• Kyle Mueller

    The Time Between: Cleaning Out the Notebook After a Remarkable Run and Before an Unpredictable Winter

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The dream slips out the door and the numbness rushes in, like that first cool northwest breeze in autumn informing you those 90-degree days are soon to be a distant memory.

    There are reminders in the transition between the end of the run and the start of preparing for the next one – the time between, as I opined on social media – when you have a realization, a proverbial stubbing of your toe, that sends a painful “what could’ve been” coursing through your veins.

    That moment came during an innocent walk up the stairs from the Braves Room earlier today. I looked down at my Atlanta All-Star game 2021 T-shirt and it hit me: With one more run, one more play, one more win, Brian Snitker would have managed the National League All-Star team in his home ballpark next July.

    Hello, frosty wind. Where’s my hoodie?

    Welcome to that weird time between the conclusion of the Braves memorable 2020 season and the commencement of serious thought toward 2021 and beyond. No, I’m not ready to go there. Not yet. Not because I’m bitter or anything over the way the NL Championship Series ended – yes, you have to win a series you lead 3-1, but this wasn’t 1996 or 2019 or 2005 or 1998 or 2011 or several other undigestible finishes to seasons past.

    I’m not there because I’m taking a moment to pause, to reflect.

    To clean out the notebook, so to speak:

    Winning a championship isn’t easy. The sooner some realize that truth, the better – and I know it’s hard in this, “I want it yesterday and then I want another one right now, patience be darned” society in which we live. Or, as a mentor used to tell me while showing me after deadline what changes he made to my copy and why, “if this was easy, everybody would do it.”

    Nobody ever will associate patience or perspective with this fanbase (at least some of the louder segments online). Hey, I get it. It’s been 25 years (minus one week) since I sat in the upper reaches of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched Marquis Grissom glove the final out of the World Series. But if you’ve watched this franchise grow across the past three seasons and don’t think they will be among the short list of World Series championship contenders for the next several years, I don’t know what to tell you.

    Adam Duvall’s injury in his first at-bat of the NLCS was a bummer for a great dude whose power surge during the season was a sight to behold. I don’t think I’ve met one person who doesn’t love Duvall. But one man’s misery is another man’s moment, and boy, Cristian Pache sure did impress against the Dodgers. The quality of his ABs was far better than I expected. Defensively, he’s so smooth. Andruw-esque. Center field is his in 2021.

    The Braves have answered the Pache question. But let’s pump the brakes on the Drew Waters talk just a bit. Waters is a tantalizing talent, indeed, but struck out at an alarming rate in spring training before baseball shut down. Without a Triple-A season, I’d be hesitant to hand him left field come April.

    Waters, William Contreras, Tucker Davidson, Kyle Mueller. Four names that likely will impact the big-league Braves in the very near future. But due to 2020 being what it was, that time’s not here. Not yet. Soon, but not yet.

    The Braves have answered the Ian Anderson question, though. No more Triple-A for the 22-year-old unless he falls on his face. Barring injury or a bad spring, that kid should get the ball every fifth day for the big-league club. His playoff performance was beyond impressive, even grinding through his Game 7 start with subpar command. Anderson’s changeup is ridiculous, and he’s got a shot to be a fixture in Atlanta for a long, long time.

    It’s easy to talk about the kids for 2021. Free agents and trade targets, not so much. As baseball wraps up its final act of a season like no other, we now enter an offseason that holds the same description. What will teams do with payroll? What will the free-agent market look like?

    Nobody knows. Baseball’s never had a season where fans weren’t filling up the seats, buying nachos and beer and parking passes and T-shirts. Sure, operating expenses plunged along with revenue, but with no guarantees the stands will be packed come April, I’d expect front offices to enter the winter with at least some trepidation. (Cue the “Liberty Media is cheap” tweets.)

    And of course, it’s Major League Baseball. We have no idea when we’ll learn if the DH stays in the NL in 2021. That little trivial note will have a major impact on a particular right-handed slugger who sure did make the Braves of 2020 really good, and really fun.

    Yes, Freddie Freeman is a free agent after next season. No, it’ll never get to that point. Expect a lengthy extension to be announced before spring training.

    Mark Wohlers’ slider, Devonta Freeman’s missed block, Cliff Levington (and not Dominique Wilkins) having the ball in his hands, the Flames and Thrashers bolting north, the Falcons secondary making Danny White look like a Hall of Famer, second-and-26, Chris Burke, Sam Holbrook, a locked bullpen door in L.A., and any of a trillion other “oh God, Atlanta” moments have absolutely zero to do with missteps on the bases or Mookie Betts jumping out of the building.

    RIP the #RallyPotato. It was fun while it lasted. At least it vaulted Braves Twitter back into the national spotlight, albeit it with far less staying power than a certain golfer.

    Hat tip to the boys at Atlanta Baseball Talk, who are wrapping up their weekly Braves podcast after 14 years with episode No. 500 this weekend. To do a podcast for a year is a tremendous investment in time. Do it for 14 years? They deserve a spot in Monument Grove. Want to know how long they’ve been at it? Here’s the first episode, complete with reaction to the departure of Braves legend Bob Wickman.

    Thanks for setting the pace for the many great podcasts out there, fellas.

    Finally, I turned on Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday and watched until the Dodgers took control. I know plenty of people who didn’t, the pain of coming so close still too raw and festering to put the proceedings in Arlington on their TV. I understand. I did the same thing in 1993. After the Braves ran down the Giants in the last great pennant race, Atlanta ran out of gas against the less-talented Phillies in the NLCS.

    For the first time in my life, I refused to watch the World Series. Not until Game 6, when I was at a buddy’s house, and the game was on (they were a little more mature than my 20-year-old arrogant and stubborn self). I watched the bottom of the ninth and saw Joe Carter’s famous walkoff homer, realized how cool that moment was, and learned in that moment that no matter what, this beautiful game goes on.

    Much as our world does. No matter the heartbreak or challenge or failure we encounter, the world keeps spinning. We’ve been reminded of that many times over during the past few months. No matter what, the sun indeed rises in the east the next morning.

    And before you know it, that sun will ascend over baseball fields in Florida and Arizona, where pitchers and catchers will check in and kick off this journey once again.

    —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.

    Ready or Not, It’s Time: Let the Kids Pitch

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Through the first 10 games of a season like no other, the Braves had overcame shaky pitching from 60 percent of the starting rotation and a slow start from a few key offensive cogs, riding a lights-out bullpen and a handful of hot bats to seven victories.

    But in a year where nothing feels solid, the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to this team occurred Monday at Truist Park. Ace Mike Soroka – and yes, I’m labeling the kid who turns 23 today with that lofty designation – tore his right Achilles tendon breaking toward first base in the third inning. The Kid from Calgary, lying in the infield grass after trying to walk, was helped off the field while Braves Country’s collective heart stopped in unison.

    Sure, any time you lose your top starter, it’s a big blow. But when you’ve watched the final three spots in your rotation struggle to the degree Atlanta experienced through the first two trips through, it’s nothing short of devastating.

    Oh, by the way, did we mention there are just 49 games to go, in a season when more teams in the National League will make the playoffs (eight) than go home (seven)? That is, if there isn’t yet another Marlins- or Cardinals-type outbreak of COVID-19 that convinces Major League Baseball to look at the number of games already postponed, the growing number of pitchers coming up with arm and shoulder fatigue, and say, “forget it, see you in 2021.”

    Don’t expect Alex Anthopoulos to find an immediate answer outside the organization via a trade market that is non-existent right now – the Atlanta general manager told media members Tuesday morning he’s been making calls since summer camp ended almost two weeks ago. Maybe that changes as the Aug. 31 trade deadline approaches, but I have my doubts.

    If you’re the Braves, you’ve hoarded pitching prospects like canned green beans for a half-decade. Some of them didn’t pan out or were moved; a quartet of them now occupy spots in the big-league rotation, even if for a couple of them it’s by necessity. Several others are working out at the Braves alternative site camp at Coolray Field in Gwinnett, a phone call away from reaching the show.

    What should the Braves do?

    Baseball likes to say, “let the kids play.”

    I say, “let the kids pitch.”

    But not the kids you may think.

    Look, at this point, is anybody going to really call for Anthopoulos’ job if the Braves miss the playoffs in this bizarro-world of a 2020 season? Even without Soroka, the Braves just need average starting pitching behind Fried to finish in the top eight in the NL – which doing so guarantees you only a best-of-three crapshoot in the opening round.

    So why not give some of the young arms a chance to prove themselves, and not in spot-start-then-back-to-long-relief-or-Triple-A fashion, but with a sustained stretch of taking the ball in the bigs every fifth day.

    Yes, I’m aware 18.3 percent of the season already had expired by the time Max Fried – the one remaining asset in Atlanta’s starting squadron that engenders no worry – took the ball for Tuesday’s series opener against Toronto. Fried is 26 and made just his 42nd career start. But he’s a proven commodity regardless of Soroka or this season; in this current landscape, he might as well be a 15-year veteran.

    Sean Newcomb is seven months older than Fried. But he needed 161 pitches to cover 7 2/3 innings in his first two outings, struggling with control in his first start and getting hit hard in his second outing. Touki Toussaint, 24, struck out six in an otherwise rough relief appearance in his season debut, but provided some stability with four shutout innings in Saturday’s start against the Mets. Kyle Wright, also 24, had a dreadful inning at Tampa Bay after two masterful ones, then spent Sunday tap-dancing around four walks and five hits en route to 3 1/3 scoreless appearance.

    That’s your 2-3-4 in the rotation right now, folks. And you know what?

    That’s how it should stay, at least for the next three weeks.

    Nobody is asking anybody not named Fried to offer more than four good innings at this point. Yes, it’s the third time through the rotation, but I see an opportunity to try and find out how these guys could do getting regular starts. Getting into the fifth inning (or the fourth) also provides piggyback opportunities for the Josh Tomlin’s and Tyler Matzek’s of the world, both of whom have impressed in their initial appearances.

    Matzek’s tale is quite intriguing, from being out of baseball with the yips to impressing from the left side for one of baseball’s best bullpens. That relief corps figures to get better sooner rather than later, as free-agent acquisition Will Smith is slated to throw again Thursday as he continues his return from quarantine.

    Could Matzek, who made 24 starts for Colorado in 2014-15, get stretched out enough to fill the currently vacated fifth spot? Perhaps. Or, a more intriguing thought: using the 29-year-old – who has nine strikeouts with no walks in 5 1/3 scoreless innings so far – as an opener.

    There are plenty of calls to unleash the real “kids,” guys like Ian Anderson, Kyle Mueller and Tucker Davidson, that trio among the organization’s top 10 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. All three have high upside, certainly. Davidson, in particular, intrigues with high-90s velocity from the left side and an impressive showing at Gwinnett last season (2.84 ERA in 19 innings), while drawing attention during both spring training and summer camp.

    There are other options, from the veteran Jhoulys Chacin to another one of the youngsters, 22-year-old Bryse Wilson, to whatever Mike Foltynewicz can salvage from a disastrous beginning to his 2020. But I want to see what’s in front of me here and now. Newcomb has shown at times he can be an effective starter before control problems last season landed him in the bullpen (where he pitched well). We’ve seen glimpses, albeit brief, from Toussaint and Wright.

    This confluence of difficult events has afforded the trio an opportunity.

    It’s time for the organization to give them a chance to seize it.

    —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.