• Major League Baseball

    Play Ball: Plenty to Watch as Braves Open Spring Slate

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN WATERLOGGED NORTH GEORGIA – Some 136 days have elapsed since the Atlanta Braves 2019 season ended far earlier than many hoped, in a manner no one could imagine.

    And through the offseason that’s followed, there has been one constant, recurring theme serving as a backdrop as a division rival won the World Series, the front office worked to bolster the 2020 roster, and the name of the ballpark changed.

    It has rained. Every single day (or at least it feels that way).

    So when the skies cleared and the sun emerged Friday morning, it not only gave us a chance to walk outside without need of a floatation device, it also provided a hint of spring. The Braves will play a baseball game Saturday for the first time since that horrific Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series, opening their Grapefruit League schedule against the Baltimore Orioles at Atlanta’s new spring digs in North Port, Fla.

    What am I doing on this final evening of quiet before the long journey begins anew? Thinking about where my focus lies regarding this team across the next 33 days.

    I Don’t Know is on Third: No, not the famous Abbott & Costello skit from yesteryear. The Braves third base situation, now that Josh Donaldson has signed with Minnesota (he left all his rain behind, though). Johan Camargo showed up in shape and motivated this spring, after looking sluggish and disinterested far too often in 2019. Austin Riley spent the winter working to tweak a swing that took the world by storm for six weeks, then crashed and burned with frightening brutality.

    That’s OK. Riley turns 23 in early April. I still think if he’s not traded at some point, he’s the long-term solution at third because he’ll hit enough with plenty of power to offset a high strikeout rate. But that’s not going to be this year, at least not initially. The kid needs steady playing time, and barring a breakout spring, it’s likely going to be at Triple-A Gwinnett to start.

    Which shifts the focus to Camargo. He cut 18 pounds off his frame from last spring by focusing on his body and his diet. And while manager Brian Snitker has said publicly he will split playing time between Camargo and Riley in spring, don’t be surprised if that mix of time starts shifting in Camargo’s favor in a couple of weeks.

    Camargo doesn’t have to have the type of season he had in 2018. I’m not convinced that’s who he is (at least offensively). But he – and the Braves – cannot afford for the 2019 productivity, or lack thereof, to show up again.

    Long Live the King? We Will See: Felix Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training with something to prove. It is a no-risk flyer for the Braves, but with Cole Hamels likely missing at least the first two or three turns in the regular-season rotation due to a shoulder injury, Hernandez emerging as somebody capable of holding down a back-end rotation spot – even if for a month – would be helpful.

    Here’s my problem. The King has steadily declined each of his past three years. He joked with reporters this week that he’s not old, although he turns 34 in early April. It’s more the mileage on that once-dynamic right arm, one that’s pitched 2,729 2/3 innings in the majors, one that debuted in the bigs the same year (2005) broadcaster Jeff Francoeur and recently retired Brian McCann reached the show.

    Many say the Hamels injury increases the odds of Hernandez making the opening-day roster. I disagree. It increases the opportunity, but if the once mighty King pitches to a 6.40 ERA with a 1.53 WHIP in camp (as he did across 15 starts for Seattle last season), this feel good story will end with a release before the March 26 opener in Arizona.

    Filling Out the Pen: Thanks to the aggression of Alex Anthopoulos at the trade deadline and again in the early days of the offseason, Atlanta’s bullpen arguably is one of the best in baseball. There are six locks in my opinion for the eight spots, and all six have closed at the big-league level. Five are right-handed, and lefty Will Smith likely will be closing for this team sooner rather than later. As for the final two openings? There are a lot of directions in which Snitker may opt to go.

    The bullpen does not have a traditional long man at the moment. Josh Tomlin filled that role admirably last season and is back in camp on a non-roster invite. But with so much depth on the 40-man roster, it’s plausible to not have a “break glass in case of emergency” guy, knowing fresh arms can be shuttled in should somebody have to wear it for two or three innings due to an injury or in a blowout.

    A couple of guys I’m watching closely this spring: Jacob Webb, who needs to cut down on the walks and was injured at times last season, but showed flashes of brilliance stuff-wise. A.J. Minter, the co-closer at the start of the season, whose spring 2019 was marred by a fender-bender that tweaked his shoulder, kicking off a lost campaign for the hard-throwing lefty. And I’ll offer a wild card: 27-year-old lefty Phil Pfeifer, who impressed the Braves enough at three levels of the organization last season (1.16 WHIP, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings) that Atlanta added him to the 40-man roster this winter.

    Acuna, Ozuna, and Who: Ronald Acuna Jr. will lead off and play mostly right field, with some duty in center against left-handers. Marcell Ozuna will anchor left field and hit cleanup while looking to rediscover his 2017 production, when he was one of the more feared sluggers in the NL. But what of the final outfield spot, with three veterans on the roster looking for playing time?

    If healthy, Ender Inciarte should play the majority of games, keeping Acuna in right while providing the Braves with a three-time Gold Glove winner in the middle. Inciarte struggled with lower body injuries in 2019, not a good sign for an outfielder whose age (he turns 30 at season’s end) and salary ($7.7 million this season; $8.7 million in 2021) are increasing. Historically a slow starter offensively, Inciarte can ill-afford to not get going at the plate until June.

    Adam Duvall, one of the few Braves who performed in the NLDS, figures to man right field more often than not when lefties are on the mound. But Duvall has struggled when not playing full time, and his $3.25 million deal is not guaranteed (meaning he could be cut in camp and the team recoup a cost savings). If Duvall has a good spring, he certainly will be a trade target. Nick Markakis is back on a one-year deal and finally in the role best suited for him: a good left-handed bat off the bench who, due to injuries, would be fine to start every day for three weeks (not six months, Snit).

    It will be different this year for the dude from Woodstock by way of Young Harris. So too for these Braves, who not only are expected to win now, but win in the most important month of all. But you must get there first, and that journey starts in mere hours.

    —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.

    When it Comes to Chopping, Less Indeed is More

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – At the risk of dating myself (and revealing this scribe is old enough to be your father, or that crazy uncle who sneaks you beer and lets you stay up till 3 a.m.), let me take you back nearly three decades to one of the greatest years of my life: 1991.

    I graduated high school that June. I started college that September. I began my second year of covering high school football for my hometown newspaper. There are a variety of other personal reasons I could share that since have lost significance with the passage of time. But there were things I couldn’t dare dream that happened that year.

    They were all tied to my favorite baseball team and my hometown. I’ll never forget any of it. One example (of many):

    I sat in my 1979 Silverado on a two-lane road in northern Douglas County (about 25 miles west of Atlanta) one mid-October afternoon, in front of a subdivision, waiting for the kids who lived there to exit the school bus. There were several parents waiting at the neighborhood’s entrance, as they did every day. It was an unremarkable moment, just another day, until the kids on the back of the bus took notice of the view out the rear windows.

    First one of them, then two, then several, pushed against the glass, waving their right arms up and down. The kids getting off the bus noticed, and started doing that same chopping motion. I looked, and there were the parents, chopping and cheering. The bus driver extended her arm out the window and started waving it in the same manner.

    A lone foam tomahawk, sitting on the front dashboard of my old truck, firing up a fanbase that had no reason to believe until this year, my 18th on the planet, the single-greatest baseball season I’ve ever experienced.

    You see, being a baseball fan in Atlanta was not for the faint of heart in the 1970s and 80s, not until the first great rebuild in our city’s baseball history bore fruit that exceeded our wildest fantasies in 1991. And along the way, the chop was born: started as a tip of the cap to Falcons cornerback and Florida State product Deion Sanders, who became just one of a zillion “can you believe this?” storylines during the Braves historic worst-to-first surge from the bottom of the National League West to extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series in six dizzying months.

    I’ve lived just about every single moment of Braves baseball since the 1980s dawned. I remember Chief Noc-A-Homa delivering the game ball to home plate, breathing fire with a hand-held torch on the pitcher’s mound, then retreating to his teepee in the left-field bleachers of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I remember the outcry when owner Ted Turner removed the teepee during the 1982 NL West race to sell more tickets (at about the same time Atlanta embarked on a 2-19 swoon that nearly cost it the division title).

    Of the million things that make me smile when I think about 1991, the tomahawk chop is near the top of the list. I worked part-time for a cardboard and packaging manufacturer that made a variety of materials, including foam cutouts designed to secure parts for shipping items for federal government clients. The summer before, those orders spiked with the onset of the Crisis in the Persian Gulf and subsequent U.S. military buildup.

    By late summer 1991, there were tomahawks being cranked out of that Cherokee County warehouse like crazy.

    See, the tomahawk chop engulfed the city. I hate to be the “you had to be here” dude, but truly, you had to be here that summer. It never was (and still isn’t) about making fun of any one group. It’s not mocking the heritage or history of an important part of our nation’s history. It merely was an innocent, organic expression of fandom that exploded in a fashion not quantifiable by any metric.

    It didn’t matter where you lived in Atlanta, be it the projects off Hightower or the mansions in Buckhead, be it out in the sticks of Douglasville or the progressive northside. It didn’t matter if you worked in a warehouse on Fulton Industrial Boulevard or a high rise off Peachtree Street downtown or drove a tractor in South Georgia. The Braves were winning. They had captured the heart of the city, the state, the region, and we all were united behind that one simple arm motion.

    Its beauty lied in the chop’s organic nature. Sometimes, it took just a few keys from the stadium organist. Often, even that wasn’t necessary. By the time the eyes of the sports world cast its gaze upon Atlanta for the NL Championship Series and the World Series that followed, the fans simply seized the moment to begin chopping and chanting with no prompting. There were no manufactured moments from stadium ops or the gameday staff. There certainly weren’t any flashing lights or scoreboard messages nudging fans to get ready.

    We simply chopped. We chanted. We cheered.

    Things change as the years go by. The chop is no different. It long ago became worn out, overplayed, sterile, manufactured, contrived, devoid of the emotion that fueled its inception. It’s sad, but it’s understandable. Something as organic and grassroots as the chop was in its early years never is sustainable. Truth be told, this lifelong Braves fan is surprised it’s lasted this long.

    I’ll never legislate how any person or group feels, no more than I would want them to legislate feelings I possess. Yes, there were protests outside Atlanta Stadium during the ’91 postseason. Being the cynical teenager I was at the time, I dismissed them with a simple, “where were they last season, when we sucked?” But the passage of time changes perspectives. I guess I’ve changed mine now, to a certain extent.

    I don’t blame Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley for stating what he did about the chop during last season’s NL Division Series. He was asked a question and he provided an answer. I do have a problem with the Braves organization – which have placed foam tomahawks in every seat for every home playoff game for as long as I can remember (including Games 1 and 2 of last October’s series) – deciding in a knee-jerk reaction to not do so for Game 5.

    The Braves said in October they wanted to open dialogue with Native American groups to discuss ways to hear concerns. If that hasn’t happened, as per published reports (subscription required), then that’s disappointing. It goes back to a simple tenant: you do as you say you will do. As a fan and partial season-ticket holder, that’s not a good look, if true.

    But that’s not my point here. As someone who was a Braves fan before 1991, when a pennant winner and the accompanying chop descended upon us like something from outer space, and as someone who will be a Braves fan long after my time here is done, I now know it’s time.

    Let the chop live on, but only in its original, organic state. No more screaming over the loudspeakers for fans to get on their feet and chop for introduction of the first three hitters in the bottom of the first inning. No more forced drumbeats when Atlanta gets a runner on second base in the third inning of a game the second Wednesday night in June.

    If fans want to do it at those moments, that’s fine. If it’s a big moment late in a game, and the fans want to stand up and start chopping and chanting, I see no problem with that. If it’s a big game down the stretch, and a sellout crowd at Truist Park feels the need to rise and start the chop, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t see how that should spark outrage – again, I have no problem with it.

    The Braves are not going to, nor should they, change their name. Nor should they remove the tomahawk from their logo. But when it comes to trying to manufacture chopping and chanting 10 times a game, 81 times a year, that shouldn’t happen.

    Let it be organic. Let the fans do it as they see fit, when they see fit, in the moments when the crowd feels it matters most. That is the spirit with which all of this started, and should be the only spirit in which it lives moving forward.

    —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 Rain Goes North, and It’s Time to Keep This Offseason from Going South

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if the news couldn’t get any worse on a day when the home of the Braves was rechristened as Truist Park (yes, spellcheck just underlined it, if you’re wondering how the English language views this), things indeed turned worse Tuesday night.

    The skies cleared and the rain disappeared, save the tears of frustration and pain from the good people of Braves Country as news of Josh Donaldson’s signing with the Minnesota Twins cascaded across social media.

    Donaldson, whose resurgent one-year stint in Atlanta helped fuel 97 victories and a second-consecutive National League East championship, agreed to a four-year, $92-million deal with the AL champion Twins, who set a major-league record in 2019 for most homers by one team in a single season. The kicker in the deal is a fifth-year option for 2024, a season that will conclude with Donaldson a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday.

    All things being equal – and we may never know just how much the Braves offered and for how many years – it’s not much of a stretch to think Alex Anthopoulos would not include anything for a fifth year. The mindset that the option wasn’t a key element of the decision-making process is something I can’t grasp, especially for a 34-year-old player who struggled with injuries in 2017 and 2018 but rebounded at just the right time, playing 155 games in 2019 to secure a contract that will pay him for four full years and perhaps a fifth.

    Good for Donaldson, who played hard, infused grit and attitude into the lineup, exhibited outstanding defense, and provided a powerful right-handed bat in the cleanup spot. When Donaldson moved to the fourth spot and Ronald Acuna Jr. returned to the top of the order on May 10 in Arizona, the Braves offense took off. Donaldson slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS.

    The rain is gone, but with apologies to Jimmy Cliff, we certainly can’t see any clearer. In fact, the view is now clear as mud. The Braves absolutely must get at least one impact bat (and I’ve advocated all winter, they really need two). But going into 2020 with Nick Markakis hitting cleanup would be abhorrently criminal for a team that views itself as a World Series contender, and acted like one in the opening six weeks of the offseason by upgrading the bullpen to one of baseball’s best, plus adding a solid catcher and veteran rotation piece.

    What’s next, you ask? A few thoughts:

    Go get Arenado: In a perfect world where deals happen in a vacuum (i.e., fantasy baseball, or Twitter), I’d drive (insert prospects name here) to the airport myself. But in the real world, it’s far more complicated than screaming into the atmosphere, “just trade for him!”

    Arenado has an opt-out after the 2021 season. If he doesn’t waive it, you’re only getting him for two years. At $35 million each year. That is, if he approves the trade (Arenado has a full no-trade clause). If he does waive the opt-out, MLB stipulates you must replace that value – potentially by adding another year to a deal that already owes the Rockies third baseman $35 million a year through 2024, $32 million in 2025, and $27 million in 2026.

    I won’t quibble about the money. I’d pay it … sure, it’s not my money, but mainly I’d pay it because this player is that good. Arenado, who turns 29 in April, is a seven-time Gold-Glove winner and a five-time All-Star. It’s fair to question his road splits away from Coors Field: in 316 road games from 2016-19, he slashed .271/.341/.498 (.839 OPS). But even using that as a baseline and projecting across a 158-game season, Arenado would average 34 homers and 99 RBIs.

    But any trade for Arenado will be complex, expensive (in terms of money and prospects), and to me just doesn’t feel feasible, as much as I might want it to happen. But it would be the type of statement that would send shock waves throughout baseball, and it would in my opinion make the Braves the definitive favorite to win the NL pennant.

    Go get Bryant: I wrote about Kris Bryant earlier this offseason, and yet here we sit on Jan. 14, and there still is a question of whether he will play 2020 as a pending free agent or will be under club control through 2021. An arbiter is expected to rule on his grievance issue at some point between now and the All-Star break (kidding; kind of), and while I do not see the arbiter opening Pandora’s Box by siding with Bryant, I also don’t see the Cubs being able to move him until a decision is reached.

    Like Arenado, it feels like the Cubs would ask for the moon and stars for two years of Bryant. He’ll make $18.6 million this season, a number that will soar past $20 million for 2021 provided the Cubs win the grievance. It’s certainly worth exploring, but I just don’t see the Braves paying what Chicago is likely going to ask.

    Turning to the outfield: Donaldson’s migration to Minnesota leaves two major bats on the open market, and both are corner outfielders. Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos have positives about them offensively while not being exactly Gold Glovers defensively (although Ozuna is, in my opinion, adequate enough to be fine in a corner while being flanked by either Ender Inciarte or Ronald Acuna Jr.).

    I thought both Ozuna and Castellanos would get four-year deals, and maybe those dominos will fall quickly now that Donaldson has unclogged the market by signing. A four-year deal is an issue, with Cristian Pache and Drew Waters quickly ascending through the Braves minor-league system. I expect Pache to be up by late summer playing center field; Waters might not be too far behind. As I wrote before the Winter Meetings, I’d lean to Ozuna here but again, the length of the deal would concern me.

    I’ll also pivot to this thought. Two years ago in Miami, Ozuna smashed 37 homers and drove in 124 runs. We’ve seen him be an impact bat before, but we didn’t see it in either of the past two seasons in St. Louis.

    Something we don’t expect: Anthopoulos has made a living in Atlanta pulling off transactions very few people expected, and if I had to bet on any scenario, I’d put my chips here. Seattle keeps popping into my mind as an intriguing trade partner, although I really am not as enticed by third baseman Kyle Seager (.789 OPS) and his contract ($38M across the next two years) as much as I am intrigued with outfielder Mitch Haniger (injury-scuttled 2019 limited him to 63 games, but 26 homers and a .859 OPS at age 27 in 2018, and under control through 2022).

    Everybody loves to throw Matt Chapman’s name out there. I don’t see any way in the world Oakland trades its emerging star third baseman.

    Stand pat: Yeah, right. Johan Camargo had a very good 2018 before a lost 2019 mired by injuries and inconsistency, not to mention showing up to spring training out of shape. Austin Riley dazzled us for six weeks, then struck out at an alarming rate that showed he’s not quite ready to be handed third base out of the gate in 2020. I think he will be a good major-league hitter, in time, but a hope-for-the-best mindset doesn’t win the World Series.

    The Braves already plan to use a platoon in left field between Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, which is concerning. With Donaldson off the market, there simply is no defensible stance to standing pat. It cannot happen, not with the moves already made this offseason, with Acuna and Ozzie Albies still ridiculously inexpensive next season, with the championship window now full open after two division titles, a painful October choke last fall, and the potential to win and win big for the foreseeable future.

    And the feeling here is the Braves won’t be content to go with what they have. A good offseason now has turned a bit on a swing and a miss, even if it’s understandable why the Braves couldn’t get it done with Donaldson. Consider me surprised he’s departing, but it happened.

    Time for Anthopoulos to really earn his money, or else all that great work in November and December will feel awful empty.

    No matter how clear the skies now may be.

    —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.

    Winter Meetings Wrap-Up: No Power Boost, but Braves Have Time as Market Takes Shape

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves left baseball’s Winter Meetings in San Diego on Thursday without adding anyone to their major-league roster. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos did not acquire one single power hitter, or an impact left fielder, or even another pitcher.

    Heck, I bet he didn’t even visit the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld or the beach.

    Sounds like a monumental waste of four days spent doing nothing to bolster the Braves chances to win the 2020 World Series. Heck, those gaping holes at third base and in the power department make completing a hat trick of National League East titles all the more daunting. Right?

    Y’all. Settle down.

    Look, I get it. The lack of completed work upsets some fans. There wasn’t a “podium moment,” where Anthopoulos stood behind a microphone in a packed press conference to announce the completion of a trade or signing of a free agent.

    But baseball’s offseason didn’t end when the general managers and their staffs flew out of San Diego. Believe it or not, there are more than two months until spring training begins, some 3 ½ months before the first pitch of the season zips toward home plate in Arizona (hopefully Ronald Acuna Jr. smacks that baby into the pool at Chase Field).

    In a normal offseason – and hopefully, we’re resumed normalcy after the snooze-fest of the previous two winters – deals are announced throughout the rest of December and well into January. Many of those deals either were sparked or advanced by conversations held at the Winter Meetings. And while the advancement of technology has taken away the romanticism of smoked-filled lounges, trade proposals scribbled on cocktail napkins, or late-night scrums with other teams in hotel suites, the fact remains the movers and shakers in the sport who get these deals done all are in one place for four days.

    Anthopoulos has zero to gain by saying anything outside of his very measured, now predictable comments that provide no gauge of what he’s thinking. And that’s by design. He may have been born and raised in Canada, but you would think the Braves general manager spent his young days developing his poker face in Vegas.

    What’s next? Here are a few of my thoughts on the Winter Meetings, how it impacts the Braves, and where do they go from here:

    The Hot Corner is Scorching

    Josh Donaldson already was a popular commodity after a bounce-back, injury-free season in 2019, one that resulted in 37 homers and the NL comeback player of the year honor. It sparked a love affair with Braves Country that led the Bringer of Rain to dance through the dugout with an umbrella after homers late in the season. A reunion is a perfect match, but if it happens, it’s going to cost far more than the one-year, $23-million “bet on myself” deal the now 34-year-old signed last November.

    And that price tag got significantly heftier in San Diego. With star pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole going off the board, and with Anthony Rendon agreeing to a deal with Anaheim, Donaldson arguably is the brightest unsigned star on the market. Quite the Plan B for those who unsuccessfully courted Rendon. At least three teams who must/could add a third baseman – the Braves, Washington and Philadelphia – reside in the NL East. The Rangers may be out. The Dodgers may be in. The thought that a three-year deal would be enough to secure Donaldson is out the window. It’s going to take four years.

    I’ve long stated paying for the fourth year (Donaldson’s age 37 season) represents quite the risk, especially considering he is just one season removed from an injury-marred two-year stretch. In fairness, 2017-18 represent the only significant medical issues of his big-league career. Plus, Donaldson’s impact on the 2019 Braves almost makes me think Atlanta must lean in here and guarantee that fourth year. Donaldson found success here and was healthy, developing a good approach with the Braves medical and training staff. That says nothing of how his grit/edge infused itself into the roster.

    Donaldson absolutely could end up with a $100-million deal (perhaps more) across four years. The Braves feel like they have almost no choice but to go there. Right?

    Unless …

    Kris Crossing the “What If”

    I’ve beat the drum on Twitter all offseason that if the Braves can add not one but two impact bats – one via trade, one via free agency – it would vault Atlanta right into the short circle of bona fide World Series championship contenders. You not getting there hitting Travis d’Arnaud fourth and Nick Markakis fifth, that’s for darn sure. And while the thought process has been to re-sign Donaldson at third and perhaps trade for a corner outfield upgrade in left field, the escalation of the Donaldson market may lead to a shift in mindset.

    The Cubs find themselves in quite the situation. Several of their key young stars are going to hit free agency soon, and their farm system isn’t exactly teeming with future stars. Kris Bryant – maybe you’ve heard of him, the former college player of the year, NL rookie of the year, NL MVP – reportedly is available in the right deal.

    Bryant was limited to 102 games due to injuries in 2018, but has hit 29 or more homers in each of his other four seasons. He’s topped .900 OPS three times, and slashed .282/.382/.521 last season when he hit 35 doubles with 31 homers and 108 runs scored. Oh, did I mention he plays third base, corner outfield, and first base?

    How long he’s under club control is an issue given the pending grievance, but assuming Bryant remains under club control for two years, this is the type of bat Atlanta needs, and at a position of need. It’s going to hurt. The rumored price of one bat and two pitching prospects feels a bit light, to be honest, not to mention something about the $40-$45 million the Braves would pay Bryant in arbitration in 2020 and 2021.

    But it’s Kris Bryant, and you’re a legit contender in need of a big bat.

    Should Donaldson sign elsewhere and the Cubs dangle Bryant, the Braves should pounce.

    The Pivot Point – Look Left?

    Marcell Ozuna has his flaws and certainly didn’t endear himself to Braves Country during the NLDS. But he posted a .800 OPS last season while hitting 29 homers and 23 doubles, is two seasons removed from a 37-homer, 124-RBI campaign with Miami, and just turned 29 years old. His defense is adequate enough (he’s not a butcher out there; and yes, I’ve seen the highlight of him scaling the wall and then falling ever so gracefully when the ball changed flight).

    Nicholas Castellanos destroyed opposing pitching in 51 games after being traded from Detroit to the Cubs, slashing .321/.356/.646 with a 1.002 OPS. His defense is less than desirable; of his 312 career games in the outfield, just 20 have come in left. But he smashed 58 doubles in 2019, one season after hitting 46 doubles and 23 homers while playing half his games in Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park.

    Both players figure to get four-year deals, and that’s the problem. The Braves will have top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters at Triple-A to start the season; Pache likely is in center in the majors by late summer, with Waters not too far behind. If given a choice to sign either Ozuna or Castellanos, I’d take Ozuna if that’s the only way to get an established power bat into the lineup. The end of the contract would worry me and certainly there’s not room for four full-time outfielders once Pache and Waters are ready.

    All Eyes on Alex

    Anthopoulos has been praised for being aggressive since the offseason began, but not adding a legit power bat to replace Donaldson should he leave – as I’ve said repeatedly – would be a massive failure. A lineup featuring Johan Camargo and Austin Riley platooning at third base with Adam Duvall and Markakis in left simply is not going to generate enough offense to support Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman in the top three spots.

    Think a fourth year of Donaldson at $25 million in 2023 or dealing Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson as part of a Bryant package is risky? Risky is walking into Arizona on March 26 with d’Arnaud hitting fourth and Markakis fifth.

    Sure, maybe Camargo bounces back after a lost season in which physically and mentally he wasn’t good. Of course, Riley is a very talented player who doesn’t turn 23 years old until April and possesses great potential.

    But “maybe” and “potential” don’t win the World Series. And even though this franchise has not won a playoff series since 2001, winning it all should be the single unabashed goal. The Braves choked away a series win in October that would’ve put them eight victories from the grandest prize in sports.

    The bullpen is vastly improved. The feeling here is the rotation will be solid even if the Braves do not add another starter. But without that power bat to protect Freeman – again, I’ll argue for two bats to further lengthen the lineup – it will be a huge roll of the dice that Anthopoulos cannot take.

    And he won’t.

    The Braves will hit their new spring training home with at least one significant impact bat added to the roster. It didn’t happen at the Winter Meetings. That’s OK. It’s December. But it will happen before camp opens.

    Because Anthopoulos has no choice.

    —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.

    d’Arnaud Signing Sets Stage for Big Winter Moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Yasmani Grandal signed a four-year deal Thursday with the White Sox, it removed the one game-changing free agent catcher from the market. Nonetheless, as he’s done all offseason, Alex Anthopoulos wasted no time in getting what the Braves needed, even if in this instance it wasn’t perhaps what the Braves really wanted.

    Sunday’s signing of Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year, $16-million deal does not necessarily move the needle on its own standing. We’re talking about a player who played all of four major-league games in 2018. But d’Arnaud put together a solid season while taking quite a circuitous route through 2019, from 10 games with the Mets to one lone at-bat with the Dodgers before landing in Tampa Bay, where the 30-year-old hit 16 homers with 16 doubles, 67 RBIs, slashed .263/.323/.459 for a .782 OPS in helping the Rays reach the American League Division Series.

    Now he’ll help try to push the Braves through the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001 next season. And while adding d’Arnaud on its own isn’t going to make anybody do backflips, I’m of the opinion it’s necessary to look at Anthopoulos’ latest move through two different prisms:

    Locking in Value in a Lackluster Market

    There have been plenty of names bandied about regarding the catcher market, but only one really stood out: Grandal. With him now on Chicago’s southside and $73 million richer (a fair deal in terms of years and money), the rest of the market features quite a few options – from Jason Castro to Alex Avila, from Robinson Chirinos to Martin Maldonado – that weren’t going to make people to buy season tickets or jerseys.

    And that’s OK. The Braves saw that, without landing a real difference maker, the move was to strike quick and get what they felt to be a viable platoon option to team with Tyler Flowers. We all know Flowers has regressed both offensively and defensively, but remains one of the better pitch-framers in the game. He ranked fifth in 2019 according to Baseball Savant in getting strikes in what the website defines as the “shadow zone,” or the edges of the strike zone, among catchers who caught six called pitches in those shadows per team game played.

    d’Arnaud ranked fifth among this winter’s free agent catchers last season, getting shadow strikes called at a 48.7 percent rate (Flowers, by comparison, got strike calls on 52.8 percent of said pitches). The Braves long have valued pitch-framing and ability to guide a young staff, the second box checked by d’Arnaud given his work with young Mets pitchers en route to the 2015 World Series and with Tampa Bay this past season.

    d’Arnaud gave up six passed balls in 578 2/3 innings in 2019 (one every 96.44 innings, while Flowers allowed one every 42.43 innings in 2019) and threw out 28 percent of would-be base stealers. Offensively, d’Arnaud recorded a 20.6 percent line-drive rate (his best since 2015) and overall posted a .745 OPS (again, best since 2015) while matching a career high in homers and setting a new high mark in RBIs.

    To strike quick and cross catcher off the to-do list, it’s hard to criticize this move. At the same time, how effective this looks depends in part on what happens next.

    The Next Shoe to Drop

    The Braves seem destined to soar past their largest opening day payroll this century ($122.60 million in 2017, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts). The d’Arnaud signing pushes the projected Atlanta opening day payroll to $112.42 million with 21 locks at this point for the opening day roster (the caveats offered in recent pieces still apply, with Sean Newcomb moving to the starting rotation and Nick Markakis teaming up with Adam Duvall to platoon in left field, for now).

    One spot remains on the bench and two remain in the bullpen. As opined previously, we’ll give two MLB-minimum salary guys (say Jacob Webb and A.J. Minter) those final bullpen spots, taking the opening day payroll to $113.56 million with three spots remaining – a bench bat, a third baseman, and a starting pitcher. If you assume Atlanta spends $2.5 million on that bench bat (Matt Joyce, come on back, bro), that pushes the payroll to $116.06 million.

    If we think the opening day payroll is going to $150 million – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about the Atlanta Braves, but from where I sit, I actually think that’s plausible – the Braves have $33.94 million left to fill third base and a rotation spot. Going the pure free agent route, the most logical choices are to bring back Josh Donaldson at somewhere near $25 million per season and find a value starter for around $9 million a season.

    I expect the Braves, when all is said and done, to either re-sign Donaldson or, if the bidding gets too high, to pivot quickly to Mike Moustakas at somewhere around a $14 million AAV.

    But I don’t think the Braves are settling for value in the rotation considering the starting staff today consists of two players with just one year each of full-time MLB rotation experience (Mike Soroka, Max Fried), one experienced starter who spent six weeks at Triple-A last season (Mike Foltynewicz), and a starter who ended up becoming an effective reliever in 2019 and only has been guaranteed a chance to nail down a rotation position (Newcomb).

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they sign a veteran at a discount like Tanner Roark or Wade Miley. Maybe they reunite with former UGA lefty Alex Wood. Maybe they can’t completely rid themselves of Julio Teheran and bring the longtime right-hander back on a reduced deal to eat innings.

    I just don’t see it.

    Anthopoulos has stated ad nauseum that trades are an effective – if not preferable – method to build a team. He’s filled in plenty of gaps via free agency in the infant days of this offseason, from the best available closer to multiple veteran relievers to a catcher representing value in an otherwise indistinguishable market. He’s spent plenty of money ($30.25 million of the 2020 payroll, to be exact) via free agency, a number that rises even more if Donaldson or Moustakas are signed.

    Regardless, a trade is coming. The feeling is we’re rapidly approaching the moment where the currency of choice shifts from dollars and cents to prospect capital. Anthopoulos has been on the job for 24 months. He knows the system inside and out. He has his opinions on who on the farm will help the Braves win the World Series, and who needs to go to acquire the pieces that will bring Atlanta a championship.

    The Winter Meetings begin in two weeks in San Diego. The week of Thanksgiving typically is quiet, but the pace again will accelerate with urgency after the turkey is finished. It could be a transformative period for a franchise that continues to emerge as a powerhouse, one with back-to-back division titles on its resume, a painful playoff series loss on its soul, and now in a position to take that leap.

    Work remains to be done, and even the timing of the d’Arnaud signing illustrates how that work really never ceases. Anthopoulos, who was born in Montreal and grew up cheering for the Expos, signed d’Arnaud on Grey Cup Sunday, the news released about two hours before kickoff in Soroka’s hometown of Calgary. As my adopted second sports home of Winnipeg prepared to chase its first Canadian Football League championship since 1990, Anthopoulos made his next move.

    “Wipe away the wing sauce, hold off on the adult beverages and get to writing,” I mumbled to myself (along with a few choice adjectives) as construction of this piece began, as construction of the 2020 Braves continued with no regard to the Canadian sports calendar.

    Safe to say, the building will continue as November fades into December. As the Bombers and Tiger-Cats played to end their decades-long championship droughts, the good Canadian kid continued his work to help his baseball franchise end a title drought of its own.

    —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.

    Winter is Here, but Work for 2020 Starts Now

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – We’re knee-deep into the offseason and, if you weren’t 100 percent sure after a painful choke in the NLDS, a World Series title signed with a curly W that has made me moved our prescriptions from Walgreens to CVS, and the missing daily backbeat of live baseball, just walk outside.

    It’s cold enough to snow. In North Georgia. In November.

    Pardon me while I throw up in my mouth.

    Welcome to winter. Or, to be more specific, welcome to baseball’s offseason. Recency bias tells us it’s a long, slow slog that will continue well into spring training. It shouldn’t be that way, but if the dispatches we’re seeing on Twitter from the MLB General Managers meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week are any indication, we may see a shift back to a more normal cadence of moves.

    Heck, four free agents have signed already, all four with Braves connections! Atlanta technically made Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis free agents for about 17 seconds thanks to some creative bookkeeping – a smart move that freed up an extra $4 million for the 2020 payroll – then the Braves brought back right-handed reliever Darren O’Day for $2.25 million (a good move in my opinion) and the Cardinals signed former Braves first-round draft pick and the pride of St. Simons Island, one Adam Wainwright.

    I shared some personal thoughts on the St. Louis righty during our NLDS coverage. He’s a pillar of the St. Louis baseball community, but if there is any other place he would pitch besides under the Gateway Arch, it would be in his home state. That won’t happen in 2020, but plenty of moves remain to be made for the National League East champs.

    Let’s get into a few topics as we stoke the coals in the hot stove on this chilly November evening:

    Is There Rain in the Forecast?

    I’ve made it known far and wide for months that objective numero uno this offseason for the Braves is to re-sign third baseman Josh Donaldson. The soon-to-be 34-year old bet on himself in 2019 and the move came up aces, as he slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS in a (still mind-blowing to me) 155 games.

    The good folks on Braves Twitter are losing their minds with every passing day, hitting refresh every four seconds hoping to see the tweet that the Bringer of Rain has re-upped with Atlanta. People, relax! Donaldson is going to take his time, rightly so, and for a reason. There are numerous contenders who need a third baseman and have money to spend. Donaldson has vaulted himself into the No. 2 position in the market, only behind Anthony Rendon and the massive contract the former Washington third baseman will land.

    Donaldson has earned this right to take his time. A tweet from Jon Heyman of MLB Network (who blocked this author because, well, he’s a boob) on Wednesday indicated what I long suspected, and what didn’t throw me into a tizzy while every tweet reporting Donaldson interest scuttlebutt sent Braves fans into cliff-diving mode: Donaldson’s camp is talking to other teams, but he will circle back to the Braves once that’s done. At that point, Atlanta will measure the market and make what I think will be a strong offer.

    Will it be enough? I still think it will be. There is strong interest on both sides to re-sign with Atlanta. If somebody swoops in with, say, three years at $30 million a year (or a fourth year guaranteed), that’s likely too much for the Braves. But three years at $26 million? I see the Braves doing that. Just relax. This process will play out.

    What if the Forecast is Clear?

    And yet, it’s quite possible Donaldson dons a new jersey next season – push me for odds, and I still think it’s 65%-35% he returns to Atlanta. If he does go elsewhere, then contrary to the tone on social media, the franchise will not fold. There actually is a Plan B out there that, in some respects, is quite attractive vs. sinking $26 million into a soon-to-be 34-year old.

    If there is a poster child for the free-agent freeze in recent years, it’s Mike Moustakas. After hitting 38 homers for Kansas City during an All-Star season in 2017, Moustakas could not find the deal he wanted on the open market and returned to the Royals, signing in spring training. Four months later he was shipped to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, finishing 2018 with 28 homers and 33 doubles between the two teams.

    He re-signed with the Brewers as spring training opened in February for $10 million, a salary that netted 35 homers, 87 RBIs, an .845 OPS and a 3.2 bWAR season. Back on the open market again, Moustakas figures to finally land a multi-year deal as the third-best third baseman behind Rendon and Donaldson, and the Braves figure to be all over him, especially if they feel Donaldson may sign elsewhere.

    FanGraphs Steamer projections paint Moustakas as a 35-homer guy against in 2020 with a .260 average, a 2.8 fWAR (same fWAR as he posted in 2019) and an .824 OPS. Yes, it’s a step down from Donaldson but not as much as people think. He will play the bulk of 2020 at age 31, and most projections peg Moustakas earning an AAV somewhere between $11 million and $14 million. It’s a sizable reduction in salary for production that comes pretty close to what Donaldson provided. If Donaldson isn’t back, you could do far worse than a three-year, $40 million deal with Moustakas.

    Making Up for the Lost Offense

    I’d look no further than where Moustakas played 197 games the past two years. Milwaukee catcher Yasmani Grandal is on the open market, and in my mind he – combined with either Donaldson or Moustakas – would give the Braves the most length we’ve seen in an Atlanta lineup in close to two decades.

    Grandal just turned 31, is a switch hitter, and would give Atlanta a legit front-line catcher – relegating Tyler Flowers to 35-40 starts (which I think is optimal). Grandal has hit at least 22 homers in each of the past four seasons, is regarded well defensively – despite a hiccup with the Dodgers in the 2017 playoffs – and last season in Milwaukee posted an .848 OPS and 2.5 bWAR, which from the catcher’s spot totally is acceptable.

    Grandal would be a great addition, regardless of who plays third base. Yes, catchers are scary when they cross age 30. Yes, it won’t be cheap, as he projects to make somewhere between $16 million and $20 million per year. And yes, Atlanta has two strong catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, both of whom could be in the majors in two years. But a switch-hitting catcher who produces offensively and can shoulder a large bulk of the workload (126-plus games in five of the past six seasons) would be well worth the investment.

    For Starters, How About a Starter?

    There’s no question Alex Anthopoulos wants to fortify the starting rotation. Atlanta figures to enter 2020 with three starters locked into the rotation: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz. A fourth arm from the rebuild, Sean Newcomb, will get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training after spending 2019 as a valuable lefty relief arm.

    There is no shortage of arms available on the open market, from World Series hero and North Carolina native Madison Bumgarner, to East Paulding High alum Zack Wheeler, to resurgence candidate Jake Odorizzi. But if the Braves fill third base and catcher via free agency, I think they will pivot and try to trade for a veteran starter.

    Perhaps that’s Matthew Boyd of Detroit, whom the Braves were rumored to be in on at the trade deadline and whose performance plummeted in the second half (3-6, 5.51 ERA, 20 homers in 78 1/3 innings after the All-Star break). Perhaps that’s Corey Kluber, the Cleveland ace whose 2019 was scuttled after he took a line drive to his arm.

    And perhaps the final rotation piece resides in house, be it Kyle Wright (whose 90 mph slider was very impressive in a couple of late-season relief appearances), or Bryse Wilson (who was inconsistent in the majors, yet dominated the Phillies in a July start), or Touki Toussaint (who endured a completely lost season in 2019, but whose raw stuff remains tantalizing). Ian Anderson probably needs more time at Triple-A; same with Tucker Davidson.

    What About the Big Targets?

    There is plenty of chatter about superstars nearing free agency who could be on the trading block, partly because their teams know they cannot afford them once club control expires, and partly to pivot toward keeping other stars on their roster. Three names bantered about have created quite the stir: Boston outfielder Mookie Betts, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor.

    Betts is a non-starter for the Braves, even though he is 12 months removed from a MVP award. He’s under contract for only one year with a projected arbitration price of $27.7 million. Anybody who thinks Atlanta should open its prospect vault for one year has lost their grip on reality. This isn’t a team whose winning window is about to close; it’s just opened. Dealing multiple top prospects to Boston for one year of Betts would undercut the years Atlanta spent trying to rebuild its franchise and farm system.

    Bryant is more interesting. The Cubs have a slew of talent that helped Chicago break their 108-year World Series curse in 2016, but with guys like Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo getting close to free agency, there simply isn’t enough money to go around. I expect Bryant to be moved this offseason, but a projected $18.5 million salary for 2020 with his injury history gives me cause to pause. Perhaps striking out on both Donaldson and Moustakas changes my tune.

    The one I’m fascinated by is Lindor. A two-time Gold Glove winner (remember, he plays in the same league as Andrelton Simmons) who has playoff and World Series experience, who turns 26 on Thursday, who has placed in the top 10 in AL MVP voting (likely to be there again when the award is announced Thursday evening). Lindor has slugged 32-plus homers with at least an .842 OPS in each of the past three seasons, with 22 or more stolen bases each of the past two years, and he hit .284 in 2019 with 22 steals (thrown out just five times), 40 doubles and 101 runs scored.

    Lindor truly is a generational talent, and he’s under club control for 2020 and 2021. There is a thought process that putting him with the Braves makes Atlanta the most dynamic lineup in the NL. I see it. Can you imagine that dude with Acuna and Albies and Freeman and perhaps Donaldson or Moustakas, and perhaps Grandal?

    There will be a price, certainly from a money perspective (Lindor is projected to make $16.7 million in arbitration, a figure that could soar above $20 million in 2021), and certainly from a fanbase perspective (as Atlanta native Dansby Swanson absolutely would be included in the deal, and perhaps center fielder Ender Inciarte as well, to help offset the money). But Lindor is a game-changing talent, and one under control for two years. If there is a risk to take on the trade market, this makes sense for Atlanta to explore.

    Patience is a Virtue

    There has been far more chatter this November than the past two autumns. Sure, some of it is agent-driven noise, designed to try and accelerate the market. But the feeling is this offseason will unfold differently, and quicker.

    Traditionally, there are few moves made during the GM Meetings. But it’s the first chance for general mangers to get together in one place, compare notes, discuss needs and wants and desires. It feels like the weeks between now and the early December Winter Meetings will see more action than recent years, with a flurry of activity happening between now and Christmas.

    The Braves figure to be right in the middle of it, shaking off the chill of winter’s onset with a burning desire to get to 2020 as quickly as possible, with an evolving roster that by spring better be capable of winning the World Series.

    Anthopoulos has been on the job for two years. He’s been splendid in many ways, frustrating in others. This is the offseason to make his mark.

    The market is ripe, and the time is 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.

    Braves’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Back in the old days of print newspapers, it wasn’t uncommon to have items that never made it into the morning edition. Those tidbits, musings, observations would remain in your notebook, scribbled as a passing thought or jotted down in case you needed it as a point of reference.

    On the day after the Atlanta Braves saw their season end with a thud in an ugly Game 5 loss to St. Louis in the National League Division Series, it’s time to empty the notebook and touch on a few items that didn’t get flushed out in our coverage of the series. Items that, in retrospect, feel worthy of a few words as the shift from stunned conclusion to pivotal offseason begins in earnest.

    Acuna, Part I: Save for one regrettable moment in Game 1, 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. did more than his part, the emerging superstar hitting .444 in the series with a 1.454 OPS, three doubles, one triple, one homer and four walks. The fact Acuna finished with a .565 OBP in the series and scored just one run only underscores how putrid a large segment of the Atlanta offense was in the five games.

    Acuna, Part II: As brilliant as Acuna was, so much more has been made of the budding feud between him and the Cardinals, stoked by Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina and Jack Flaherty. I had no problem with several Braves calling out Acuna for his lack of hustle on the single off the right-field wall in Game 1 (an inning I contend the Braves were not going to score whether he was on first or second base). It was warranted and necessary.

    I had a huge problem with the indifference displayed in the Braves dugout in the fifth inning of Game 5, when Flaherty gutlessly drilled Acuna in the back with a purpose pitch, on a two-strike count, in a 12-run game. I certainly did not want to see the Braves charge the field, nor do I think Sean Newcomb should’ve hit Flaherty in the following inning. But the disinterest when Acuna wore a pitch between his shoulder blades from his teammates was a bad, bad look. So, too, is the ongoing public referendum around a kid barely old enough to drink who possesses game-changing talent, a vibe the sport is trying to market.

    Let the kid play … and have his back if somebody crosses the line.

    Freddie Failure: This is Freddie Freeman’s team, without question, but I’d be hard pressed to find a five-game stretch in which the unofficial captain of the Braves was this bad. His error on Molina’s ball in the first in Game 5 cost Atlanta an inning-ending double play and opened the floodgates. It’s a play that had to be made. He was awful at the plate, collecting two of his four hits (in 20 at-bats) after St. Louis blew it open Wednesday. His inability to make contact hurt the Braves on multiple occasions (six strikeouts in the series). The Braves three-hole hitter, with the leadoff hitter on base for much of the series begging for somebody to drive him home, finished with one paltry RBI.

    In 39 plate appearances in the past two postseasons, Freeman has two RBIs – both coming on solo homers. He described the Braves as having “failed” in his postgame comments Wednesday, doubling down yet again on the fact his right elbow is healthy. But he clearly wasn’t himself, and while he never was going to come out of the lineup or move out of the third spot, Freeman’s failure to raise his game – as Acuna did – ultimately played a major role in the premature end of Atlanta’s season.

    Soroka For One, Not Two: A huge talking point in the hours after the series was the decision to save 22-year-old ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka for Game 3 in St. Louis, taking advantage of dominant road splits instead of starting the All-Star twice in the series. It’s easy to second guess the decision after the fact, but the feeling here was (and remains) that it was the right call.

    With playoff veteran Dallas Keuchel starting the opener at home and as hot as Mike Foltynewicz was entering his Game 2 assignment, you had to feel Soroka’s matchup was quite favorable considering he would pitch on the road as opposed to in Atlanta (4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP at home in the regular season vs. 1.55/0.96 in away games). As I mentioned in the run-up to the series, the vast majority of the time you want your No. 1 or No. 2 guy lined up to get two starts across the five games. But the decision to start Soroka just once, while painful in hindsight, did not lose Atlanta this series.

    Best Laid Plans: There are a lot of people for whom I feel awful after this belly-flop performance, but Chris Martin sits near the top of the line. Out of baseball, working in warehouses, started throwing again, went the indy ball route, eventually ended up with the Rangers, then after becoming a strike-throwing machine was acquired by the Braves at the deadline.

    Martin’s left oblique injury, suffered before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1, not only eliminated another layer to this tremendous story, it also had an equally painful ripple effect on the Braves pitching plans. Shane Greene pitched the sixth inning in Game 1, with Brian Snitker looking to close the game with Max Fried in the seventh, Martin in the eighth and Mark Melancon in the ninth. Martin’s absence shoved Fried into a full-time bullpen role for the rest of the series (he would’ve been quite the option to start either Game 4 or 5). Instead, Snitker had to bring on Luke Jackson in the eighth in Game 1, who struggled before Melancon imploded in the ninth.

    But Sometimes, The Plan Isn’t Worth Following: Honestly, Martin never should’ve trotted in from the bullpen in Game 1. Fried absolutely dominated the seventh inning (14 pitches, nine strikes, two punchouts) and should’ve gotten the eighth. With Paul Goldschmidt leading off the eighth (who would hit one nine miles off Jackson), it would’ve been great to scrap the best-laid plans after watching Fried shove in the seventh and give the lefty at least a chance to work the eighth.

    Absurdly Offensive Offense: The Braves were carried by Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall in the series offensively, but got precious little help from most of the lineup. We’ve talked about Freeman, but he had company. Ozzie Albies had a strong Game 4 but mostly was pedestrian. Josh Donaldson disappointed. Nick Markakis was invisible (certainly, he’s made his final appearance with Atlanta, right?). Matt Joyce struggled before being benched for Duvall in Game 5.

    One of the top offenses in the NL all season, the Braves slashed .225/.302/.385 in the series. They finished with 16 extra-base hits, nine from Acuna-Swanson-Duvall. Game 5 was over before the Braves registered a plate appearance, but in the first four games they went 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and left 30 on base, including 17 in the two games they had no business losing – eight in Game 1; nine in Game 4.

    How else to explain why, after Acuna doubled to lead off the ninth of a tied Game 4, Albies didn’t bunt? Because Freeman-Donaldson-Markakis were so bad in the series, the Braves best chance was hoping their second baseman – who had a homer and a sacrifice fly in the game – could punch through a hit. It wasn’t going to happen if Albies didn’t get it done.

    Above any other reason, the inability to hit with runners in scoring position in the first four games cost the Braves this series.

    Finally, A Toast To B-Mac: Brian McCann was my oldest’s son’s favorite player growing up. The kid would crawl into my lap and ask a million questions about what the Duluth High graduate and Gwinnett County product was doing behind the plate, sparking a love of catching that led to that little boy squatting behind the dish in little league for eight years.

    McCann put together a very good career. He struggled mightily in the second half, but homered in the division clincher against San Francisco, capped the big rally against Philly with a walkoff in mid-June, and something just felt right about him being at home and going to the playoffs in, what we learned after Game 5, was his final big-league season.

    The Braves were facing the need to upgrade at catcher entering next season before McCann’s announcement. But that does nothing to minimize the impact B-Mac had on everybody who saw him play. And even more important, from everybody who crossed paths with him, from the newspaper sports editor who delighted in a 15-minute conversation at spring training 2006 talking to him about the impact the 1990s Braves had on himself and a generation of Atlanta-area kids, to my son – who refused to leave SunTrust Park on Wednesday until he saw McCann catch the final inning of his career.

    —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.

    Nightmare First Inning Ends Season, But Braves Blew NLDS Before Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The witnesses looked at each other in absolute shock at what had unfolded during the 26-minute train wreck of a half inning they just watched. The energy, the enthusiasm, the hope of ending an 18-year playoff series drought, absolutely obliterated beyond recognition by the time fans could finish their first beer.

    But make no mistake: the Atlanta Braves 2019 season isn’t over just because they gave up 10 runs (yes, 10; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) in the top of the first inning of a 13-1 faceplant Wednesday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Truth be told, the Braves never should have been on the field on this splendid autumn afternoon along the northwestern rim of the capital city, even though it appeared they weren’t anywhere to be found as St. Louis sent 14 hitters (yes, 14; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) to the plate in the opening frame.

    No, the Braves should’ve been at home, relaxing and getting ready for either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals, relishing in the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001, focusing on the NL Championship Series and securing four wins that would send them to the World Series for the first time in 20 years.

    They should’ve won this series long before Game 5 flew off the rails and straight off a cliff into a bottomless lake.

    They had this NLDS won, and they blew it.

    Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

    The Braves kept flubbing opportunities to put away the series, and baseball has a funny way of biting teams that don’t take care of the business at hand. Afford an opponent with enough opportunities to flip the script, and sooner or later it’s going to happen.

    It happened in Game 1, when Atlanta melted down at various times throughout the contest before allowing six runs in the final two innings of a 7-6 defeat, a sequence beginning with one of its key bullpen pieces acquired at the trade deadline (Chris Martin) leaving with a left oblique injury before throwing a single pitch.

    It happened in Game 4, when the Braves started their free-agent veteran rotation piece possessing postseason experience (Dallas Keuchel) and saw him serve up three homers in 3 1/3 innings. The offense responded by stranding nine runners and left the bases loaded in the sixth and seventh innings, before two St. Louis hits that traveled with the velocity of a horse and wagon tied the game in the eighth to set up an extra-inning defeat.

    In the two losses leading into Wednesday, Atlanta’s offense was a combined 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 17 runners on base. It started all the way back in the first inning of the series, when the first four Braves hitters reached, yet Atlanta emerged from the frame with just a 1-0 lead. Young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. tripled leading off the seventh in Game 4 and doubled to start the ninth, and neither time dented home plate.

    That sent the NLDS to one final act, a winner-take-all affair with a shot at the pennant hanging in the balance. The old baseball axiom says in one game, anything can happen.

    The Braves inability to close out this series before Wednesday led to a first inning that still feels like a nightmare:

    Mike Foltynewicz – so brilliant down the stretch and in a Game 2 victory (by far Atlanta’s best game of the series) – gave up seven times the number of runs (seven) as outs recorded (one, on a sacrifice bunt) before hitting the showers after 23 pitches.

    The combination of Foltynewicz and Max Fried – the young lefty so good in relief in the opening three games of the series – teamed up to surrender five hits with four walks.

    Freddie Freeman – whose miserable performance in this series cannot be stated enough – flubbed a potential inning-ending double play that would’ve allowed the Braves to escape with only one run allowed.

    Brian McCann – who returned home to chase another World Series ring in what turned out to be his final season; he announced his retirement after Wednesday’s loss – could not secure a foul tip from leadoff hitter Dexter Flower that would have been strike three, instead leading to a walk that began a half-hour even the most cynical Atlanta sports fan never could have envisioned.

    Sometimes, young teams must go through difficult times to learn valuable lessons that will serve them well moving forward. And there is no denying the future is ultra-bright for this team. The Braves are set up to contend for the foreseeable future. They are a fun, enjoyable bunch to watch play the game, one of my favorite teams in 40 years of following this franchise. And they’re good, very good.

    But in October, the best team doesn’t always win. These Braves were better than the Cardinals. They should’ve won this series. Presented with opportunities to take control of games in October, you cannot emphasize enough the urgency to execute. Not delivering with runners in scoring position, not calling for a bunt with a runner on second, not getting a fly ball with a runner on third and less than two outs, not getting outs in the final innings, not fielding ground balls to start double plays, those things will lose you games in the regular season.

    Not doing those things in the 10th month of the year will end your season.

    Atlanta learned that in the worst possible way the past seven days. The hope is this pain leads to better things in the Octobers to come.

    But that’s little solace on this night. A Braves team good enough to play deep into the postseason choked, and now finds itself in a place so many of its predecessors landed:

    Home far too early, wondering what could’ve been.

    —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 Braves, And Their New Home, Have Come So Far As We Await Do-Or-Die Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The December drizzle and mist floated through the chilly wind as I made my way from my parking space toward the construction site. My annual three-week Christmas vacation from my product marketing job had just started, there were no freelance deadlines to hit for a few hours, and on a day that sparked absolutely zero thoughts of baseball, there only was one place I wanted to go.

    I darted across Circle 75 Parkway and dodged a few construction barrels, phone in hand despite the persistent moisture swirling in the 40-degree air. It had been a few months since I had spent some time checking out the future home of the Atlanta Braves, and while I was not an invited guest on this day, I spent the next 90 minutes walking the perimeter taking pictures of what would become SunTrust Park and The Battery.

    It allowed my mind to careen out of control. What future wonders might Braves Country see at this place where, even on this day in the dying moments of 2016, there still was so much work to complete with a new season set to dawn in some 17 weeks? The venue’s tenant also was a work in progress, having just wrapped up a third-consecutive season with 89-plus losses and chest deep into a painful rebuild.

    Yes, there were slivers of sunshine that appeared here and there, but it felt like a return to prominence was as hard to see as it was to envision a baseball palace amid the mud and construction cranes.

    Look at us now.

    The Braves take the field Wednesday at SunTrust Park with a shot to win the National League Division Series. It’s a do-or-die, winner-take-all series finale, one that will wrap what’s been a delicious four-game passion play with the St. Louis Cardinals. A victory gives this franchise its first postseason series victory since 2001, that coming in just the fifth year spent at Turner Field. So much heartbreak, so many missed chances, so many tears of frustration have been shed since Atlanta bounced the Astros in the first round way back when.

    Think about this place where – on that dreary December day nearly three years ago – that day’s rain sent the mud running down the recently paved entrance to what would become The Omni Hotel. Consider the roped-off areas where the restaurants, bars and gathering places would take form. Look at the stadium, still somewhat of a shell with some sections still missing seats, workers in hard hats everywhere running cable, focused on completing brick work, bringing this grand concept to life.

    We have experienced so much since the team took the field at their new home on April 14, 2017, a Friday night against San Diego. That team would be 45-45 following the first series after the All-Star break, but it wasn’t ready to contend. The 2018 team captured our hearts like no team since the worst-to-first 1991 Miracle Braves, stunning the world by winning the NL East on the fourth Saturday of September on their sparkling home field. And while that October foray was short, a four-game loss in the NLDS to the big, bad Dodgers, the Braves authored a shot across the bow in the first-ever postseason contest at the new yard when Ronald Acuna Jr. belted a grand slam and Atlanta staved off elimination with a Game 3 victory.

    Look now. These Braves are a legit championship contender, even with the ups and downs and wild twists and turns of this get-together with the Cardinals. Atlanta won 97 games this season and captured the East again, all the while authoring a book full of memorable moments at their glittering new abode. The Braves won 50 games at SunTrust Park this season. Seventeen games were sellouts. They averaged 32,776 while drawing 2.65 million, the franchise’s highest attendance since 2007.

    I’ve been very fortunate to attend both East clinchers and the first four playoff games in the new home of the Braves. Game 5 on Wednesday represents a new level. At a venue praised universally as a destination for any baseball fan, a place that now provides its tenant with a bona fide home-field advantage, where an emerging powerhouse plays, the Braves get their shot to win a game that carries equal parts clinching and elimination, season move forward or season cut short.

    We imagined moments like this on those days the shovels were busy turning up the dirt at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75. Honestly, it hasn’t been that long ago, but at the same time it feels like forever.

    An off day leading into Game 5 allows for a few fleeting moments of recollection, of considering how far this team – and the venue it calls home – has come.

    Nine innings shy of playing for the pennant, the Braves hope by the time Wednesday evening fades to night, their new home will be awash with a celebration 18 years – and lots of heavy lifting – in the making.

    —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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.