• Mookie Betts

    AS EASY AS M-V-FREE! Braves First Baseman Caps Brilliant Season with Atlanta’s First MVP Honor Since 1999

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Many things come to mind when you mention the names Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton and Chipper Jones. My first thought is how each was emblematic of the Atlanta Braves while wearing the uniform.

    Murphy, the kid from Oregon with the All-American boyish looks who became a star as the Braves won fans from coast-to-coast on the Superstation en route to the 1982 NL West title. Pendleton, the fiery sparkplug from Los Angeles who helped whip the youthful Braves into winners during the magical 1991 worst-to-first season. Jones, the boy from Florida possessing equal parts Southern cockiness and charm who anchored the franchise among baseball’s elite for most of two decades.

    A trio of Atlanta Braves, each a NL MVP award winner. Their exclusive club grew by one Thursday evening, and how fitting that they were joined by one who also is a symbol of the franchise.

    Freddie Freeman becomes the fourth Brave to win the honor since the franchise moved to Atlanta, the first since Jones in 1999 and joining Pendleton (1991) and Murphy (1982-83). His 2020 goes far beyond just the sparkly numbers compiled across the truncated 60-game regular season – the 1.102 OPS, the .341/.462/.640 slash line, the first two grand slams of his career.

    It transcends his postseason performance – the 13th-inning walkoff single against the Reds in Game 1 of the wild card series, the two homers against the Dodgers in the NLCS (a third robbed by MVP finalist Mookie Betts in Game 7 may have kept the Braves from reaching the World Series), the .903 OPS.

    It’s a season that wasn’t guaranteed given Freeman’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the news breaking on the Fourth of July as summer camp began at Truist Park. We all know the story of Freeman running a 104.5 degree fever, a husband and a father of a 3-year-old with twins on the way pondering his fate far beyond the diamond. And yet, 20 days later, there Freeman was, taking his hacks against his buddy Jacob deGrom on opening day at Citi Field.

    That’s the Freeman way. He’s always there. He was there as a rookie in 2010, belting his first big-league homer off Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in Hall of Famer Bobby Cox’s final days as manager. He was there in 2011, squatting behind the first-base bag after grounding into a season-ending double-play in the 13th inning of Game 162. He was there in 2012, homering against the Marlins to send Atlanta to the playoffs, Jones standing famously on third base with his right arm raised in triumph.

    Ten days later, the Braves season and Jones career ended.

    It’s been Freeman’s team ever since. Partly because of his brilliance – four top-10 finishes in MVP voting from 2012-19, five seasons hitting above .300, four All-Star appearances. Partly because he was the only position player to survive the Braves rebuild – as the franchise stripped it down to the studs, Freeman remained, a pillar around which Atlanta now has built a World Series championship contender.

    Now he joins that aforementioned trio of Braves royalty, linked not just by the MVP trophy, but by time. Murphy, traded to Philadelphia mere months before Pendleton signed as a free agent. Pendleton, who consoled Jones the night the rookie blew out his knee in spring training in 1994. Jones, sliding into the sunset after 2012 as Freeman began his ascension toward baseball stardom.

    That rise now includes the MVP trophy, and membership in an exclusive club of Braves legends.

    —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.

    PARTY POOPERS: Dodgers Make Braves Pay for Missed Opportunities, Force NLCS to Game 6

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This has nothing to do with curses and jinxes and narratives long since exhausted, and everything to do with lack of execution and failure to seize opportunities.

    Leave third base a bit early on a ball caught in the outfield? Don’t drive home runners in the early innings? Fail to throw strikes during a tight spot? Sometimes in the regular season, those details get glossed over amid the blur of the daily march to October.

    But when you reach the 10th month of the year, you have to be on point at all times. The Atlanta Braves fell short in too many of those moments in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday, and that’s the biggest reason they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, instead of preparing for the World Series.

    The Braves had their chances but couldn’t take advantage, and the postseason-tested Dodgers made them pay in a 7-3 victory to keep their season alive. And while the Braves still lead the NLCS 3-2 and need just one win this weekend to capture the NL title and head to the World Series for the first time in 21 years, Friday served as a stinging reminder:

    Winning a pennant is not easy. They just don’t hand out trips to the Fall Classic like free samples at the mall food court. And the final win of a series is the hardest one to secure.

    If you get an opportunity, you best not waste it. If the disaster scenario unfolds this weekend and the Braves manage to lose games started by Max Fried (Saturday) and Ian Anderson (if Sunday’s Game 7 becomes necessary), they will rue the chances that slid through their fingers in Game 5.

    It started about as well as Brian Snitker could have dreamed. The Braves turned to A.J. Minter to kick off a bullpen game – welcome to life in 2020, with no off days in playoff series until next week. For Minter, it was his first start since his junior season at Texas A&M, and all the lefty did was strike out seven over three innings.

    Minter left with a 2-0 lead; it could’ve been more. The Braves collected five hits and two walks in the opening three innings, but scored only the pair of runs while stranding four runners on base.

    Atlanta actually put a third run on the scoreboard in the third, albeit briefly. Dansby Swanson’s sinking liner was snagged by Mookie Betts in right field, the former MVP stumbling as he picked the ball off his shoe tops. Marcell Ozuna, who began the inning with a single, left third base early and upon review was called out, the double play ending the inning.

    Regardless of how you feel about the whole momentum debate – which has raged across the airwaves and social media during this series – there’s no denying this game changed on the Ozuna blunder. The stumbles on this night don’t all fall on the loveable designated hitter, though.

    The Braves couldn’t cash in their chances in the early innings. It almost was jarring to see, considering Atlanta’s offense has scored four runs or more in one inning six times this postseason. In a bullpen game, a house of cards that can topple if just one reliever has an off night, three runs are not going to be enough most of the time.

    Not on this night, and certainly not against the Dodgers, who Friday played their 23rd NLCS game since 2016. And almost immediately after Ozuna’s run came off the board, Los Angeles did what the Braves could not.

    Take advantage.

    Corey Seager’s homer off Tyler Matzek in the fourth made it 2-1. And while the Braves still held the lead, you almost could feel what was coming next. Shane Greene wiggled out of trouble in the fifth, but left with two outs and one on in the sixth.

    Will Smith (the pitcher) came on and for the second straight night could not throw his slider for a strike, walking Max Muncy to extend the inning. That brought up Will Smith (the catcher), who golfed a 3-2 fastball into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and a 4-2 Dodgers lead.

    The Battle of Wills: The Dodgers catcher put Los Angeles ahead in Game 5 of the NLCS with a three-run homer in the sixth inning Friday.

    In the seventh, Jacob Webb was one strike away from getting out of the inning. Twice. Betts singled home a run on a two-strike pitch, and Seager followed with a two-strike, two-run homer.

    7-2 Dodgers. See you Saturday.

    Atlanta certainly wanted to spend the day shifting from pennant celebration to World Series preparation. There remains work to do, however. It’s playoff baseball, and the deeper you play, the more amplified the missed chances become. That’s part of it, a part the Braves and many members of their fanbase are learning on the fly.

    That’s not to suggest the Braves suddenly are gripped with overwhelming pressure. You can afford a stumble if you build a 3-1 series advantage, which the Braves did. Friday was Game 5, not Game 7. Fried pitched well in Game 1 and will be on full rest. Critical bullpen arms like Mark Melancon and Chris Martin also are fresh. Saturday is Snitker’s 65th birthday, and what would be a better present than a pennant and World Series berth?

    One also must think the Braves will have a heightened sense of urgency after a few stumbles Friday delayed the party for at least a day. The pressure remains squarely on the Dodgers, whose sole mission from the commencement of spring training is to win the World Series.

    But if this series isn’t over 24 hours from now, we’re having a completely different discussion.

    —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 WRIGHT STUFF: It’s Now a Series After Dodgers Destroy Braves in Game 3

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – You knew the Los Angeles Dodgers were not going to slide quietly into the night in this National League Championship Series. There would be a moment when the perennial NL pennant contender would have something to say after the Atlanta Braves captured the opening two games of the series.

    That moment arrived with the fury of a Texas thunderstorm in the top of the first inning of Game 3 at Globe Life Field. Los Angeles scored 11 times before the Braves stepped into the batter’s box, the Dodgers rolling 15-3 to slice Atlanta’s lead in the NLCS to 2-1.

    If that one part sounds familiar – the part about the Braves facing a double-digit deficit before taking their first hacks – it’s because we’re 371 days removed from the 10-run first inning hung on Atlanta by St. Louis in Game 5 of last year’s NL Division Series. Wednesday’s opening frame was just as miserable, Los Angeles marching 14 hitters to the plate and registering seven hits (including three homers) to post the highest-scoring inning in postseason history.

    (See, that first inning last October could’ve been worse. Feel better now?)

    Actually, what happened against the Cardinals was worse. Far worse.

    The calamity against the Cardinals, you will recall, came in a win-or-go-home situation – a bitter loss that ended a brilliant season with a historic thud. Wednesday merely was one game of a series yet to be decided. While there is no question the Dodgers are feeling much better than they were 24 hours ago, the fact is work remains to be done before one of these teams advances to next week’s World Series.

    Game 4 now holds much more importance for both sides in this matchup. Los Angeles likely will hand the ball to Clayton Kershaw, he of the three NL Cy Young awards. Atlanta will hand the ball to Bryse Wilson, he of the seven career big-league starts who makes his postseason debut.

    It has to go better than Kyle Wright’s second career playoff outing in Game 3. Right?

    The Braves hope so.

    It started with a splash of dazzle Wednesday, Johan Camargo (making his first appearance of the postseason) snagging Mookie Betts’ ball behind the third-base bag and firing to first, where Freddie Freeman stretched behind the bag in foul territory to snag the throw. First-base umpire Dan Iassogna ruled Betts out, but the call was reversed on replay review.

    That was Wright’s first pitch, and it was a sign of things to come. Corey Seager hit his second pitch into the left-center field gap, Austin Riley face-planting into the turf as Betts easily raced home. Wright briefly got right, getting back-to-back groundouts, and was one pitch from getting out of the inning down just a run. But Will Smith doubled to bring home Seager and make it 2-0.

    Then the wheels fell off:

    Walk. Homer by Joc Pederson. Homer by Edwin Rios. Walk.

    Exit stage right for Wright, saddled with seven runs on five hits and two walks. It was a worst-case scenario for the Braves, as bad as it could get for a team needing to win just two of a possible five remaining games to reach the World Series.

    Wilson has not pitched since Sept. 27, and Atlanta absolutely wanted to have as many bullpen options available. With Wright, who surrendered just three hits with seven strikeouts in six shutout innings in the NLDS clincher against Miami six days earlier, the Braves felt good about their chances to not only take a commanding 3-0 lead over the favorites from Los Angeles, but spare some of their relief corps in the process.

    Instead, the bullpen had to cover 25 outs. Grant Dayton bore the worst of it, giving up three homers en route to allowing eight runs on eight hits in two innings. Huascar Ynoa, viewed by some as the option to follow Wilson in Game 4, was in Game 3 before the third inning concluded. He stranded two inherited runners and covered four scoreless frames, throwing 92 pitches.

    That’s about it for the good stuff, other than Cristian Pache’s first career big-league homer on a majestic shot down the left-field line in the third. The biggest positive isn’t found in the box score; it’s the calendar, which has a Game 4 scheduled Thursday with the Braves still leading the series.

    There’s a pennant to be won, so move on from Wednesday. Quickly.

    Thursday will find the Braves in a position they haven’t occupied this month: coming off a loss after opening the postseason with seven consecutive victories. And they still have Max Fried and Ian Anderson ready to start this weekend.

    They say a series really doesn’t begin until each teams wins one game. Atlanta hoped for something different, that Wright could produce a strong start and put the Braves in position to sweep. Instead, they’ll take the field in Game 4 looking to forget Game 3 even happened.

    —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.

    NLCS Preview: Braves Look the Part, but Do They Have Enough to Topple Favored Dodgers?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    user282416407 · BravesWire NLCS Preview 2020

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They came home from the west coast having been outscored 9-0 in two games, walking into that new ballpark at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Oct. 7, 2018, hoping to just win one game against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers.

    The Atlanta Braves did so that night, riding Ronald Acuna Jr.’s famous grand slam and a tiebreaking homer from Freddie Freeman to beat the Dodgers 6-5 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Less than 24 hours later the series and season were over, but the Braves status as a contender only was beginning.

    Here they are now, winners of not one but two postseason series to bury the 19-year series drought narrative, in the NL Championship Series for the first time since 2001. So it’s only fitting the final obstacle between the franchise and its first World Series appearance in 21 years is the Dodgers, the measuring stick for every other major league team.

    Those Braves of 2018 were fresh faced, bright eyed, young and maybe a bit awestruck in those first two losses at Dodger Stadium. As manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday, “I thought when we faced them the last time, and I said afterward, we weren’t as strong as they were. We’ve made a lot of progress in that regard.

    “We’re a stronger team than we were two years ago.”

    We’re about to see just how strong starting Monday, as the Braves and Dodgers lift the lid on the NLCS with Game 1. It’s 2020, so naturally the road to the World Series technically runs not through Chavez Ravine, but Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    The Dodgers are the favorites in this series, as they should be. They’ve been here, done that. At some point, we all reasoned the Braves would have to go through the Dodgers to get to the World Series.

    Now, Atlanta gets that chance.

    Two Teams, One Pennant: MLB Network discusses the Braves/Dodgers matchup in the NLCS.

    Five Keys to the Series

    Can They Do It Again?: Snitker joked Saturday he didn’t have any choice but to feel comfortable with Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright taking the ball for Games 2 and 3, respectively. He then talked about how the young hurlers, who had combined for 18 major-league starts before the postseason began, have handled the playoff pressure.

    Yeah, you could say it’s going pretty well. Anderson and Wright have teamed up to allow five hits with 24 strikeouts and five walks across 17 2/3 shutout innings in three starts (two by Anderson, one by Wright). The Braves first-round draft picks in 2016 and 2017, Anderson and Wright have helped the Braves author four shutouts in five games in these playoffs.

    It would be foolish to expect Atlanta to continue posting zeros at that historic rate – opponents have scored in just three of 49 innings. But the confidence of Anderson and Wright, plus Game 1 starter Max Fried, is soaring at just the right time. Through two rounds, the Braves rotation has morphed from the shakiest part of the team to a difference-making strength.

    Snit Speaks: Atlanta manager Brian Snitker addresses the media before the NLCS.

    Who Can Be More Offensive: Take a look at the top of the team offensive stats from the regular season, and you’ll see a common theme: these two teams. Homers: Dodgers first in the majors, Braves second. Runs scored: Dodgers first, Braves second. OPS: Braves first, Dodgers second. OBP: Braves first, Dodgers second. Slugging percentage: Braves and Dodgers, tied for first.

    You get the idea. Both teams can hit. Good pitching stops good hitting in the postseason, as we heard plenty leading into the Reds series. And while one can argue Atlanta has faced better pitching overall on its path here, the Dodgers lead playoff teams in hard-hit rate (95 mph and higher) at 48 percent. Who’s second? Of course it’s the Braves (47.4 percent).

    Both offenses will face better pitching in this round than in the previous five games. And while the Dodgers have hit just two homers in five playoff games (Atlanta has seven), they still are averaging six runs a game. Former MVP Cody Bellinger is 6-for-19 with five RBIs this October after going 14-for-99 with nine RBIs in his previous five postseason series. He typically hits sixth in a L.A. lineup that is the deepest in the sport.

    Walk This Way: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announces Walker Buehler will start Monday’s Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Buehler … Buehler: Walker Buehler takes the ball for L.A. in Game 1, and while the right-hander has pitched only four innings in each of his first two postseason starts due to blister issues, he’s struck out eight in each outing while surrendering a total of three runs and five hits. It will be the ninth career playoff start for the 26-year-old out of Vanderbilt; perhaps you remember his first?

    After giving up 10 runs across his first three career postseason efforts, Buehler has allowed four runs in his past five appearances with 38 strikeouts and 12 walks in 20 2/3 innings. Four of those walks came in the NLDS opener against San Diego.

    The Dodgers have watched lefty Clayton Kershaw turn back the clock this month – 19 strikeouts and one walk with a .180 opponents batting average in 14 innings. If Buehler pitches well in Game 1 and (presumably) Game 6, the uphill climb for the Braves get steeper.

    Braves Top Trio Must Be Heroes: No team had a better top three in its lineup this season than the Braves, as Acuna, Freeman and Marcell Ozuna all put together campaigns that will likely see each finish in the top 10 of MVP voting. And while all three have enjoyed moments so far this postseason, the overall production has not been what the Braves must have to beat the Dodgers.

    Acuna began the NLDS with an emphatic leadoff homer against Miami, but has struck out in 50 percent of his 22 playoff at-bats with just one homer and two walks. Freeman’s lone RBI came on his walkoff 13th-inning single in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card series against Cincinnati. Ozuna delivered two key hits in Game 1 against the Marlins, but has just three other hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks in 22 ABs.

    Freeman and Ozuna each collected two hits in Atlanta’s series-closing Game 3 victory Thursday. Acuna has shined in October during his young career, slashing .304/.400/.607 with a 1.007 OPS, six doubles, one triple and three homers in 65 postseason plate appearances. While Travis d’Arnaud has been the Braves best hitter in the playoffs, the three hitters ahead of him in the lineup must have big series for the Braves to advance.

    Moving On: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman talks about beating Miami in the NL Division Series and advancing to the NLCS for the first time in his career.

    Win Early to Keep Playing: With potentially seven games in seven days, each pitching staff will bear more weight the longer the NLCS goes. That weight only gets heavier for the team that falls behind in the series, which is why the Braves need to win at least two of the first three games to have a realistic shot to capture the pennant.

    The good news is the Atlanta bullpen is as deep as any in baseball, putting up zeros in the postseason at a historic level. Tyler Matzek has become a revelation whose comeback story will get well-deserved national play this week. A.J. Minter has reinvigorated his career with a change-up. Now that Will Smith has found his stride after COVID-19 delayed his debut, he looks like the weapon the Braves handsomely paid for last winter.

    The Dodgers bullpen is very good – their relievers posted a 2.74 ERA and 1.044 WHIP in the regular season – but questions abound around Kenley Jansen’s hold on the closer’s role. L.A. does have options to close, namely veteran Blake Treinen. One name to watch: Brusdar Graterol, a hard-throwing right-hander who features 100 mph velocity and wicked movement.

    The X-Factors: Who Are You?

    This series is chock full of star power on both sides, but sometimes it’s an under-the-radar name who seizes the moment. Mike Devereaux and Eddie Perez come to mind from Braves NLCS appearances of yesteryear. For Atlanta, it’s hard not to lean toward Dansby Swanson and his knack for hitting in the clutch (two homers in the NLDS after a rough Wild Card series). If somebody in the bottom half of the Braves order can have a big series (such as Adam Duvall), it amplifies Atlanta’s chances to play beyond Sunday.

    For the Dodgers, infielder/outfielder Chris Taylor (co-NLCS MVP in 2017) is a lifetime .338 hitter against the Braves with a .944 OPS and eight extra-base hits in 65 career at-bats. Most Braves fans will remember him not for a gapper or homer, but a single through the left side with two outs in the ninth inning to break up Sean Newcomb’s 2018 no-hit bid. Taylor, who homered against Atlanta in the NLDS that fall, went 1-for-11 against San Diego in this year’s division series.

    The Difference

    The Braves lineup is as deep as it’s been in years. The Dodgers lineup is a bit deeper. The Braves options for Game 4 are Bryse Wilson, Huascar Yona or Josh Tomlin. The Dodgers options for Game 4 are Dustin May, Julio Urias or Tony Gonsolin. In a matchup of the NL’s top two teams, with a slender margin of error for both sides, these details are not insignificant.

    This is baseball’s stratosphere, and there are those in the game who will tell you winning the pennant is harder than winning the World Series. Even with limited fans at a neutral site, the pressure will be amplified on both teams – the Braves being at this point for the first time in forever; the Dodgers being at this point again with the expectations of World Series title or bust.

    I watched the Braves play that role for years, carrying the burden of trying to fulfill the prophecy of the fanbase and the rest of the sport. It’s not a light lift. Just ask the Dodgers, who followed up World Series losses in 2017-18 with a stunning home loss in Game 5 of the NLDS to the Nationals last fall. Can another NL East squad deny L.A. a World Series date for the second straight October?

    If the Braves win two of the first three games, they will win the series. If they get to a seventh game, they will win the series. It won’t be easy, but the Braves have come so far the past three years, from rebuilding franchise to playoff newcomer to legitimate contender.

    Now comes the next step: National League champions and a trip to the World Series.

    The Pick

    Braves in 7

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NLCS game, starting Monday night.

    —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.

    M-V-Free! Let There Be No Doubt: Freeman Deserves NL Honor

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Consider how much the world has changed this year. Shuttered businesses and ballparks. Sickness and divisiveness. Feelings of power and powerless. All of it woven together in the tapestry of 2020, a year we’ve never experienced and hope to never feel again.

    And still, constants remain. Like the kids kicking an oversized green ball in front of me along the fake green grass outside Truist Park this afternoon. Like the Atlanta Braves postseason T-shirts and hats hanging on the racks at the team’s clubhouse store a short walk from my writing vantagepoint, a rite of passage three Septembers old after Tuesday’s National League East title-clinching victory.

    Like the 31-year-old first baseman who plies his craft just a few hundred feet from where I sit on this final Saturday in September.

    If there’s one constant for the Braves, it’s Frederick Charles Freeman. He debuted in the majors 10 years ago this month, launching a home run in his 12th big-league game off Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. Two years later, his walk-off homer sent Atlanta into the NL playoffs, clinching a wild-card berth as Hall of Famer Chipper Jones stood on third base with his right arm raised in triumph.

    Eight years to the day after that postseason-clinching blast against Miami, Freeman was at it again in the late innings Friday. His 13th homer of the season capped a back-and-forth affair with Boston, the blast landing in the empty seats in left field to lift Atlanta to an 8-7, 11-inning victory. With the division championship salted away and all eyes on Wednesday’s opener of the equally thrilling-and-terrifying best-of-three wild-card series at Truist Park, Freeman didn’t start Friday’s series opener.

    But he was there at the finish, as he’s been throughout the Braves rise, fall and rebirth across the past decade. The one constant, living the collapse in 2011, the infield-fly in 2012, the division title in 2013 and then four years in rebuilding purgatory, followed by three consecutive division crowns.

    Freeman reaches the penultimate day of this weird, short 60-game season leading the majors in Fangraphs WAR (3.3) while ranking second in the NL in average (.341), OPS (1.105) and RBIs (51), and third in hits (71).

    That MVP Look: Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final two games of the 2020 regular season squarely in the NL MVP race.

    The numbers speak for themselves. Still, a deeper look at Freeman’s 2020 illustrates – with all due respect to the talented field of NL Most Valuable Player candidates, including teammates Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuna Jr. – how this award is Freeman’s and Freeman’s alone.

    On the field, the Braves captain (not officially, but c’mon; he might as well have a “C” stitched on his uniform) has done as he’s done since taking over full-time first-base duties nine springs ago. He’s led the way for a team where Max Fried is the lone survivor of the two-deep starting rotation depth chart from February. He’s set the tone, one season after a forgettable fall when the combination of a balky elbow and St. Louis voodoo again left the franchise again losing in the opening round of the postseason. He’s delivered in the clutch, attested by his .431 average, 1.494 OPS, six homers and 37 RBIs with runners in scoring position (a situation that may be Atlanta’s postseason Achilles heel).It almost becomes commonplace to assume Freeman will continue doing what he does because, well, he’s done it for so long. Stare into the brilliant light long enough, and the illumination’s impact begins to dull. That shouldn’t be the case with Freeman, even if his team’s never won a postseason series or won the MVP award (despite finishing in the top eight in voting four times).

    The later of those two things should end come early November, when the Baseball Writers Association of America announce their award winners for 2020. It’s a season that Freeman – and the rest of us – weren’t sure would begin at all or certainly with him, after he contracted the coronavirus and ran a 104.5 degree fever during the Fourth of July weekend. At one point, Freeman admitted he worried about his life.

    Feeling Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman has enjoyed a season worthy of the NL MVP award after contracting COVID-19 in early July.

    Two and a half months later, he’s worried about helping his team win a postseason series for the first time since 2001. The rest of us worry his understated stardom against a field full of star power (such as Mookie Betts and the wonderful Fernando Tatis Jr.) will hinder his odds of becoming the first Braves player to win MVP since Jones in 1999.

    The fact we’re here on the final weekend of September, with baseball wrapping up its unprecedented regular season, can be attributed in a small part to Freeman. It’s his very public COVID-19 case and his subsequent comments, urging everybody to take the virus and associated safety measures seriously, that resonated throughout baseball. While there were a couple of hiccups with the Marlins and Cardinals early on, Freeman in a way became the symbol of baseball in the pandemic and the sport navigated the season smoothly.

    Time will tell if Freeman and his mates figure out the playoffs this time around, or will Atlanta’s October obstacles trip up the franchise once more. Given how miserable last year’s 10th month was for Freeman, odds are his monster regular season is a harbinger of things to come when the postseason arrives.

    This Brave for life – he’ll never hit free agency after next season; expect a contract extension to be announced before spring training – doesn’t lack for much. A husband and father, with twins on the way, Freeman might not yet have a World Series ring. But it’s not from a lack of trying. He’s become the franchise anchor through 90-win and 90-loss seasons, taking that baton when Jones retired and setting the tone for a new generation of Braves stars.

    Simply put, he’s remained steady Freddie, even in a season when precious little stayed the same.

    But in about six weeks, he will add something new: NL MVP.

    —30—

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

    Winter is Here, but Work for 2020 Starts Now

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    Pardon me while I throw up in my mouth.

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

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

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

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

    Is There Rain in the Forecast?

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

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

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

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

    What if the Forecast is Clear?

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

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

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

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

    Making Up for the Lost Offense

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

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

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

    For Starters, How About a Starter?

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

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

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

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

    What About the Big Targets?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Patience is a Virtue

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

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

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

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

    The market is ripe, and the time is now.

    —30—

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