• Nick Markakis

    Play Ball: Plenty to Watch as Braves Open Spring Slate

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN WATERLOGGED NORTH GEORGIA – Some 136 days have elapsed since the Atlanta Braves 2019 season ended far earlier than many hoped, in a manner no one could imagine.

    And through the offseason that’s followed, there has been one constant, recurring theme serving as a backdrop as a division rival won the World Series, the front office worked to bolster the 2020 roster, and the name of the ballpark changed.

    It has rained. Every single day (or at least it feels that way).

    So when the skies cleared and the sun emerged Friday morning, it not only gave us a chance to walk outside without need of a floatation device, it also provided a hint of spring. The Braves will play a baseball game Saturday for the first time since that horrific Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series, opening their Grapefruit League schedule against the Baltimore Orioles at Atlanta’s new spring digs in North Port, Fla.

    What am I doing on this final evening of quiet before the long journey begins anew? Thinking about where my focus lies regarding this team across the next 33 days.

    I Don’t Know is on Third: No, not the famous Abbott & Costello skit from yesteryear. The Braves third base situation, now that Josh Donaldson has signed with Minnesota (he left all his rain behind, though). Johan Camargo showed up in shape and motivated this spring, after looking sluggish and disinterested far too often in 2019. Austin Riley spent the winter working to tweak a swing that took the world by storm for six weeks, then crashed and burned with frightening brutality.

    That’s OK. Riley turns 23 in early April. I still think if he’s not traded at some point, he’s the long-term solution at third because he’ll hit enough with plenty of power to offset a high strikeout rate. But that’s not going to be this year, at least not initially. The kid needs steady playing time, and barring a breakout spring, it’s likely going to be at Triple-A Gwinnett to start.

    Which shifts the focus to Camargo. He cut 18 pounds off his frame from last spring by focusing on his body and his diet. And while manager Brian Snitker has said publicly he will split playing time between Camargo and Riley in spring, don’t be surprised if that mix of time starts shifting in Camargo’s favor in a couple of weeks.

    Camargo doesn’t have to have the type of season he had in 2018. I’m not convinced that’s who he is (at least offensively). But he – and the Braves – cannot afford for the 2019 productivity, or lack thereof, to show up again.

    Long Live the King? We Will See: Felix Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training with something to prove. It is a no-risk flyer for the Braves, but with Cole Hamels likely missing at least the first two or three turns in the regular-season rotation due to a shoulder injury, Hernandez emerging as somebody capable of holding down a back-end rotation spot – even if for a month – would be helpful.

    Here’s my problem. The King has steadily declined each of his past three years. He joked with reporters this week that he’s not old, although he turns 34 in early April. It’s more the mileage on that once-dynamic right arm, one that’s pitched 2,729 2/3 innings in the majors, one that debuted in the bigs the same year (2005) broadcaster Jeff Francoeur and recently retired Brian McCann reached the show.

    Many say the Hamels injury increases the odds of Hernandez making the opening-day roster. I disagree. It increases the opportunity, but if the once mighty King pitches to a 6.40 ERA with a 1.53 WHIP in camp (as he did across 15 starts for Seattle last season), this feel good story will end with a release before the March 26 opener in Arizona.

    Filling Out the Pen: Thanks to the aggression of Alex Anthopoulos at the trade deadline and again in the early days of the offseason, Atlanta’s bullpen arguably is one of the best in baseball. There are six locks in my opinion for the eight spots, and all six have closed at the big-league level. Five are right-handed, and lefty Will Smith likely will be closing for this team sooner rather than later. As for the final two openings? There are a lot of directions in which Snitker may opt to go.

    The bullpen does not have a traditional long man at the moment. Josh Tomlin filled that role admirably last season and is back in camp on a non-roster invite. But with so much depth on the 40-man roster, it’s plausible to not have a “break glass in case of emergency” guy, knowing fresh arms can be shuttled in should somebody have to wear it for two or three innings due to an injury or in a blowout.

    A couple of guys I’m watching closely this spring: Jacob Webb, who needs to cut down on the walks and was injured at times last season, but showed flashes of brilliance stuff-wise. A.J. Minter, the co-closer at the start of the season, whose spring 2019 was marred by a fender-bender that tweaked his shoulder, kicking off a lost campaign for the hard-throwing lefty. And I’ll offer a wild card: 27-year-old lefty Phil Pfeifer, who impressed the Braves enough at three levels of the organization last season (1.16 WHIP, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings) that Atlanta added him to the 40-man roster this winter.

    Acuna, Ozuna, and Who: Ronald Acuna Jr. will lead off and play mostly right field, with some duty in center against left-handers. Marcell Ozuna will anchor left field and hit cleanup while looking to rediscover his 2017 production, when he was one of the more feared sluggers in the NL. But what of the final outfield spot, with three veterans on the roster looking for playing time?

    If healthy, Ender Inciarte should play the majority of games, keeping Acuna in right while providing the Braves with a three-time Gold Glove winner in the middle. Inciarte struggled with lower body injuries in 2019, not a good sign for an outfielder whose age (he turns 30 at season’s end) and salary ($7.7 million this season; $8.7 million in 2021) are increasing. Historically a slow starter offensively, Inciarte can ill-afford to not get going at the plate until June.

    Adam Duvall, one of the few Braves who performed in the NLDS, figures to man right field more often than not when lefties are on the mound. But Duvall has struggled when not playing full time, and his $3.25 million deal is not guaranteed (meaning he could be cut in camp and the team recoup a cost savings). If Duvall has a good spring, he certainly will be a trade target. Nick Markakis is back on a one-year deal and finally in the role best suited for him: a good left-handed bat off the bench who, due to injuries, would be fine to start every day for three weeks (not six months, Snit).

    It will be different this year for the dude from Woodstock by way of Young Harris. So too for these Braves, who not only are expected to win now, but win in the most important month of all. But you must get there first, and that journey starts in mere hours.

    —30—

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

    Ozuna Signing Adds Needed Jolt to Braves Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    The Rain Goes North, and It’s Time to Keep This Offseason from Going South

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if the news couldn’t get any worse on a day when the home of the Braves was rechristened as Truist Park (yes, spellcheck just underlined it, if you’re wondering how the English language views this), things indeed turned worse Tuesday night.

    The skies cleared and the rain disappeared, save the tears of frustration and pain from the good people of Braves Country as news of Josh Donaldson’s signing with the Minnesota Twins cascaded across social media.

    Donaldson, whose resurgent one-year stint in Atlanta helped fuel 97 victories and a second-consecutive National League East championship, agreed to a four-year, $92-million deal with the AL champion Twins, who set a major-league record in 2019 for most homers by one team in a single season. The kicker in the deal is a fifth-year option for 2024, a season that will conclude with Donaldson a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday.

    All things being equal – and we may never know just how much the Braves offered and for how many years – it’s not much of a stretch to think Alex Anthopoulos would not include anything for a fifth year. The mindset that the option wasn’t a key element of the decision-making process is something I can’t grasp, especially for a 34-year-old player who struggled with injuries in 2017 and 2018 but rebounded at just the right time, playing 155 games in 2019 to secure a contract that will pay him for four full years and perhaps a fifth.

    Good for Donaldson, who played hard, infused grit and attitude into the lineup, exhibited outstanding defense, and provided a powerful right-handed bat in the cleanup spot. When Donaldson moved to the fourth spot and Ronald Acuna Jr. returned to the top of the order on May 10 in Arizona, the Braves offense took off. Donaldson slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS.

    The rain is gone, but with apologies to Jimmy Cliff, we certainly can’t see any clearer. In fact, the view is now clear as mud. The Braves absolutely must get at least one impact bat (and I’ve advocated all winter, they really need two). But going into 2020 with Nick Markakis hitting cleanup would be abhorrently criminal for a team that views itself as a World Series contender, and acted like one in the opening six weeks of the offseason by upgrading the bullpen to one of baseball’s best, plus adding a solid catcher and veteran rotation piece.

    What’s next, you ask? A few thoughts:

    Go get Arenado: In a perfect world where deals happen in a vacuum (i.e., fantasy baseball, or Twitter), I’d drive (insert prospects name here) to the airport myself. But in the real world, it’s far more complicated than screaming into the atmosphere, “just trade for him!”

    Arenado has an opt-out after the 2021 season. If he doesn’t waive it, you’re only getting him for two years. At $35 million each year. That is, if he approves the trade (Arenado has a full no-trade clause). If he does waive the opt-out, MLB stipulates you must replace that value – potentially by adding another year to a deal that already owes the Rockies third baseman $35 million a year through 2024, $32 million in 2025, and $27 million in 2026.

    I won’t quibble about the money. I’d pay it … sure, it’s not my money, but mainly I’d pay it because this player is that good. Arenado, who turns 29 in April, is a seven-time Gold-Glove winner and a five-time All-Star. It’s fair to question his road splits away from Coors Field: in 316 road games from 2016-19, he slashed .271/.341/.498 (.839 OPS). But even using that as a baseline and projecting across a 158-game season, Arenado would average 34 homers and 99 RBIs.

    But any trade for Arenado will be complex, expensive (in terms of money and prospects), and to me just doesn’t feel feasible, as much as I might want it to happen. But it would be the type of statement that would send shock waves throughout baseball, and it would in my opinion make the Braves the definitive favorite to win the NL pennant.

    Go get Bryant: I wrote about Kris Bryant earlier this offseason, and yet here we sit on Jan. 14, and there still is a question of whether he will play 2020 as a pending free agent or will be under club control through 2021. An arbiter is expected to rule on his grievance issue at some point between now and the All-Star break (kidding; kind of), and while I do not see the arbiter opening Pandora’s Box by siding with Bryant, I also don’t see the Cubs being able to move him until a decision is reached.

    Like Arenado, it feels like the Cubs would ask for the moon and stars for two years of Bryant. He’ll make $18.6 million this season, a number that will soar past $20 million for 2021 provided the Cubs win the grievance. It’s certainly worth exploring, but I just don’t see the Braves paying what Chicago is likely going to ask.

    Turning to the outfield: Donaldson’s migration to Minnesota leaves two major bats on the open market, and both are corner outfielders. Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos have positives about them offensively while not being exactly Gold Glovers defensively (although Ozuna is, in my opinion, adequate enough to be fine in a corner while being flanked by either Ender Inciarte or Ronald Acuna Jr.).

    I thought both Ozuna and Castellanos would get four-year deals, and maybe those dominos will fall quickly now that Donaldson has unclogged the market by signing. A four-year deal is an issue, with Cristian Pache and Drew Waters quickly ascending through the Braves minor-league system. I expect Pache to be up by late summer playing center field; Waters might not be too far behind. As I wrote before the Winter Meetings, I’d lean to Ozuna here but again, the length of the deal would concern me.

    I’ll also pivot to this thought. Two years ago in Miami, Ozuna smashed 37 homers and drove in 124 runs. We’ve seen him be an impact bat before, but we didn’t see it in either of the past two seasons in St. Louis.

    Something we don’t expect: Anthopoulos has made a living in Atlanta pulling off transactions very few people expected, and if I had to bet on any scenario, I’d put my chips here. Seattle keeps popping into my mind as an intriguing trade partner, although I really am not as enticed by third baseman Kyle Seager (.789 OPS) and his contract ($38M across the next two years) as much as I am intrigued with outfielder Mitch Haniger (injury-scuttled 2019 limited him to 63 games, but 26 homers and a .859 OPS at age 27 in 2018, and under control through 2022).

    Everybody loves to throw Matt Chapman’s name out there. I don’t see any way in the world Oakland trades its emerging star third baseman.

    Stand pat: Yeah, right. Johan Camargo had a very good 2018 before a lost 2019 mired by injuries and inconsistency, not to mention showing up to spring training out of shape. Austin Riley dazzled us for six weeks, then struck out at an alarming rate that showed he’s not quite ready to be handed third base out of the gate in 2020. I think he will be a good major-league hitter, in time, but a hope-for-the-best mindset doesn’t win the World Series.

    The Braves already plan to use a platoon in left field between Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, which is concerning. With Donaldson off the market, there simply is no defensible stance to standing pat. It cannot happen, not with the moves already made this offseason, with Acuna and Ozzie Albies still ridiculously inexpensive next season, with the championship window now full open after two division titles, a painful October choke last fall, and the potential to win and win big for the foreseeable future.

    And the feeling here is the Braves won’t be content to go with what they have. A good offseason now has turned a bit on a swing and a miss, even if it’s understandable why the Braves couldn’t get it done with Donaldson. Consider me surprised he’s departing, but it happened.

    Time for Anthopoulos to really earn his money, or else all that great work in November and December will feel awful empty.

    No matter how clear the skies now may be.

    —30—

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

    The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We conclude my look back at the top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s with a focus on the franchise’s emergence from the painful rebuild with the National League East clincher in 2018, followed by a slamming announcement of arrival in Atlanta’s first playoff game victory in five years in that season’s NLDS.

    Did you miss part of the series? Check out the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    Part 3: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    Part 4: Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Braves Are Back: Sept. 22, 2018

    At Long and Blessed Last, the Painful Rebuild Ends

    I stood in a cigar shop off Ga. 400 north of Cumming on the morning of Sept. 22, 2018. A cooler inside my SUV held two bottles of champagne, chilling on ice and poised for the day. As I picked out a couple of stogies (I reserve a good cigar for special occasions), the guy behind the counter looked at my Braves jersey.

    “It’s been a long time coming,” he said, smiling. “It’s so great the Braves are back.”

    That fourth Saturday in September took me back, way back, to my much younger days when it felt like popping bottles late in the year’s ninth month was a birthright. The Braves began 2018 hoping to make progress out of a four-year rebuild, with an international front-office scandal just five months prior still a gaping wound.

    On this platform, I picked the Braves to improve from 72 wins in 2017 to 80 wins in 2018, and I heard quite a bit about that from some folks.

    Turns out, we all were wrong.

    The Braves thrilled us during a dizzying ride though a 90-win regular season, with walk-off victories and emerging young stars as far as the eye could see, the pieces of the puzzle starting to join together to produce something not even the most ardent, optimistic Braves fan could’ve expected when the season commenced. Even how it started was quite remarkable: Nick Markakis blasting a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth as a thunderstorm approached SunTrust Park to cap a five-run rally and lift the Braves past Philadelphia.

    While there were fits and starts, overall, that moment in the season opener seemed to galvanize this team. An early-September weekend in Arizona produced two heart-stopping victories, and I’ve said time and time again the Braves won the East in the desert those two games. But the official moment would come at 3:44 p.m. two weekends later, on a sun-splashed Saturday at SunTrust Park, when Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field.

    Freddie Freeman raised both arms into the air, as if finally freed from the purgatory of rebuilding. Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave, fought back tears while being interviewed on national TV. A few moments earlier, as that fly ball settled in Acuna’s glove, Fox Sports national baseball announced Joe Davis uttered the same words the dude at the cigar shop said to me about six hours earlier: “The Braves are back.”

    And inside the ballpark, it was a party that had been a half-decade in the making, the joyous release of five years of frustration and pain and embarrassment. It hit me at some point during the celebration why I felt just delirious. Sure, I had just witnessed the Braves clinching something (division, wild card, playoff series victory, pennant, World Series title) in person for the seventh time. But it had been more than a hot minute. The last clinch I saw: way back to Game 7 of the 1996 National League Championship Series.

    I sat in Lot 29, finished my preview of Sunday’s game, then fired up that cigar and popped open one bottle of champagne. As I watched so many people walk past me and saw the sheer joy on their faces, it occurred to me that a whole new group of fans was experiencing what I got to enjoy so much in my late teens and throughout my 20s.

    I smiled with each delicious sip of bubbly. The rebuild, at long and blessed last, officially over.

    Indeed, the Braves are back.

    My God! He’s Just a Child: Oct. 7, 2018

    Acuna’s Slam Hints of Great Things to Come

    Look, let’s face it. The Braves exited the rebuild earlier than any of us expected. We saw an improving team with a lot of questions as the 2018 season dawned, figuring we had another season or two before contention would be realistic. Yeah, right. All the Braves did was squash that preordained timeline by winning 90 games and claiming the National League East for the first time in five seasons. And a big reason why was a 20-year-old outfielder from Venezuela who made his major-league debut in late April, smash a jaw-dropping homer in his second big-league game and never looked back en route to NL rookie of the year honors.

    But what Ronald Acuna Jr. did on the first Sunday in October 2018 just didn’t propel Atlanta to its first postseason victory in 1,829 days. It announced to the rest of the baseball world that the Braves were back and were going to be a problem for opposing teams for years to come.

    The first home playoff game in the history of SunTrust Park was met with sheer exuberance from those of us fortunate enough to be there, along with the millions in Braves Country who dreamed of this through every moment of the rebuild. Acuna, with his million-watt smile and unbridled passion, led the way through the regular season as the Braves buried the old narrative and emerged as a playoff team. Granted, it was hard to see any way past the mighty Dodgers in the NLDS, a thought reinforced when Los Angeles outscored Atlanta 9-0 in taking the first two games of the series in Chavez Ravine.

    The series shifted to the South’s capital city and we took full advantage of the moment. The tailgate party in Lot 29 was the best I’ve experienced in years of pre-gaming with Braves fans. There was an aura of, “we’re here, so let’s go” that permeated through everyone amid the smoke from the grills and the flowing of beverages. Perhaps it was five years of pent-up frustration. Perhaps it was the realization that playoff baseball was back in Atlanta after half a decade, in the Braves’ sparkling new palace.

    And while they lost this series in four games, one magical swing in the second inning of Game 3 served notice that the Braves were back on the national stage.

    Acuna found himself in the on-deck circle as starting pitcher Sean Newcomb worked a four-pitch walk against Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler to drive home Atlanta’s first run of the series. With everybody standing and the new ballpark shaking, Acuna stepped to the plate and took three balls from the Los Angeles right-hander.

    The fans in the yard were screaming. My oldest son leaned into my left ear and screamed, “he’s going to walk him. He can’t give up a big hit right here.” I agreed. Buehler responded with a fastball high in the zone, a pitch inexcusably called a strike. The crowd, in full lather and sounding like the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium assemblies in the 1990s, howled its disapproval. At that moment, I was hoping Acuna would settle himself after the blatant missed call, and simply drive the ball somewhere to plate a run or two.

    He did much, much better than that.

    Acuna’s swing at the 3-1 pitch not only made him the youngest player in MLB history to launch a grand slam in a postseason game, not only put the Braves ahead 5-0, it delivered a definitive message to the rest of the majors. This team, one that had lost 89-plus games for four straight seasons, not only was here, it was here to play. I screamed above the din to my son, “My God! He’s just a child!” Again, nobody gave the Braves a chance in the series and understandably so, but in Atlanta’s first playoff game held in its shiny new field of dreams, a small part of the payoff was realized, thanks in large part to Acuna.

    Yes, the Braves won 6-5 in Game 3, surviving a furious rally (the Dodgers were so, so much better, to be honest) as Freddie Freeman launched a go-ahead solo blast. And almost as noteworthy, the nation saw the vision behind the ballpark and The Battery Atlanta realized on that Sunday night. We started tailgating before noon, some eight hours before first pitch, and traffic already was stacked around the area. It truly felt like a college football Saturday in Athens, or on the plains of Auburn, or along the river in Knoxville, in the hours leading up to the game. Afterward, the party raged in The Battery.

    It wasn’t just a game. It was an event. The Braves hit a grand slam by securing the land at the confluences of Interstates 75 and 285 on the northwestern rim of the city, and this moment was one the franchise surely had in mind in November 2013 when it announced the move from downtown. And for the first time, the genius of that bold move was realized the day of Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS, a game won in part by the brightest star of Atlanta’s rebuild stepping into the national spotlight and delivering a grand slam of his own.

    Author’s note: All the moments in this series are special to me, and I hope I’ve articulated why well enough the past five days. But if I had to pick a favorite, Acuna’s grand slam would top the list.

    —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 Meetings Wrap-Up: No Power Boost, but Braves Have Time as Market Takes Shape

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves left baseball’s Winter Meetings in San Diego on Thursday without adding anyone to their major-league roster. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos did not acquire one single power hitter, or an impact left fielder, or even another pitcher.

    Heck, I bet he didn’t even visit the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld or the beach.

    Sounds like a monumental waste of four days spent doing nothing to bolster the Braves chances to win the 2020 World Series. Heck, those gaping holes at third base and in the power department make completing a hat trick of National League East titles all the more daunting. Right?

    Y’all. Settle down.

    Look, I get it. The lack of completed work upsets some fans. There wasn’t a “podium moment,” where Anthopoulos stood behind a microphone in a packed press conference to announce the completion of a trade or signing of a free agent.

    But baseball’s offseason didn’t end when the general managers and their staffs flew out of San Diego. Believe it or not, there are more than two months until spring training begins, some 3 ½ months before the first pitch of the season zips toward home plate in Arizona (hopefully Ronald Acuna Jr. smacks that baby into the pool at Chase Field).

    In a normal offseason – and hopefully, we’re resumed normalcy after the snooze-fest of the previous two winters – deals are announced throughout the rest of December and well into January. Many of those deals either were sparked or advanced by conversations held at the Winter Meetings. And while the advancement of technology has taken away the romanticism of smoked-filled lounges, trade proposals scribbled on cocktail napkins, or late-night scrums with other teams in hotel suites, the fact remains the movers and shakers in the sport who get these deals done all are in one place for four days.

    Anthopoulos has zero to gain by saying anything outside of his very measured, now predictable comments that provide no gauge of what he’s thinking. And that’s by design. He may have been born and raised in Canada, but you would think the Braves general manager spent his young days developing his poker face in Vegas.

    What’s next? Here are a few of my thoughts on the Winter Meetings, how it impacts the Braves, and where do they go from here:

    The Hot Corner is Scorching

    Josh Donaldson already was a popular commodity after a bounce-back, injury-free season in 2019, one that resulted in 37 homers and the NL comeback player of the year honor. It sparked a love affair with Braves Country that led the Bringer of Rain to dance through the dugout with an umbrella after homers late in the season. A reunion is a perfect match, but if it happens, it’s going to cost far more than the one-year, $23-million “bet on myself” deal the now 34-year-old signed last November.

    And that price tag got significantly heftier in San Diego. With star pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole going off the board, and with Anthony Rendon agreeing to a deal with Anaheim, Donaldson arguably is the brightest unsigned star on the market. Quite the Plan B for those who unsuccessfully courted Rendon. At least three teams who must/could add a third baseman – the Braves, Washington and Philadelphia – reside in the NL East. The Rangers may be out. The Dodgers may be in. The thought that a three-year deal would be enough to secure Donaldson is out the window. It’s going to take four years.

    I’ve long stated paying for the fourth year (Donaldson’s age 37 season) represents quite the risk, especially considering he is just one season removed from an injury-marred two-year stretch. In fairness, 2017-18 represent the only significant medical issues of his big-league career. Plus, Donaldson’s impact on the 2019 Braves almost makes me think Atlanta must lean in here and guarantee that fourth year. Donaldson found success here and was healthy, developing a good approach with the Braves medical and training staff. That says nothing of how his grit/edge infused itself into the roster.

    Donaldson absolutely could end up with a $100-million deal (perhaps more) across four years. The Braves feel like they have almost no choice but to go there. Right?

    Unless …

    Kris Crossing the “What If”

    I’ve beat the drum on Twitter all offseason that if the Braves can add not one but two impact bats – one via trade, one via free agency – it would vault Atlanta right into the short circle of bona fide World Series championship contenders. You not getting there hitting Travis d’Arnaud fourth and Nick Markakis fifth, that’s for darn sure. And while the thought process has been to re-sign Donaldson at third and perhaps trade for a corner outfield upgrade in left field, the escalation of the Donaldson market may lead to a shift in mindset.

    The Cubs find themselves in quite the situation. Several of their key young stars are going to hit free agency soon, and their farm system isn’t exactly teeming with future stars. Kris Bryant – maybe you’ve heard of him, the former college player of the year, NL rookie of the year, NL MVP – reportedly is available in the right deal.

    Bryant was limited to 102 games due to injuries in 2018, but has hit 29 or more homers in each of his other four seasons. He’s topped .900 OPS three times, and slashed .282/.382/.521 last season when he hit 35 doubles with 31 homers and 108 runs scored. Oh, did I mention he plays third base, corner outfield, and first base?

    How long he’s under club control is an issue given the pending grievance, but assuming Bryant remains under club control for two years, this is the type of bat Atlanta needs, and at a position of need. It’s going to hurt. The rumored price of one bat and two pitching prospects feels a bit light, to be honest, not to mention something about the $40-$45 million the Braves would pay Bryant in arbitration in 2020 and 2021.

    But it’s Kris Bryant, and you’re a legit contender in need of a big bat.

    Should Donaldson sign elsewhere and the Cubs dangle Bryant, the Braves should pounce.

    The Pivot Point – Look Left?

    Marcell Ozuna has his flaws and certainly didn’t endear himself to Braves Country during the NLDS. But he posted a .800 OPS last season while hitting 29 homers and 23 doubles, is two seasons removed from a 37-homer, 124-RBI campaign with Miami, and just turned 29 years old. His defense is adequate enough (he’s not a butcher out there; and yes, I’ve seen the highlight of him scaling the wall and then falling ever so gracefully when the ball changed flight).

    Nicholas Castellanos destroyed opposing pitching in 51 games after being traded from Detroit to the Cubs, slashing .321/.356/.646 with a 1.002 OPS. His defense is less than desirable; of his 312 career games in the outfield, just 20 have come in left. But he smashed 58 doubles in 2019, one season after hitting 46 doubles and 23 homers while playing half his games in Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park.

    Both players figure to get four-year deals, and that’s the problem. The Braves will have top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters at Triple-A to start the season; Pache likely is in center in the majors by late summer, with Waters not too far behind. If given a choice to sign either Ozuna or Castellanos, I’d take Ozuna if that’s the only way to get an established power bat into the lineup. The end of the contract would worry me and certainly there’s not room for four full-time outfielders once Pache and Waters are ready.

    All Eyes on Alex

    Anthopoulos has been praised for being aggressive since the offseason began, but not adding a legit power bat to replace Donaldson should he leave – as I’ve said repeatedly – would be a massive failure. A lineup featuring Johan Camargo and Austin Riley platooning at third base with Adam Duvall and Markakis in left simply is not going to generate enough offense to support Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman in the top three spots.

    Think a fourth year of Donaldson at $25 million in 2023 or dealing Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson as part of a Bryant package is risky? Risky is walking into Arizona on March 26 with d’Arnaud hitting fourth and Markakis fifth.

    Sure, maybe Camargo bounces back after a lost season in which physically and mentally he wasn’t good. Of course, Riley is a very talented player who doesn’t turn 23 years old until April and possesses great potential.

    But “maybe” and “potential” don’t win the World Series. And even though this franchise has not won a playoff series since 2001, winning it all should be the single unabashed goal. The Braves choked away a series win in October that would’ve put them eight victories from the grandest prize in sports.

    The bullpen is vastly improved. The feeling here is the rotation will be solid even if the Braves do not add another starter. But without that power bat to protect Freeman – again, I’ll argue for two bats to further lengthen the lineup – it will be a huge roll of the dice that Anthopoulos cannot take.

    And he won’t.

    The Braves will hit their new spring training home with at least one significant impact bat added to the roster. It didn’t happen at the Winter Meetings. That’s OK. It’s December. But it will happen before camp opens.

    Because Anthopoulos has no choice.

    —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.

    Cole for Christmas is Nice, but Braves Must Pump Up Power

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Many Braves fans felt they were left with coal in their offseason stockings last spring after the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November, then did little else.

    But a different type of coal – Cole Hamels, to be specific – became the latest acquisition of a busy shopping spree for general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday. And while it’s not Gerrit Cole, who figures to sign for a bazillion dollars given the established price of free-agent starters, this Cole will fit into the Braves rotation just fine.

    Atlanta inked a one-time nemesis – stemming from Hamels’ 10 years in Philadelphia – to a one-year, $18-million contract, landing the Braves youthful rotation a veteran left-hander with 422 career games, a career 1.18 WHIP and 2,694 2/3 innings. Add in his 17 postseason games, a World Series MVP award and four All-Star appearances, and it would appear Anthopoulos has satisfied his desire to add an experienced arm to the trio of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

    Since the World Series ended, Anthopoulos has spent like a shopaholic carrying five new credit cards on Black Friday. He remade the bullpen by signing Will Smith, the best closer on the market, and bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. He grabbed Travis d’Arnaud to team with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, after re-signing Flowers and Nick Markakis.

    Including Hamels, Anthopoulos has added $56.25 million to the 2020 payroll. To this point, it’s mostly money well spent (we’ll know for sure after next season). What we do know in early December is this: The bullpen, a source of so much pain and hand-wringing for the first four months last season, is markedly better. d’Arnaud figures to get more than his share of starts following a healthy and resurgent season in a platoon with Flowers. Markakis will work with Adam Duvall in a left field platoon that likely will see Markakis get more starts than he should (because Brian Snitker remains manager, after all).

    Everybody knew Cole (Gerrit, not Hamels) and Stephen Strasburg would command mega deals on the open market, which in turn forced many teams to focus on a second tier centered around Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner. It became clear to the Braves quickly that landing either the East Paulding High alum (Wheeler, who signed a $118-million, five-year pact with Philadelphia later Wednesday) or the Hickory, N.C. native (Bumgarner) would require a heavy investment in years and AAV (average annual contract value).

    So Anthopoulos pivoted quickly to Hamels, who had expressed a desire early in the offseason to take a one-year deal with a contender. And while that World Series MVP award was 11 autumns ago, the soon-to-be 36-year old showed in 2019 he still is capable of pitching at a high level. Hamels posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.39 WHIP with a 3.0 bWAR in 27 starts for the Cubs, both numbers taking a hit after he returned too quickly from an oblique injury.

    Through his first 17 starts (pre-injury), Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP across 99 2/3 innings, allowing nine homers with a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his 10 starts after returning, he pitched to a 5.79 ERA with eight homers surrendered in 42 innings and an unsightly 1.88 WHIP. Most of that damage came in three starts; in the other seven, he gave up a total of 10 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings – a 2.67 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hamels closed the season by giving up three runs on nine hits in 11 2/3 innings across his final three starts.

    Just as important is the influence the Braves hope Hamels will have on their young pitchers. Fried in particular resembles a younger Hamels in both stature (both are 6-foot-4) and mechanics. Another southpaw, Sean Newcomb, figures to get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training (barring acquisition of another starter between now and March). Both should benefit from having an experienced lefty mentor in the locker room.

    Yes, Anthopoulos has accomplished a lot so far this winter. As baseball’s glacier-like pace of offseason moves thankfully has sped up this winter, the Braves are showing signs of a team making progress along the journey from rebuilding franchise to bona fide World Series contender.

    But at this point, it’s just that. Progress.

    Work remains to be done, and now is when things get tricky. Baseball’s Winter Meetings kick off Sunday evening in San Diego. For the moves Braves have completed, a glaring hole remains in the middle of the batting order. Donaldson (who was named NL comeback player of the year Wednesday) is one of the hottest commodities on the open market, viewed as the second-base third baseman behind Anthony Rendon and even more in demand now that Mike Moustakas has signed with Cincinnati.

    I expected payroll to rise this offseason, but it’s moving up at a dizzying rate when compared with the historical thriftiness of Liberty Media. Adding Hamels (and sadly subtracting fan favorite Charlie Culberson, who was non-tendered Monday) to the opening-day locks list, I project 21 players who will be owed approximately $128.62 million for 2020.

    Suffice to say, the work cannot stop now. Especially after all the moves of the past month, Atlanta simply cannot settle with a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley platoon at third base without adding a power bat elsewhere. Ideally, it’s Donaldson at third base, which would mean re-signing the Bringer of Rain for something around $25 million AAV for at least three years (if other camps offer a fourth season, I’m concerned the rain will fall elsewhere in 2020).

    Re-signing Donaldson is the simplest path, one that would take the payroll north of $153 million with four spots left (two on the bench; two in the bullpen). Maybe the Auburn football program could put in a good word for the Braves, considering Donaldson watched his alma mater win Saturday’s Iron Bowl from the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    But if he lands elsewhere, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to trade some of the prospect stockpile and likely Ender Inciarte (and perhaps a bullpen piece) to land a power bat, perhaps Starling Marte from Pittsburgh or Jorge Soler from Kansas City or Mitch Haniger from Seattle, provided he can make the deal sweet enough to compel the other side to jump). The trade market is so much harder to pin down, but every GM in baseball will be at the same place in Southern California for four days next week.

    Given the activity we’ve seen across the sport this offseason, it might be quite a week.

    Regardless, the Braves have no choice. Adding Hamels to the rotation, bolstering the bullpen, and addressing catcher early puts the Braves in a great position with the Winter Meetings approaching. But as long as that hole in the lineup remains, Anthopoulos cannot stop doing everything possible to deliver Braves Country the ultimate prize next autumn, one far greater than coal (or Cole).

    —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.

    Braves’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Back in the old days of print newspapers, it wasn’t uncommon to have items that never made it into the morning edition. Those tidbits, musings, observations would remain in your notebook, scribbled as a passing thought or jotted down in case you needed it as a point of reference.

    On the day after the Atlanta Braves saw their season end with a thud in an ugly Game 5 loss to St. Louis in the National League Division Series, it’s time to empty the notebook and touch on a few items that didn’t get flushed out in our coverage of the series. Items that, in retrospect, feel worthy of a few words as the shift from stunned conclusion to pivotal offseason begins in earnest.

    Acuna, Part I: Save for one regrettable moment in Game 1, 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. did more than his part, the emerging superstar hitting .444 in the series with a 1.454 OPS, three doubles, one triple, one homer and four walks. The fact Acuna finished with a .565 OBP in the series and scored just one run only underscores how putrid a large segment of the Atlanta offense was in the five games.

    Acuna, Part II: As brilliant as Acuna was, so much more has been made of the budding feud between him and the Cardinals, stoked by Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina and Jack Flaherty. I had no problem with several Braves calling out Acuna for his lack of hustle on the single off the right-field wall in Game 1 (an inning I contend the Braves were not going to score whether he was on first or second base). It was warranted and necessary.

    I had a huge problem with the indifference displayed in the Braves dugout in the fifth inning of Game 5, when Flaherty gutlessly drilled Acuna in the back with a purpose pitch, on a two-strike count, in a 12-run game. I certainly did not want to see the Braves charge the field, nor do I think Sean Newcomb should’ve hit Flaherty in the following inning. But the disinterest when Acuna wore a pitch between his shoulder blades from his teammates was a bad, bad look. So, too, is the ongoing public referendum around a kid barely old enough to drink who possesses game-changing talent, a vibe the sport is trying to market.

    Let the kid play … and have his back if somebody crosses the line.

    Freddie Failure: This is Freddie Freeman’s team, without question, but I’d be hard pressed to find a five-game stretch in which the unofficial captain of the Braves was this bad. His error on Molina’s ball in the first in Game 5 cost Atlanta an inning-ending double play and opened the floodgates. It’s a play that had to be made. He was awful at the plate, collecting two of his four hits (in 20 at-bats) after St. Louis blew it open Wednesday. His inability to make contact hurt the Braves on multiple occasions (six strikeouts in the series). The Braves three-hole hitter, with the leadoff hitter on base for much of the series begging for somebody to drive him home, finished with one paltry RBI.

    In 39 plate appearances in the past two postseasons, Freeman has two RBIs – both coming on solo homers. He described the Braves as having “failed” in his postgame comments Wednesday, doubling down yet again on the fact his right elbow is healthy. But he clearly wasn’t himself, and while he never was going to come out of the lineup or move out of the third spot, Freeman’s failure to raise his game – as Acuna did – ultimately played a major role in the premature end of Atlanta’s season.

    Soroka For One, Not Two: A huge talking point in the hours after the series was the decision to save 22-year-old ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka for Game 3 in St. Louis, taking advantage of dominant road splits instead of starting the All-Star twice in the series. It’s easy to second guess the decision after the fact, but the feeling here was (and remains) that it was the right call.

    With playoff veteran Dallas Keuchel starting the opener at home and as hot as Mike Foltynewicz was entering his Game 2 assignment, you had to feel Soroka’s matchup was quite favorable considering he would pitch on the road as opposed to in Atlanta (4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP at home in the regular season vs. 1.55/0.96 in away games). As I mentioned in the run-up to the series, the vast majority of the time you want your No. 1 or No. 2 guy lined up to get two starts across the five games. But the decision to start Soroka just once, while painful in hindsight, did not lose Atlanta this series.

    Best Laid Plans: There are a lot of people for whom I feel awful after this belly-flop performance, but Chris Martin sits near the top of the line. Out of baseball, working in warehouses, started throwing again, went the indy ball route, eventually ended up with the Rangers, then after becoming a strike-throwing machine was acquired by the Braves at the deadline.

    Martin’s left oblique injury, suffered before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1, not only eliminated another layer to this tremendous story, it also had an equally painful ripple effect on the Braves pitching plans. Shane Greene pitched the sixth inning in Game 1, with Brian Snitker looking to close the game with Max Fried in the seventh, Martin in the eighth and Mark Melancon in the ninth. Martin’s absence shoved Fried into a full-time bullpen role for the rest of the series (he would’ve been quite the option to start either Game 4 or 5). Instead, Snitker had to bring on Luke Jackson in the eighth in Game 1, who struggled before Melancon imploded in the ninth.

    But Sometimes, The Plan Isn’t Worth Following: Honestly, Martin never should’ve trotted in from the bullpen in Game 1. Fried absolutely dominated the seventh inning (14 pitches, nine strikes, two punchouts) and should’ve gotten the eighth. With Paul Goldschmidt leading off the eighth (who would hit one nine miles off Jackson), it would’ve been great to scrap the best-laid plans after watching Fried shove in the seventh and give the lefty at least a chance to work the eighth.

    Absurdly Offensive Offense: The Braves were carried by Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall in the series offensively, but got precious little help from most of the lineup. We’ve talked about Freeman, but he had company. Ozzie Albies had a strong Game 4 but mostly was pedestrian. Josh Donaldson disappointed. Nick Markakis was invisible (certainly, he’s made his final appearance with Atlanta, right?). Matt Joyce struggled before being benched for Duvall in Game 5.

    One of the top offenses in the NL all season, the Braves slashed .225/.302/.385 in the series. They finished with 16 extra-base hits, nine from Acuna-Swanson-Duvall. Game 5 was over before the Braves registered a plate appearance, but in the first four games they went 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and left 30 on base, including 17 in the two games they had no business losing – eight in Game 1; nine in Game 4.

    How else to explain why, after Acuna doubled to lead off the ninth of a tied Game 4, Albies didn’t bunt? Because Freeman-Donaldson-Markakis were so bad in the series, the Braves best chance was hoping their second baseman – who had a homer and a sacrifice fly in the game – could punch through a hit. It wasn’t going to happen if Albies didn’t get it done.

    Above any other reason, the inability to hit with runners in scoring position in the first four games cost the Braves this series.

    Finally, A Toast To B-Mac: Brian McCann was my oldest’s son’s favorite player growing up. The kid would crawl into my lap and ask a million questions about what the Duluth High graduate and Gwinnett County product was doing behind the plate, sparking a love of catching that led to that little boy squatting behind the dish in little league for eight years.

    McCann put together a very good career. He struggled mightily in the second half, but homered in the division clincher against San Francisco, capped the big rally against Philly with a walkoff in mid-June, and something just felt right about him being at home and going to the playoffs in, what we learned after Game 5, was his final big-league season.

    The Braves were facing the need to upgrade at catcher entering next season before McCann’s announcement. But that does nothing to minimize the impact B-Mac had on everybody who saw him play. And even more important, from everybody who crossed paths with him, from the newspaper sports editor who delighted in a 15-minute conversation at spring training 2006 talking to him about the impact the 1990s Braves had on himself and a generation of Atlanta-area kids, to my son – who refused to leave SunTrust Park on Wednesday until he saw McCann catch the final inning of his career.

    —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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.

    5 Burning Questions with Braves & Cards Ready to Rumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We have the opposition. We have some of the game times. We even have the umpiring crew (and lord have mercy, if you could’ve seen my face when I opened that press release Monday afternoon and saw Sam Holbrook’s name).

    Welcome to Choptober, Braves Country. The National League Division Series kicks off Thursday at SunTrust Park and, depending on who wins Tuesday’s NL wild card matchup, the first pitch will cross home plate around either 5:02 p.m. ET or 6:02 p.m. ET. Holbrook, infamous in Atlanta sports history for making the wretched, still-jaw-dropping-seven-years-later infield fly rule call in the wild card game (against the Cardinals, of course) in 2012, will take the field as crew chief.

    Certainly, the 42,000 or so who jam into SunTrust on what may be the hottest October day ever in Atlanta temperature-wise (forecast high is 94 degrees) certainly will greet Holbrook warmly. Memories of that disastrous call and the ensuing storm of beer bottles and other debris that littered the field still make Braves fans cringe, as the ruling squelched a late rally and subsequently not only ended the Braves season, but the Hall of Fame career of third baseman Chipper Jones.

    There will be ad nauseum references to Holbrook and his moment of infamy in the days ahead. Still shaking my head at the level of tone deafness exhibited by Major League Baseball, we move on from that talking point and focus instead on the matchup between the champions of the NL East and NL Central. The Cardinals had to battle until Sunday’s regular-season finale, holding off the hard-charging Brewers to win the division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

    Here’s my five questions to consider as the hours tick toward first pitch:

    The Braves “malaise” … not a big deal or matter of concern?

    Much has been made of the way Atlanta finished the season, losing five of its final six games and dropping eight of its last 12 games while falling three wins short of 100. But at some point, this team had to cool off a little bit, considering before those final dozen contests they went 75-37 since May 10. That’s a .669 winning percentage, which is a 108-win pace. The 4-8 mark to close the season? That’s a 54-win pace.

    The Braves are far closer to playing .600 ball than .400 ball, the difference between winning and losing a best-of-five series. Once the Braves took care of Washington in early September, the air came out of the balloon, especially after clinching. It almost looked to me like a classroom with a week to go before summer vacation and all the course work completed. Yes, you can’t just “flip a switch” and turn it on again, but also remember the Cardinals have three days off entering Game 1, too. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    How healthy are Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.?

    I won’t lie: seeing Acuna limp toward the fence in the right-center field gap at Kansas City on Tuesday froze me in my tracks. Yes, it derailed his quest to reach 40-40, and that stings. But more important to me was the correct decision to shut down the 21-year-old for the final four games of the regular season. Acuna took batting practice with no issues in New York and will ramp up his running in the days leading to Game 1. But until I see him race full speed Thursday, I’ll have a bit of hesitation.

    Freeman – whose right elbow bone spur should have its own Twitter feed, as much as it’s been discussed – played in all three games in New York, leaving after two at-bats in the finale. It’s been an ongoing issue nobody knew about publicly until it started barking two weeks ago. It’s not going to get any worse by playing. A couple of his swings this weekend looked painful, but most of his hacks looked fine to me (including the base hit in his final AB of the season Sunday). If I’m marginally concerned about Acuna, I’m only slightly worried about Freeman.

    Should Mike Soroka start one of the first two games in Atlanta?

    Conventional wisdom says you start your best two pitchers in the first two games of a series, especially at home. Conventional wisdom says you do not start a 22-year-old rookie pitcher on the road in his first postseason contest, especially in a place like St. Louis where the fans will be loud from first pitch to final out.

    But The Kid from Calgary has long since bucked conventional wisdom. Soroka has been the best pitcher in baseball on the road this season. Even with allowing three earned runs yesterday in New York, he wrapped the regular season 7-1 in 16 away starts with a 1.55 ERA, five homers (one Sunday) allowed in 98 2/3 innings and a 0.96 WHIP. He allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits with one walk and five strikeouts at St. Louis on May 25. Most of the time, he would get the ball for me on Thursday or Friday. This time? I like the call of him going Sunday.

    How beneficial is it that the Cardinals do not have a left-hander in their rotation?

    Since the Braves are deploying both Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce in the outfield, it is helpful that neither will have to deal with left-handers for most of the series (the Cardinals have Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb as lefties in the bullpen; Miller has struggled at times this season). Markakis is hitting .298 with a .816 OPS against right-handers (compared to .245 and .653 against southpaws). Joyce also is batting .298 against righties with a .871 OPS (compared to .273 and .748 against lefties).

    There are places where not having more left-handed bats due to injuries to Ender Inciarte and the switch-hitting Johan Camargo will sting against a right-handed-heavy St. Louis staff. Dansby Swanson has a .734 OPS against right-handers while posting a .803 OPS against left-handers, for example. But consider Tyler Flowers, who crushed left-handers at a .348 clip last season. In 2019, Flowers is hitting just .155 with an anemic .574 OPS against southpaws, but a respectful .262 with a pretty good .817 OPS against right-handers – one season after hitting just .184 vs. righties.

    How critical is Dallas Keuchel’s start in Game 1?

    Game 1 in a five-game series is massive, especially at home. Lose that game, and you must win three out of four to advance. For the final-two-months brilliance of Mike Foltynewicz, for the outstanding rookie campaign by Soroka, Dallas Keuchel is exactly what Atlanta needs in the opener. He pitched the 2015 AL wild card game, Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS and Game 1 of the 2017 World Series.

    In those three games, Keuchel went 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA, giving up three runs on 13 hits in 19 2/3 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. Keuchel has allowed two earned runs or fewer six times in his nine career playoff starts while surrendering five hits of fewer in each of those six outings. He gave up two homers in two of his final three starts, but that came during the team’s mini-slump down the stretch. In his six previous starts, Keuchel posted a 0.97 ERA while going 5-0.

    Now if Holbrook can avoid screwing up fundamental interpretation of the rulebook, we should have a great series (sorry, couldn’t resist one more shot).

    —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.