• Jonny Gomes

    IT’S GAMEDAY: Embrace This Moment, Braves Country; You’ve Earned It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The oddsmakers have weighed in, the pundits and talking heads and bloggers and the rest of the world have offered their take on the National League Division Series, how one team is loaded with playoff experience – many of it gleaned from reaching the seventh game of the World Series last season – while the other team has shocked so many by just gracing the October stage.

    But baseball has a funny way of evening even the most lopsided playing fields, especially in the most pivotal month of the marathon season that begins amid the palm trees and desert sands in February and ends around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.

    Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave who finds himself on the eve of managing his first major-league postseason game, humorously corrected a reporter’s question during a Wednesday evening press conference at Dodger Stadium after the reporter said the Braves might not have as much playoff experience as the Dodgers, Atlanta’s opponent in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.

    “They don’t have as much; not even might about it,” Snitker said with a humble giggle in discussing his team.

    My, how far this franchise has come.

    The Atlanta Braves are going to play a playoff game in less than 24 hours, an honest-to-goodness, real-life, hot-dang-this-really-is-October-baseball playoff game. It will unfold in the same venue where the Braves played their last postseason contest, but even if we don’t want to think about what transpired that Monday night in October 2013, it doesn’t matter at all.

    Because of what’s transpired since.

    Do you remember the Braves trading so much of their controllable talent, the pain you felt when Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis were shipped away for prospects? What about the evening before the season opener in 2015, when Atlanta found the solution to rid itself of B.J. Upton and his albatross of a contract at the expense of Craig Kimbrel being included in the deal, mere hours before the first pitch of the season?

    How about the awful final two months of 2015 (18-37 before winning three of four to end the season), a stretch in which the Braves gave up 20 runs in a game and employed the lovable Jonny Gomes for an inning of relief in an 11-run defeat that, arguably, may have been the highlight of that season? Those two things happened two days apart! Or, losing the first nine games in 2016 en route to a 9-28 start that sent Fredi Gonzalez, a dead manager walking entering that spring, into unemployment, complete with a Delta flight notification sent to him before he was given the news?

    There are about five zillion other examples that I could cite, but the bottom line is this. When your feet hit the floor Thursday morning, you begin an Atlanta Braves Playoff Gameday. How does that sound, Braves Country? It’s something we took for granted for oh, so long, as the Braves of yesteryear piled up division titles like they were Beanie Babies (remember them?), but a half-decade away wading through the vast underbelly of the National League makes one appreciative when you find the light again.

    The smart money, the experts, those in the know, are going to tell you the Braves have little chance of winning this series. Los Angeles has more talent, more experience, owns the advantage in everything from matchups to home field, and is just better. I’m not going to dispute any of that, because it’s true. The Dodgers are a better team 1-through-25. They can deploy a starting-lineup worthy bench at all times and have a lineup built to face lefties and another one geared toward righties.

    That’s all well and good. It should not diminish your enthusiasm, your hopes, your spirits one iota entering this series. And here’s why.

    Baseball’s postseason history is littered with the burned-out remains of cars destined for ticker tape and champagne, all crashed out by a lesser team that had little-to-no chance at the start of the series, only to trip up the prohibitive favorite. Baseball’s postseason, while not one-and-done after you advance past the wild-card stage, is the closest approximation we have in pro sports to March Madness. Especially in the division series, where with a five-game series the underdog merely has to win once in the opening two road games to have a chance to win the series at home in four games.

    What makes baseball’s postseason so compelling is often, the best team does not win the championship. We haven’t had a repeat world champion since 2000. As mentioned in this space this week, think of all the franchises that have won a World Series since the Dodgers last captured the title in 1988. The drama of October is a stark contrast to the six-month grind that compresses 162 games into 187 days. The finality is sudden and jarring. Success is euphoric and exhilarating. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t just a trite saying, it’s a true strategy that more than one team has used to fuel a run deep into the year’s 10th month.

    That’s why these Braves aren’t just a nice turn-around story, one where we all should be happy just to be here. Yes, even if Atlanta loses three straight, there is no dulling the shine of what’s transpired in 2018. But don’t be fooled. The Braves are not just happy to be here, and privately there are plenty of people around baseball who will tell you they want no part of this bunch in a series, especially when three wins and not four is the ticket to advance.

    The feeling here is these Braves, with their blend of calming veteran leadership and youthful emotion, will fare just fine in their first foray into the madness of October. They might not win the series, but it won’t be easy for Los Angeles. This will not be a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Atlanta has the talent and the tools to push the Dodgers to the very brink. If L.A. wins this series, they will have to earn it.

    And there’s no guarantee it won’t be the Braves heading to Milwaukee or Denver for the NL Championship Series. That youthful ignorance, confidence and swagger of a team that defied all the predictions of a 75-to-80 win season to capture 90 victories (20 coming in their final at-bat), win the NL East, earn the NL’s best road record and respond to every stumble or wobble, gives this correspondent every reason to believe we’re about to embark on quite a series.

    It’s a series that has been a long time coming for everybody in Braves Country. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

    You deserve this.

    —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.

    A new home for many new faces

    While many old faces left Atlanta this winter, the Braves more than doubled the number of players joining the club. Expecting to take roster spots throughout the farm system and even a few with the big league club, Atlanta’s newest faces are largely unknown to Braves’ fans. They aren’t all unknown, however. A few old friends will join the club or be given invites to Spring Training to make their case for joining the 2015 Atlanta Braves.

    Let’s start with the returning faces, known quantities who once wore the tomahawk proudly on their chests:

    • Kelly Johnson returns to the Braves after 5 seasons away from the club. He was signed to a minor league contract.

      Kelly Johnson returns to the Braves after 5 seasons away from the club. He was signed to a minor league contract.

      The latest former Brave to be announced by the club as returning is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, once one of the “Baby Braves” has signed a minor league contract. Johnson is listed as a third baseman though he played second base when he was with the club in the pre-Dan Uggla era. Johnson was a 1st round pick for Atlanta in the 2000 draft and made his MLB debut with the club in 2005. Since 2011, Johnson has played for every club in the AL East, his most recent stint with the Orioles.

    • Arodys Vizcaino left the Braves in the trade that brought Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to Atlanta. He now returns to the club in a trade with the Cubs for infielder Tommy LaStella. Vizcaino has a 4.84 career ERA in limited appearances. His return to the bullpen made RHP David Carpenter expendable and softened the blow of Jordan Walden’s trade to the St. Louis Cardinals.

    The list of new faces joining the Braves is extensive. The transactions of the offseason thus far are as follows (in chronological order):

    • C Eli Whiteside was signed to a minor league contract. The catcher played in 8 games with the Cubs in 2014 and no big league games in 2013.
    • RHP Chien-Ming Wang was signed to a minor league contract. Wang was likely signed to add depth to the Triple-A roster at Gwinnett. The Taiwanese pitcher last played in the majors in 2013 with 6 starts for the Blue Jays.
    • LF Zoilo Almonte was signed by the Braves after he left the Yankees. Having played in the international league last season, Zoilo has only 47 big league games under his belt. His role is unknown with the signings of other potential platoon left fielders.
    • LHP Donnie Veal signed a minor league contract with a spring training invite. He has a 4.87 ERA in 100 big league starts.
    • RHP Zach Quintana was acquired in the trade with Milwaukee that sent former GM Frank Wren’s son Kyle to the Brewers. Projects to play A-ball in 2015.
    • RHP Shelby Miller the most touted acquisition this offseason was acquired as the key piece in the trade with the Cardinals that sent Georgia’s own Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to St. Louis. Miller has recorded a 3.33 ERA with a 26-18 record in 63 starts since debuting in 2012 with the Cards. Miller will not be a free agent until 2019.
    • RHP Tyrell Jenkins was also acquired in the Heyward/Walden trade and could potentially join the bullpen.
    • RHP Jim Johnson was signed as a free agent and a bit of a work-in-progress for pitching coach Roger McDowell. Johnson became a dominant closer with the Orioles as his sinker baffled hitters. After putting together 101 saves from 2012-13, he signed a lucrative contract with the A’s in 2014 and crashed. His ERA ballooned to 7.14 with the A’s over 40 innings, was released and then picked up by the Tigers where he only marginally improved his ERA. He is a low risk, potential high reward signing of McDowell can turn his sinker around.
    • RF Nick Markakis was the highest profile position player signing of the postseason, coming to the club as a free agent, filling the spot left by Heyward. Markakis required neck surgery (cervical disc fusion) in the offseason, but will be under contract with Atlanta through the 2018 season. He will cost the club $44 million over 4 years. Markakis may be a new face to the Braves, spending his entire career with Baltimore, but he’s not a new face in Georgia. Markakis played high school and college ball in Georgia.

    • RHP Michael Kohn, another bullpen arm to come to the Braves via the Angels, signed a minor league contract and has been invited to spring training. Kohn has a career 3.67 ERA over 4 seasons (110 innings) and has already undergone Tommy John surgery.
    • Alberto Callaspo has a .267 career batting average over 9 years in the big leagues.

      Alberto Callaspo has a .267 career batting average over 9 years in the big leagues.

      2B Alberto Callaspo has 9 years in the big leagues, the last 2 with the Oakland A’s. Callaspo signed a 1-year, $3 million deal with the club. Callaspo has the potential to play anywhere on the infield and was expected to play 2B with the departures of La Stella, Uggla and Pastornicky. The signing of Kelly Johnson may impact where Callaspo will play, but his versatility makes him a key piece for the club both on the field and off the bench.

    • RHP Aaron Kurcz came to the Braves with cash after Anthony Varvaro was designated for assignment and then traded to the Red Sox. Kurcz pitched in 34 games at the Double-A level in 2014, posting a 2.17 ERA.
    • 2B Jace Peterson was traded to the Braves for Justin Upton.
    • LHP Max Fried also joined the club via the trade with San Diego for Upton. He projects to be at the highest level of the 4 players Atlanta received for Upton, though he is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery.
    • 3B Dustin Peterson came to the Braves in the trade for Upton.
    • CF Mallex Smith, another prospect, joined the club in the Upton trade.
    • LHP Manny Banuelos came to the club in a trade for David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve. Carpenter and Shreve’s arms were valuable and in return the Braves received a player who is projected to be a future starter. All-time saves leader Mariano Rivera spoke highly of Banuelos and Banuelos was on the rise in the organization prior to requiring Tommy John surgery in 2013. He will likely begin his career with Atlanta out of the ‘pen.
    • LHP Josh Outman signed a 1-year $925,000 contract with the Braves for the 2015 season. Outman began his career in Oakland and was most recently with the Rockies. Outman has a career 4.43 ERA. He adds depth to a bullpen with unreliable lefties.
    • C A.J. Pierzynski signed a 1-year $2 million contract with the club and is anticipated to serve as backup catcher and bench bat. His veteran leadership is greatly needed by the club, especially with young Christian Bethancourt.
    • RHP Jason Grilli is another signing by the club as somewhat of a project. Grilli, like Johnson, was a dominant closer until losing his touch in Pittsburgh. After the Angels and Pirates swapped closers in 2014, Grilli never regained dominance in Anaheim. His 2-year, $8 million deal is a bit more risky than that of Johnson, but Grilli looks to be the incoming setup man for Kimbrel.
    • LHP Ricardo Sanchez came to the Braves in a trade for prospects Kyle Kubitza and Nate Hyatt.
    • LHP Wandy Rodriguez was signed to a minor league contract after a failed physical. Like Wang, he looks to add depth to the rotation at Triple-A.
    • RHP David Carpenter, from here on to referred to as “the other David Carpenter,” was signed to minor league contract. He has a 5.23 ERA in a rather untested career. He joins the Braves from the Angels like Grilli and Kohn.
    • 3B Rio Ruiz was acquired in the Gattis trade with Houston. As a prospect, Ruiz fills the place in the organization that Kubitza did before being traded to the Angels.
    • RHP Andrew Thursman was also acquired in the Gattis trade and will be sent to the farm.
    • RHP Mike Foltynewicz was the third piece of the Gattis trade with Houston.
    • LHP Dial Villanueva was signed to a minor league contract.
    • LF Jonny Gomes was signed this past week as a veteran fielder and potential platoon mate for left field in the absence of Justin Upton. Gomes is highly respected for the way he plays the game and the enthusiasm he brings to clubs. Gomes finished the 2014 season with the Oakland A’s where he had played prior to a year and a half spin with the World Champion Boston Red Sox. It has been reported that Gomes signed for $4 million.
    • CF Eury Perez was claimed off waivers from the Yankees Monday.
    • C John Buck was signed to a minor league contract with a spring training invite, also on Monday. The Braves have attempted to fill the holes in the organization with veteran leadership where possible. Buck could potentially compete for a backup catcher role at camp.

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