seat at the bar and looked forward to some quiet time while watching the NCAA Super Regionals. I ordered dinner and a beverage, and upon delivering my food, the bartender noticed my Braves shirt and hat.

    “You have one heckuva baseball team there,” he said, which sparked a conversation that lasted more than an hour. In that time, between bites of food and sips of Austin amber brew – which, for the record, really is good – I learned from the bartender and a couple of waiters that while they still are riding the emotional wave of the Astros winning the World Series, they recognize what’s happening in North Georgia.

    The bartender, who appeared to be around my age, kept referencing the big arms that defined the Braves for the better part of two decades – Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine, Avery, Neagle, Millwood. But the difference is those references to yesteryear began to intertwine with comparisons to the present day.

    Foltynewicz. Newcomb. Soroka, Nearly 1,000 miles away from home, these folks rolled those names off the tip of their tongue at every opportunity.

    What to take from that conversation while bellied up to the bar on the second floor of the Intercontinental in downtown Austin?

    It shows just how far the Braves already have come.

    In the words of the older bartender – who obviously knows his stuff about ball, from mentioning Jeff Blauser to Charlie Leibrandt to, gasp, Dion James and Damaso Garcia – he’s watched the Braves a few times this season and summarized, “this team is about to burst through and ascend toward the top of the majors.”

    Walking out of SunTrust Park late Sunday afternoon – six days after that conversation – the Braves only had added more validation to this phenomenal surge. Atlanta wrapped up a 5-1 homestand by downing the Padres 4-1, as Julio Teheran returned from the disabled list with six no-hit innings.

    Here are the Braves, 13 games above .500 for the first time in five seasons, leaders of the National League East by 3 ½ games. Sample size bias? Nah, not now. Atlanta has played 71 games, nearly 44 percent of its schedule, and it sits on a 95-win pace with a favorable schedule.

    Back to Austin a few days ago. There were conversation tracks focused on Ozzie Albies, on Freddie Freeman, on Dansby Swanson and on Ronald Acuna. But the talking points kept coming back to pitching. And can you blame them? These folks watched Houston’s dominant rotation pave the way to a world title last fall that brought so much joy to this part of the world.

    To step away from the biased viewpoint of tweets and text messages, to hear folks I never had met before and may never meet again, hit on the same observations, leads me to realize that what the Braves are doing is resonating far beyond the borders of Braves Country. In this part of the world, the Astros endured a miserable rebuild that featured three consecutive seasons of 106-plus losses and finishes in the division of 40-plus games out of first.

    Houston’s win total jumped from 51 games in 2013 to 70 games in 2014, to 86 and 84 the following two seasons, then 101 wins and the world championship in 2017. A dynamic pitching staff with young star power aplenty has the Astros poised to compete deep into autumn for years to go.

    But they’re not the only team following such a blueprint. There’s another team, one based in Georgia’s capital city, that is on the rise. And people far from SunTrust Park are starting to take notice.

    —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.

    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.