• Kyle Wright

    Braves at the Deadline: AA Says Enough ‘Bull,’ Positions Braves for Deep October Run

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Since taking the reins of the Atlanta Braves as general manager in November 2017, Alex Anthopoulos has followed a measured approach, one that belied his aggressive reputation and track record from his days leading the Toronto front office.

    Fans rubbed their hands together in frustration, screamed from every social media mountaintop, and vented to any and all who would listen as last year’s trade deadline and a full offseason passed with a few notable moves, and many more opportunities – perceived or real – missed.

    But there would be no such consternation Wednesday as the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline passed, almost simultaneous with the Braves concluding a 4-2 road trip with a hair-raising victory at National League East rival Washington. The finale saw Atlanta follow a script recited far too often during 2019, the Braves bullpen coughing up a late lead before its offense saved the day to ensure a lead in the division standings of no less than six games.

    Now, that team will be better when it takes the field Thursday at SunTrust Park for the first of four games with Cincinnati.

    Much, much better.

    At the very moments Anthony Swarzak, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb were trying to tip-toe through the eighth and ninth innings, Anthopoulos was putting the finishing touches on two deals that immediately transforms Atlanta’s biggest vulnerability into one of its strengths. The Braves authored two trades for proven veterans with closing experience, acquiring All-Star closer Shane Greene from Detroit and moments later landing former All-Star Mark Melancon from San Francisco.

    Add the Tuesday night trade that netted Texas setup man Chris Martin, and the Braves suddenly have a trio of high-quality, impactful relievers at the back end. How impactful? Jackson – the default closer who admirably has given his all in the role while walking the tightrope for large portions of the season – now slides to at least fourth on the big-league depth chart. His stuff will play outstanding in a setup role. He’s not a closer.

    The deadline’s aftermath was a stark contrast from what Braves fans are accustomed to, as the praise rang in from the national media talking heads that never hesitate to bash Anthopoulos and the franchise at every turn. Several reporters traveling with the team reported cheering in the locker room when news of the Greene and Melancon deals broke. Even Braves fans on social media universally treated the news like someone stumbling across a water fountain in the desert.

    In some respects, who can blame them? A very good team, one that many pleaded with to be aggressive at the deadline, did just that. The Braves now have a bullpen as capable of mixing and matching in the middle of games as anybody, a strategy that plays in October when starters don’t go as deep and quality arms in the middle innings can swing the balance of playoff series.

    With no waiver-wire trade deadline in August, teams entered the dying days of July knowing they had one shot to get it right. It brought about some weirdness, such as the Mets dealing for Marcus Stroman and the Reds (the Reds!) trading for Trevor Bauer, who incidentally will make his Reds debut in Atlanta this weekend. Some of the names speculated about the most, such as Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, and Rangers hurler (and former Brave) Mike Minor, stayed put. Some of the deals pulled off Wednesday would have been executed in August if the waiver-wire deadline still existed, the Braves acquiring catching depth by trading for Arizona backstop John Ryan Murphy as an example.

    In the final 72 hours before the deadline, experts repeatedly talked about teams trying to “thread the needle” and balance cost effectiveness with acquisition impact on this season and, for some teams, next season. Anthopoulos pulled it off flawlessly, striking the right balance of addressing the team’s most glaring need while not sacrificing its future:

    • Martin (3.08 ERA, four saves, 43 strikeouts, four walks – no, that’s not a typo – in 38 innings) was acquired for Kolby Allard, the Braves No. 10 prospect according to MLB Pipeline who had been leapfrogged by one group of arms and was close to getting passed by another batch.
    • Melancon (3.50 ERA in 43 games, 183 career saves) cost Tristan Beck, ranked No. 17 and one member of a deep core of Atlanta pitchers, and reliever Dan Winkler, who battled inconsistency this season while toggling between the majors and Triple-A.
    • Greene (1.18 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings, 22 saves) was secured for promising lefty Joey Wentz (No. 7 prospect) and Travis Demeritte, an infielder-turned-outfielder who was acquired from Texas for Lucas Harrell during the depths of the Braves rebuild and did not have a clear path to the majors at any position.

    While some fans may be shocked Anthopoulos did something to this scale, the real stunner is the cost – or rather, the lack thereof – to Atlanta’s vaunted farm system. The Braves have horded prospects like canned goods to the point where their minor-league pantry is overflowing. Some of that depth needed to be thinned out, and the time was now to do it.

    Mission accomplished. The crown jewels of Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson and Drew Waters remain in the system. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, William Contreras and Kyle Muller are still here, too. Only 10 percent of the Braves Top 30 was sacrificed to add three arms that could take the ball in the ninth inning for a playoff team.

    Landing a starting pitcher would have put the cherry on top of this day, but Anthopoulos told reporters late Wednesday it was pretty clear there wasn’t a match as the deadline approached. He pivoted quickly, ensuring the bullpen was fixed with a double-barrel approach that addressed the source of so much frustration not just for this year, but moving forward as both Greene and Melancon are signed through 2020.

    There is delicious symmetry in the fact these moves occurred in tandem with what could have been the two most devastating losses of the season. Atlanta sprinted to a 9-0 lead Tuesday and all was well when the Martin news broke, but the Braves bullpen leaked for six runs with three walks and five hits in 2 1/3 innings of an 11-8 triumph, a game in which Jackson had to be summoned to throw 27 pitches and survived despite giving up three hits and a walk in the ninth.

    Then came Wednesday when Jackson – inexplicably brought on by Brian Snitker to start the ninth with a two-run lead – surrendered two tough-luck hits to begin the frame. Enter Newcomb, who has shined as a reliever this season but gave up a hit and a walk in allowing the two inherited runners to score. A nod here to the big lefty, who got out of the inning with the winning run on third, an escape that allowed Josh Donaldson – one of the few big moves Anthopoulos has made since arriving in town – to launch a 10th-inning homer for the winning margin.

    It came down to Josh Tomlin, a 10-year veteran pitching in his 220th career game, surviving a hit and a walk to earn his second save of the season – and of his career. It capped a scary roller-coaster ride that could have ended with the Braves lead whittled to 2 ½ games in the East.

    Suffice to say Tomlin, or Jackson, won’t be closing games for this team moving forward.

    Anthopoulos has taken his share of criticism, in some respects warranted. But at this moment, he deserves kudos. He’s given Snitker multiple viable options in the late innings, and in turn a team poised to reach October again has a much better chance to do serious damage once it gets there.

    —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 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.

    Braves Rule the Stage in Latest Act of NL East Saga

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The battle for division supremacy unfolds during a six-month passion play that carries teams from coast to coast, from the warmest enclaves in the heat of summer to far-flung ports of call amid the brisk winds of late winter or early fall. Though the drama presents itself in 162 neatly packaged portions across 187 days of the calendar, some acts carry more weight than others.

    Such was the case as the lid lifted on the 2019 season, an opening chapter that saw the Atlanta Braves play second-fiddle to the Philadelphia Phillies – a three-game sweep in eastern Pennsylvania during which the Phillies showed off all their shiny new toys, many acquired with “stupid money,” with the goal of wrestling the National League East title out of the grasp of the we-arrived-a-bit-earlier-than-expected-in-2018 Braves.

    Eleven weeks have elapsed since the Braves left the cradle of our democracy in the dying hours of March, wearing an 0-3 record around their necks as the cries of the Philly faithful rang in their ears. Three games doth not make a season, especially before the dawn of April, but any Braves fan who watched those 27 innings couldn’t help but wonder if Philadelphia’s massive measures of addition would result in a summer spent chasing them for the East’s catbird seat.

    Look who’s chasing who now.

    The Braves spent much of the past 2 ½ months trying to sort out and properly stack a group of misfit, unknown and forgotten parts comprising their bullpen, hoping veteran starters in their rotation could match the early accomplishments of their shining young arms, and waiting for an offense that looked better on paper to translate that improvement from the stat sheet to the batter’s box. And after their first meeting since that opening series in Philly, a weekend set in Atlanta that saw the Braves capture two of three games – the finale a 15-1 thumping on a warm Sunday afternoon at SunTrust Park that extended Atlanta’s cushion in the East to 2 ½ games – we have our response:

    Game. On.

    Sunday was devoid of any sorts of drama after a pair of passionate, stomach-twisting paths to resolution in the opening two meetings of the series in front of jammed-packed crowds at the meeting point of Interstates 285 and 75 along the northwestern rim of the capital city. Friday night, Atlanta authored a comeback for the ages, a 9-8 victory on Brian McCann’s ninth-inning walkoff that brought many fans to tears. One night later, the Braves carried a lead into the ninth, only to see Luke Jackson stumble as the Phillies even the series, activating the “doom-and-gloom” button of Braves fandom even though that 6-5 defeat ended an eight-game winning streak.

    On the scale of edge-of-your-seat emotion, Sunday would’ve been canceled shortly after Josh Donaldson continued his torrid week with a two-run homer in the third to push the Atlanta advantage to 5-0. The former MVP, who has hinted at going off on a huge run only to be humbled by a steady diet of breaking balls and liners smoked right at defenders, recorded his second straight three-hit game to raise his average to .370 with four homers and eight RBIs since a Joe Musgrove pitch ticked his jersey Monday, leading to a benches-clearing, hold-me-back-bro session that resulted in the Braves third baseman receiving an ejection and a one-game suspension.

    Good thing he’s appealing that mandated day off to MLB’s high court, because Donaldson is riding quite the wave at the moment. And his teammates are along for the ride, while adding plenty of logs to the roaring offensive fire. Ronald Acuna Jr. extended his hitting streak to eight games Sunday with a 4-for-4 performance, and in 16 games dating to May 31, the 21-year-old center fielder is batting .375 with 14 runs scored, five doubles, five homers – including an opposite-field laser into the Braves bullpen amid a five-run seventh on Sunday – and 16 RBIs.

    That production is a far cry from that opening series, when Atlanta mustered just 11 runs in the three games while allowing 23 to the Phillies and being totally dominated in every facet of the game. The finale of that series, played on a raw, cold night and broadcasted for the nation to see on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, saw Acuna hit cleanup, Donaldson penciled into his preferred two-spot in the order, and shortstop Dansby Swanson slotted in the eight hole. Rookie hurler Kyle Wright struggled to find his grip on a night where the wind chill slid into the 30s, walking five in 4 2/3 innings, and reliever Shane Carle walked two en route to allowing two runs in one inning of relief.

    Acuna – who hyper-jumped the Braves to last season’s NL East title once he moved to the leadoff spot after the All-Star break – slid back to the top of the lineup on May 10 at Arizona. Swanson bumped up to second that night. Leading into that game, Atlanta had averaged 4.8 runs on 8.8 hits through its first 38 games, owning an 18-20 mark and riding a four-game losing streak into that Friday night contest in the desert. The Braves responded by winning seven of their next eight, and in 34 games since Acuna and Swanson set up anchor in the 1-2 spots, Atlanta is averaging 5.9 runs on 9.6 hits.

    The Phillies had no business losing Friday’s game. The Braves had no business losing Saturday’s game. That raised the stakes coming in Sunday, a contest that figured to favor the Braves slightly only because Philadelphia opted to go with Vince Velasquez – a starter banished to the bullpen – as an opener. Atlanta countered with Mike Foltynewicz, who struggled mightily after missing a month with an elbow injury, but had provided flickers of hope that the hard-throwing, All-Star right-hander may have found something. And on this day, the advantage stayed with Foltynewicz throughout, thanks in part to ample support from his offense.

    By the time the Phillies cracked Foltynewicz, the Braves led by a touchdown. They would add another trip to the end zone and two-point conversion by the time the seventh inning closed. The day concluded with Philadelphia deploying former Braves utility infielder Sean Rodriguez to the hill for the eighth inning – S-Rod throwing seven of his nine pitches for strikes in a perfect frame – and Atlanta giving Huascar Ynoa his big-league debut, the flame-throwing 21-year-old who started 2019 at High-A Florida giving up a hit in two innings, but striking out two while consistently spotting three pitches for strikes.

    As dire as those moments after their first meeting felt for Braves fans late on the final day in March, the fading hours of Father’s Day bore just as much hope. There won’t be anywhere near the wait for the next act in this battle, as the Phillies return to Atlanta on July 2 for a three-game series concluding on the Fourth of July.

    Summer is here, and the race is on. The fireworks that will light up the North Georgia sky on the first Thursday night in July won’t be the only salvos fired, as these two newly renewed NL East rivals play out the next act in the race to October.

    —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.

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    The 2018 Run is Done, but for Inspiring Braves It’s Only the Beginning

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The cadence of a baseball season is unique in that it starts with the sleepy slumber of late winter, the nearly seven-month marathon that builds to a crescendo, then concludes with a frantic sprint to a championship by 10 teams. One squad lifts the big trophy, and the other nine see their dreams end with the subtleness of running head-first into a concrete wall.

    Regardless of final result, for all teams the season’s conclusion does signify an end. But there are teams that the end only hints of a grander beginning, an earmark of better things to come. The 2018 Atlanta Braves embarked on their season March 29 at SunTrust Park against the Philadelphia Phillies, looking to avoid a fifth consecutive losing season. Some 193 days later, their season closed with a 6-2 defeat Monday to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

    There will be plenty of time in the weeks to come to discuss what this franchise’s accelerated progression from rebuilding squad to NL East champion means in the grand scheme of building a World Series champion, what moves will be made, what vulnerabilities were exposed. Now is not that time, not when the bandage has been ripped from the wound, when the standing ovation the home crowd gave the Braves as they walked off the field one last time still echoes in our ears, while many of us still are smiling with pride while tears trickled down our cheeks.

    No, this is a time to sit back, to breathe, to go ahead and laugh about how far the Braves have come in just six months and nine days, and yes, to cry a little bit. Because whoever said there is no crying in baseball never has lived and died with a baseball team for years, then to experience a season sprinkled with so much pixie dust, you find yourself looking at your friends or spouse or children or parents and repeatedly asking, “how is this happening?”

    Like many of the great pure joys of life, you just let it ride. And boy, what a ride these Braves took their beleaguered fanbase on in 2018. A .500 record? Yeah, right. How about 90 victories, a division championship, and a respectable battle put up against a team that played for the World Series title last fall? All the walk-off victories. The emergence of so much young talent, names we heard mentioned during the dark days of the rebuild, names typed on prospect lists, names we saw at Rome or Mississippi or Gwinnett, and wondered how they might fare amid the grind of a big-league schedule.

    You know the names by now, from the generational star-in-the-making Ronald Acuna to the All-Star Ozzie Albies, from the emerging Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb to the next wave of great arms fronted by Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Kolby Allard. Guys like Johan Camargo, who finally did enough to get the third-base job for keeps and never looked back. Guys like Chad Sobotka, who started the season at High-A Florida and ended it pitching in the NLDS. Don’t forget Dansby Swanson, lost for the playoffs with a hand injury but one of the NL’s best clutch hitters and defensive shortstops in just his second full major-league campaign. Or Ender Inciarte, acquired with Swanson in the now-famous heist of a trade with Arizona, anchoring Atlanta’s defense in center field while delivering his typical strong offensive second half. Or Charlie Culberson, who authored several of the season’s most signature moments.

    These Braves took all that youth and blended it with the veteran leadership provided by Nick Markakis, who made the All-Star team for the first time at age 34, the tandem of Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers behind the plate, the resurgent Anibal Sanchez – plucked from the free-agent scrap heap in March, but who pitched so effectively he earned a NLDS start while mentoring the young arms along the way – and a nod to one of this team’s lightning rods of criticism in recent years, the veteran Julio Teheran, who didn’t get a start in the NLDS but proudly came out of the bullpen in Game 4 and held the Dodgers at bay.

    And then, there is the constant.

    In Sunday’s Game 3, the first postseason game in the two-season existence of SunTrust Park, Acuna nearly brought down the house with a grand slam that staked the Braves to a 5-0 lead. The Kid gave Atlanta a cushion that the dogged Dodgers chipped away at until drawing even, and that fear of the run ending with a postseason sweep certainly creeped into the minds of even the most optimistic Braves fan.

    But that’s where The Captain came in. Freddie Freeman watched the Braves tear down the organization to the nubs in the years following Atlanta’s last postseason appearance in 2013. He never wavered, never complained, set the tone, led by example, excelled even as his prime years began with the Braves seemingly no closer to contending. All he did this season was lead the NL in hits and played Gold Glove-level defense while serving as the steady face of a team on the rise.

    Freeman slammed a long leadoff homer into The Chop House leading off the sixth inning of Game 3, turning SunTrust Park upside down in a moment that had you closed your eyes, you would swear you were standing inside long-gone Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the early 1990s. That homer proved to be the difference in the Braves lone victory in this series, but served symbolic in that the franchise foundational cornerstone had delivered the knockout blow on the national stage.

    So, of course it was Freeman striding to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4, Atlanta’s remarkable season hanging by the slimmest of threads. Freeman struck out to end the game, the series and the season, but not before the packed house serenaded him with chants of “Fred-die! Fred-die! Fred-die!”

    When the season ended – when the journey collided with that concrete wall of finality – at 8:16 p.m., the disappointment quickly faded into the aforementioned ovation. A few minutes later, Freeman told the media that for how proud he is of how far the Braves have come, the ultimate goal is to win the World Series. He emphasized and repeated the point.

    At the end of previous seasons, that type of comment would’ve be met with laughter. Nobody’s laughing now. Yes, the hearts ache and the tears fall, if for nothing else this team and its players have left an indelible impression on us all. The hashtag #ForEachOther rang true all season long, as players and fans truly felt they were in this together.

    Yes, 2018 has reached its end. But in every way imaginable, this also feels like only the beginning.

    —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