• Max Fried

    Postseason Preview: Red October Beckons as Braves Aim to Overcome Annual Autumn Stumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Alex Anthopoulos cut his teeth on National League baseball, growing up outside of Montreal as an Expos fan before beginning the long journey to his current role as Braves general manager. And even though he found success as GM of the Blue Jays, he remained rooted in baseball played the Senior Circuit way: without a designated hitter.

    Suffice to say Anthopoulos has experienced a change of heart as the Braves prepare for Wednesday’s National League Wild Card series opener against Cincinnati. Thank Marcell Ozuna for that, the former Marlins and Cardinals slugger helping Atlanta deploy arguably its most powerful lineup in years by logging substantial time at DH – in the first season the extra hitter has been used in the NL.

    “I’ve enjoyed the lineup this season with the DH,” Anthopoulos admitted during an interview Monday evening on the Braves Postseason Preview Show on the team’s flagship station, The Fan 680 and 93.7 FM. “Having lived through it, I’ve enjoyed the DH quite a bit.”

    That potent batting order lifted Atlanta to its third consecutive NL East championship and into the expanded 16-team playoff field. It’s a lineup Braves fans hope will lift the franchise to its first playoff series triumph in 19 years. Yes, 2001 hangs around the neck of this fanbase like an anchor.

    So naturally, the Reds arrive at Truist Park with arguably the strongest three-man starting rotation in the tournament. It’s a reason many national prognosticators are selecting seventh seed Cincinnati over the second-seeded Braves, even though Atlanta’s offense led the majors in OPS (.832) and finished second in average (.268), homers (103) and runs scored (348).

    The old baseball mantra says good pitching beats good hitting, especially in the postseason. Will that hold true in a frantic opening round of a postseason like no other? We’re about to find out.

    Five Keys to the Series

    As Easy As 1-2-3: Let’s cut right to the chase, and you’re not going to like it if you’re a Braves fan. Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray could tilt this series decisively in Cincinnati’s favor. The three Reds starters are that good. It starts with Bauer, the NL Cy Young frontrunner and one who never shies away from saying what’s on his mind. Consider his response to a question from WSB-TV (Atlanta’s ABC affiliate) sports director Zach Klein during Monday’s media availability.

    Too Shy? Not I: Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati’s Game 1 starter, speaks to the media Monday.

    Bauer gets plenty of attention for his openness – remember his assessment of Braves hitters’ approach after an April 2019 start in Cleveland – but the dude can pitch. He led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.79), opponents batting average (.159) and hits per nine innings (5.06) this season. Castillo features a changeup that is one of baseball’s nastiest pitches, and he’s a huge reason why I expect this series to go the distance. Castillo led the NL with four wins in September while finishing the month with a 2.20 ERA and .190 opponents average. Gray has revitalized his career after reuniting with his college pitching coach from Vanderbilt, Derek Johnson. The three have driven the Reds staff to 9.5 fWAR this season, third in the majors.

    Feeling Right Against Right-Handers … and Lefties, too: Now for some good news, as all three starters the Braves will see in this series are righties, and that bodes well for one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups. Atlanta hitters slashed .273/.354/.498 for an .852 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season. Regardless of which batter’s box they use, Braves hitters put up a historic season. Atlanta’s OPS is the highest in franchise history during the modern era, the Braves went 31-10 when scoring four or more runs, and led the big leagues by scoring 10 or more runs in 10 games.

    29 Feels Fine: The Braves offense mashed all season, scoring a NL-record 29 runs in a Sept. 9 rout of Miami.

    The top three in Atlanta’s lineup – Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP frontrunner Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna – garner plenty of well-deserved attention, but the rest of the Braves lineup must produce to beat the type of pitching they will face this week. Former Reds outfielder Adam Duvall hit 11 of his 16 homers in September, including a pair of three-homer performances. Ozzie Albies has exceled since returning from the injured list with 25 hits in 18 games to end the season. Travis d’Arnaud finished his first season in Atlanta with a career-best .321/.386/.533 slash line.

    From Boys to Men, Quickly: Mike Soroka isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Cole Hamels, or Felix Hernandez, or Mike Foltynewicz. Instead, after Max Fried looks to extend his brilliant regular season into Game 1, the Braves will turn to rookie Ian Anderson in Game 2 and, if the decisive third game is required Friday, will hand the ball to Kyle Wright. Anderson and Wright have combined to pitch 87 career innings across 18 starts in the majors. The Braves and their fanbase have put a ton of hope into their young arms during and since the rebuild; that faith will be tested this week like never before.

    Anderson must remain poised and aggressive Thursday. The 22-year-old has shown the ability and aptitude to throw his changeup in any count, and he wasn’t fazed by facing Gerrit Cole and the Yankees in his debut, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Wright’s road has been substantially bumpier, but the Vanderbilt product (who would face a fellow Commodore in Gray on Friday) limited opponents to a .164 average while pitching to a 2.37 ERA in his final three starts.

    Sparkling Start: Ian Anderson no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning in his major-league debut Aug. 26.

    Need Relief? Advantage, Atlanta: The Braves poured plenty into their relief corps starting at last season’s trade deadline and continued that effort in the offseason. It paid off bigtime, as Atlanta relievers pitched to a 3.50 ERA and 1.280 WHIP. That includes several arms who will not be on the playoff roster. The nine relievers I mentioned in Monday’s roster post as locks for the series, plus Chris Martin (who was cleared to join the roster Tuesday), combined to strike out 240 hitters in 226 innings while posting a 2.26 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. The Reds feature several power arms at the back end of their pen, but overall their relievers have a 4.53 ERA and .709 OPS.

    Whether it’s a Braves starter or reliever, they will face a Cincinnati offense that has offered up a bunch of all or nothing this season. The Reds finished last in the majors in average (.212), 27th in runs scored (243) and 24th in OBP (.312), but slugged 90 homers (seventh). Cincinnati joins the 1906 White Sox and 2007 Diamondbacks as the only teams in MLB history to finish last in average and still reach the postseason.

    Redemption: Nobody needs to give Atlanta any motivation after the Braves choked away last season’s NL Division Series against St. Louis. Naysayers will remain until the franchise actually wins a playoff series. If the core of this team is indeed going to win a World Series someday, it’d be well served to finally get over the playoff hump.

    Cincinnati hasn’t graced the postseason since 2013, and four weeks ago were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Following an active offseason Cincinnati struggled to find its footing, waking up on Sept. 9 six games under .500 and 6 ½ games out in the NL Central. Then the Reds got hot, closing the regular season with 13 wins in 18 games.

    The X-Factors: First and Foremost

    Freeman has enjoyed an MVP-worthy season, the 31-year-old recovering from COVID-19 over the summer to hit 13 homers with 53 RBIs and career highs in average (.341), OBP (.462) and slugging percentage (.640). Baseball’s leader in fWAR at 3.3, Freeman looks to make amends for a miserable 2019 postseason during which he went 4-for-20.

    Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto is a decade removed from an MVP-winning season, and he hit a career-low .226 in 54 games this season. But the 37-year-old belted 11 homers – a 33-homer pace across a full season after combining for 27 longballs in 287 games across the past two years. Votto has not played in the postseason since 2013, going hitless in the Reds wild-card game loss to Pittsburgh.

    Ready to Rumble: Reds first baseman Joey Votto is full of confidence entering the series.

    The Difference

    Ozuna played a huge role in the Braves losing last season’s NL Division Series, going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored as the Cardinals upended Atlanta in five games. He signed a one-year deal in January, days after Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with Minnesota. Many worried the offensive production wouldn’t be there.

    All Ozuna did was put together a top-five MVP season, leading the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while finishing third in average (.338).

    “He’s had such a positive influence,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said on 680 and 93.7 FM Monday evening. “With the energy he brings, how he approaches the game, how he loves to compete. He’s as good an addition to the Atlanta Braves in as long as I can remember.”

    Ozuna’s regular season was memorable. The feeling here is his postseason will be, too. Like last October, Ozuna will excel but, this time, it will be for Atlanta and not against it. And in a series that’s a coin flip, Ozuna’s presence will make the coin land on the Braves side for the first time in nearly two decades.

    The Pick

    Braves in 3.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NL Wild Card series game, starting Wednesday evening.

    —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.

    Postseason Preview: Braves Must Maximize Roster in Red-Letter Matchup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The finish line at times seemed like a mirage, but after all the trepidation and worry about trying to pull off a shortened season in a pandemic, we made it.

    The 60-game sprint to the finish is complete. And, as it tends to do, baseball provided us plenty of memorable moments. Most of all, it brought back a familiar backbeat of normalcy during a time when for so many of us, normal felt like a foreign concept.

    I think I speak for Braves fans everywhere when I said here is where normalcy should cease and desist. While Atlanta is accustomed to reaching the playoffs after three consecutive National League East titles, it’s the typical status quo in October that has long since worn out its welcome. You know the math by now, by heart, much as it hurts: 19 years sans a postseason series victory.

    Opportunity knocks again starting Wednesday at Truist Park, where the Braves will open the NL Wild Card series against the Cincinnati Reds and their three-headed monster of a starting rotation. While there will be plenty of attention paid to Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray in the days ahead, it won’t be an easy out for either team – especially in a best-of-three opening round that immediately pushes the Game 1 loser into a do-or-die situation.

    Which is why Atlanta can ill afford to have any wasted spots on its 28-man postseason roster. No, it won’t happen but, yes, I absolutely would have Cristian Pache on the bench and William Contreras as the third catcher. In lieu of any personal feelings, here’s my projection of what the Braves playoff roster will look like:

    Starting pitchers (3): Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright. Open spots: none.

    Fried’s six innings pitched since Sept. 6 may be a blessing in disguise, and the left-hander has worked through back spasms and an ankle injury to reach the postseason at 100 percent. His development into a Cy Young contender and staff co-ace has been a saving grace for a rotation ripped apart by injuries and underperformance. Anderson has impressed in his first six big-league starts and the postseason stage doesn’t look to be too much for him to handle. Will we see the Wright from earlier this season (16 walks in 15 innings with a 7.20 ERA in four starts), or the one who shined his final three starts (six walks, 19 strikeouts, 2.37 ERA, .164 opponents batting average)?

    Relief pitchers (11): Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Will Smith, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek, Josh Tomlin, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Jacob Webb. Open spots: 2.

    The biggest injury concern is right-hander Chris Martin, who felt groin discomfort in the regular-season finale Sunday. Martin, of course, hurt an oblique warming up for Game 1 of last season’s NLDS, leading to a late Atlanta meltdown. His injury Sunday certainly sent shivers through the spine of Atlanta’s fanbase, but even without him, this bullpen (3.50 ERA, 1,280 WHIP, 282 strikeouts in 272 2/3 innings) is good and deep enough to swing a close series in the Braves direction. Tomlin, far more effective as a reliever than starter, provides insurance as a long man if a starter falters, and I expect either Huascar Ynoa or Bryse Wilson to also grab a long-man spot. One player I don’t expect to see: Luke Jackson, who has struggled mightily for much of the season.

    Starting lineup (9): Ronald Acuna Jr. CF, Freddie Freeman 1B, Marcell Ozuna DH, Travis d’Arnaud C, Ozzie Albies 2B, Adam Duvall LF, Nick Markakis RF, Dansby Swanson SS, Austin Riley 3B.

    There is room for adjustment in the bottom half of the batting order, but without question Atlanta’s offense is better than a season ago. Acuna, Freeman and Ozuna are as good a trio as any in baseball (a combined .316 average, 45 homers, 138 RBIs and 135 runs scored in 602 at-bats). d’Arnaud’s signing has worked out splendidly (.919 OPS), and Albies has raked since returning from injury (.338 average, .953 OPS with five homers and 17 runs scored in 18 games). One concern: Duvall has cooled of late (.162/.262/.270 in his past nine games) while Markakis was brutal offensively in September (.164 average, .451 OPS in 19 games).

    Bench (5): Tyler Flowers C, Alex Jackson C, Ender Inciarte OF, Pablo Sandoval 3B. Open spots: 1.

    Sandoval made his Braves debut with two walks Sunday, and provides not only insurance if Riley’s right quadriceps remains problematic, but a wealth of postseason experience. But this bench is not good by any stretch of the imagination, and even adding either Adeiny Hechavarria (who was awful defensively last week) or Johan Camargo (27.6% strikeout rate, .611 OPS) doesn’t move the needle. I expect the Braves to carry one of the two plus Jackson and Inciarte, although I’d lean to Contreras (better hitter) and Pache (speed and defense).

    Coming Tuesday: Five keys to the Braves/Reds series, who wins and why.

    —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.

    As Braves Close In On East Clinch, A Moment To Appreciate The Journey Here

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two years ago today, I stopped by a cigar shop and liquor store on a bright autumn Saturday morning. I bought two expensive stogies, four bottles of champagne, and cruised toward what was then called SunTrust Park.

    A few hours later, Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field, the Braves raced out of the first-base dugout, and tears of joy fell as Atlanta celebrated the 2018 National League East championship. Amid the mosh pit behind the pitcher’s mound, hugs were exchanged, T-shirts and hats were handed out, and Braves Country exploded in joy as the long five-year nightmare had ended.

    The rebuild was over.

    My, how things have changed as we sit here on this Tuesday in late September, the Braves potentially being able to clinch a third-consecutive division crown in just a few hours. I won’t be inside what’s now called Truist Park. You won’t be, either. We haven’t attended a Braves game all season, but while the pandemic has kept fans at home throughout this truncated 60-game season, we can take solace in two things:

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

    The “we” in the previous sentence isn’t just applicable to the Braves, but all of Major League Baseball. I certainly had my doubts and fears in the early days of this season like no other, especially after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experienced outbreaks in the initial weeks of this campaign. But here we are with six games left to go, a four-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins!) in the East standings, and another date with October looming on the horizon.

    It pales in comparison to what so many have endured the past six months, but these Braves have relied on a ton of resiliency to reach this point. They watched their pitching rotation fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane – the latest shoe dropping Monday when Cole Hamels, the biggest mistake of the Alex Anthopoulos era, landed back on the injured list and being done for the season after getting 10 outs in a Braves uniform. He joins the laundry list of hurlers who won’t help the Braves moving forward, a list that if you knew in mid-July would be a thing, nobody would blame you for wanting Atlanta to tank the season or just forget it altogether and move on to 2021.

    But these Braves had other plans. We wondered how the offense would look with Marcell Ozuna replacing Josh Donaldson, with the platoon of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo playing every day, with Adam Duvall and the ageless Nick Markakis getting some semblance of regular playing time. It’s turned into arguably the best Braves lineup top-to-bottom since the team moved to Atlanta 55 years ago, Ozuna earning himself a big payday on the open market this winter and Duvall looking like an extension candidate and Acuna and Ozzie Albies overcoming injuries to shine and Dansby Swanson – a recent slump notwithstanding – continuing his offensive progression and Travis d’Arnaud looking like the steal of last winter.

    And of course, Riley winning the third-base job and showing a much better approach at the plate. He’s never going to hit .280 in my opinion, but the power is real and the plate discipline has been much better and he’s showed he can play above-average defense at the hot corner. Duvall is a legitimate comeback player of the year candidate, ranking among the league leaders in homers. Were it not for the massive focus the front office must have (that’s not negotiable at this point, Alex) on starting rotation in the offseason, the Braves would be justified to hand Ozuna a huge four-year deal.

    But as always, the story of these Braves centers not on the prolific offense, the swagger of Acuna, the emergence of Riley and Duvall, the lock-down bullpen, or the way Max Fried has developed into a co-ace with the injured Mike Soroka. No, this story circles back to a tall first baseman from California who has been the one constant in the Atlanta lineup for a decade.

    Freddie Freeman didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball less than three months ago, stricken with COVID-19 and a 104-degree fever. We laughed when he took 30-plus at-bats in a five-day span across intrasquad games and two exhibitions against the Marlins, attempting to ramp up for the season opener. He struggled through the first 13 games, hitting .190 with a .656 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

    Since then, the Braves captain has slashed .382/.492/.711 for a scorching hot 1.202 OPS in 41 games, with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 41 games. The DH coming to the NL spurred manager Brian Snitker to move Freeman to the second spot in the batting order, where the 31-year-old is hitting .407 with a 1.233 OPS and 20 walks in 102 plate appearances.

    Freeman has placed in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times in his career; in my opinion, he should finish no lower than first this time around. The list of Braves who have helped move Atlanta to the verge of another East title is lengthy, but as always, steady Freddie stands front and center.

    Two years ago today, as Acuna gloved the final out of the division clincher, my enduring memory was of Freeman walking away from first base, both arms extended in the air, an expression of unbridled joy and relief awash across his face. He’ll soon have an opportunity to revel in another division crown, another punched ticket to the postseason.

    Who knows what awaits come October? We’ll worry about that soon enough. The moment that will come in the next day or two is one we wondered if we’d see. But it’s here now, as it was each of the past two Septembers. At least that hasn’t changed.

    For Freeman, for the Braves, for their legion of fans, the moment in and of itself is worthy of celebration.

    —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.

    After deadline whiff, Braves try to power through with shaky rotation

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It’s been eight days since the trade deadline passed, and I still catch myself glancing at my phone looking for the notification that the Atlanta Braves have traded for another warm body disguised as a starting pitcher.

    Granted, it’s an exercise in futility, much like it has been watching the land of misfit toys known as the Braves rotation try to navigate through opposing lineups the past month. Braves fans, who see an offense churning on all cylinders and a bullpen that’s been every bit as good as advertised through the first two-thirds of the truncated 2020 season, are seeing red at the inability of Alex Anthopoulos to find another live arm to add to the decimated starting pitching corps.

    Fans have spent the past week screaming from the rooftops in rage at Anthopoulos’ failing at the deadline to land more than just lefty Tommy Milone, who in fairness to the 10-year veteran stumbled in his debut but acquitted himself just well enough in his second start. On its own, the Milone acquisition was fine. The problem is the Braves needed at least one more arm to help hold together what’s left of a rotation that’s seen Mike Soroka lost for the season, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright banished to Gwinnett, Cole Hamels still stuck on the sidelines (it’s September for crying out loud), and Felix Hernandez long since opted out.

    Time for a moment of realization: there is no way Anthopoulos – or anybody else, for that matter – could predict every single thing that torched Atlanta’s rotation plans. The “they should’ve seen this coming” tweets are beyond old and predictable at this point. If you saw all of this unfolding, put down Twitter and go to Vegas, because in 40 years of following this team, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

    And “this” got even worse Tuesday morning, when the lone survivor of the Braves preseason rotation depth chart, Cy Young candidate Max Fried, landed on the injured list with a back injury. The organization says they expect the lefty to miss just one or two starts. Pardon the fanbase if they take that news with a healthy dose of skepticism, along with a chaser of gloom and doom.

    Sure, as I said, there is no way Anthopoulos could guess his rotation would be down to Ian Anderson, Wright (summoned back from the alternative site to start Tuesday against the Marlins), Josh Tomlin, Milone, and Robbie Erlin as the first full week of September unfolded. But here we are, and the Braves general manager does bear some responsibility for the state of the Braves starters.

    The signing of Hamels to a one-year, $18-million deal in the offseason has turned into the biggest mistake in his 34 months at the organization’s helm. Faux pas 1A is not landing at least somebody else at last week’s deadline. No, he should not have emptied the farm for Mike Clevinger. Cleveland clearly wanted quantity; which three major-league players and which three top-10 prospects would you have dealt for Clevinger, who himself was sent away to the Indians alternative site after breaking COVID-19 protocol?

    Lance Lynn? Last I checked, he’s still with the Rangers, who held the market hostage for a pitcher who’s been good the past two seasons and is on a club-friendly deal in 2021. But it would not have been worth blowing up the farm system, which clearly is what it would’ve taken – Texas got burned by not moving Mike Minor at last summer’s deadline, and now hopes Lynn won’t follow a similar course as the former Braves left-hander.

    But Minor, who struggled this season before being shipped to Oakland for two players to be named later, would have been worth the risk. If not Minor, then SOMEONE to plug a hole for three or four starts. Anthopoulos spending his post-deadline press conference focused on what he has at Gwinnett felt not just odd, but unacceptable for a fanbase whose goals go far beyond winning a 60-game sprint to a division title.

    Because if the guys at Gwinnett are doing that well, there is zero excuse for them not being in the big-league rotation. If Foltynewicz is throwing 94 mph, I’d much rather take my chances with him than Erlin.

    The deadline has passed, and this is what the Braves have for the stretch run and October. Perhaps Hamels comes back and is healthy. Maybe one of the guys sent down returns and pitches well (Wright doing so Tuesday would be a big boost for everybody). It’s not ideal, but you have to go with what’s here and hope for the best.

    That’s not a strategy any World Series contender should have to employ, and that’s squarely on the general manager’s shoulders.

    It’s too late to do anything about it now. But this offseason, Anthopoulos has no choice. He must land a dependable, controllable starter to go with Soroka, Fried and Anderson. The madness of 2020 affords him the slightest of passes here, but the benefit of the doubt is gone.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What should the Braves do?

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

    I say, “let the kids pitch.”

    But not the kids you may think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Ten Games In, and the Braves are Off to a Hot Start

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves played a Sunday home game today, and I wasn’t in the ballpark. As someone who’s held a 27-game A-List membership since the franchise moved into what is now called Truist Park for the start of the 2017 season, I can count on one hand the number of Sunday home games I have not attended in recent years.

    Most of those can be attributed to coaching my kids’ baseball team in 2017, their final year of baseball. One kid played for 11 years; the other played for eight years, opting to do other sports in those three years. The fees for all that baseball, and other pursuits, were paid in part by freelance work I did for Gracenote Sports, starting all the way back in November 2010.

    That relationship ended with a contract termination email landing in my inbox Friday morning, thanks to the global pandemic. But no tears here. I choose to tip my cap and remain thankful for the opportunity to spend nearly a decade writing game previews for the Braves, the Winnipeg Jets, the Hawks, and SEC and ACC football and basketball. It’s yet another reminder of just how tenuous the year 2020 is in so many respects, and how we all should count our blessings.

    We are 11 days into the regular season, and the Braves not only have avoided an outbreak of COVID-19 positive test results, their opposition also has stayed healthy enough to avoid any schedule disruptions. Atlanta has completed 1/6th of its season, and arrives at this junction in a place far, far better than I anticipated. Today’s 4-0 home shutout victory over the Mets pushed the Braves to 7-3 on the season.

    Remember, I wrote and said if Atlanta completed its 20-games-in-20-days opening stretch at 8-12, there would be no need to panic.

    The Braves have opened this crazy 2020 season by scoring runs in bunches, rallying from behind as if there were 40,000 of us in the stands cheering them on, riding two arms at the top of the rotation who look as good as anybody in baseball, and with zero regard to the starting pitching they have faced from the Mets and Rays.

    Now that we’re through 16.6% of the season (wasn’t opening day just yesterday?), and with no guarantee we’ll actually get to play the final 50 games of this unprecedented campaign, a few observations about the hometown nine, one that’s tied for the most wins in the majors as the first full week of August begins:

    2.7 is the new 1: In this new baseball world of 2020, we remember a 60-game season means each game carries 2.7 times the weight of one contest in a 162-game stretch. To put the Braves start in perspective, in a normal season, a 7-3 beginning equates to roughly a 19-8 start. That’s not too shabby. It also goes to show, after going 2-3 through the opening five games of the season, how a good week can tilt the tables with so few games on the schedule.

    Mike and Max, and that’s the facts: There are some things you can toss aside given the shortened schedule, but the top of the Atlanta rotation is legit. Let’s go ahead and say it right here and now: both Mike Soroka and Max Fried are aces. Flat-out studs. Fried pitched maybe the best game of his career Thursday against the Mets after an impressive performance in his season debut at Citi Field last weekend, while Soroka has shined in his first two starts. Bottom line: both guys not only give you a chance to win when their turn arrives, but we’re now at the point where you except the Braves to win when they toe the slab. Those two are that good, and that’s a great feeling. Now, for the rest of the rotation …

    Looky looky looky, here comes Touki: The Cooks Pest Control jingle on the Braves Radio Network has a new connotation, and one the Braves desperately need after a rough showing from the back side of their rotation. Touki Toussaint, pressed into the rotation after Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment and, after clearing waivers (still a surprise to me that some team didn’t take a chance on him), headed to the team’s alternative training site at Gwinnett, gave Atlanta four scoreless innings in Saturday’s 7-1 victory. The young right-hander did his job on that night, despite three walks and throwing just 45 of his 74 pitches for strikes, and he absolutely has to get the ball again Thursday against Toronto. And if it’s four clean innings out of the gate for now, we certainly will take it.

    Dansby is doing it: Dansby Swanson singled in Sunday’s victory, giving him at least one base hit in each of Atlanta’s first 10 games. Slowed by injury in the second half of last season after a good start, the Marietta kid – he played high-school baseball nine miles from Truist Park – is hitting .368 with a 1.005 OPS and 14 hits through the first 10 games. Never mind his go-ahead single in extra innings against the Mets on July 25 and his stellar defense. Is this the season we see the Vanderbilt product break through offensively? So far, so good.

    Comeback player of the … decade?: Colorado selected left-hander Tyler Matzek 11th overall in the 2009 draft. He made his big-league debut five years later with seven innings against the Braves, but after 25 appearances in 2014-15, he was out of the majors. Across the next few years, he battled the yips and didn’t pitch professionally in 2017, landing in the Braves organization in 2019. But the 29-year-old impressed in spring training and summer camp, and in four appearances in the majors in 2020 has allowed four hits with nine strikeouts across 5 1/3 scoreless innings, getting the win Sunday (his first MLB win since April 27, 2015, against Arizona) after fanning four hitters in two innings.

    The kid will be fine, part I: Ronald Acuna Jr. entered Friday’s series opener 4-for-28 on the season with one extra-base hit and 14 strikeouts. Parts of social media already were losing its never-reasonable mind over the slow start by the Braves outfielder, but the 22-year-old had squared up several balls against the Rays after a rough showing in the opening weekend in New York. Acuna enters Monday on a three-game hitting streak, belting his first homer Saturday night and not striking out in a game for the first time this season by going 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored in Sunday’s victory.

    The kid will be fine, part II: Ozzie Albies is off to a slow start, hitting .194 with a .550 OPS through the first 10 games, and has not started two of the past three contests due to right wrist soreness. It’s a cause for concern but, remember, this is a season of the likes we’ve never experienced before (and hopefully, never will again). Albies will be fine and likely is back in the lineup for Monday’s series finale against the Mets.

    The other shoe … when does it drop?: Anybody else waking up daily and wondering if we’ll get the news that baseball is closing up shop, or at least is pausing for a few days? Because I am, as much as I hate to admit it. We can’t deny the facts: The Marlins and Phillies have played three games. Washington has played seven. The Cardinals have played five; the Brewers have played six. To see so many teams sitting idle on the opening weekend of August should underline how unprecedented these times are, and how every game is a gift.

    A gift the Braves have paid back to their adoring fan base more often than not through the opening 10 games of 2020. Let’s continue to hope that the season continues, because for Braves fans, it’s started in about the best way imaginable.

    —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.

    Puig’s Your Friend Now, Braves Country, and Other Notes as Camp Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yasiel Puig does not exactly blend in with the crowd, be it the gregarious way he plays baseball, his larger-than-life personality, and the fact he’s built like a nose guard.

    So it wasn’t exactly stunning when the rumor began Tuesday on Twitter that Puig – or his long-lost twin brother – had been spotted in The Battery, adjacent to Truist Park, where the Atlanta Braves would play their fourth intrasquad game later Tuesday evening. The Braves would do so missing left-handed hitting outfielder Nick Markakis, who last week elected not to play the shortened 2020 season. They also took the field without Freddie Freeman, one of the best hitters in the game, who remains sidelined with the coronavirus.

    The news broke later Tuesday afternoon: Puig and the Braves had agreed to terms on an unspecified deal, one that won’t be announced until Puig passes a physical. Certainly, that will include a coronavirus test that even Puig himself probably won’t enjoy – trust me, I found out for the second time Monday that it’s not fun – but the newest Braves outfielder will have plenty of fun soon after things are official.

    The 29-year-old teaming with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna is going to drive some opposing fan bases crazy, especially with the Braves poised to be a contender in the wild setup of a 60-game sprint. The Braves Way has been dead for quite some time, thankfully. Now, the oomph meter just shot to 11, “let the kids play” should be shouted louder than ever, and let’s face it: some folks are going to be mad about it. Big mad.

    But if you’re a Braves fan, I don’t see how you can be mad about this. Puig’s Your Friend now, after all.

    If there’s a nit to pick with this Braves squad as it’s assembled in 2020, it’s hitting against right-handed pitching. It goes without saying not having Freeman and his .304 career lifetime average against right-handers is a considerable blow. Remember, there’s no template or blueprint for a baseball player returning from coronavirus. Is it two weeks from now before Freeman can stride into the left-handed batter’s box? Four weeks? Seven weeks? We just don’t know.

    And with Markakis deciding the risks of playing this season weren’t worth it – and I’ll never blame any player for looking at this landscape and saying, “nah, I’m out” – Atlanta lost another valuable bat against right-handed pitching. So while some will opine that Puig is yet another right-handed bat in a right-handed heavy lineup, he also is a career .285 hitter against rightys with a .845 OPS and, with the presence of the designated hitter in the NL in 2020, the Braves lineup looks more formidable than it did this morning.

    It also looks more fun. Yes, Puig is loud and plays the game with an edge that sometimes boils over. He’s also approaching age 30 and free agency, so the thought here is he’ll behave himself. There will be far fewer dollars on the open market this winter than in years. And if you truly believe Puig is going to poison his limited chances at a good deal for 2021 by poisoning the Braves culture, well, in my opinion that’s a ridiculous thought.

    We play ball in 10 days at Citi Field. At least we hope. A few other notes from the past few days:

    Do the Braves remain the Braves? I wrote my thoughts about the tomahawk chop a few months ago. The manufactured chop beaten relentlessly into fans’ heads needs to go. But the name of the team? I don’t think it will change, a stance backed up by the team to season-ticket holders and the media Sunday.

    Wither Cole Hamels? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. I talked with somebody in February whose opinion I trust; that person doubted Hamels would be ready for the scheduled opening day in late March. When I spoke to that person last month weeks ago, their perspective had not waivered.

    At this point, 10 days before the season commences, Hamels still has not thrown as much as a BP session. I think you must cross him out for the rotation for at least the first two times through, which is 10 games – or 16.66% of the regular season. I’m happy the team signed Josh Tomlin – who looked pretty good in four innings during Monday’s intrasquad matchup – and I’m really excited with what I saw out of Kyle Wright in spring training. It’d be great to see Wright on the mound, however. Like Hamels, we’re still waiting. Speaking of the rotation:

    What about Folty? It was hard to see from watching the feed of the intrasquad game Wednesday, considering the camera was positioned at the top of the ballpark, but the lanky right-hander returned to the mound at Triuist Park for the first time since the infamous Game 5 NLDS meltdown and shoved for three innings, only allowing a walk to Culberson but nothing else.

    We’re so quick to forget just how good Folty was after he came back from his demotion to Gwinnett: 2.65 ERA, .211 opponents batting average, 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings across 10 starts (6-1 record). That does not include seven shutout innings with no walks and three hits allowed in Game 2 of the NLDS. His work in 2020, in my opinion, will be critical to the Braves success. To that point, Folty made sure he would be ready for this unprecedented season. To that point:

    Cheers to the Spartans: I got a message from someone in mid-April, saying a handful of Braves pitchers had secured a high school to work out at while practicing social distancing. As we’ve learned publicly last week via comments made to Atlanta media, it wasn’t just throwing.

    Several Braves hurlers took the shutdown seriously.

    When you go through the annuals of Atlanta sports, Campbell High in the northwestern suburb of Smyrna probably would draw mention for Brian Oliver, the shooting guard who helped lead Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four (teaming with Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson to form the vaunted “Lethal Weapon III”). But if the Braves reach the postseason in 2020, give a hat-tip to the Campbell Spartans and their staff.

    Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Mike Soroka threw at Campbell High six days a week during the shutdown, firing full bullpens twice weekly. They were joined on occasion by teammates Acuna, Albies.  Johan Camargo, Charlie Culberson and others.

    With 20 games in 20 days to begin the season, starting fast is going to be more critical than ever. If the Braves ride solid pitching to a good start, don’t forget the work these guys did at a Cobb County high school field, one the baseball coach and athletic director made sure was ready and open for their MLB neighbors, while also working to keep that news quiet.

    What if Freddie can’t go out of the gate? Losing a solid bat and elite defender at a key position, not to mention the captain of the team, is not a good thing. Let’s all hope the Freddie, and Chelsea and Charlie, stay well and get over the virus.

    We have no playbook, as I referenced on ESPN Coastal last week and earlier in this piece. We’re going into this blind. But I think the Braves turn first at first to Austin Riley and his potential power if Freeman is not well enough to start the season. Riley has played a little first base, and after taking grounders a little bit at first base in spring training, has put in some work at first base during summer camp and in intrasquad contests.

    Yes, Atlanta has a couple of first basemen on non-roster invites in Peter O’Brien and Yonder Alonso – both of whom are getting time in some intrasquad games. But If either of them are on the active roster come opening day on July 24, this team is in trouble. Let’s all hope Freddie is OK and ready to go in Queens when the season starts. If not, we’ll hope some semblance or Riley and Adam Duvall and Camargo can cover first base till Freeman is back.

    To the Max: Unsolicited private comment from somebody who was in Trust Park watching Max Fried pitch in last Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage. “Fried looks poised to be a bad ass upper-tier pitcher.” Glad he’s on my fantasy team, and my favorite team, one that is hopefully a few days away from kicking off a season the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before.

    —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.

    Ozuna Signing Adds Needed Jolt to Braves Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t read this blog, of that I’m certain. His burner Twitter account doesn’t follow me on that always-sane platform, of that I’m fairly certain, too. But if he did track me here or on social media, he certainly would have seen my insistence that upon seeing Josh Donaldson head to Minnesota, he could not take this team into the March 26 season opener as it was constituted this time last week.

    Turns out, all those who screamed the Braves would stand pat got to bang that drum for exactly one week.

    Seven days after news broke that Donaldson was heading north, Anthopoulos solved the Braves cleanup problem in much the same manner he brought the Bringer of Rain here for 2019, signing former Miami and St. Louis outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal. In his second season with the Cardinals, Ozuna slashed .241/.328/.472 for an .800 OPS, 29 homers, 89 RBIs and 12 stolen bases.

    Ozuna is two years removed from a monster season with the Marlins, driving in 124 runs with 37 homers (the same total a certain right-handed swinging, umbrella-toting slugger belted for the Braves in 2019) with a .312/.376/.548 slash line. He turned 29 in November and was offered a qualifying offer by the Cardinals, which certainly helped to depress his free-agent market. As hitter after hitter went off the board, Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos were left as the final two marquee bats after Donaldson signed.

    While Braves fans – including this one – pined for more rain in the forecast for 2020 and beyond – Anthopoulos found a way to land his slugger while not blocking super-prospect outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. In this space throughout the offseason, I wrote how I preferred Ozuna over Castellanos. His defensive shortcomings will be compensated by having Ender Inciarte (Pache later this summer, in my opinion) flanking him in center.

    Ozuna-palooza, coming to the ballpark formerly known as SunTrust in early April 2020.

    In landing an impact bat, the Braves also ensured there will not be three platoons (including catcher) in the everyday lineup. The thought of a World Series contender running Johan Camargo and Austin Riley at third base while employing Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall in left field didn’t necessarily spark visions of October glory.

    Anthopoulos certainly realized this, too. He did not sit by idly (as quite a few folks whined incessantly that he would), making the move he needed to make in the wake of Donaldson’s departure. Sure, losing the draft pick tied to the qualifying offer stings a bit, but when you need a big bat to hopefully push you deeper into October after two straight NLDS exits, you bite on the risk there and go for it.

    For all of Anthopoulos’ great work in the opening weeks of the offseason, missing out on Donaldson was indeed that: a swing and a miss. But Ozuna’s acquisition, on a one-year deal, is exactly the type of realistic impact move Atlanta needed to make. So, a nod of kudos to Anthopoulos for getting it done.

    The batting order looks far better with Ozuna in the fourth spot that it did a week ago, which goes to show the sheer folly of getting too worked up about a puzzle that’s under construction. Opening day remains more than two months away. Camp opens soon, yes, and with every passing day, that hole in the middle of the lineup loomed larger. But it looms no more.

    I would love to think the Braves aren’t done, that perhaps there will be another bat added (full disclosure: I’ve wanted two impact bats all offseason, knowing that’s a reach). Nolan Arenado, another popular topic on this blog and on Twitter, is quite unhappy with Colorado. But any potential trade remains a very complex situation. And I’m convinced my children’s children will have children before the Kris Bryant grievance deal is resolved.

    I won’t quibble if Anthopoulos is done here. Ozuna’s signing gives the Braves 23 locks on the opening-day roster, the way I see it, with a 2020 payroll of approximately $145.88 million. Add a cheap bench piece and two relievers from the vast number of internal candidates, and payroll likely sits around $150 million, with certainly a few million more pigeon-holed for midseason moves.

    Counting the $4 million options exercised for Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers, the Braves have added $74.24 million in salary for the upcoming season. It sure does help having Acuna and Ozzie Albies slated to make $1 million each in 2020, and at least two members of the starting rotation (Mike Soroka and Max Fried; three, if you include Sean Newcomb) pulling in the major-league minimum.

    (No, I’m not counting on Felix Hernandez making the opening-day roster, in case you’re curious.)

    There still is the question of third base, and while I’m not enamored with the strategy of hoping Camargo 2020 is closer to 2018 and not 2019, or Riley 2020 is closer to May 2019 and not July 2019, it’s more acceptable with an impact bat in left field.

    Many of us – myself included – were critical of Anthopoulos last winter after the only move he made between the end of November and the end of spring training was re-signing Markakis. But the financial flexibility jokes officially are dead and buried now. The narrative of the Braves being too cheap is done. You can continue to say them if you wish, but you’re wrong.

    And sorry for this painful reminder, but Ozuna nearly single-handedly helped end the Braves season in the NLDS (although Atlanta had plenty of help doing it to itself), going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored in five games.

    If that Ozuna shows up in October, the Braves will be thrilled. And getting to the season’s 10th month certainly feels more likely than it did this time last week.

    —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.