• Max Fried

    With East All but Secure, Braves Turn Attention to Greater Goals

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Once upon a time, back in the early days of spring when the prognosticators were offering their forecast for the 2019 season, there was little national regard paid to a defending division champion. A 90-game winner the previous season. A team awash with young talent, with more on the way. A team with money to spend.

    And yet, everywhere from MLB Network Radio to armchair experts on Twitter, the view was pessimistic surrounding the 2019 Atlanta Braves. Yes, the defending National League East champion, the team in the division (we exclude the Miami Marlins from this conversation because, well, they’re the Marlins) that did the least in the offseason. The term “financial flexibility” was deadpanned from coast to coast, and a season-opening sweep at the hands of the buffed-up Phillies did nothing but fan the flames of discontent.

    Fast forward to Sunday morning. Walking into SunTrust Park for the finale of a series we all circled months ago, and there was a strange feeling. One of finality. One of arrival. One of … dare we say, calm?

    The Atlanta Braves lost Sunday to the Washington Nationals, the 9-4 final score not indictive of the type of day it was for the home team. Max Scherzer pitched like an ace, Yan Gomes homered twice, Braves pitchers gave up 17 hits. And yet …

    It felt like it didn’t matter.

    Because it didn’t.

    Certainly, a victory Sunday would have made for the perfect bow on top of the perfect package, but the real story was what the Braves did in the three games leading into Sunday, the nine games leading into Sunday and, in a sense, the four months leading into Sunday.

    Imagine the preseason pundits now, pulling up the MLB app on their phone and gazing at the NL East standings. The Braves, trashed and torched far and wide throughout the winter and spring, sitting nine games clear of the Nationals with 18 games to go, a magic number of 11, a breakneck pace that looks unstoppable on its way to another Choptober.

    Those vaunted Phillies and Mets? Not even worth the keystrokes to mention how far back that pair of preseason darlings sit from first place.

    What the Braves did this weekend was deliver the loudest of statements. We’ve seen it happen time and time again since May 10, when in the midst of a four-game losing streak featuring an overwhelming sweep by the Dodgers and a walk-off loss in Arizona, manager Brian Snitker shook up the lineup. He re-deployed Ronald Acuna Jr. to the leadoff spot, moved newly acquired Josh Donaldson to cleanup, slotted Ozzie Albies lower in the lineup and elevated Dansby Swanson to the two-hole.

    Since that moment the Braves are 71-35, a .669 winning percentage that over the course of a full season equates to a 108-win season. It’s featured a 20-win June, a 19-win August, victories in six of their first seven games in September, series victories over the Twins and Dodgers, a split at Wrigley Field, and wins in nine of their past 13 meetings with the Nationals.

    Those last three triumphs most likely buried Washington’s shot of contending for the division title with two weeks left in the season. It started, as always, with pitching, and Atlanta starters Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran combined to allow one run in 19 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. It ended with solid work from the bullpen, two games closed by Mark Melancon and one by Shane Greene. It featured the lethal top of the Braves lineup unleashing its deadly duo of speed and power, from Acuna’s assault on 40/40 to Albies homering in consecutive games to the steady Freddie Freeman to Donaldson bringing rain and dancing with an umbrella in the dugout.

    These Braves have morphed into something very few of us saw coming this soon. Yes, there was a prevailing feeling in spring this team could be really good, but I doubt many of us saw them being a 100-win squad. But here we are, a new era dawning right before our eyes.

    Last year’s Braves took the baseball world by surprise. From listening to the national media this spring, you would think those 90 wins and a division crown were a fluke, a feel-good story that wasn’t sustainable. That line of thinking, while popular, was foolish … even more so in retrospect.

    What we have here is an elite team, one that has seen its goals shift. It’s been 18 years since the Braves won a playoff series. It’s been two decades since they won a pennant. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since they won it all.

    This team is capable of accomplishing all of that. It doesn’t fit the national storyline. Even to this day, there still remains the “yeah, but they didn’t do much in the offseason” narrative. And that’s fine. It’s worked out, from the lineup changes to the midseason acquisitions to the fact that, to a man, this baseball team has played like champions.

    They soon will be champions of the East, yet again, pundits be darned. And they have a better chance than anybody outside of Braves Country will give them of being champions of far, far more.

    —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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know 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.

    Bullpen Stumbles Aside, Braves Country Should Be Excited As Big Week Begins

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Monday’s off day for the Atlanta Braves came at a much-needed time for a squad wrapping up 17 games in 17 days with Sunday’s victory at Miami, concluding a stretch that included pulling off several trades at the July 31 deadline.

    The respite also provided the well-meaning-yet-sometimes-maniacal denizens of Braves Country with a chance to do something it doesn’t do nearly enough – breathe.

    Then around lunchtime, Major League Baseball dropped the 2020 schedule right into our turkey sandwiches and side salads. Immediately, thoughts turned (albeit briefly; there’s a division title and hopefully more to pursue in the here and now) to how each week next season will unfold. It gave me a chance to think back to last winter, when the prematurely-bursting-into-prominence Braves were looking toward this 2019 season.

    It wouldn’t take long back in those cold December days to look at the second full week of August, spy three home games with the Mets, followed by the Dodgers for three, to realize that, “aye, that’s going to be a big week.” And here we are, that big week arriving with the first game against the red-hot fellas from Queens unfolding Tuesday night at SunTrust Park, when Max Fried takes the ball against the pride of East Paulding High, the almost-traded at the deadline and unscored-upon-since Zack Wheeler.

    On those cold winter nights, sipping on a beverage while watching Jets hockey or Hawks basketball, you think about where your team will be at certain points in next season’s schedule. Nobody could have foreseen the Mets rolling into the ATL winning 15 of their past 17 games after being nine games under .500 and rumored to trade everybody not named Pete Alonso in the days leading to the end of July. Certainly, most figured the Dodgers would sit atop their perch above the Senior Circuit, a juggernaut that looks hell-bent on rolling to a third-consecutive NL pennant and hoping a third trip to the World Series will be the charm three-decades plus in the making.

    As for these Braves? We thought they would be good. And they have been. But mercy, it’s been a bumpy ride at times, especially once the late innings arrive. The acquisitions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline were supposed to smooth the final two to three innings, pushing closer-by-circumstance Luke Jackson back into lower-leverage situations. And yet, there was Jackson, battling through what remains unworldly bad BABIP luck to escape Miami with a save in a 5-4 victory Sunday that salvaged a series split to send Atlanta into its off day with at least a less-foul taste in its mouth.

    On to this week. As the kids say, it’s about to get lit. One may say the Braves bullpen has been in a perpetual state of getting lit up. The first 11 days of the Martin-Greene-Melancon era (which sounds like a law firm advertising on local TV at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning) have not fostered any feelings of confidence and calm. Quite the opposite. Their struggles have fanned the flames of relief discontent, although Sean Newcomb did his part in an inadvertent way to put out the fire in the visitors clubhouse of Marlins Park after Saturday’s train wreck finish.

    No, Greene was not going to pitch to a sub-1.20 ERA all season. No, Melancon is not the guy who saved 51 games for the Pirates a few years ago. Yes, Martin is not too far removed from working in a warehouse and thinking a chronic shoulder injury had derailed his big-league dreams permanently. In a vacuum, that statement doesn’t spark a lot of optimism, just like the vacuum of 11 days and sub-par performance makes one think, “why couldn’t we do more?”

    The steadier view is all three guys are better than they’ve showed in their initial forays with a tomahawk across their chest, that four days in their new “home” city right after being uprooted from their previous ports-of-call, followed by a week-long road trip, hasn’t allowed for the settling that has to happen anytime somebody transfers for a job with less than 24-hours notice.

    The thought here is all three will settle in this week. Their team needs them, too. This is an important week. The Mets are carrying a New York-sized dose of attitude, and rightly so. This series is a chance to shove it to their cynics, who fairly point out most of the work during their spellbinding surge came against some of the dregs of 2019 big-league baseball. Then the Dodgers arrive, a team that swept the Braves out of Chavez Ravine with little regard in May, a team that dominated the plucky-yet-overmatched Braves in last season’s NL Division Series.

    And now, a word regarding the hometown nine. Atlanta leads the NL East by six full games over Washington, eight over the hard-charging Mets, nine over the stupid-money Phillies. When the Braves take the field at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, 48 days will separate them from the end of the regular season and a potential second-consecutive division crown. While nobody is suggesting Atlanta try to sit on the lead and run out the clock (we all know the scar-inducing disaster that unleashes), the fact remains the Braves are a half-dozen games in front of the Nationals.

    It’s a very good team. Ronald Acuna Jr. has exploded into the transcendent star we all believed he could be, as the first 30/30 season since Ron Gant on the worst-to-first 1991 Braves is a mere formality, and baseball’s fifth-ever 40/40 season is a possibility. Ozzie Albies has found his stroke from the left side, locking down the second spot in the order moving forward, even upon Dansby Swanson’s return from a bruised right heel that has shelved the Marietta High product far longer than any expected.

    Freddie Freeman is Freddie Freeman. Mike Soroka continues to make the “Maple Maddux” moniker seem more realistic every fifth day. Fried has steadied himself after a rough stretch in early summer. Julio Teheran, the quiet veteran who’s seen the awful days, keeps shoving and shining. A nod to Ender Inciarte, burned at the stake by Braves fans on social media, who is healthy and contributing; Brian McCann, and his solid homecoming season; and Josh Donaldson, who with each passing day makes the front office seriously consider if paying for his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons would be a worthwhile investment (for the record, I’m far more onboard with this than I was two months ago).

    The path to October never is easy (well, unless you’re the Dodgers, and you’re clearly better than anybody else in the league). There are fits and starts, struggles and injuries, along with plenty of “did you see THAT” moments. That’s what makes baseball so great. It’s every single day. Win? Lose? Process it, go to tomorrow. That cadence is why, even on a day off, you see a clean slate for a season that doesn’t start for another 7 ½ months and begin pondering the possibilities.

    And that’s why, for the hiccups and finding of roles from the relief corps, you should look to Tuesday and the week to come with excitement. When you’re losing 90 games and trading assets at the deadline for prospects, these games in August and September don’t matter. That was the Braves of 2015, 2016, 2017.

    That’s not these Braves. They’re clearly in the window now. Sure, the glass gets smudged at times. Sometimes there is dust (or residue from a fire extinguisher) that blows in and makes things messy. But beyond the calamity of the moment the view remains glorious, one this team has a chance to bring into full focus starting with this homestand.

    —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.

    Not the ‘K’ Pitcher Many Wanted, But Keuchel May Be Just What Braves Need

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – With every moment that followed the Craig Kimbrel signing with the Cubs on Wednesday evening, coupled with every pitch Kevin Gausman delivered that was drilled into the Pittsburgh night, the Atlanta Braves fanbase reached critical mass, imploring general manager Alex Anthopoulos to do something.

    Some 24 hours later, after an offseason devoid of a major move to upgrade the pitching staff and the corresponding months of – mostly well deserved – criticism, Braves Country can unclench its teeth.

    You have your brand new arm.

    The Braves reportedly agreed to terms Thursday night with free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel on a one-year, $13 million deal, hours after Atlanta dropped their series final at Pittsburgh to fall two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. Braves beat writer David O’Brien of The Athleticconfirmed the news on Twitter this evening, hours after MLB.com national writer Mark Feinsand categorized the Braves as favorites for the former Houston Astros ace and Cy Young winner.

    This space typically shies away from instant reaction to breaking news, preferring more of the deeper, contextual analysis, storytelling and prose. We’re not where to come for the latest headlines. However, given the depth of the Braves fanbase’s angst over the state of the pitching staff and the obsessive pursuit in many fans’ minds for either Keuchel or Kimbrel – two pitchers united by the first letter of their last name, and the fact they remained unsigned until after this week’s MLB Draft – let’s look at what the Braves hope they are getting and what it means for the defending NL East champs.

    Keuchel, who turned 31 on New Year’s Day, is a two-time All-Star honoree who won the 2015 AL Cy Young, a four-time AL Gold Glove winner and, most importantly to Anthopoulos and Co., has averaged 216 innings pitched per 162 games during his seven-year career. He helped lift Houston to the 2017 World Series championship, going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.119 WHIP in 23 starts that season, and in his career is 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 postseason appearances.

    The Astros elected to not resign the left-hander, who they selected in the seventh round of the 2009 draft out of Arkansas. Truth be told, Keuchel wasn’t as dominant in 2018 – giving up a major-league high 211 hits – but he made 34 starts, won 12 games, and posted a solid FIP (3.69), WHIP (1.314) and strikeouts-to-walks ratio (2.64).

    Keuchel’s calling card is his ability to generate ground balls, and while his 2018 rate of 53.7 percent was a drop-off from his ridiculous 66.8 percent ground-ball rate in 2017, that’s the type of pitcher who should thrive pitching in front of a solid infield defense – and Atlanta’s is stellar.

    Still, draft-pick compensation (Houston extended a qualifying offer to Keuchel after last season, which he declined), plus his demands of a large multi-year deal scared off all suitors throughout the offseason and through the first three months of the regular season.

    In a familiar refrain for several Braves pitchers past and present, Keuchel’s first inning often is his shakiest. He posted a 6.88 ERA in the opening frame last season, a number that drops below 2.66 in innings two through four. The fact he made 34 starts a season ago and, according to his agent – the always outspoken Scott Boras – reportedly could be ready to make a major-league start in a week, makes one think the ramp-up time needed to get to the majors will be quick. Reportedly, Keuchel will start for Triple-A Gwinnett on Saturday, one day after a schedule physical in Atlanta.

    Keuchel’s arrival spells the end of Gausman’s tenure in the rotation. Acquired at the trade deadline last summer from Baltimore, the right-hander missed time in spring training with right shoulder soreness and struggled to find a consistent rhythm. He gave up five earned runs in each of his final two starts in April, and his last two outings have been just awful: a combined 15 runs on 20 hits in six innings in losses to the Nationals and Pirates. It became clear after Wednesday’s latest mess that Atlanta no longer could retain a steady state in its rotation.

    Enter Keuchel.

    The deal could prove very beneficial for both sides. Keuchel gets a chance to show what he’s worth on a short-term deal, for a team that’s in contention for a playoff spot. He is reunited with Braves catcher Brian McCann, who has caught 30 of Keuchel’s 183 career starts (3.49 ERA, .240 opponents batting average). The Braves now have a veteran innings eater with playoff experience to guide a young staff, one that has been led by two outstanding yet inexperienced hurlers in Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

    Off the field, it shows the Braves indeed have the ability to add, a horse beaten into oblivion a million times over by fans and the national media. The $13 million price tag isn’t exorbitant by any stretch of the imagination, and Atlanta now has a key addition to its rotation. The focus moving toward the trade deadline can be solely on the bullpen if Atlanta chooses such, with the potential to also pursue an additional starting arm should the right deal with a reliever present itself.

    Seeing Kimbrel sign with the Cubs while Gausman circled the drain once again almost was too much for Braves fans to bear. One fan I chatted with at Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate’s game Thursday told me she ignored her phone once the Kimbrel news broke, and joked she would take her Braves Kimbrel shirtsey, buy a Cubs Kimbrel one, and stitch them together.

    There is no need to stich together anything for the rotation now. Atlanta landed its starter. It’s up to Keuchel to validate the over-the-top patience he and his camp showed the past eight months, and that the Braves exhibited in waiting to bolster their staff.

    If it pays off, it will be the absolute perfect move. Atlanta has placed its bet on the pitcher whose last name starts with K, and it’s the one who will start games, not finish them.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Can Emerging Braves Finish What They’ve Started?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When I covered sports on the Southeast Georgia coast, I would travel to Atlanta to cover events or see family. Upon departing, I always looked forward to reaching Macon and hitting Interstate 16.

    It’s one of the most desolate stretches of highway I’ve ever traveled. It’s long, it’s boring and there’s not much to grab your interest as you traverse from central Georgia to I-95 and the final leg home to the beach. I learned quickly to divide I-16 into thirds, so on the way home the mental objectives were to reach Dublin, reach Metter and then reach I-95.

    Exactly two-thirds of this baseball season now reside in the rear-view mirror, 108 games to be precise. We’ve made it to Metter, to use the exercise above. There are 54 games remaining, and by the time we steer the car off I-16 on Sept. 30, we will know if the Atlanta Braves will continue their 2018 joyride into the National League playoffs or pull into the garage.

    Suffice to say, if the Braves reach October, they will have earned it.

    Atlanta used Monday’s off day in Washington to refresh and refuel before beginning one of the most challenging schedules in recent memory. Twenty-two games in 20 days, starting with a doubleheader Tuesday against the Nationals (another double-dip looms Monday at home against Miami). Following an Aug. 27 off day, the Braves play 16 consecutive days through Sept. 12. An off day then is followed with 16 games in 17 days.

    That in and of itself provides a tremendous challenge for any team, let alone one experiencing a pennant race for the first time in a half-decade and with only two holdovers (Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran) from that 2013 division-winning squad. And that says nothing of the competition Atlanta will face between now and October.

    Consider: Thirty-eight of the Braves final 54 games come against teams that woke up Monday within five games of a playoff spot. Fifteen are against division leaders (four with Arizona, three with Boston, seven against Philadelphia – all coming in the final 10 games of the season – and a makeup game with the Cubs). That’s 70.3 percent of the remaining schedule against contenders, 27.8 percent of those contests against division leaders.

    That speaks in part to the parity in the NL, where 11 teams reside above .500 (including the Giants, who were 5 ½ back of the second wild-card spot the Braves occupy starting Monday; Atlanta faces three in San Francisco in September after playing four in Arizona, two locales where the Braves typically do not play well).

    We have not seen these Braves nosedive at any point this season, save a 5-13 stretch over the bulk of July that dropped Atlanta from 3 ½ games up in the East to 2 ½ back. To their credit, the Braves have responded by winning six of its next seven – albeit six of those games came against the Mets and Marlins – to slice one game off the Philadelphia advantage.

    But the margin for error shrinks as the days disappear from the calendar, in particular when the games come fast and furious and the competition is tough. It will be the stiffest test of all for a team that has raced past expectations and exceeded even the most optimistic hopes of spring. But now the rubber begins to hit the road in earnest, and these Baby Braves will be challenged like never before in 2018.

    How will they respond? Will the outstanding seasons of Freeman and Nick Markakis, the emergence of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, the impact of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, a revamped bullpen and a bolstered bench, be enough to carry the Braves to their first postseason berth since 2013? Can a rotation that at some point during the next few weeks will see the resurgent Anibal Sanchez, the young Max Fried, the maddeningly inconsistent Teheran, the spot-starting 20-year-old Kolby Allard (who acquitted himself well enough in his debut despite horrible pitching conditions), and perhaps the enigmatic Luiz Gohara and the promising Touki Toussaint, make starts in the pressure cooker of a pennant race hold up?

    If nothing else, there are key components of Atlanta’s future core that are going to get baptism by fire in the heat of a playoff push. That in and of itself is a win, regardless of how successful or how ugly the results may be. The Braves window has cracked open sooner than expected. There is a bonus opportunity here. There is a feeling to run with this house money and see if the Braves can trump the dealer and slide into the festivities of October, which considering where this franchise sat last October would be cause for immense celebration.

    But for every fairy-tale ending, there are countless others that careened off the road. The schedule is stacked with nary a breather to be found. This is where the pragmatic approach takes root. Logic may dictate at some point, there’s a 2-7 stretch coming that sends the Braves just far enough back to dash those October dreams. But even if that were to happen, did anybody expect these Braves to arrive a full week into August holding onto a playoff spot?

    Monday served as a breathing point, a last chance to pull off the exit at Metter, top off the gas tank, grab a cup of coffee and some snacks. Tuesday brings a doubleheader in the nation’s capital, the first step toward what the Braves and their victory-starved fans hope will result in a victory lap and a chance to race under the bright October lights.

    —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.

    4 Ways the Kemp Trade Makes the Braves Better … This Year and Beyond

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Say this for Alex Anthopoulos. He’s a creative fellow.

    His first deal as general manager of the Atlanta Braves is just the latest example of Anthopoulos making the implausible possible, turning the strange into sensible, building by taking a road few could even imagine, let alone travel to completion.

    For the thought of Matt Kemp playing limited innings in left field to keep his power bat in the lineup in 2018, the Braves were best served by moving the oft-injured veteran. Anthopoulos did just that in a stunning deal Saturday that draws as much attention to next winter as it does to the approaching spring and summer.

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Kemp heads back to Los Angeles, where I doubt he plays an inning with the Dodgers given his defensive limitations. In return, the Braves received four players – three of whom could contribute to Atlanta next season; one who already has been designated for assignment. The contracts of Adrian Gonzalez (released upon request), Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir will be absorbed by the Braves in return for Kemp going to the Dodgers.

    This is a good move. It is not addition by subtraction in the sense of dealing one player for, in essence, three players: McCarthy, Kazmir and Charlie Culberson. But look closer, and you see this deal works for Atlanta in several ways:

     

    1. The Budget

    The Braves would have owed Kemp $31.5 million over the final two years of his current deal. In taking on three players entering the final year of existing deals, Atlanta will pay Gonzalez ($22.357 million), McCarthy ($11.5 million) and Kazmir ($17.66 million) a total of $51.517 million. The Dodgers kicked in $4 million in the deal, but the biggest thing is at the end of next season, all that money comes off the books.

    Entering the 2018-19 offseason, one that is chock full of marquee stars (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, etc.), the Braves are going to have enormous flexibility. The only guaranteed deals on the Atlanta roster after next season are for Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte. There always is a chance Teheran could be shipped elsewhere.

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Even if the Braves were to make long-term offers to a couple of their core internal pieces (say, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna), Atlanta still will have a massive amount of money freed up to play in the free agent market in maybe the most intriguing offseason in years.

    2. The Outfield

    Speaking of Acuna, moving Kemp now frees up a corner spot for the top prospect in the Braves organization. Acuna boat-raced through three levels of the minors as a 19-year-old, then won MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League.

    Yes, the Braves may opt to keep him at Triple-A Gwinnett for the first few weeks of the season to gain an additional year of control. Culberson gives you a viable option in left field for that timeframe, but make no mistake. Acuna will be up and contributing early in 2018, and now he has a spot.

    3. The Rotation

    Yes, we all know how that worked out last season. Jaime Garcia was serviceable before netting a prospect in a trade deadline deal. R.A. Dickey pitched well at times and really helped the rotation’s younger members by serving as a mentor. Bartolo Colon was a disaster and eventually was sent packing.

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    McCarthy made 19 appearances (16 starts) with a sub-4 ERA last season. A decent showing in spring training slots him into a rotation spot, helping to anchor a group that figures to include two rookies who debuted last season in Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara. It also moves a couple of younger arms, most notably Max Fried, into the bullpen to further bolster a group that struggled mightily at times a season ago.

    Kazmir is best described as a flyer, the left-hander missing all of last season with a hip injury. If he is healthy and can produce anything, it would be a bonus.

    4. The Bench

    Culberson, a graduate of Calhoun High, comes home to fill the role Jace Peterson held before the Braves non-tendered him earlier this offseason. Culberson hit .455 in the NLCS and was 3-for-5 in the World Series, and has made 29-plus career appearances at shortstop, second base, third base and left field. Anthopoulos said Saturday that Culberson plays “Gold Glove caliber” defense at shortstop, which largely explains his interest in adding the utility man to Atlanta’s bench.

     

    I have a feeling the Braves are not done yet. There still is the thought of a bridge at third base to get to Austin Riley, especially a right-handed bat with power to slide behind Freeman. Atlanta still could look to move Nick Markakis from right field, but would need now to get an outfielder in return (I know a guy on South Beach who would great in left field with a tomahawk across his chest). The Braves could benefit from another veteran arm or two for the bullpen.

    But after bemoaning the lack of action at the Winter Meetings, the Anthopoulos Era kicks off with a bang: A creative, compelling deal that should show Braves fans the new guy is pretty sharp.

    —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.

    7 Key Questions for Braves as Critical Offseason Looms

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Tailgating alongside Circle 75 Parkway in the shadow of SunTrust Park on Saturday, hours before the penultimate game of the Atlanta Braves’ debut season in their new home, the news flashed across the Twitter-verse that catcher Kurt Suzuki had punted pending free agency in favor of a one-year deal to return in 2018.

    Approximately 20 hours later, my trip to the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 for the final game of the first year in the Braves’ new home was postponed due to a dead battery and a broken battery connection. It laid waste to plans for the day, but as I settled into the Braves room at home after performing the auto repair necessary in advance of a busy week, I realized my unplanned vehicle issues served as a poignant reminder that for all the planning in the world, things can go in a different direction.

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Braves have re-signed C Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year extension

    Hence, we arrive at the final week of the Braves’ 2017 season, one in which some felt Atlanta might push to contend for a National League wild-card spot. Many more felt this would be a season of progression; this correspondent predicted this edition of Atlanta baseball would win 78 games. It is a goal mathematically still attainable, provided the Braves win eight games in seven days to close this campaign.

    My point being this: You can plan for the future all you want, lay out the best path forward but, at the end of the day, things happen that can throw off that plan. You have to be able to adjust, to learn from what occurred and shift direction accordingly.

    There is no denying the Braves of 2017 have been equally tantalizing and frustrating. So it goes in a rebuild, especially with an influx of young talent in a new stadium, with flashes of brilliance and ineptitude equally woven into the day-to-day tapestry of the six-month marathon known as a baseball season.

    As the final week of this season dawns, a look at some of the hot-button issues surrounding this franchise as winter is (nearly) here, a season in which the decisions made will help define what is to come in future summers.

    Who is manager in 2018?

    Everybody was thrilled when Brian Snitker – who is the definition of a Braves lifer – was brought back for 2017, with an option for 2018. Atlanta’s passionate finishing kick to close 2016, winning 20 of its final 30 games, gave Snitker the chance to manage a full major-league season this year.

    But a series of tactical errors and some questionable handling of the Braves’ young talent leads me to believe he will not be retained. That is not an indictment of a man who does not have a job guaranteed after next Sunday. He managed attempting to win every night, even if that mentality ran counter to playing younger players for development of the rebuild.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Braves have not announced whether they will exercise their 2018 option on manager Brian Snitker.

    Should this team fulfil its appointed prophecy and win a World Series, Snitker deserves a ring. He served his role in the rebuild and, for the most part, served it well. The players love him. But the franchise needs a manager now who will be here in 2022. That is not Snitker.

    Who comprises the rotation in 2018?

    Atlanta rolled the dice on veterans to cover innings in 2017 – a sound strategy given the time needed to let the first really big wave of young talent to continue percolating in the minors. R.A. Dickey has proven to be steady. Jaime Garcia pitched well at times before netting a prospect at the trade deadline. Bartolo Colon was an unmitigated disaster, as much as we all wanted him to be good.

    General manager John Coppolella is quoted today in published reports that the Braves will look to their young arms to take a step forward in 2018. That tells me Julio Teheran, who was awful for most of the year at home but has turned around his season the past month, will be here. Mike Foltynewicz and Luiz Gohara look like locks for the 2018 rotation, with Sean Newcomb likely to be in the top five, too.

    That leaves one spot. The feeling here is R.A. Dickey rides off into the sunset and heads home to Nashville, leaving the opening as a battle between Max Fried, Lucas Sims and a cast of others who with an impressive camp could start the year in Atlanta (and while I think it’s unlikely they skip Triple-A, I would not discount Kolby Allard or Mike Soroka emerging in March).

    Who pitches out of the bullpen?

    Atlanta’s relief corps in the second half of the season has been a motley mix of veterans (Jason Motte, Rex Brothers, Jim Johnson) and promising young arms (A.J. Minter, Daniel Winkler, Akeel Morris). For now, it appears both closer Arodys Vizcaino and set-up man Jose Ramirez are likely to be in the bullpen to start 2018, but the other five or six slots are up for grabs.

    Sam Freeman certainly has earned a long look next spring, the left-hander proving effective time and time again. Minter, with an offseason of rest, should be ready to unleash his high-90s velocity on back-to-back days. Winkler has impressed now that he is healthy again. Coppolella indicated the Braves will pursue one or two bullpen pieces. Adding a Brad Hand to the core group would go a long way to settling the final innings.

    Which corner outfielder has played his final game at SunTrust Park?

    I do not envision a scenario where the Braves trade Matt Kemp. For one, his contract (through 2019) and the money owed makes it difficult to move the oft-injured right-handed slugger. More importantly, for better or worse, this lineup at this moment is much better with a healthy Kemp hitting cleanup behind Freddie Freeman.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The Braves effectively owe OF Matt Kemp $36-million over the remaining two years of his contract.

    The thought here is the Braves retain Kemp at least through 2018, using Lane Adams – who has enjoyed a breakthrough season and should be the fourth outfielder coming out of camp – to fill in when Kemp is out. That leaves Nick Markakis as the odd-man out, and with one year at $11 million left on his contract and another solid year offensively, there should be plenty of suitors on the market.

    So an outfielder gets traded … who takes that spot?

    Like seriously? Short of leaving baseball for soccer – and his speed would fit in nicely with Atlanta United – Ronald Acuna will be in the Braves outfield on opening day March 29, 2018. And while he will be a 20-year-old rookie who will experience the inevitable ups and downs from playing in the highest league in the world, there is little doubt Acuna is going to be a difference maker … and soon.

    What does Atlanta’s lineup look like in 2018?

    There often is debate online whether the Braves would be better served by putting Ozzie Albies at the top of the lineup. But when you have Ender Inciarte – who is three hits shy of becoming the first Atlanta player in 21 years to reach 200 hits – it is a moot point. Inciarte, for all the teeth-grinding by the sabermetric folks, is a very good hitter who gets on base. He hits leadoff. Stats are great. Results are great, too.

    Albies has impressed in the two-spot and is a switch hitter. He stays there, with the thought he will adjust to the league as it adjusts to him. Freddie Freeman and Kemp are anchored in the 3-4 spots. No doubt there.

    Beyond that, there are options. The catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Suzuki, who will be back in 2018 (Atlanta is almost certain to pick up Flowers’ club option) could slot fifth or sixth. Acuna likely hits sixth or seventh. Dansby Swanson’s adjustments to breaking balls on the outer third since returning from Gwinnett leads me to believe he should hit sixth or seventh.

    OF Ender Inciarte could become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    OF Ender Inciarte could soon become the first Brave in 21 years to knock 200 hits in a season.

    The one thing that could turn this around would be if Atlanta trades for or signs a power-hitting third baseman. Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas was interesting, but his big power surge this season and the fact he is a free agent in the prime of his career very well may price him out of Atlanta’s range.

    And with the emergence of Johan Camargo, and the flashes seen from Rio Ruiz, it may be a good thing Moustakas will command a long-term, high-money deal. Atlanta could do far worse than a Camargo/Ruiz platoon next season.

    How patient should be fanbase be in 2018?

    For all the pomp and circumstance as we look back to 1991, the fact remains that Atlanta squad which won the NL pennant had its foundation laid over a four-season period (1987-90). In this age of instant gratification and less-than-zero patience, Braves fans should be cautioned that it is possible a fifth-consecutive sub-.500 season could loom in 2018.

    Rebuilds take time and do not produce instant results. Yes, I know the good folks in Braves Country have suffered since the midpoint of the 2014 season. That is a long time to struggle. But there are good signs this rebuild is progressing as designed. Sure, there will be forks in the road in which decisions that will define this franchise have to be made.

    Several of those decisions loom as this summer descends into the offseason. In the coming weeks, I will reach out to members of the fanbase to discuss the points raised above. It is my goal to communicate the raw feelings of the fanbase as we enter what I feel may be the offseason that defines the coming years of this franchise, and whether this great rebuild results in what we all hope.

    Running the risk of hyperbole, I feel the next few months will be critical in determining the future of this franchise and how history will judge this era of Braves baseball.

    —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

    J. Upton, Northcraft traded to Friars for 4 prospects

    In a much anticipated move, the Braves traded away slugger Justin Upton for a package of prospects. Friday the front office completed a 6-player trade with the San Diego Padres. Joining Upton in the trade to San Diego is Aaron Northcraft, minor league RHP prospect. In return from the Padres, the Braves receive much-touted prospect Max Fried (LHP), Jace Peterson (INF), Dustin Peterson (INF), and Mallex Smith (OF).

    northcraft

    Aaron Northcraft was ranked 14th among Braves’ prospects prior to the trade and won’t be in the top 20 prospects of the Padres’ organization.

    The headliner headed to San Diego is Justin Upton, of course. But the Padres also receive 24-year-old pitching prospect Aaron Northcraft. Northcraft had a rough 2014 season when he went from a pitcher with a 7-3 record and 2.88 ERA while at Double-A to an 0-7 pitcher with an elevated 6.54 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett. He never had the speed or power to be a piece of the Braves’ bullpen and given his struggles in AAA, he wasn’t projected to be a possibility for the rotation. While he could add depth eventually to the Padres’ young rotation, his loss isn’t one the Braves can’t absorb.

    In 2 seasons with the Braves, the 27-year-old Upton hit 27 and 29 home runs, some would say at the cost of 160+ strikeouts per year. His .263 and .270 averages came up short of the marks he tallied the previous 4 seasons in Arizona. His defense seemed to be down while in Atlanta, though that could arguably be due to the shadow of the greatest defensive right fielder in the league–Jason Heyward–to compare him to. While playing with his big brother B.J. didn’t seem to hurt or help his game, the opposite was true for B.J. There is always the possibility that B.J. might play better without his brother on the roster with him. Time will tell.

    Upton’s bat will be replaced in the lineup by the full-time bat of Evan Gattis, presumably. Gattis will man LF while rookie Bethancourt takes on the responsibility of being behind the plate full-time.

    BRAVES MOVE AHEAD IN PUSH FOR 2017 STADIUM OPENING…

    For fans who don’t quite grasp what the Braves are doing with their offseason moves, it is helpful to understand that in 2017 the Cobb County stadium (SunTrust Park) will open. This isn’t the type of fire sale that would see the team sell off their highest valued pieces for a load of young prospects to restock the farm. This is simply letting go of players that they would otherwise only have control of for a year before they left for free agency, the case with both Heyward and Upton. In return, the Braves may not be receiving pieces that are big-league ready (which is the case with all but Max Fried in the Padres trade), but they will be by 2017 when the team hopes to have a club that can not only only compete, but can win it all.

    That said, don’t count Atlanta out. Adding Shelby Miller makes for a young, talented rotation with Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and possibly David Hale. Adding Nick Markakis gives the Braves’ lineup some pop, pop that will come with less strikeouts than the Braves’ OF has brought to the equation in the last 2 years. With the signing of Callaspo, the Braves add a sure hand that can provide leadership for the up and coming young players like Pastornicky, Gosselin and Perraza.

    Trading with the Padres brought 4 prospects to the club that will help in various ways with the current plan to build for a great 2017 run. Max Fried, the prospect most likely to break into the big leagues first, had Tommy John surgery near the end of the 2014 season. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for Atlanta, however. Fried was the No. 7-overall pick in the 2012 draft by San Diego and with the TJ surgery behind him, he could prove to be similar to Alex Wood in his availability once healed. At 20-years-old, Fried had a successful 147 innings in Class A rookie ball this year before being shutdown with elbow soreness. He posted a 3.61 ERA in 38 appearances.

    With Fried come 3 fielders. Jace and Dustin Peterson, of no relation, are both infield prospects. Jace played 27 games with the Padres last season and Dustin was the second round pick of the Friars in 2013. Mallex Smith is the 3rd position player in the group and was drafted in 2012. He hit .327 in 55 games in A-ball in 2014. All 3 of the fielders are 24 or under.

    Going forward John Hart hasn’t ruled out additional trades, but he has suggested that they’ll “circle back” on free agents. For now and likely for the 2015 season, Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson will remain with the club.

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