• Matt Adams

    Of Young Pitchers, Nighttime Nick, and A Historic Pace

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This writer opined a few days ago that the Atlanta Braves rotation – ravaged by injuries and opt-outs and diminished velocity (let’s hope the locusts stay away for a few more days) – would be best served by looking at a trio of long-promising starters and saying, “here’s the ball.”

    One time through, nothing has changed my mind.

    Sure, Sean Newcomb took the loss in Wednesday’s 2-1 home defeat to Toronto and Kyle Wright saw a strong overall outing turn on two bad pitches in Saturday’s 5-0 setback at Philadelphia. In the middle, Touki Toussaint spun a gem in Thursday’s 10-1 rout of the Blue Jays, plus the bonus of a rainout Friday night in the City of Brotherly Love.

    Through 25 percent of this season that borders more on the absurd with each passing day, the trio of Newcomb-Toussaint-Wright is a combined 0-3 with 27 earned runs allowed in 27 2/3 innings. But go a bit beyond the surface, and you’ll see why I’m so bullish on giving each of these arms regular run through the Atlanta rotation.

    Newcomb was a hard-luck loser against Toronto, coming one pitch away from getting out of the fifth inning. He walked one hitter (just two free passes over nine innings combined in his past two starts), gave up just five hits and struck out four. Two runs allowed on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings is something any major-league manager will take in this truncated 2020 season.

    Toussaint was on from the first pitch the next night, surrendering three runs on four hits with no walks a career-high nine strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings, the best of his eight career big-league starts. Mixing in a quick-pitch delivery that reminded some of Johnny Cueto, the 24-year-old limited Toronto to one hit through the first six innings, finishing with 59 strikes in 83 pitches five days after allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings in relief at Tampa Bay.

    Wright tap-danced through trouble Sunday against the Mets, but did not allow a run despite four walks and five hits in 3 1/3 innings. Saturday was much better except for the fourth inning, when he hung a curveball that J.T. Realmuto smashed for a homer to lead off the inning. Later in the frame, after getting squeezed on what looked like a strike on the inside corner, Wright allowed a three-run shot to Jay Bruce on a hanging slider. Despite the two mistakes Wright pitched well, throwing 59 of his 91 pitches for strikes while walking three with three strikeouts in a career high-tying six innings.

    There’s plenty clamoring for Atlanta to make a trade (not happening, not at this point) or promote one of a promising batch of arms at the alternative training camp site. After one time through the rotation following the season-ending injury to Mike Soroka, the progress is there, even if the results aren’t exactly what you want just yet. And you can’t measure progress unless you let these guys keep taking the ball.

    Nick at Nite Felt So Right

    It wasn’t Opening Day, there weren’t 40,208 jammed into the ballpark, and Gabe Kapler wasn’t coming out to yank Aaron Nola after 68 pitches with a five-run lead. But in a way, Thursday win felt a bit like March 29, 2018, when the Braves rallied in the season opener from a 5-0 deficit to stun the Phillies 8-5 on a walkoff homer by Nick Markakis.

    Some 861 days after Markakis belted his first big-league walkoff into the Chop House and turned the ballpark then knows as SunTrust Park into delirium, the 36-year-old outfielder capped his first start since returning to the team after originally electing not to play due to COVID-19 with a solo homer in the ninth to lift Atlanta to a 4-3 victory.

    In his first start since returning to the Braves, Nick Markakis called game with a solo homer in the ninth inning Thursday against Toronto.

    Markakis causes plenty of debate on social media, which as I’ve mentioned before is so ironic because Nick Markakis and Twitter are about as similar as a lava pit and the Arctic Circle. With Ozzie Albies on the injured list with a right wrist bone contusion and Matt Adams joining him with a left hamstring strain, Markakis hitting fifth against a right-hander when Travis d’Arnaud sits is perfectly acceptable.

    It also provided a pretty cool moment Thursday, regardless of how you feel about the veteran out of Woodstock (and, yes, Young Harris).

    Ynoa Start? Here Ya Go, Huascar

    I saw Huascar Ynoa make his big-league debut against the Phillies on June 16 last season, the hard-throwing right-hander allowing one hit with two strikeouts in two impressive innings. His lone other major-league appearance exactly one month later wasn’t as smooth: six runs on five hits in one inning at Milwaukee.

    Ynoa signed with Minnesota as a minor-league free agent, joining the Braves in the Jaime Garcia trade a week before the 2017 trade deadline. The 12th-ranked prospect in the Atlanta organization according to MLB Pipeline, Ynoa sits mid-90s with his fastball but touched the upper 90s during his relief appearances with the Braves a season ago. He pitched to a 5.33 ERA in 17 appearances (14 starts) at Triple-A in 2019, and Atlanta will look for him to get through the Phillies lineup at least one time to begin the first of two seven-inning contests Sunday.

    Falling Off the Pace

    Saturday’s loss dropped the Braves to 9-6 on the season, which I’m sure is disappointing to fans. Not because Atlanta is on a .600 win pace so far (good for 97 wins in a 162-game season), but that defeat put the 2020 squad one game off the pace for best record ever by a Braves team through 15 games of a 60-game campaign.

    Huh?

    Yep, the Braves franchise has done this before, but you have to go back … way back. All the way back to the 1878 season, when the Boston Red Stockings (they would become the Braves for the first time in 1912) went 41-19 en route to a second-consecutive National League pennant. A 1-0 victory over Indianapolis on June 13, 1878, lifted the Red Stockings to a 10-5 record, and pulled them within 1 ½ games of first place in the NL.

    That victory was the fourth game of a stretch where Boston went 14-2. The Red Stockings would lead the NL by as many as 7 ½ games at the end of August before a 4-6 September resulted in a four-game cushion at the end of the season.

    Far and away, there was one player who carried the lion’s share of the load for the eventual pennant winners. Right-hander Tommy Bond led the NL with 40 victories, made 59 starts (yes, he started every game but one), went the distance in 57 of those assignments, pitched nine shutouts, posted a 2.06 ERA, and piled up a staggering 532 2/3 innings. He led the NL with 182 strikeouts; he also led the league in hits allowed (571) and homers surrendered (five).

    Suffice to say, even if the 2020 Braves end up with a better record, those numbers won’t be touched. And that 1878 campaign came one season after the Red Stockings also won the pennant with a 42-18-1 record. That one tie in the 61-game 1877 season? A 1-1 stalemate on opening day against the Hartfords of Brooklyn, who in time would become the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    —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.

    2020 Season Preview: Braves are Built Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Entering Unprecedented Campaign

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nobody could have predicted what we have been through the past few months. Nobody could imagine the impact the coronavirus would have on every single aspect of our everyday lives, on things far more serious than the doings of a baseball franchise seeking its first World Series title in a quarter-century.

    Yet, in some weird way, Alex Anthopoulos built an Atlanta Braves team that seems poised to handle baseball’s 60-game sprint quite well. It certainly wasn’t foresight into what this 2020 baseball season would look like – one that will be as unprecedented as any baseball campaign in the history of the sport – but rather, by how the Braves general manager viewed his team after back-to-back National League East championships.

    Anthopoulos felt the Braves needed depth in their bullpen. He first addressed it with three moves at last season’s trade deadline, and further bolstered it by signing Will Smith in early November. There is the seemingly never-ending supply of pitching prospects gurgling in the upper levels of the minor leagues, including some arms the Braves hope are ready for prime-time duty under the bright lights of the majors.

    The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League automatically lengthened Atlanta’s lineup, a lineup that saw a logjam at third base with Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, plus a logjam in the outfield. Certainly, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be in the lineup almost every day, and even with Nick Markakis electing not to play, the Braves still have Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall (plus Cristian Pache waiting in the wings).

    Adding the designated hitter also can help these Braves address a deficiency that could be an Achilles heel – bats that mash right-handed pitching. Often those guys are left-handed hitters, and the Braves brought Matt Adams back this week hoping to see the type of power he displayed here three seasons ago. The reported and rumored signing of Yasiel Puig would have addressed that, too (the erstwhile Dodgers slugger bats right-handed, but features reverse splits). But once again, COVID-19 and 2020 reared its ugly head, Puig testing positive for the virus and announcing the news via social media just minutes after the Braves captain – Freddie Freeman – joyously trotted onto the field Friday at Truist Park, following his harrowing journey through having the virus.

    Freddie Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times, but the four-time All-Star found himself sick from COVID-19 in early July.

    Freeman embarks on his 10th season in the majors; how has it been that long? Without question this is his team, much as Terry Pendleton led the early 90s Braves, much as Chipper Jones carried that torch for more than a decade. Thankfully, Freeman looks healthy and his swing looks great. A week ago, we all wondered what a Freeman-less Braves would look like embarking on a truncated schedule that begins with 20 games in 20 days, against plenty of great pitching.

    Consider who the Braves may see in those opening 20 games: Jacob deGrom (twice) and Steven Matz of the Mets, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Rays, Hyun Jin-Ryu of the Blue Jays, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees. That’s nine of your first 20 games against a group of pitchers who are on many people’s short list of All-Star hurlers.

    It’s all going to be different. This isn’t going to be your father’s baseball season. The methodical marathon that frames our spring and summer evenings? Not this year, folks. This is a 400-yard dash for a sport accustomed to logging 26.2 miles. Teams that start quickly are going to be positioned to potentially steal playoff spots. But before crying doom and gloom if the Braves arrive at their first off day on Aug. 13 at 8-12, consider two schedule quirks across the final 40 games that might prove more important than having to start 14-6.

    The middle 20 games: Atlanta faces Philadelphia and Washington 12 times. Six of the other eight are against Miami and Boston (this Red Sox team certainly is not of the ilk of the 2018 champs). Even if the Braves stumble a bit out of the gate, not only do they have an opportunity to catch up against two subpar teams in the middle part of the schedule, they also play 60 percent of their games in that stretch against the two teams I feel will challenge them for the NL East title.

    The final 20 games: The Braves play 13 against the Marlins, Orioles and Red Sox. Atlanta ends the season with a seven-game homestand against Miami and Boston. The Yankees and the Rays are likely to rule the AL East, and Boston’s pitching is quite suspect. Miami will be better; its young pitching is maturing, and the Marlins have a few guys who are developing into good players (they’re a couple of years away from being a real problem for the NL East). If you’re going to wrap up the season with a week at home, other than Baltimore, there are no two teams in the combined East you want to face than the Marlins and Red Sox.

    What will it take to get to that point, 53 games in the books, one week to go, with a shot at October? The more I look at it, the more I think the Braves are built for this.

    Atlanta’s youthful exuberance, a hallmark of the Braves resurgence the past two seasons, remains (minus the hugs and high-fives). Acuna remains an emerging megastar. Ozzie Albies is developing into a star in his own right. The rotation is fronted by two of the better young arms in the game: Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in modern Braves history to earn an opening-day starting assignment, and Max Fried, who could develop into a sneaky Cy Young candidate if his change-up continues developing.

    22-year-old Mike Soroka finished second in NL rookie-of-the-year voting in 2019 and sixth in Cy Young voting, providing a cool presence at the top of Atlanta’s rotation entering his second full big-league season.

    There are question marks. Can Cole Hamels get healthy? Can Dansby Swanson replicate his 2019 first half and postseason while staying healthy? Can Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz settle the middle of the rotation? Will Ender Inciarte start the season hitting like it’s April or July? Can Smith, who is out with the virus but asymptomatic, test negative twice and get back on the mound?

    We are forced to acknowledge the 50,000-pound weight hanging over all this. What happens after three weeks of play, of flying into different cities and staying in hotels then returning home, if positive tests spike and a team (be it the Braves or another team) finds itself with an outbreak? Nobody knows, and that’s part of the trepidation I feel in offering a projection of where this Braves team lands when this season like no other reaches its conclusion on Sept. 27.

    But we’re going to hope and pray things go well – for every team in the majors – and we’ll forge ahead with a best guess. And it’s just that: a guess. We have no clue what’s going to happen. There is no playbook, no guideposts. This is the strangest season preview I’ve ever authored, fitting for the strangest year of my life.

    This incredibly unpredictable sprint rests on simple math. Each singular game is worth 2.7 times one regular game in a 162-game season (subscription required). If you win 37 games, that’s a .616 win percentage (a 99-win pace over a full season). Win 27 games? That’s a .450 win percentage (a 74-win pace).

    I don’t see these Braves reaching either that peak or that valley. Even with an 8-12 start, I think they’re good enough – based on their depth, Freeman being ready from the jump, the young talent on the roster, and motivation after choking away what should have been the franchise’s first postseason series victory in 18 years – to finish 34-26.

    That’s a 91-win pace over 162, and I think that’s just enough to land the Braves one game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Philadelphia. That would put Atlanta into the postseason party, and in a world where everything seems to have changed, the overarching goal has not:

    Win 11 games in October and capture the World Series title. There is no telling who will do it, or what will happen along the way, but it’s time to start the journey.

    After all we’ve been through, how sweet that sounds.

    —30—

    On deck as we preview the 2020 Atlanta Braves season: A Braves Opening Day like no other.

    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 Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It would’ve been folly back in spring to pinpoint the final Sunday of August in Miami and consider it a seminal moment, but in this 2018 Atlanta Braves season that toggles between fanciful and frightening, it makes perfect sense.

    Game No. 130 on the 162-game schedule found the Braves wrapping up a seven-game road trip against the National League East cellar-dwellers, having won 12-of-21 during a hellish 22-game-in-20-day stretch that some feared would exhaust the pixie dust that seemingly has been sprinkled on this team.

    And yet, there was plenty of dread entering the series finale after Atlanta scored exactly one run in its previous 22 innings, losing 1-0 and 3-1 contests to Miami as Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis – the veteran linchpins in the middle of the lineup – both fighting significant slumps at the same time. Not an optimal situation at this time of the year, especially considering the dynamic Ozzie Albies has been awful against right-handed pitching this month.

    But as the case has been with this team, it’s never nearly as bleak as it seems despite the constant roar on social media, a volume that surely will build as September dawns and the sprint to the finish begins.

    The Braves scored four times in the final four innings Sunday, earning a 4-0 victory that sends Atlanta into its first off day since Aug. 6 with a three-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. When the gauntlet of games every day (including two doubleheaders) commenced Aug. 7, the Braves sat 1 ½ games in arrears of the Phillies.

    Sunday concluded with the Braves owning a three-game advantage for the fifth consecutive day. No ground gained – Saturday marked an ample opportunity after the Phillies choked a five-run lead, but Atlanta only could scratch a Dansby Swanson solo homer – but overall it’s still a win for the Braves, considering five days have elapsed from the calendar and the Phillies remain at arm’s length.

    It’s a short arm, though, and seven of the final 10 games of the season loom against the lone challenger to the Braves (yes, you can administer last rites to the ghost of the Washington Nationals, who trail Atlanta by 8 ½ games and who dealt Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in waiver-wire deals this week that signified everybody’s favorite paper champion raising the white flag). It’s not the time for the offense to turn south, and the Braves averaged 2.5 runs per game on the road trip while hitting .226 as a team with nearly as many strikeouts (44) as hits (45) entering Sunday.

    But recall the old saying that pitching and defense wins championships. It applies here, as the Braves have been outstanding on the mound in recent days. Atlanta allowed six runs total in seven games on the swing, pitching to a 0.89 ERA as a staff with only nine extra-base hits allowed. Kevin Gausman, the Plan B after Pittsburgh overpaid grossly for Chris Archer at the trade deadline, owns a 1.69 ERA in five Atlanta starts after throwing five scoreless, one-hit innings Sunday to win his fourth consecutive decision.

    Gausman’s short outing Sunday can be attributed to being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, when the Braves were trying to break through offensively nursing a 1-0 lead. It came one night after Brian Snitker left Anibal Sanchez hit for himself with runners on and two outs in a scoreless game, a decision that bit the manager when Sanchez – who is hitless on the season – struck out, then allowed the eventual game-winning run before leaving with a hamstring injury.

    The Braves have been outstanding offensively for large stretches of the season, but in the past month the pitching staff – bolstered by the acquisition of Gausman and relievers Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, the steadying of Sean Newcomb and the sudden consistently good Julio Teheran – has given Atlanta a needed shot in the arm. That says nothing of the contribution by Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, who excelled in winning their major-league debuts during the 22-in-20 stretch. Coupled with stellar defense – Ronald Acuna made another web-gem worthy catch Sunday, one night after Swanson made an acrobatic field-and-throw from short left field – the Braves are in a great position entering the final 32 games.

    Now, it gets serious. A getaway day in Miami resulted in the perfect outcome for a team that desperately needs a day off, that only has two more the rest of the way. A surging Tampa Bay team, fresh off a sweep of Boston, arrives at SunTrust Park for two games starting Tuesday. The Cubs pop in for a makeup game, followed by three at home with the Pirates and then those aforementioned Red Sox for three games.

    That precedes a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco, two locales where the Braves historically do not play well. That carries us into the next off day Sept. 13. Sixteen games in 16 days, pretty close to the grind Atlanta just concluded.

    It would be nuts to suggest the Braves will gain 4 ½ games in the standings in that span, as they did during the stretch just ended. It is a brutal schedule, as the heat of the pennant race ratchets up to a temperature Braves Country has not experienced in half a decade. And once through that stretch, the final maddening sprint features series with the hottest team on the planet (St. Louis), the wounded but still dangerous corpse of the Nationals, and those seven head-to-head meetings with Philly (four in Atlanta; the final three games of the regular season on the road).

    Suffice to say, if the Braves pop champagne and don celebratory T-shirts, they will have earned it. On the final Sunday of August, they found a way to grind out a much-needed victory.

    They will need more of that in the final five weeks.

    —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 at the Trade Deadline … Do They Have a Dance Partner?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — In the spring of 1986, the Atlanta Hawks were on their way to another playoff exit, the Atlanta Braves were on their way to another losing season, and I was on my way to the bustling metropolis of Macon, Ga., for the state junior beta convention.

    The final night of the convention ended with a dance. I spent the majority of the evening tugging uncomfortably at my tie, filling up on snack food and talking sports with a group of fellow awkward teenagers, including a girl from my school with whom I was friends.

    When the night’s final song cued up, she grabbed my hand, led me on the dance floor and we slow danced. I never asked her why, I don’t remember the song, I certainly didn’t kiss her (I think I was paralyzed with shock) and I don’t think either one of us spoke of the incident again. The only thing I could figure in the days and weeks that followed is she really wanted to dance with somebody, she seized the moment, and I was present at the right place at the right time.

    Welcome to baseball’s Trade Deadline, the time of year where the pressure of finding that right piece of a pennant-winning puzzle – or the opportunity to shed veteran payroll and snag future talent to accelerate a rebuild – brings together general managers and scouting directors, while 30 fanbases simultaneously salivate and shiver.

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    And tweet. Lord have mercy, do they ever.

    The deadline arrives at 4 p.m. Monday and, with all apologizes to science fans anxiously counting down to the solar eclipse three weeks from now, this is the world-altering, awe-inspiring Monday on the calendar. It is circled on the calendar of every GM – real, wannabe or armchair – from coast to coast.

    My Twitter feed in recent days has been fueled by almost every form of speculation possible, from the Braves acquiring a controllable ace that would vault Atlanta from the outside of the wild-card race squarely into the hunt for the World Series (or at least that’s the logic applied) to the queries of whether Player X could be dealt, even though Player X probably wouldn’t net more than a six-pack of Natty Light, a stale pretzel and a leftover ham sandwich.

    (My apologizes to ham sandwich lovers everywhere. Cheese and mayo on toasted bread, please).

    Look, here’s the truth of the matter: The Braves have lost seven of their past eight games. The latest in a series of hellish road trips that has dotted the schedule finally appears to have torpedoed any fleeting glimpse of contending in the season’s final two months. Even a .500 finish seems tentative at this point, but remember January and February and ask yourself if you’d be happy sitting at break-even on the evening of Oct. 1 (don’t lie; you’d be thrilled).

    It is a time of contrasting emotions. I get it. You love Brandon Phillips, the ATLien whose infectious smile and resurgent season has caused many of us to fall in love with the pride of Redan High. You are thrilled the Braves rescued Matt Adams from the end of the Cardinals’ bench when Freddie Freeman got hurt, and Adams responded by turning the right-field seats at SunTrust Park into his own driving range.

    But now that Freeman’s back and Johan Camargo has emerged with a breakout season – so much so, Dansby Swanson is clean shaven and manning shortstop for Gwinnett – you want to see Phillips and Adams moved. You want Freeman, who honesty compels me to say has looked better than expected at third base, back at his natural position. You want Swanson promoted and back at shortstop as soon as he can string a couple of hits together for the G-Braves (who will be the Buttons or Sweet Teas or heaven knows what next season).

    You want Ozzie Albies, who cannot legally buy alcohol but has raked Triple-A pitching, manning second base in the Northwest Atlanta suburbs and not the Northeast burbs. And with every at-bat he gets at Triple-A, 19-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna draws louder comparisons to Andruw Jones, whose 1996 season started in the low minors and ended with a World Series debut for the ages.

    Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the deadline

    Knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the non-waiver trade deadline

    I get it. I feel ya. There’s just one problem.

    There is precious little demand for Adams, who only can play first base and who has cooled off somewhat since his white-hot start. There is not a market for Phillips, a veteran who has played only nine postseason games in his 16-year career and is a free agent come October. Whatever market for closer Jim Johnson, he of the back-to-back 50-save seasons in 2012-13 but he with the eight blown saves in 2017 and the $5 million price tag for 2018, has evaporated quicker than the hottest of hot takes burning up social media.

    R.A. Dickey? He’s a 42-year-old knuckleballer with an $8 million team option for next season and, to be frank, likely should be given a chance to make the Braves’ roster in 2018 given the way he’s pitched the past two months. Nick Markakis, who mans the position we all expect Acuna to take come April (or September, or yesterday)? That’s $11 million for next season for a singles/doubles hitter with limited power.

    Much like that cute gal who led me onto the dance floor so many years ago, you need a partner who wants to dance. You can offer the grandest of all packages, but if the other side says no, there is no deal.

    So for all the folks with the patience of a gnat and the buildup of angst from a bad week of baseball, I say this: relax.

    Yes, 4 p.m. Monday will come and go, and the world will keep spinning. The Braves will be wrapping up their road trip when the deadline passes. No matter what does or does not happen, they will fly back to Atlanta Monday evening and hit the field for Tuesday’s game with the Dodgers.

    Maybe John Coppolella walks across the floor and takes somebody’s unsuspecting hand in the hours leading up to the deadline. You know, I know, we all know he’s trying, looking to uncover every possibility and explore every scenario. The feeling here says nothing major happens, that for Braves County the deadline will pass uneventfully.

    But at the same time, I had no idea I’d be on that dance floor so many years ago.

    —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 ‘Swanson Situation’ Requires Patience, Long-Term View

    By Bud L. Ellis
    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, takes its appointed path bending toward the outside corner of the plate, and the batter swings over the top of the sliding sphere as the ball thuds into the catcher’s mitt.

    The umpire cries, “strike three,” the crowd groans, and the 23-year-old hitter with the boyish good looks, the gorgeous hair, the aw-sucks temperament, and the weight of a hometown team and hometown friends on his young shoulders begins the walk back to the dugout.

    It is a common refrain we have seen from Dansby Swanson through the first four months of this 2017 baseball season, the first full campaign of major-league duty for Cobb County’s favorite son, a locale which by coincidence also is hosting the Atlanta Braves for the first season in brand-new SunTrust Park.

    Entering play Sunday, Swanson was batting just .210 with a .593 OPS

    Entering play Sunday, SS Dansby Swanson was batting just .210 with a .593 OPS and -0.3 WAR

    Swanson was anointed by the Braves fanbase as a linchpin of the team’s future, a key cog in the rebuild of the once-proud franchise that promised a return to baseball prominence while moving into a new home park. And the kid did nothing to shake that faith upon being summoned last August from Double-A Mississippi to man shortstop for his hometown team, hitting .302 across his first 38 big-league games while flashing the type of defense and leadership that led him through a successful college career at Vanderbilt before Arizona made him the top overall pick in the 2015 draft.

    But the numbers in 2017 have not been kind. Entering Sunday’s contest at Los Angeles, Swanson was hitting .210 with an OPS of .593 and 84 strikeouts in 319 at-bats. With Johan Camargo’s emergence as an impact player in an already-crowded Braves infield, Swanson’s struggles have presented Atlanta manager Brian Snitker a difficult decision every time he fills out the lineup card.

    The common answer of late has been to sit Swanson, who did not start Sunday and has a scant four hits in 43 July at-bats. Camargo, by comparison, brought a .336 average entering Sunday since begin recalled from the minors June 2.

    Camargo must play. Despite the numbers, Swanson has to play, too.

    Were the Braves knocking on the door of a playoff spot, were this 2018 or 2019 and Atlanta was four or five years into this rebuild, this conversation takes a different turn. There is no doubt a guy batting so close to the Mendoza Line with so many strikeouts would not warrant being in the regular starting eight in the midst of a pennant race.

    But a news flash to all the GMs and managers currently filling their social media accounts with the not-so-hot takes of “send Dansby to Gwinnett” … that is not the right answer. Not right now.

    Rookies struggle. It has happened as long as this game has been played, and will be the case long after you and me and Swanson and Camargo and Snitker have watched our final game. Opponents are smart. They have adjusted to Swanson, who thusly has struggled with adjusting back to the new attack plan of pounding sliders low and away. Face it. It happens.

    But what value is provided by sending Swanson to Triple-A, a level he skipped in getting his promotion to The Show last summer? From a confidence and attitude standpoint, there would not be any worries. Swanson has been in the spotlight since suiting up for Marietta High, a mere 10.8 miles from the new home of the Braves, a glare further enhanced by winning Most Outstanding Player while leading Vanderbilt to the 2014 College World Series title. A brief step back to collect himself would not harm a kid who has experienced so much at such a high level, whose confidence and demeanor indicate a guy who gets it, one who the Atlanta front office has placed tremendous trust in so early in his career.

    Braves SS Dansby Swanson

    Braves SS Dansby Swanson

    But what would Swanson see at Triple-A that would impact his development? Short answer: very little. He needs to play every day, against major-league pitching. Yes, there invariably will be bumps in the road. Every young player experiences dry spells. David Justice, who hit .279 with 305 homers in a successful major-league career, started his big-league days by going 1-for-20. Some kids struggle out of the gate; others hit a roadblock after a few months.

    The best path forward for Swanson is to be in the lineup as much as possible. With the trade deadline looming next week and the possibility Atlanta will move first baseman Matt Adams – a move that would shift Freddie Freeman back to first base permanently – and potentially veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips, the logjam in the Braves infield soon may ease.

    But even if the Braves keep Adams and Phillips, they – and their fanbase – must continue to keep focus on the development of Atlanta’s rebuild. There is no denying Swanson is a critical component of the retooling of this franchise. Beyond being a co-face of the franchise with Freeman, Swanson’s skill sets and potential as an impactful bat and glove scream that the kid needs to play, to work through his struggles, to get better against major-league pitching in major-league games.

    The Braves are not going to play in the World Series in 2017. If they did, it would be the greatest miracle since the 1991 Braves found themselves in the 10th inning of Game 7 of that season’s Fall Classic. Atlanta likely is not going to make the playoffs this season. It has been awesome to see this team battle to stay on the fringes of the wild-card race, but that is not the ultimate goal.

    The goal is to win championships, plural. The time for that is coming, and maybe sooner than many of us think. But to get to that level, Swanson must be productive. There is no harm in letting the kid figure it out right now. From the potential we’ve glimpsed of this kid and his team, the prudent move is to shove aside the “right-now” perspective and adopt the “long-term” approach.

    In this era of instant gratification and wanting results yesterday, that’s not an easy mindset to adopt. But the approach that keeps Swanson playing on a regular basis in the majors is the right approach.

    —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.