• Matt Wisler

    Braves at the Deadline: Anthopoulos boosts October odds, Protects Future

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – This is the day made for Alex Anthopoulos, and certainly it has been circled on his calendar since he took over as Atlanta Braves general manager in November. The aggressive gunslinger who never has shied away from a major deal spent the next eight months evaluating his new organization, all with an eye toward Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.

    But when the asking price for Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer – owner of the power strikeout arm and friendly, controllable contract – bubbled beyond the point of comfort, Anthopoulos made the smart move.

    He pushed away from the table.

    Contrary to what he told the assembled media early Tuesday evening at SunTrust Park, the Braves were in on Archer throughout the day. But Pittsburgh offered the duo of Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, a price that would have been akin to Atlanta offering two top-six prospects. That was too much for Anthopoulos, who resisted the emotion of the Braves stunningly sitting ½ game out of first place in the National League East and the pleas of a starving fanbase to overpay for one piece.

    And while there was an initial tinge of disappointment Archer headed toward western Pennsylvania and not north Georgia, at the same time the Braves new head man accomplished what he set out to do. In the five days leading up to the deadline, Anthopoulos improved the bullpen by adding two groundball machines (Jonny Venters and Brad Brach), a right-handed power bat (Adam Duvall), an intriguing starting pitcher (Kevin Gausman) and a veteran reliever who will be available next spring (Darren O’Day).

    The most important part of the past 120 hours or so is the Braves improved the major-league team without so much as tearing the plastic wrap from a minor-league system that is the envy of baseball. Atlanta did not touch 28 of its top 30 prospects. Venters and Brach were acquired for international signing pool money, funds of otherwise little value to Atlanta given MLB’s sanctions against the team. Duvall came at the price of fourth outfielder Preston Tucker and a pair of pitchers (Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims) whose production waned with every failed attempt at big-league success. Tuesday’s deadline deal – announced shortly after the clock expired – sent No. 14 Jean Carlos Encarnacion and No. 30 Brett Cumberland and two unranked prospects (Bruce Zimmermann and Evan Phillips) to the Orioles.

    Trade deadlines are hard to judge. I like to take a timeframe approach when grading the deadline:

    The Immediate (B+): Had Anthopoulos added Archer, Braves fans would have built a statue to their GM outside SunTrust Park tomorrow. It would have been a seismic move, but it would have come at quite the cost. At least two top-10 prospects, plus a prospect ranked somewhere in the 15-to-25 range. It wasn’t from a lack of trying, but Anthopoulos didn’t let the emotion of the day cause a detour from the appointed plan.

    That plan is contingent on ensuring the Braves use their minor-league depth at the right time. There will be a time, perhaps this offseason, where long-loved prospects are shipped away in return for valuable major-league assets. At the deadline, Anthopoulos filled several needs of his team without ripping up four years of careful cultivation of young talent.

    The Short Term (A): The Braves, as currently constituted, have a better chance to reach the playoffs than a week ago. Even without acquiring a top-end starter or a closer, Anthopoulos immediately fixed two glaring needs. First, he shored up a bullpen that’s threatened to sabotage this fantastic season. Venters and Brach are ground-ball machines, good fits with a very good infield defense playing behind them. Swapping Venters and Brach for a pair of recent (wink, wink) additions to the disabled list – Sam Freeman and Peter Moylan – automatically makes the Braves much better in the late innings.

    The second need has become all the more apparent in the past two months. Center fielder Ender Inciarte banged out 201 hits a season ago in hitting .304, but has been awful against left-handed hitters (hitting .207). Duvall – who has struggled to a .205 average in 2018 but does have 15 homers – gives the Braves the opportunity to slide Ronald Acuna into center when a left-hander starts, and Duvall’s presence in the lineup provides a right-handed power source who belted 64 homers in 2016-17. And regardless of whether Duvall or Inciarte are in the starting lineup, the bench automatically is better than a week before.

    Gausman is the wild card. A budding star out of LSU and the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, he sports a 4.22 ERA in 150 career games and struggled at times to find his way in Baltimore (not necessarily a strange thing given how some Orioles hurlers have excelled after leaving town). The Braves view him as an innings-eating dependable arm, one who has worked into the seventh inning seven times in 21 starts – that will thrive away from the AL East and the murderous lineups residing in Boston and New York. Time will tell, but the Braves certainly have a desperate need for more length from their starting rotation, especially given only two off days between now and Sept. 13.

    The Long Term (B-): The hardest grade to give on deadline day. What is the end result of the season? What about the next year? How did the assets you gave up turn out? I’m going B-minus for now mainly because the prospects remain virtually intact, and Atlanta did get players with control. While Venters and Brach are pending free agents, Gausman is under contract through 2020 and Duvall is on a deal through 2021. O’Day is on the shelf with a hamstring injury and won’t contribute in 2018, but is under contract through next season and taking on his $9 million salary for 2019 helped minimize the prospect cost of today’s deal.

    The Braves, through their play through the season’s first 103 games, earned the right for their general manager to make the team better. Anthopoulos delivered, maybe not with star power or  big names, but enough quality to give the Braves a better shot at extending its season beyond game 162.

    —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 Break: Good grades, but Work Remains to Reach October

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A quiet Wednesday evening finds me at the keyboard, and as I think of encapsulating the first 94 games of this remarkable Braves season, my mind drifts back to another Wednesday evening, exactly 17 weeks ago.

    That late afternoon and evening were filled with food, tailgating plans, blogging, podcasting and the Christmas Eve-type anticipation that comes on the night before Opening Day. Another journey about to begin, another trek into the vast unknown of the marathon that covers 162 games in 187 days. And on that late March evening, I opined these Braves would begin to shed the rebuilding moniker and take steps – albeit measured ones – toward contention, finishing with 80 victories while displaying the promise of better days and October nights to come.

    Here we sit, 119 days and nights later, and the Braves sit one-half game out of first place in the National League East, tied in the loss column with Philadelphia, already at 52 victories (65 percent to my predicted total) and poised to enter the final 68 games of this season as a contender for their first postseason berth since 2013.

    We have time to explore what’s to come. Tonight, on the quietest night of the sports year, we grade the roster, coaching staff and front office on the journey to this point.

    Braves 2018 All-Star Break Report Card

    The Roster

    Nick Markakis (A+): Even the most ardent supporter of Young Nick Outta Young Harris (looking at you, Knockahoma Nation) could not have scripted this breakthrough for the 34-year-old, free-agent to be. Markakis earned his first career All-Star berth and leads the National League in hits.

    Freddie Freeman (A+): Freeman was authoring an MVP season in 2017 before a broken wrist cost him seven weeks. All the veteran has done this season is play every game, hit .315, earn his third All-Star nod and look every bit like a frontrunner for the NL’s best player.

    Ozzie Albies (A): Some scouts wondered about Albies power as a minor-leaguer. Nobody’s questioning the 21-year-old anymore, not after he’s belted 20 homers and collected a NL-best 52 extra-base hits, to go with game-changing speed, outstanding defense and a poise well beyond his years.

    Mike Foltynewicz (A-): The first-time All-Star gets this grade because he’s second in the NL in hits per nine innings (6.285) and has dominated in stretches while finding new-found perspective from the birth of his first child. But Atlanta’s postseason hopes rest in part on the rotation’s ability to pitch deeper in games, and 5 2/3 innings per start on average must improve.

    Anibal Sanchez (A-): Were it not for a hamstring injury, the last-minute spring signing could have merited All-Star consideration. He’s been that good, pitching to a 2.60 ERA with a 1.020 WHIP while serving as a needed mentor to a stable of young pitchers. Simply put, Sanchez has been a God-send.

    Charlie Culberson (A-): Considered just a throw-in as part of the Matt Kemp salary dump, Young Charlie Outta Calhoun etched his place in Braves fans’ hearts with two walkoff homers against division rivals in a seven-day span. Versatile and dependable, he’s one of the unsung heroes of the first half.

    Sean Newcomb (B+): This was a solid A until a recent couple of hiccups before the break, but Newcomb has lowered his walk rate (4.5 per nine vs. 5.1 last season) and has displayed dominant stuff for parts of the first half. A strong second half could propel Atlanta into October, but watch his innings (105 this season; 157 2/3 between Triple-A and the majors in 2017).

    Kurt Suzuki (B+): Injuries gave him the bulk of playing time early, but even with the increased workload the defense has been solid, he’s belted eight homers in 66 games, is drawing more walks and continues to be a stabilizing force for Atlanta’s young pitching staff.

    Jesse Biddle (B+): One of the more unheralded arms in Atlanta’s pitching-rich system, Biddle has earned a spot in higher-leverage situations. He holds right-handers to a .128 average, averages 10 strikeouts per nine innings and deserves more meaningful innings in the second half.

    Dansby Swanson (B): His offense has been frustrating for some (79 strikeouts in 79 games), but he sports a .882 OPS with runners in scoring position, a .324 average from the seventh inning on, and teams with Albies up the middle to form one of the most exciting double-play combos in the game.

    Johan Camargo (B): As I’ve tweeted many times, “that’s my third baseman!!” After an early-season injury and the Jose Bautista experiment flopped, Camargo has made the most of his chance. His outstanding defense and 1.020 OPS with runners in scoring position, plus a higher walk rate, may have provided the final answer at the hot corner.

    Arodys Vizcaino (B): News flash – dude’s been good, 15 saves and a 1.65 ERA good. The bad news is that barking right shoulder and a second DL stint for inflammation, an area of great concern as the Braves approach the trade deadline.

    Shane Carle (B-): The last player to make the team out of spring training, Carle came out of nowhere to post a nice 0.69 ERA in his first 20 appearances. There’s been expected regression since – 5.09 ERA and 11 walks in his last 23 innings. If Carle can recapture his first six weeks form, it could go a long way to settling Atlanta’s bullpen.

    A.J. Minter (B-): Many consider the left-handed Craig Kimbrel clone as Atlanta’s closer of the future. We’ve seen it in flashes (four saves, 43 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings), but the walk rate (3.4 per nine innings) is something to watch for a guy with all the raw tools to become a dominant back-end arm.

    Dan Winkler (B-): Simply one of the best stories in all of baseball, the oft-injured Winkler has shined for much of the first half, owning a sub-1 ERA in mid-June. Three multi-run outings the past month hurt his numbers, but his stuff – like Minter’s – is good enough to make him a critical piece of the roster down the stretch.

    Ronald Acuna (B-): Yes, there are 56 strikeouts in 43 games. There also are seven homers, five tools on display, a recovery from what could’ve been a season-ending injury and the ability to change a game at any moment with his bat, speed, glove and arm. Did we mention he’s 20 years old?

    Preston Tucker (B-): Hard to fault the job Tucker did in the opening weeks in hitting three big homers. Sent to Gwinnett to get needed at-bats, he returned last weekend and belted a pinch-hit homer. He can change a game with one swing.

    Luke Jackson (B-): One of the riders of the Atlanta/Gwinnett shuttle, Jackson actually has settled in as a dependable long man in his latest stint. He’s allowed two runs in 11 1/3 innings in his last 10 appearances with 13 strikeouts in that stretch.

    Julio Teheran (C+): It’s hard to tell what you’ll get every fifth day and there seems to be no middle ground. It’s either great (like six no-hit innings against the Mets) or awful (seven runs allowed in his next start). Two encouraging items: His last two starts before the break were solid and his fastball velocity is back into the low 90s.

    Ender Inciarte (C): The two-time Gold Glove-winning defense in center field remains, but Inciarte’s first half was marred by too many stretches of offensive struggles (his .649 OPS is lowest among Atlanta regulars) and simmering frustration that resulted in his being benched for not running out a pop up. One of my absolute favorites (and I’m sorry, Jayme), but we need more in the second half.

    Tyler Flowers (C): He got hurt on opening day and has scuffled offensively (.165 average against right-handers screams matchup platoon), but the veteran has provided steady defense while teaming with Suzuki to give the Braves the luxury of two capable defensive backstops to steady a young staff.

    Max Fried (C): The Braves continue to do a disservice to the powerful lefty by trying to pitch him out of the bullpen. In three starts, he’s pitched to a 3.07 ERA while averaging 11 strikeouts per nine innings. On the DL with a blister, Fried could bolster the rotation in the second half, or be dangled at the trade deadline.

    Matt Wisler (C): This grade isn’t all his fault, as he’s pitched to a 3.63 ERA with a 1.212 WHIP in three starts. His relief numbers, like Fried, are awful and the Braves have no business throwing him in relief. At this point, he’s a starter who likely will be offered as part of a trade at the deadline or in the offseason.

    Lane Adams (C): Look who’s back in the organization, one of the more popular Braves social media guys (look away, Braves Ninja). Adams hit .275 and went 10-for-10 in steals a season ago but was cut despite posting a .793 OPS in 15 games early this season. Likely to get a look again sooner rather than later.

    Brandon McCarthy (C-): He went 4-0 with a 3.09 ERA through his first six starts, but has pitched to a 6.17 ERA and a .906 OPS in his next nine starts before right knee inflammation landed him on the disabled list. With no timetable set for his return, it’s fair to wonder if the veteran has made his last appearance in an Atlanta uniform.

    Ryan Flaherty (D): Yes, he led the NL in hitting for a brief time. Yes, he is a great veteran presence in the locker room. Yes, he is Markakis’ brother-in-law. No, there are better options for a bat off the bench and backup corner infielder.

    Danny Santana (D-): He needs a three-game stretch like last summer in Oakland, where the speedy reserve outfielder took over a series. Nothing like that has happened this season. An 80-grade Twitter hashtag from last summer, this summer finds the Braves needing better than a 30-grade bench option.

    Sam Freeman (F): He was a bright spot last season, but Freeman’s control issues should move the Braves to upgrade in the bullpen. His ERA is above 4.75 for three of the first four months of the season, including an unsightly 8.49 mark in June and six walks in 3 1/3 innings in July. Enough, already.

    Peter Moylan (F): Everybody loves the Aussie and rightly so, but this ship long since has sailed. A 1.846 WHIP and 10.7 hits per nine innings on the season, and a 12.00 (TWELVE!) ERA in his past five appearances, screams crikey! Enough is enough.

    Lucas Sims (F): A kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, Sims has been awful at the major-league level (7.84 ERA, 1.935 WHIP). He’s pitched to a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts at Triple-A. A change of scenery would serve him well and give him a chance to break through the ceiling of a Four-A arm.

    Evan Phillips (INC): He’s made but two appearances in the majors, neither in high-leverage situations, and the unsightly 14.73 ERA reflects that. Phillips owns intriguing stuff and closed games at Gwinnett. A promising young arm to watch in the second half.

    Mike Soroka (INC): One of Atlanta’s most-prized pitching prospects – he should be untouchable regarding trades – he made only five starts before being shut down with injury. But the Pride of Calgary has a bright future and showed plenty of glimpses of it at times in his initial major-league outings.

    Luiz Gohara (INC): A 21-year-old with arguably the best stuff in the Braves system, Gohara endured an awful personal offseason, then was hurt in spring training. His stuff plays at the major-league level and getting him on track could be akin to trading for a dominant starter.

    The Staff

    The Manager (C+): The players love Brian Snitker and certainly there’s something to be said for that. Having players who will run through a wall for you is important. Snitker is stubborn to change at times, a byproduct of loyalty I don’t want to fault but I must, as some of his in-game decisions have hurt. The infusion of analytics has helped – albeit I think at the pushing of his staff. At times he seems more comfortable in the lead chair than in the past two seasons and, let it be known, I’m rooting for him. He’s one of the nicest guys you ever could meet. With that said, I see too many questionable decisions to buy in long term. Will Snitker be here in 2019? My heart says yes, but my head says no.

    The Coaching Staff (A): It’s clear this organization needed an infusion of new blood, and with the addition of Walt Weiss, Eric Young and Sal Fasano, the Braves have constructed one of the best coaching staffs in baseball. Ron Washington is the unsung MVP of this team, helping to forge one of baseball’s best defenses. Young has helped the roster push the envelope on the bases, using speed Atlanta has not had in years to pressure defenses.

    The Front Office (B-): Maybe a bit of a harsh grade, yes, given this team was picked by most to win between 75 and 82 games. The good: New GM Alex Anthopoulos took the right, measured approach to learn of his assets at his disposal, rather than trying to make a move for the sake of headlines. An analytical approach, embraced by the staff and players, has led to better defense. Also, and this must be said, the environment around the entire organization is so much better. The bad: Snitker has been handcuffed at times by dead weight on the bench and the bullpen. That’s on Anthopoulos, and it must be addressed at the deadline if Atlanta wants to play into October.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Just Win Series

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

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

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

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

    Unsung Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What About Acuna?

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

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

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

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

    Bautista and Bat Flips?

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

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

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

    A Star in the Making

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

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

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

    What About Julio?

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

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

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

    ***

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

    —30—

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

    How The Braves Can Win In 2016

    As the Braves’ 2015 season draws to a merciful close, it’s time to start thinking about next year. Well, okay … it was time to start thinking about next year a long time ago. But now that the offseason is almost upon us, let’s have a closer look at what next year’s roster might look like.

    After chatting with many Braves fans on Twitter, it has come to my attention that some are pessimistic about the direction of this ball club. Twitter, as you know, is a wonderful place defined always by thoughtful discourse, level-headed debate and rational, well-reasoned viewpoints. So imagine my surprise when some took to calling Braves Director of Baseball Operations John Hart an “idiot”—or worse—for his execution of the team’s deconstruction and reconstruction over the past year. “This team still going to suck in 2017,” some told me. (Opening Day, 2017 being the target date when the Braves’ front office plans for the team to once again be strong postseason contenders.)

    Braves Director of Baseball Operations, John Hart

    Braves Director of Baseball Operations, John Hart

    Look, it’s been a long year in Braves Country. Fans who attend the remaining home games at Turner Field should receive a t-shirt emblazoned with a Braves logo and the words “I survived 2015!”  It’s been tough. I get it. But I think pessimism about the Braves’ long-term future is unfounded. And while feeling less than giddy about next season is far more understandable, I wouldn’t write off 2016 as another 6-month-long drinking game waiting to happen (A Braves reliever just served up another run-scoring hit… “SHOT!”  Wait, two runs scored? “DOUBLE SHOT!”).

    In fact, I think the Braves can win in 2016. Will they? I have no earthly idea. But I believe it’s quite possible. Now, that might seem hard to swallow on the heels of season in which Atlanta will have lost well over 90 games, but it’s not nearly as far fetched as it might sound at first blush.

    Here are the keys to a winning 2016 season:

    BRING IN AN ACE:

    I’m on record as predicting that the Braves will pursue one of the available free agent aces this winter. They are: David Price, Zach Grienke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann. Other quality free agent starters will include Mike Leake and Jeff Smardzija.

    But why, you might ask, would the Braves pursue a free agent ace this winter, rather than waiting for 2017? There are several reasons:

    1 – They would like to build some momentum heading into the new ballpark. If the Braves are coming off of back-to-back terrible seasons when SunTrust Park opens its gates, it’s could be tougher to get fans excited about the new beginning.

    LHP David Price is one of several top-end starting pitchers on the free agent market.

    LHP David Price is one of several top-end starting pitchers on the free agent market this winter.

    2 – Why not? They have the money. In a recent interview, John Hart pointed out that the Braves have shed a lot of payroll and now have a lot more flexibility to spend money on talent, adding “I think, again, what we do with that financial flexibility remains to be determined. But I think it’s going to be something where we’ll be aggressive in our approach.”  Also, consider the fact that any free agent starting pitchers the Braves might pursue are going to be looking for 5+ year deals. If need be, Atlanta could structure a deal to pay a little less in year-one of the contract and make up the difference over the balance of the deal when the new ballpark revenue is flowing.

    3 – The opportunity may not be there a year from now. There are at least a half-dozen quality starting pitchers, including several aces, available via free agency this winter, but the 2016-2017 free agent pitching market is shaping up to be a thin one. So if the Braves want to add a veteran free agent ace to anchor this young rotation going forward, it makes sense to do it now–this winter, rather than wait.

    4 – Acquiring another top-of-rotation starter opens up the possibility of trading Julio Teheran for a bat, if/when the Braves feel another young hurler is ready to replace him in the rotation. And who knows? That opportunity could arise at some point during the 2016 season.

    BETTER PERFORMANCE FROM MIDDLE/BOTTOM OF ROTATION:

    A free agent ace, together with Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran, could form a heck of a trio. But, they’ll need to have Terhan back on track. It’s been a tough year for Julio, but you have to remember that this is the same guy who posted an ERA right around 3.00 over 400+ innings though the two seasons prior. He posted a 2.89 ERA in 2014 and opposing hitters batted .232 against him. And he looks to be finishing strong this season.

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

    Hey, he’s 24 years old. Perhaps it’s a bit reactionary to write him off after one substandard season, don’t you think?

    The Braves need Teheran to step up, and there is reason to hope that he will, but they’ll also need better performance from the bottom of the rotation. Rookie starters Williams Perez, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos all currently feature ERA’s north of 5.00. Now, it is worth noting that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery all posted 5.00+ ERA’s in their rookie seasons too. That should tell you that first-year stats are not a reliable predictor of future performance.

    But while early-career struggles are entirely normal, if the Braves are going to win in 2016, they’ll have to get more out of the bottom of the rotation than they what they got this season. They don’t need anyone to compete for a CY Young award here at the back end of the group. ERA’s well down into the 4.00’s would suffice.

    REVAMP BULLPEN:

    The Braves bullpen has been terrible. So bad, in fact, that it may be hard to believe that the Braves can turn it around in a single winter. But consider a few things:

    First, the bullpen, as bad as it’s been, isn’t barren. Arodys Vizcaino has been a huge ray of light. If he continues to dominate, the Braves may have their closer for years to come. He gives Atlanta something to build around as they reconstruct the bullpen. Also, Matt Marksberry has shown himself to be a highly effective left-handed specialist as long as he’s limited to that role. Lefty hitters are batting just .154 against him. And Peter Moylan might be able to hang around as a groundball specialist for double play situations.

    RHP Jasn Grilli

    RHP Jasn Grilli (right) With catcher A.J. Pierzynski (left)

    Second, some of that cash the Braves will have to spend could be invested in relief help.

    And finally, the Braves have several quality bullpen arms on the DL right now, who are expected to return to action early next year:

    • Jason Grilli expects to be healthy and ready for training camp in February.
    • Chis Withrow, who the Braves acquired earlier this year from the Dodgers, has back-end-of-the-bullpen stuff. He is recovering from Tommy John surgery and should join the team early next season.
    • Shae Simmons also underwent Tommy John surgery, and like Withrow, has the potential to be a late-inning guy in this Atlanta ‘pen. He will likely be ready for spring training.
    • Paco Rodriguez, a hard-throwing lefty also acquired from the Dodgers, is rehabbing from elbow surgery (not Tommy John) and should be ready in the spring as well.

    When you consider the relief arms the Braves have on the shelf, as well as the ability to spend some cash on a free agent reliever (trades, of course, are also a possibility), there is every reason to believe the Atlanta bullpen could be vastly improved next year.

    OLIVERA MUST HIT:

    The Braves rolled the dice over the summer in trading for 30 year old Cuban standout Hector Olivera. John Hart and Co. believe Olivera can provide offense at the hot corner and be a consistent middle-of-the-order bat to protect Freddie Freeman in the lineup. The Braves think he has a good chance to be the offensive equivalent to Scott Rolen or Travis Fryman. The Dodgers, of course, believe in him as well, having inked him to a deal worth more than 60-million dollars before he ever took his first swing in the big leagues.

    3B Hector Olivera

    3B Hector Olivera

    Here’s hoping they’re right about him. He’ll be a big key for 2016. If he hits, that could make a big difference for this lineup.

    SCRATCH OUT RUNS:

    Even if Olivera lives up to expectations, the Braves lineup won’t set the world on fire. But if the pitching is solid next season (and it has a chance to be), the lineup only has to approximate its performance through the first half of 2015. At the midway point of this season, Atlanta was squarely middle-of-the-pack in runs scored and on-base percentage, and they were 5th in the NL in team avg. They made it happen with a scrappy lineup that was willing and able to put pressure on opposing pitchers and play A-B-C baseball. If the pitching staff does its job, that kind of offensive output would likely be enough to push the Braves over .500.

    If you feel good about the possibilities for next season, you’re not crazy. After all, the Braves were a .500 ball club halfway through the 2015 season. Injuries to Freeman and Grilli led or contributed to a midseason skid, followed by the selloff of veteran anchors like Jose Uribe and Kelly Johnson along with multiple relievers, at which point the wheels came off. Again, the Braves have a lot of bullpen help on the way, and other veteran help can once again be imported.

    I’m not predicting that the Braves will win next year. The only thing I can say with confidence is that next season will be better than the present one. But that’s not saying very much. They may very well finish near the cellar once again. My point is simply that there is a realistic scenario in which they could win.

    If the front office brings in a high-end starting pitcher and a few people step up next season, the Braves could turn things around in 2016. Don’t look for them to compete for a World Series ring, but eclipsing .500 would be a vast improvement over the torturous season Braves fans have just endured. And that may be an attainable goal.

    Will the Braves win in 2016? Tell me what you think: @FriedbasballATL

    Kent Covington is a national radio news reporter and BravesWire Editor.

    In 11th hour trade, Braves send Kimbrel, Upton to Padres

    No, it isn’t April Fool’s Day. No, you read that headline correctly. With hours ’til Opening Day 2015, John Hart and the Braves’ front office pulled the lever sending closer Craig Kimbrel and outfielder Melvin Upton, Jr. (B.J.) to the San Diego Padres. In return, the Braves receive outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, Padres’ 4th best prospect Matt Wisler (RHP), outfielder Jordan Paroubeck and the 41st pick in this year’s draft.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres' top prospect.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres’ 4th best prospect.

    Let’s start with the good news: The Braves continue to rake in prospects. In what is now clearly a complete rebuild, Atlanta has brought in some of the best talent in the league and continue that with Matt Wisler. Wisler was ranked by Baseball America as the 4th best Padres prospect and at 22-years-old is knocking on the door of the big leagues after spending half of 2014 with Triple-A El Paso.

    In addition to Wisler, the Braves acquired another prospect in Jordan Paroubeck. An outfielder, Paroubeck is a switch hitter who made his debut last season in Rookie ball.

    The draft pick the Braves receive is an interesting addition to what has been a winter full of draft selection pick ups. They will now have 4 picks in the first 54 selections of the 2015 draft.

    The two big leaguers that the Braves acquired in this trade that are ready and capable of being placed on the field tomorrow are Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin. Speculation is that Quentin will be immediately DFA’d to make room on the roster and so that he can return to an AL team where his skill set is better suited. Quentin’s addition to the trade package evened out the financial sides. Cameron Maybin will be the extra outfielder the Braves had hoped to have on their Opening Day roster but simply didn’t have enough players for. With the absence of Cuban signee Toscano due to visa issues, the Braves had planned on taking the field tomorrow with one less outfielder and one extra pitcher. They will now place Maybin on the OD roster as a right-handed counter to Eric Young, Jr. in center field. The Braves will call up Brandon Cunniff to fill the vacated spot of Kimbrel.

    WHY THIS TRADE MAKES SENSE FOR ATLANTA…

    Though it’s hard to understand why a player like Kimbrel would be part of this trade package, especially after this winter John Hart said that Kimbrel was a piece he hoped to build the team around, there are financial upsides to this trade that will help the team as the opening of the SunTrust Stadium approaches.

    As the team’s all-time saves leader, Kimbrel has a place in Atlanta that will leave a hole for some time to come. His salary, however, will give the Braves opportunities to sign other players as they build for 2017. The Braves owed Kimbrel $33 million over the next 3 seasons. Additionally, they owed Melvin Upton, Jr. $46.35 million over that period from a deal that has turned out to be one of the worst in Atlanta’s history. Losing close to $80 million has a huge upside for a club with a sub-$100 million salary each season.

    In terms of what they pick up in salary, the Braves take on $11 million plus a 2016 buyout on Quentin and $16 million for 2 years of the services of Maybin.

    Keeping in mind that Upton would be starting the season on the disabled list, the Braves would be sending Eric Young, Jr. out to center field every day. While his defense is acceptable, his bat is not built for both right-handed and left-handed pitching. Adding Maybin gives the Braves flexibility in center as well as lineup options.

    In the offseason, the signings of Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli seemed to bolster the bullpen and create questions regarding what a team would do with essentially 3 closers. Now without Kimbrel, either Grilli or Johnson could slot in at closer. Both have worked in camp with Roger McDowell to get back to the form they were in when they were best with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively.

    The Opening Day roster appears to be as follows for Atlanta: Pitchers Avilan, Cahill, Grilli, Jaime, Johnson, Martin, McKirahan, Miller, Outman, Stults, Teheran, Wood; catchers Bethancourt and Pierzynski; infielders Callaspo, Freeman, Gosselin, Johnson, Peterson, Simmons; outfielders Gomes, Johnson, Markakis, Maybin, Quentin, Young, Jr.

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