• Julio Teheran

    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.

    Braves Are Fun Again: From Every Angle, Lots of Positives

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Pardon us for doing a little celebrating on this night, but the Atlanta Braves have won 11 games.

    Eleven wins through April’s third week doth not make a postseason team. For some franchises, it hardly would cause a blink of the eye. But consider this tidbit: we are talking about a franchise that did not win its 11th game last season until May 2.

    Two years ago? Win No. 11 came on May 20.

    Welcome to the early minutes of April 20. The Braves are 11-7 through 18 games, a mere 11.1 percent through the season, but for those of us who predicted this team to finish around .500 – I’m on the record saying 80-82 – Atlanta already is nearly 14 percent there and we still have 10 games left in the opening month of this 2018 campaign.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday's 12-4 win over the Mets.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday’s 12-4 win over the Mets.

    These Braves may not be a playoff team, but this team has been an absolute joy to watch. Aggressive baserunning, good starting pitching, clutch hitting and, yes, some overachieving performance at the plate. And thewunderkid Ronald Acuna Jr. remains in Gwinnett, trying to settle his swing and string together enough hits to warrant a promotion.

    Where to begin with this intriguing bunch? Let’s hit a few topics as we go around the horn following Thursday’s series-opening 12-4 rout of the Mets to kick off a four-game set at SunTrust Park:

    Just Win Series

    We heard the sage Bobby Cox say this mantra over and over again during his second run as Atlanta manager (remember, he managed this team from 1978-81, when individual victories were cause for celebration). The Cox approach was if you win series, that’s a recipe for success.

    The Braves entered Thursday’s four-game series with the Mets having played six series. Four of those series, 11 games, came against playoff teams from last season. Three of those series were played against playoff teams, on the road, in miserable conditions.

    (As an aside, the scheduling by Major League Baseball is awful.)

    Atlanta emerged from that 11-game stretch – one game lost due to weather; another game that should’ve been lost due to weather, a contest the Braves lost – at 6-5. You could argue two of those losses were giveaways, the middle game in Colorado and the final game in Chicago, but on the whole, for a team that’s lost 90-plus games the past three years, it definitely was a strong showing.

    Unsung Heroes

    Every team that overachieves has to have guys who step up and provide that “did he really do that?” moment. The Braves have provided plenty of those through the first 18 games. Consider:

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington's Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington’s Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    ♦  Preston Tucker: He was just a placeholder for Acuna, and yet the former Houston farmhand has 18 RBIs through 18 games after driving in five runs in Thursday’s victory over the Mets. He’s belted a trio of three-run homers, his defense has been better than expected, and he provides left-handed power in the lineup that sorely is needed.

    ♦  Ryan Flaherty: How does this guy keep hitting? He arrived with a great glove to fill in at third base while Johan Camargo rehabbed from an obliqueinjury, but the journeyman Flaherty has established himself for now as a viable piece in the lineup. He’s hitting .352, belted a three-run homer Wednesday against Philly, drew two walks against the Mets (bumping his OPS to .954) while providing the steady defense we expected. The early-season production for Flaherty is not sustainable. Tucker likely is not sustainable, either. But Atlanta is deciding to ride the hot hands for now, starting Flaherty over Camargo and keeping Acuna in Gwinnett while Tucker does his thing.

    ♦  Matt Wisler: When Anibal Sanchez – who himself has bolstered the pitching staff – injured his hamstring the night before he was scheduled to start the series opener against the Mets, the Braves tapped Wisler, one of the “early rebuild” arms who failed to meet expectations. But he brought a renewed confidence and aggressiveness against a Mets team that entered the series opener at 13-4, carving up New York across seven tremendous innings. If nothing else, he earned the right to take the fifth starter’s turn in the rotation Tuesday at Cincinnati. He was that good.

    What About Acuna?

    The 20-year-old, who crushed at every level of the minors last season, then won Arizona Fall League MVP honors last fall, and then dominated the Grapefruit

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    League this spring, remains in Triple-A. The main reason? He’s pressing, going 8-for-44 with 17 strikeouts at Gwinnett through his first 11 games. For an organization that sent him down to work on “development” stuff – in other words, to guarantee an extra year of contract control – it would seem odd to promote a .182 hitter and pronounce that development compete.

    Folks, Ronald Acuna is going to be in the majors, and soon. Nobody expected Tucker to perform like he has, and likely didn’t expect Acuna to struggle so far through his first 51 plate appearances at Gwinnett. But the bottom line is once Acuna gets on a roll – and it’s coming – he will be in the majors. There is no worry there. I’d hit that kid cleanup from the get-go once he gets here, but that’s just me.

    Bautista and Bat Flips?

    Young Ronnie has some pretty good bat flips in his arsenal, but Atlanta signed the bat-flip master Jose Bautista to a one-year, minor-league deal on Wednesday. The longtime Toronto slugger, who maintained his relationship with new Braves GM Alex Anthopolous, is at extended spring training, working at third base and looking to prove he can play in the majors.

    I have my doubts. This Bautista is not the guy who finished in the top eight in American League MVP voting four times in six seasons from 2010-15. His on-base percentage has dropped each of the past four seasons, and his slugging percentage has fallen each of the past three seasons. Bautista struck out 170 times a season ago.

    I know some folks want to envision the 2014 Bautista hitting behind Freeman. I don’t see that at all. If he provides a right-handed power bat off the bench, that is a bonus. But I’m not counting on him.

    A Star in the Making

    Is there anybody in the majors today who is more fun to watch than Ozzie Albies? The kid is flat-out awesome to watch, be it diving to snag ground balls, turning double plays, blasting balls into the seats and hitting line drives into the gap.

    Seeing Ozzie round first on his way to an extra-base hit is one of the pure joys of watching baseball today. He plays with so much passion and joy, and he is so fast. His speed and baserunning is game-changing stuff.

    When the All-Star ballot comes out, punch Ozzie’s name at second base, repeatedly. If his production stays anywhere near the level we’ve seen through 18 games – .316 average, .995 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs, 15 extra-base hits, outstanding defense – he has to be the front-runner for top second baseman in the Senior Circuit.

    What About Julio?

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

    Teheran has made a big change in his past two starts – relying more on his slider and changeup and mixing in a curveball, as well. In his first two starts of the season, Teheran relied solely on his fastball and opposing lineups pounded the heat, which sat around or just under 90 mph with little movement.

    Maybe Julio has found something with more mixing in of the breaking stuff. I think we all know he’s not an ace, but with four pitches in the mix, JT becomes more effective and more attractive – given his contract status – if Atlanta looks to deal him.

    ***

    It’s just 18 games, but compared to recent history, these Braves in 2018 have pushed the envelope. It’s a fun bunch to watch. There is so far to go but, so far, so good.

    —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 off to Red Hot Start … and It’s Been Fun

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – High-fives in the middle of the diamond, a happy mid-afternoon crowd cheering into the cool Georgia air and another game that feels like something not seen often in these parts recently.

    The Atlanta Braves opening homestand of the season is complete, and it goes in the books as a resounding success. The team currently leads all of Major League Baseball in runs scored with 48, and team batting average, .297. The pitching, on balance, hasn’t been bad either. Braves pitchers boast a 3.86 ERA through 6 games.

    The result: Four victories in six games, a fifth victory just sliding away thanks to a bad slide at home plate. Good crowds, thirsty for signs of spring and perhaps a little more edgy for some winning baseball. Two series victories against NL East rivals, one that dominated Atlanta like Sherman last season, the other who occupies the division’s penthouse suite.

    And yet, as I made my way from the chilly confines of SunTrust Park after the Braves 7-1 thrashing of Washington on Wednesday, I kept thinking about one thing:

    It’s been one week.

    Four words made famous in song by the Bare Naked Ladies 20 years ago, but four words that fit here.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday's 13-6 win over the Nationals.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday’s 13-6 win over the Washington Nationals.

    What to make of these Braves, who sit 4-2 on the season and head out for the Frozen Tundra Trip – let’s face it, who doesn’t yearn for an early-April trip to Denver, Washington and Chicago – looking far more entertaining than the squads that combined to win a total of one game across the opening six contests the past two years?

    For any team to overachieve, there must be surprises. And while it’s been one week, it’s been one week a few guys wearing the tomahawk likely won’t forget.

    Or repeat. Consider:

    Charlie Culberson: Born in Rome – home of Atlanta’s Low-A affiliate – Culberson showed brief flashes of being able to produce offensively to go with his outstanding defensive abilities. He hit .293 in 99 at-bats for Colorado in 2013 and batted .299 three seasons later in 67 at-bats with the Dodgers. A 5-for-11 showing with three extra-base hits in the NLCS last season helped lift Los Angeles to the pennant, but those moments have been few and far between.

    The 28-year-old only has six at-bats in three games, but has made the most of them with two hits and two runs scored. Culberson has matched last season’s hit total (2-for-13 in 15 games). Any offensive production at all is a bonus from a guy who took his one season of regular playing time in Colorado (233 plate appearances in 2014) and promptly slashed .195/.253/.290.

    Ryan Flaherty: I bashed this signing endlessly on Twitter. The Braves already had a guy on the roster, Culberson, who plays great infield defense but can’t hit. Flaherty brought his career .215 batting average in 1,270 career plate appearances to town, and promptly raised that career average by five points in six games.

    How? By going 10-for-23 with four doubles and six runs scored. He became the third Atlanta third baseman to score four times and collect four hits in one game, joining a couple of fellas you may have heard of (Terry Pendleton, and some dude named Chipper). His on-base percentage, which was .284 in six seasons with Baltimore, sits at .500.

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves' bullpen Wednesday

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves’ bullpen Wednesday

    Preston Tucker: He made the team out of spring training as the DDTFIUAT (Dude Designated To Fill In Until Acuna Time). The 27-year-old has flashed promising power – 13 homers in 300 at-bats with Houston in 2015, and 100 career minor-league homers in 535 games – but strikes out in bunches. Like 40 strikeouts in 140 plate appearances in 2016 with Houston bunches, and 102 whiffs in 128 games in Triple-A last season.

    Now? Tucker has struck out four times in 21 at-bats, but when he hasn’t whiffed, he’s produced. Two homers, four runs scored and eight RBIs. Not bad for a guy who drove in 41 runs in his first 146 games before this season. His first-inning homer Tuesday into the Chop House flipped the script after the Nationals built a 3-0 lead, and his three-run opening-frame blast after a Washington error off the impenetrable Max Scherzer Wednesday launched Atlanta ahead for keeps.

    Shane Carle: Admit it, you had no clue who this dude was two weeks ago. Acquired in a quiet offseason deal with the Pirates for the ever-famous “player to be named later or cash considerations,” Carle earned a roster spot by not allowing a run in five of his final seven spring-training appearances.

    He took the loss Friday against Philadelphia by allowing one run in a two-inning stint, but he absolutely saved Julio Teheran and the Braves in Tuesday’s slugfest. Summoned in the third inning, Carle threw 26 of his 37 pitches for strikes and allowed only one hit in 3 1/3 steady innings of relief as the Braves bludgeoned the Nationals.

    The catchers? Nobody could see this coming.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    Atlanta already has started four guys in six games, as Tyler Flowers is on the disabled list and Kurt Suzuki is lucky he didn’t land there. Chris Stewart came on to replace both after injuries in the first two games, made three starts – complete with a two-hit, two-RBI performance Saturday – then was designated for assignment.

    Wednesday’s starting catcher? Carlos Perez. He was in the Angels organization Saturday.

    It’s been one week. An interesting one, for sure. And yet, a successful one for the Braves, who found themselves 1-5 after six games last season and 0-6 en route to a 4-17 start in 2016.

    Surely, there will be regression back toward the mean for these guys. Right?

    Here’s what we do know. Freddie Freeman may be putting the opening brushstrokes on a MVP-caliber season. Dansby Swanson looks confident at the plate. Ozzie Albies, albeit hitting just .172, is putting together solid at-bats. Nick Markakis, whose ninth-inning homer on opening day capped a furious late-inning comeback, owns a .934 OPS.

    And reinforcements are coming. Suzuki should be back early on the road trip. Third baseman Johan Camargo, provided all goes well in his injury rehab, could join the team in Denver. And there’s that Acuna kid, who we presume is a little more than a week away from making his much-ballyhooed debut.

    By then, it will have been more than one week. At this juncture, it’s been one week.

    And it’s been fun to watch.

    —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.

    SEASON PREVIEW: Can Acuna, speed and defense carry Braves to .500?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Hope springs eternal, so goes the old saying, but in the cruel reality of Major League Baseball, that optimism runs dry for all but a few select squads.

    While it is true everybody plays to be the last one standing in early November and to bring home that golden trophy with the 30 pennants, truth serum served in 162 doses wears away the shine of spring dreams for most.

    So, when will that moment arrive for the Atlanta Braves, who are not ready to crash the postseason party but figure to be at least more intriguing this year than the last three (90-loss) seasons?

    Maybe deeper into summer than you think.

    Maybe.

    The Braves open the season at home on Thursday, hosting the Phillies at 4:10pm

    The Atlanta Braves open the 2018 season at home on Thursday, hosting the Philadelphia Phillies at 4:10pm

    Once in my young days as a sports writer, I wrote in a game story about an error a high school player made. My wise, older editor pointed out the error was inconsequential to the game’s outcome, and thus there was no need to call out the young gentleman in such a way. “Remember Bud, you played this sport,” said the sage editor, who loved this sport as deeply as myself. “It’s a hard game.”

    Indeed, it is. Coaching my 13- and 14-year old team last spring and summer did not allow me to provide any, “I remember when I was your age” moments. My career in uniform ended before then, when pitches started bending off a straight plane and when the speed, skill, athleticism and mental toughness to play at a high level surpassed any level this wannabe athlete growing up in the Atlanta suburbs could attain.

    I digress back to the present, as the Braves tick down the final days before Julio Teheran’s first pitch crosses home plate at SunTrust Park around 4:10 p.m. ET on Thursday. It will mark Atlanta’s second season inside its shiny new home, and most expect more wins than last year’s total of 72.

    Certainly, I feel this team will win more games. Last year’s Braves held things together through a remarkable first 90 games – walking out of SunTrust Park following a post-All-Star Game sweep of Arizona at 45 up and 45 down. Then the bottom dropped out as an overexposed bullpen and a shaky back end of the rotation ran out of pixie dust in the final 72 games.

    There is reason to be hopeful of improvement in both areas, especially behind the gate in right-center field. Atlanta has assembled a core of young arms that exemplify the flavor of the game right now: hard throwers coming in waves to dominate the late innings. Whether A.J. Minter is ready to close, whether Daniel Winkler is ready for 55 appearances, whether Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez can avoid control issues, and whether the outlier, the sage old sidearming Aussie Peter Moylan, can spot his sinker effectively, will go a long way to solidifying the final innings of games in Atlanta’s favor.

    The Braves figure to need it, with a rotation that is more stable in some respects but at the same time possessing just as many question marks and stopgaps as a season ago. Gone are the ageless (and miserably ineffective) Bartolo Colon, the underwhelming Jaime Garcia, and R.A. Dickey, whose knuckleball fluttered and floated enough for another solid season. Replacing them is the witty veteran Brandon McCarthy, the promise of Sean Newcomb and a gaping hole in the fifth spot with the powerful and, eh, robust, Luiz Gohara sidelined with an injury for at last the first month.

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    Slotting in at the top are two arms new general manager Alex Anthopoulos undoubtedly will watch closely in the season’s opening months. Teheran, whose struggles last season at home were much maligned, fashioned an outstanding spring and showed renewed confidence in his slider. Mike Foltynewicz, who for two months in the middle of last season looked like an emerging ace but at times continued to let his surroundings get the best of him, simplified his delivery over the winter and produced a stellar spring himself.

    An effective Teheran and Foltynewicz (the later perhaps grounded by the arrival of his first child shortly before camp began), teamed with a healthy McCarthy and the version of Newcomb who cut down on his walks in spring action, forms a solid four-man rotation. But again, there are questions, the type which cannot be answered until the team comes north and the lights kick on.

    Pitching is the key to this massive rebuild, and as we know, pitching develops later than hitting. But in some of the younger arms who acquitted themselves well during February and March – most notably Kyle Wright and an ace-in-the-making in Mike Soroka – Atlanta is awash in potential franchise-altering talent on the mound. It’s not here yet in full, but those two could be big-league-ready by late summer.

    Everybody knows the Braves are not going to lead the league in homers. The power deficit is notable, with Freddie Freeman and his healed wrist having little protection in the opening day lineup. That figures to change somewhat when 20-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna ascends to the majors for keeps once mid-April arrives, the outfielder dazzling even long-time observers with dominance of Grapefruit League action and five tools that could result in superstardom. Unlike the fickle nature of pitching, Acuna’s skillset, as 20-year-olds go, looks as close to a sure bet as possible for a guy who legally cannot buy a beer in one of The Battery’s sprawling watering holes.

    Acuna’s debut season – which will be chronicled unlike arguably any rookie in franchise history – is one of three reasons why this correspondent is somewhat bullish on this team’s chances. The impact of Acuna in another area is another optimistic point. In Acuna, the exciting Ozzie Albies at second base and the emerging steady star of Ender Inciarte in center field, Atlanta suddenly has three players capable of stealing 20-plus bases. A franchise long committed to station-to-station, wait-for-the-blast baseball, it will be fascinating to watch the employment of analytics brought by Anthopoulos and the impact of Eric Young Sr. – one of baseball’s better basestealers of the past 30 years – on the Braves’ offense.

    The third aspect plays toward thepitching, but is not centered on the mound. Rather, take a lookaround the diamond. Atlanta is light years better defensively than it was this time last year. It is fair to question whether Johan Camargo can hit consistently at the major-league level, but his arm and range dictate he plays third every day upon returning from an oblique injury. Gone from left field is Matt Kemp, whose anchor of a contract was outweighed only by his defensive liabilities. Acuna will slot there after the first couple of weeks, and he legitimately could be a Gold Glove candidate, while the guy next to him in center chases his third consecutive Gold Glove award.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Brandon Phillips played well at second base in 2017 but Albies, with his range and instincts, is a defensive star on the rise. Having him for a full season, plus having Freeman – who missed a quarter of last season with the wrist injury and actually impressed during the creative impulse that led him to play third base for a while upon his return – anchoring first base 155 games vastly improves the right side of the infield.

    Is Acuna, plus the speed in the lineup, plus the improved defense, worth an extra 1.5 wins per month? I think it is. That would be nine more wins than a season ago, which would put the Braves all even at the end of the season, 81-81. A .500 record would be welcomed in these parts, and yet, it feels like there are enough question marks where maybe that’s just a bit ambitious.

    If you gaze at the ceiling, you also must recognize the floor. Teheran hangs too many sliders to lefties at home, Foltynewicz struggles to channel his emotions, Newcomb can’t hit the corners and the bullpen is a mish-mash of guys moving in and out of roles due to inconsistency. Acuna struggles for long stretches as most mortal rookies will, teams pitch around Freeman, Albies hits a sophomore slump, Dansby Swanson does not recover from his, and a couple of key injuries mix in to send this team to a 74-win campaign.

    Best-case scenario is the bullpen arms settle into their roles, Vizcaino and Ramirez and Minter forming a dynamite trio for the final six-to-nine outs, Teheran and Foltynewicz bring their spring performances north and have consistent seasons, Newcomb’s control continues improving as he makes 27 starts, and Atlanta is a nightmare for opponents on the bases. Freeman puts forth a season worthy of MVP consideration – he was well on his way before being hit with a pitch last May – Acuna wins rookie of the year and the Braves play meaningful baseball into the final two weeks before settling with 85 wins.

    I think as often is the case, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. Mixing in elements from both scenarios (I personally don’t expect Acuna to hit .220, but him hitting .300 may not be realistic, as an example), I see this Braves team winning 80 games for the first time since winning the NL East in 2013. And while an 80-82 season will not put the Braves into this October, it would represent the right type of progress as Atlanta heads into a winter where it will be awash with cash for the blockbuster free-agent class of the coming offseason and, with it, the ability to extend its season far beyond the end of September come next autumn.

    —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.

    Philadelphia

    4 Ways the Kemp Trade Makes the Braves Better … This Year and Beyond

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Say this for Alex Anthopoulos. He’s a creative fellow.

    His first deal as general manager of the Atlanta Braves is just the latest example of Anthopoulos making the implausible possible, turning the strange into sensible, building by taking a road few could even imagine, let alone travel to completion.

    For the thought of Matt Kemp playing limited innings in left field to keep his power bat in the lineup in 2018, the Braves were best served by moving the oft-injured veteran. Anthopoulos did just that in a stunning deal Saturday that draws as much attention to next winter as it does to the approaching spring and summer.

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Kemp heads back to Los Angeles, where I doubt he plays an inning with the Dodgers given his defensive limitations. In return, the Braves received four players – three of whom could contribute to Atlanta next season; one who already has been designated for assignment. The contracts of Adrian Gonzalez (released upon request), Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir will be absorbed by the Braves in return for Kemp going to the Dodgers.

    This is a good move. It is not addition by subtraction in the sense of dealing one player for, in essence, three players: McCarthy, Kazmir and Charlie Culberson. But look closer, and you see this deal works for Atlanta in several ways:

     

    1. The Budget

    The Braves would have owed Kemp $31.5 million over the final two years of his current deal. In taking on three players entering the final year of existing deals, Atlanta will pay Gonzalez ($22.357 million), McCarthy ($11.5 million) and Kazmir ($17.66 million) a total of $51.517 million. The Dodgers kicked in $4 million in the deal, but the biggest thing is at the end of next season, all that money comes off the books.

    Entering the 2018-19 offseason, one that is chock full of marquee stars (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, etc.), the Braves are going to have enormous flexibility. The only guaranteed deals on the Atlanta roster after next season are for Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte. There always is a chance Teheran could be shipped elsewhere.

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Even if the Braves were to make long-term offers to a couple of their core internal pieces (say, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna), Atlanta still will have a massive amount of money freed up to play in the free agent market in maybe the most intriguing offseason in years.

    2. The Outfield

    Speaking of Acuna, moving Kemp now frees up a corner spot for the top prospect in the Braves organization. Acuna boat-raced through three levels of the minors as a 19-year-old, then won MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League.

    Yes, the Braves may opt to keep him at Triple-A Gwinnett for the first few weeks of the season to gain an additional year of control. Culberson gives you a viable option in left field for that timeframe, but make no mistake. Acuna will be up and contributing early in 2018, and now he has a spot.

    3. The Rotation

    Yes, we all know how that worked out last season. Jaime Garcia was serviceable before netting a prospect in a trade deadline deal. R.A. Dickey pitched well at times and really helped the rotation’s younger members by serving as a mentor. Bartolo Colon was a disaster and eventually was sent packing.

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    McCarthy made 19 appearances (16 starts) with a sub-4 ERA last season. A decent showing in spring training slots him into a rotation spot, helping to anchor a group that figures to include two rookies who debuted last season in Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara. It also moves a couple of younger arms, most notably Max Fried, into the bullpen to further bolster a group that struggled mightily at times a season ago.

    Kazmir is best described as a flyer, the left-hander missing all of last season with a hip injury. If he is healthy and can produce anything, it would be a bonus.

    4. The Bench

    Culberson, a graduate of Calhoun High, comes home to fill the role Jace Peterson held before the Braves non-tendered him earlier this offseason. Culberson hit .455 in the NLCS and was 3-for-5 in the World Series, and has made 29-plus career appearances at shortstop, second base, third base and left field. Anthopoulos said Saturday that Culberson plays “Gold Glove caliber” defense at shortstop, which largely explains his interest in adding the utility man to Atlanta’s bench.

     

    I have a feeling the Braves are not done yet. There still is the thought of a bridge at third base to get to Austin Riley, especially a right-handed bat with power to slide behind Freeman. Atlanta still could look to move Nick Markakis from right field, but would need now to get an outfielder in return (I know a guy on South Beach who would great in left field with a tomahawk across his chest). The Braves could benefit from another veteran arm or two for the bullpen.

    But after bemoaning the lack of action at the Winter Meetings, the Anthopoulos Era kicks off with a bang: A creative, compelling deal that should show Braves fans the new guy is pretty sharp.

    —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.

    7 Key Questions for Braves as Critical Offseason Looms

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Tailgating alongside Circle 75 Parkway in the shadow of SunTrust Park on Saturday, hours before the penultimate game of the Atlanta Braves’ debut season in their new home, the news flashed across the Twitter-verse that catcher Kurt Suzuki had punted pending free agency in favor of a one-year deal to return in 2018.

    Approximately 20 hours later, my trip to the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 for the final game of the first year in the Braves’ new home was postponed due to a dead battery and a broken battery connection. It laid waste to plans for the day, but as I settled into the Braves room at home after performing the auto repair necessary in advance of a busy week, I realized my unplanned vehicle issues served as a poignant reminder that for all the planning in the world, things can go in a different direction.

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Hence, we arrive at the final week of the Braves’ 2017 season, one in which some felt Atlanta might push to contend for a National League wild-card spot. Many more felt this would be a season of progression; this correspondent predicted this edition of Atlanta baseball would win 78 games. It is a goal mathematically still attainable, provided the Braves win eight games in seven days to close this campaign.

    My point being this: You can plan for the future all you want, lay out the best path forward but, at the end of the day, things happen that can throw off that plan. You have to be able to adjust, to learn from what occurred and shift direction accordingly.

    There is no denying the Braves of 2017 have been equally tantalizing and frustrating. So it goes in a rebuild, especially with an influx of young talent in a new stadium, with flashes of brilliance and ineptitude equally woven into the day-to-day tapestry of the six-month marathon known as a baseball season.

    As the final week of this season dawns, a look at some of the hot-button issues surrounding this franchise as winter is (nearly) here, a season in which the decisions made will help define what is to come in future summers.

    Who is manager in 2018?

    Everybody was thrilled when Brian Snitker – who is the definition of a Braves lifer – was brought back for 2017, with an option for 2018. Atlanta’s passionate finishing kick to close 2016, winning 20 of its final 30 games, gave Snitker the chance to manage a full major-league season this year.

    But a series of tactical errors and some questionable handling of the Braves’ young talent leads me to believe he will not be retained. That is not an indictment of a man who does not have a job guaranteed after next Sunday. He managed attempting to win every night, even if that mentality ran counter to playing younger players for development of the rebuild.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Should this team fulfil its appointed prophecy and win a World Series, Snitker deserves a ring. He served his role in the rebuild and, for the most part, served it well. The players love him. But the franchise needs a manager now who will be here in 2022. That is not Snitker.

    Who comprises the rotation in 2018?

    Atlanta rolled the dice on veterans to cover innings in 2017 – a sound strategy given the time needed to let the first really big wave of young talent to continue percolating in the minors. R.A. Dickey has proven to be steady. Jaime Garcia pitched well at times before netting a prospect at the trade deadline. Bartolo Colon was an unmitigated disaster, as much as we all wanted him to be good.

    General manager John Coppolella is quoted today in published reports that the Braves will look to their young arms to take a step forward in 2018. That tells me Julio Teheran, who was awful for most of the year at home but has turned around his season the past month, will be here. Mike Foltynewicz and Luiz Gohara look like locks for the 2018 rotation, with Sean Newcomb likely to be in the top five, too.

    That leaves one spot. The feeling here is R.A. Dickey rides off into the sunset and heads home to Nashville, leaving the opening as a battle between Max Fried, Lucas Sims and a cast of others who with an impressive camp could start the year in Atlanta (and while I think it’s unlikely they skip Triple-A, I would not discount Kolby Allard or Mike Soroka emerging in March).

    Who pitches out of the bullpen?

    Atlanta’s relief corps in the second half of the season has been a motley mix of veterans (Jason Motte, Rex Brothers, Jim Johnson) and promising young arms (A.J. Minter, Daniel Winkler, Akeel Morris). For now, it appears both closer Arodys Vizcaino and set-up man Jose Ramirez are likely to be in the bullpen to start 2018, but the other five or six slots are up for grabs.

    Sam Freeman certainly has earned a long look next spring, the left-hander proving effective time and time again. Minter, with an offseason of rest, should be ready to unleash his high-90s velocity on back-to-back days. Winkler has impressed now that he is healthy again. Coppolella indicated the Braves will pursue one or two bullpen pieces. Adding a Brad Hand to the core group would go a long way to settling the final innings.

    Which corner outfielder has played his final game at SunTrust Park?

    I do not envision a scenario where the Braves trade Matt Kemp. For one, his contract (through 2019) and the money owed makes it difficult to move the oft-injured right-handed slugger. More importantly, for better or worse, this lineup at this moment is much better with a healthy Kemp hitting cleanup behind Freddie Freeman.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The thought here is the Braves retain Kemp at least through 2018, using Lane Adams – who has enjoyed a breakthrough season and should be the fourth outfielder coming out of camp – to fill in when Kemp is out. That leaves Nick Markakis as the odd-man out, and with one year at $11 million left on his contract and another solid year offensively, there should be plenty of suitors on the market.

    So an outfielder gets traded … who takes that spot?

    Like seriously? Short of leaving baseball for soccer – and his speed would fit in nicely with Atlanta United – Ronald Acuna will be in the Braves outfield on opening day March 29, 2018. And while he will be a 20-year-old rookie who will experience the inevitable ups and downs from playing in the highest league in the world, there is little doubt Acuna is going to be a difference maker … and soon.

    What does Atlanta’s lineup look like in 2018?

    There often is debate online whether the Braves would be better served by putting Ozzie Albies at the top of the lineup. But when you have Ender Inciarte – who is three hits shy of becoming the first Atlanta player in 21 years to reach 200 hits – it is a moot point. Inciarte, for all the teeth-grinding by the sabermetric folks, is a very good hitter who gets on base. He hits leadoff. Stats are great. Results are great, too.

    Albies has impressed in the two-spot and is a switch hitter. He stays there, with the thought he will adjust to the league as it adjusts to him. Freddie Freeman and Kemp are anchored in the 3-4 spots. No doubt there.

    Beyond that, there are options. The catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Suzuki, who will be back in 2018 (Atlanta is almost certain to pick up Flowers’ club option) could slot fifth or sixth. Acuna likely hits sixth or seventh. Dansby Swanson’s adjustments to breaking balls on the outer third since returning from Gwinnett leads me to believe he should hit sixth or seventh.

    OF Ender Inciarte could become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    OF Ender Inciarte could soon become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    The one thing that could turn this around would be if Atlanta trades for or signs a power-hitting third baseman. Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas was interesting, but his big power surge this season and the fact he is a free agent in the prime of his career very well may price him out of Atlanta’s range.

    And with the emergence of Johan Camargo, and the flashes seen from Rio Ruiz, it may be a good thing Moustakas will command a long-term, high-money deal. Atlanta could do far worse than a Camargo/Ruiz platoon next season.

    How patient should be fanbase be in 2018?

    For all the pomp and circumstance as we look back to 1991, the fact remains that Atlanta squad which won the NL pennant had its foundation laid over a four-season period (1987-90). In this age of instant gratification and less-than-zero patience, Braves fans should be cautioned that it is possible a fifth-consecutive sub-.500 season could loom in 2018.

    Rebuilds take time and do not produce instant results. Yes, I know the good folks in Braves Country have suffered since the midpoint of the 2014 season. That is a long time to struggle. But there are good signs this rebuild is progressing as designed. Sure, there will be forks in the road in which decisions that will define this franchise have to be made.

    Several of those decisions loom as this summer descends into the offseason. In the coming weeks, I will reach out to members of the fanbase to discuss the points raised above. It is my goal to communicate the raw feelings of the fanbase as we enter what I feel may be the offseason that defines the coming years of this franchise, and whether this great rebuild results in what we all hope.

    Running the risk of hyperbole, I feel the next few months will be critical in determining the future of this franchise and how history will judge this era of Braves baseball.

    —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

    Big Decisions Ahead for Braves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Shagging fly balls at my baseball team’s first fall practice of this season tonight, a random thought crossed my mind. It took me back to about this time last year, and sparked an idea that – on a rare night without deadlines or work stuff to occupy my sleepless evening hours – intrigued me.

    I mention no deadlines because deadline came early on this 29th day of August. The Atlanta Braves were rained out in Philadelphia, a postponement announced two hours before first pitch, a pronouncement that meant for one blessed night, the Braves would not be tormented by the worst team in Major League Baseball.

    So, after a little digging, I confirmed that the 29th day of August last year also featured no Braves baseball. Atlanta was off that day, beginning that idle date on the schedule with a 48-83 record. Tonight’s unexpected evening off the diamond found the Braves with a 57-72 mark, far better than where this team sat a season ago.

    Will Brandon Phillips be in a Braves uniform on Sep 1?

    Will Brandon Phillips be in a Braves uniform on Sep 1?

    But you never would know it from the blogosphere, from social media, from sports talk shows and water cooler chats (do people still chat around the water cooler? Let’s assume they do somewhere) that have doom and gloom falling all over a team that, to be frank, has stunk the past six weeks. The Braves reached .500 on July 16 at 45-45, but have won just 12 times since.

    As Atlanta approaches September, we are reminded last year’s team would start a 20-10 run on Aug. 30, closing out Turner Field in style with victories that knocked the Tigers out of the American League playoffs while whetting the appetite of Braves Country for a 2017 that would feature a new stadium and a new beginning.

    And while there is little doubt SunTrust Park has lived up to its preseason billing, the same cannot be said for this team that – while in the midst of rebuilding – had at least planted a seed that this season would be a breakthrough to respectability. And sure, while being nine wins better than 365 days ago is impressive improvement, it should be better.

    September dawns soon. The active roster expands, several players are expected to return from the disabled list and a handful of prospects may merit promotion for the proverbial cup of coffee (Ronald Acuna will not be one of them, this correspondent continues to say). There is little optimism that these Braves will replicate the spirited final kick of a September ago, and honestly, that’s OK.

    The season’s final month is a time to start answering questions. The Braves have more than their fair share:

    What to do when Johan Camargo comes off the disabled list?

    Camargo, long impressive with his glove and cannon of a right arm, has shocked all of us with a .292 batting average and .781 OPS in just 185 at-bats. Those offensive numbers are better than anything he produced in the minors. The Braves seem serious about Camargo being part of their long-term plans, a pronouncement that cannot be based on two months’ worth of ABs.

    When he returns, Camargo needs to play every single day.

    Where does Camargo play once he is healthy?

    This one is easy, and hard, at the same time. He has to be the starting third baseman for the final four weeks of the season. Period.

    Why is playing Camargo daily an easy decision?

    Braves IF Johan Camargo is expected to return to the lineup September.

    Braves IF Johan Camargo is expected to return to the lineup September.

    This has less to do with Camargo and more to do with the two players lining up in the middle of Atlanta’s infield. Dansby Swanson’s demotion to Triple-A, where he got regular at-bats, gave him the time needed to adjust his swing and stance at the plate. He has been outstanding at shortstop since returning from the minors to replace the injured Camargo.

    At second base, Ozzie Albies has adjusted to major-league pitching after a rough beginning. His speed is breathtaking to watch. His smile lights up a ballpark on its own. Seeing Albies and Swanson up the middle is something Braves fans have dreamed of since the great teardown of this franchise three years go. Both are cornerstone pieces. They have to play, together, every single day.

    Why is playing Camargo daily a hard decision?

    It is hard to describe the impact Brandon Phillips has made on the Braves in his first season with his hometown team. The Redan High product has produced offensively, served as a veteran presence for the younger players in the clubhouse, and moved to third base – where he has looked every bit like a guy who has spent his entire major-league career at the hot corner.

    Phillips is one hit away from 2,000 for his career. He has more than proven he can play every day and produce on offense and defense. He most likely will get a chance to extend his career elsewhere. As much as it would be an incredible story for it to continue in his hometown, Phillips’ journey in 2018 almost certainly will unfold elsewhere.

    Unless Phillips were to take a one-year deal as a bench bat and mentor, he won’t be back in Atlanta next season. As much as we all love him and respect him, the greater good of the organization dictates a serious reduction in his playing time once September arrives.

    Is Julio Teheran here next season?

    Teheran’s 2017 season has been maddeningly inconsistent. Yes, his numbers at home still stink (2-9, 6.54 ERA). Yes, he’s allowed a career-high 29 homers and posted a career-worst 1.374 WHIP and 4.90 ERA since becoming a full-time starter in 2013.

    On the flip side, he’s four starts away from his fifth consecutive season of 30-plus starts, 35 innings away from his fifth consecutive season of 185-plus innings, is signed to a club-friendly deal through 2020 and is a two-time All-Star.

    Will the Braves explore  trading troubled ace Julio Teheran this winter?

    Will the Braves explore trading their inconsistent ace Julio Teheran this winter?

    I think of what somebody once said of Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, that when he’s good, he’s great, and when he’s bad, he’s terrible. That’s been Teheran in 2017. This will not be an easy call either way, but I lean toward this: in a rotation that figures to feature plenty of young arms in the next two years, Teheran has 156 career starts and is 28 innings shy of 1,000 pitched in the majors.

    Who pitches out of the bullpen?

    This is where the Braves should rely heavily – and I mean heavily – on youth. Yes, it may impact the overall win-loss number, but again, for the greater good of the franchise, Atlanta needs to see how some of its young arms fare late in games.

    For Jason Motte, Rex Brothers and Jim Johnson, this means nothing more than mop-up duty. The Braves feel they have viable candidate for the late innings in Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez. But there is a long list of guys who need opportunities in high-leverage situations, including Sam Freeman, Akeel Morris, Dan Winkler, A.J. Minter, Ian Krol and Luke Jackson.

    Depending on how those arms fare in September, the bullpen could be a very big – and expensive – focus in the offseason.

    There are decisions to be made, some unpopular, some necessary, all with a focus on making the next Aug. 29 we encounter not a day to ponder how bad things are, but to enjoy positive results that this franchise and its fanbase deserve.

    And the discovery process needs to begin right now.

    —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.

    Braves sending 3 to ASG, J-Up part of final vote

    The Braves learned Sunday that Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel would represent the team at the upcoming All Star Game at Target Field in Minnesota. They, like the rest of us, were also thrilled that Justin Upton is one of 5 players vying for the final roster spot. The Final Vote closes at 4 p.m. (ET) on Thursday.

    Justin Upton is one of 5 vying for a final roster spot representing the NL in Minnesota.

    Justin Upton is one of 5 vying for a final roster spot representing the NL in Minnesota.

    Justin Upton has put up exceptional numbers despite deep slumps in the first half of the season. He has a .275/.350/.505 slash with a club-leading 17 homers and 50 RBIs. He has hit .318 at home this season, notching 11 homers and 31 of his RBIs at the Ted.

    Fans can vote at MLB.com or by tweeting #VoteJUp. Upton is up against Justin Morneau of the Rockies, Anthony Rendon of the Nationals, Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs and Casey McGehee of the Marlins.

    Freddie Freeman will now have two All Star appearances in his young career. This year he was selected by the NL players. As you will remember, Braves Country put Freddie in the game last year with the Final Vote. Freddie’s numbers are by far the best offensive numbers on the club in the first half. He has a .299/.390/.507 line with 26 doubles, 13 homers and 47 RBIs. Freddie already has a career high 3 triples on the season. His best numbers have come in clutch situations. He has hit .345 when the game is tied, .297 with 14 RBIs in the 7th inning or later and a ridiculous .313 with 16 RBIs in at-bats when there are 2 outs. And his .344 average when the Braves win is, of course, a huge reason for their success.

    Julio Teheran has been the ace that the Braves needed this season with the loss of Beachy and Medlen at the beginning of the season and Floyd recently. While his 8-5 record doesn’t quite reflect just how good Teheran has been, his 2.29 ERA does. In 126 innings pitched before the all-star break, Teheran has struck out 108 batters while walking 26. He has thrown 2 complete game shutouts this season to add to his clear dominance.

    The Braves have already said that Teheran will attend the All Star Game in Minnesota. However, it is unlike that Teheran will pitch in the game.

    It’s no surprise to the baseball world that Craig Kimbrel is making his 4th ASG appearance in as many seasons. Kimbrel has a lights-out 2.04 ERA and is tied above the NL leader board with 27 saves. In 35 1/3 innings, Kimbrel has 60 strikeouts. In addition to putting up shining numbers, Kimbrel surpassed future hall-of-famer John Smoltz to take the franchise record in saves this season.

    A player that wasn’t selected to the All Star Game and could have been had he not been injured is Evan Gattis.

    Prior to going on the disabled list with a right rhomboid spasm that they eventually learned was a bulging disc, Gattis was putting up exceptional numbers. In 63 games as the everyday catcher for the Braves, he put together a .290/.342/.558 line. Prior to the injury, his 16 home runs led all MLB catchers. He had 10 doubles, a triple and 39 RBIs.

    With Gattis behind the plate, the Braves pitching staff has a 49-40 record with a 3.22 ERA (third best in the National League). Against other NL teams, the Braves have a 3.08 ERA, good for second in the league behind their rivals the Washington Nationals. In teams won by the club, the pitching staff has a 2.02 ERA.

    Gattis has morphed into a great all-around catcher. His footwork behind the plate has improved immensely, much of it thanks to the tutelage of veteran Gerald Laird, and he is calling consistently good game behind the dish. It is only a matter of time before we can say Evan Gattis, all star catcher.

    All Star Game festivities include the All-Star Futures Game and the All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game on Sunday, the Gillette Home Run Derby Monday night and the 85th MLB All Star Game on Tuesday.

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

     

     

    As Braves scuffle, Nats grab first place

    The Atlanta Braves have lost 3 games in the past week when they have a had a lead in the late innings. They’ve lost 2 games where they’ve battled back to make it to the 13th inning only to give up 5 runs and the ballgame. They were swept by the Phillies who, by all indications, are on the verge of trading away some or all of the pieces that once brought them multiple division titles. And they’ve failed their starting pitching offensively time and time again with lack of run support. If the 2014 Atlanta Braves want a spot in the postseason this year, it’s time to get it together.

    When the Braves went out and signed Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons to long-term deals this winter, the consensus among baseball writers about Jason Heyward was that the talent and potential is there, he just hasn’t met it. Many compared he and Freeman to McCann and Francouer when they came up, saying Heyward was the expected superstar and Freeman surpassed him. Many said that Jason’s 2-year extension was a tryout, essentially, for Heyard to prove that he deserves a deal with this club. If that is the case, Heyward is more than proving himself this season. Heyward is now hitting .303/.381/.472 in his past 35 games, all of them in the lead off spot. He has upped his speed on the bases, stealing 9 bags so far. His defense in right field is likely the best in the National League. When compared to other players in either league, defensively Heyward is in the top 5 valuable players, according to Fangraphs, and surpasses teammate Andrelton Simmons.

    The legend of Evan Gattis, former ski lift operator and pizza delivery driver, continues to grow. Gattis takes a 17-game hitting streak and the most homers of any catcher in the big leagues into the series against Washington. Not only has Gattis improved behind the plate defensively and with increased authority calling games, his hitting is more consistent and his power even more dominant. Instead of hitting just fastballs out of baseball parks everywhere, he is hitting offspeed stuff with equal aplomb. Despite taking an off day, Gattis extended his hitting streak to 17 games  yesterday with yet another homer against the Phillies, his 16th on the year. Gattis has now improved his average to .294 with 7 doubles, 16 homers and 38 RBIs on the year. Gattis trails only Tommy La Stella in batting average among his teammates, though has 36 more appearances this season than Tommy. Gattis leads the team in RBI and slugging percentage (.588).

    Coming off his worst career start, Julio Teheran stepped up big time against the visiting Phils. In his last outing against the Reds, Julio surrendered 10 hits and 7 earned runs (a career first) in 6 1/3 innings. He bounced back in a big way against Philly, going 8 strong innings with only 4 hits given up and 1 earned run allowed. He lowered his ERA to 2.31 on the season. Unfortunately, Julio did not get the win due to the ongoing issues in the ‘pen and kept his record at 6-4.

    NATS AND BRAVES SQUARE OFF FOR FIRST PLACE…

    The Braves enter the 4-game series with the Nationals 1 1/2 games behind Washington in the National League East. The Nats enter the series with a 37-33 record and a 2-game winning streak. The Braves sit at 36-35, having lost the last 3 games to the previously mentioned Phillies. The Braves are tied for 2nd in the division with the surprising Miami Marlins who may or may not have what it takes to keep on winning through to September. Though only 5 and 6 games back, respectively, the Phillies and Mets don’t appear to be contenders this year with the pieces they have. The Phillies will likely sell at the deadline–maybe even a fire sale–but, the cash-strapped Mets may hang on to the less expensive pieces they have given their strength in the farm system. Of the two, the Phillies are more likely to be a spoiler alongside the Marlins, assuming Miami can’t keep pace with Washington and Atlanta.

    David Carpenter has had the worst luck on the mound of any reliever this season. His numbers bear that out. With a 4-1 record and a 4.23 ERA in 27 2/3 innings this season, Carpenter has struggled in high pressure situations in the last 2 months. His April ERA was a stellar 2.61. It then ballooned in May to 4.97 before dropping to 4.23 where it is now. His bad luck continued in the Philly series when he was removed from a game with bicep tightness/soreness and was then placed on the 15-day DL. In his place, Pedro Beato was recalled. Beato had a 1-0 record at Gwinnett in 2014 with a 3.49 ERA in 28 1/3 innings. In his 3 games with the club this season he had yet to give up a run in 4 1/3 innings. He had allowed only 3 hits in his appearances and struck out 3. Beato was sent down to Gwinnett Thursday morning and righthander Juan Jaime was called up in his place. In 26 1/3 innings at Gwinnett, Jaime has a 1-0 record with a 2.39 ERA and 13 saves. He has 20 walks to his 40 strikeouts.

    The Carpenter injury is part of larger issue in the bullpen. The consistency of what was once the best bullpen in the league and maybe all of baseball has been a major problem for Atlanta. Avilan has moments where he reminds us of the dominant reliever he was in 2013 when he recorded a 1.52 ERA and went on that ridiculous scoreless streak. But he’s still carrying a 4.70 ERA this season with a 3-1 record in 23 innings pitched and that isn’t helping the embattled ‘pen. Avilan had a 2.53 ERA in May, but his 5.40 ERA in June has risen in key spots when the Braves couldn’t shut down their opponent in late innings. At least his 5.40 ERA in June isn’t as bad as his 7.36 ERA in April? We need the old Avilan back. Fortunately for the Braves, Shae Simmons has been a solid relief option for them. In his 8 1/3 innings, many of them high pressure outings, Simmons has a 1.08 ERA with 8 strikeouts.

    The Braves and Nationals get underway today with Floyd (1-2, 2.98) vs. Zimmerman (5-3, 2.98). Friday will feature Minor (2-4, 4.42) vs. Strasburg (6-5, 3.06). Saturday’s game will pit Teheran (6-4, 2.31) vs. Fister (5-2, 3.08). And the series will wrap on Sunday with Santana (5-4, 4.12) vs. Roark (6-4, 2.85).

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