• Peter Moylan

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    He pushed away from the table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Braves at the Break: Good grades, but Work Remains to Reach October

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

    Braves 2018 All-Star Break Report Card

    The Roster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Staff

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    SEASON PREVIEW: Can Acuna, speed and defense carry Braves to .500?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Hope springs eternal, so goes the old saying, but in the cruel reality of Major League Baseball, that optimism runs dry for all but a few select squads.

    While it is true everybody plays to be the last one standing in early November and to bring home that golden trophy with the 30 pennants, truth serum served in 162 doses wears away the shine of spring dreams for most.

    So, when will that moment arrive for the Atlanta Braves, who are not ready to crash the postseason party but figure to be at least more intriguing this year than the last three (90-loss) seasons?

    Maybe deeper into summer than you think.

    Maybe.

    The Braves open the season at home on Thursday, hosting the Phillies at 4:10pm

    The Atlanta Braves open the 2018 season at home on Thursday, hosting the Philadelphia Phillies at 4:10pm

    Once in my young days as a sports writer, I wrote in a game story about an error a high school player made. My wise, older editor pointed out the error was inconsequential to the game’s outcome, and thus there was no need to call out the young gentleman in such a way. “Remember Bud, you played this sport,” said the sage editor, who loved this sport as deeply as myself. “It’s a hard game.”

    Indeed, it is. Coaching my 13- and 14-year old team last spring and summer did not allow me to provide any, “I remember when I was your age” moments. My career in uniform ended before then, when pitches started bending off a straight plane and when the speed, skill, athleticism and mental toughness to play at a high level surpassed any level this wannabe athlete growing up in the Atlanta suburbs could attain.

    I digress back to the present, as the Braves tick down the final days before Julio Teheran’s first pitch crosses home plate at SunTrust Park around 4:10 p.m. ET on Thursday. It will mark Atlanta’s second season inside its shiny new home, and most expect more wins than last year’s total of 72.

    Certainly, I feel this team will win more games. Last year’s Braves held things together through a remarkable first 90 games – walking out of SunTrust Park following a post-All-Star Game sweep of Arizona at 45 up and 45 down. Then the bottom dropped out as an overexposed bullpen and a shaky back end of the rotation ran out of pixie dust in the final 72 games.

    There is reason to be hopeful of improvement in both areas, especially behind the gate in right-center field. Atlanta has assembled a core of young arms that exemplify the flavor of the game right now: hard throwers coming in waves to dominate the late innings. Whether A.J. Minter is ready to close, whether Daniel Winkler is ready for 55 appearances, whether Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez can avoid control issues, and whether the outlier, the sage old sidearming Aussie Peter Moylan, can spot his sinker effectively, will go a long way to solidifying the final innings of games in Atlanta’s favor.

    The Braves figure to need it, with a rotation that is more stable in some respects but at the same time possessing just as many question marks and stopgaps as a season ago. Gone are the ageless (and miserably ineffective) Bartolo Colon, the underwhelming Jaime Garcia, and R.A. Dickey, whose knuckleball fluttered and floated enough for another solid season. Replacing them is the witty veteran Brandon McCarthy, the promise of Sean Newcomb and a gaping hole in the fifth spot with the powerful and, eh, robust, Luiz Gohara sidelined with an injury for at last the first month.

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    Slotting in at the top are two arms new general manager Alex Anthopoulos undoubtedly will watch closely in the season’s opening months. Teheran, whose struggles last season at home were much maligned, fashioned an outstanding spring and showed renewed confidence in his slider. Mike Foltynewicz, who for two months in the middle of last season looked like an emerging ace but at times continued to let his surroundings get the best of him, simplified his delivery over the winter and produced a stellar spring himself.

    An effective Teheran and Foltynewicz (the later perhaps grounded by the arrival of his first child shortly before camp began), teamed with a healthy McCarthy and the version of Newcomb who cut down on his walks in spring action, forms a solid four-man rotation. But again, there are questions, the type which cannot be answered until the team comes north and the lights kick on.

    Pitching is the key to this massive rebuild, and as we know, pitching develops later than hitting. But in some of the younger arms who acquitted themselves well during February and March – most notably Kyle Wright and an ace-in-the-making in Mike Soroka – Atlanta is awash in potential franchise-altering talent on the mound. It’s not here yet in full, but those two could be big-league-ready by late summer.

    Everybody knows the Braves are not going to lead the league in homers. The power deficit is notable, with Freddie Freeman and his healed wrist having little protection in the opening day lineup. That figures to change somewhat when 20-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna ascends to the majors for keeps once mid-April arrives, the outfielder dazzling even long-time observers with dominance of Grapefruit League action and five tools that could result in superstardom. Unlike the fickle nature of pitching, Acuna’s skillset, as 20-year-olds go, looks as close to a sure bet as possible for a guy who legally cannot buy a beer in one of The Battery’s sprawling watering holes.

    Acuna’s debut season – which will be chronicled unlike arguably any rookie in franchise history – is one of three reasons why this correspondent is somewhat bullish on this team’s chances. The impact of Acuna in another area is another optimistic point. In Acuna, the exciting Ozzie Albies at second base and the emerging steady star of Ender Inciarte in center field, Atlanta suddenly has three players capable of stealing 20-plus bases. A franchise long committed to station-to-station, wait-for-the-blast baseball, it will be fascinating to watch the employment of analytics brought by Anthopoulos and the impact of Eric Young Sr. – one of baseball’s better basestealers of the past 30 years – on the Braves’ offense.

    The third aspect plays toward thepitching, but is not centered on the mound. Rather, take a lookaround the diamond. Atlanta is light years better defensively than it was this time last year. It is fair to question whether Johan Camargo can hit consistently at the major-league level, but his arm and range dictate he plays third every day upon returning from an oblique injury. Gone from left field is Matt Kemp, whose anchor of a contract was outweighed only by his defensive liabilities. Acuna will slot there after the first couple of weeks, and he legitimately could be a Gold Glove candidate, while the guy next to him in center chases his third consecutive Gold Glove award.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Brandon Phillips played well at second base in 2017 but Albies, with his range and instincts, is a defensive star on the rise. Having him for a full season, plus having Freeman – who missed a quarter of last season with the wrist injury and actually impressed during the creative impulse that led him to play third base for a while upon his return – anchoring first base 155 games vastly improves the right side of the infield.

    Is Acuna, plus the speed in the lineup, plus the improved defense, worth an extra 1.5 wins per month? I think it is. That would be nine more wins than a season ago, which would put the Braves all even at the end of the season, 81-81. A .500 record would be welcomed in these parts, and yet, it feels like there are enough question marks where maybe that’s just a bit ambitious.

    If you gaze at the ceiling, you also must recognize the floor. Teheran hangs too many sliders to lefties at home, Foltynewicz struggles to channel his emotions, Newcomb can’t hit the corners and the bullpen is a mish-mash of guys moving in and out of roles due to inconsistency. Acuna struggles for long stretches as most mortal rookies will, teams pitch around Freeman, Albies hits a sophomore slump, Dansby Swanson does not recover from his, and a couple of key injuries mix in to send this team to a 74-win campaign.

    Best-case scenario is the bullpen arms settle into their roles, Vizcaino and Ramirez and Minter forming a dynamite trio for the final six-to-nine outs, Teheran and Foltynewicz bring their spring performances north and have consistent seasons, Newcomb’s control continues improving as he makes 27 starts, and Atlanta is a nightmare for opponents on the bases. Freeman puts forth a season worthy of MVP consideration – he was well on his way before being hit with a pitch last May – Acuna wins rookie of the year and the Braves play meaningful baseball into the final two weeks before settling with 85 wins.

    I think as often is the case, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. Mixing in elements from both scenarios (I personally don’t expect Acuna to hit .220, but him hitting .300 may not be realistic, as an example), I see this Braves team winning 80 games for the first time since winning the NL East in 2013. And while an 80-82 season will not put the Braves into this October, it would represent the right type of progress as Atlanta heads into a winter where it will be awash with cash for the blockbuster free-agent class of the coming offseason and, with it, the ability to extend its season far beyond the end of September come next autumn.

    —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.

    Philadelphia

    Braves family loses Tommy Hanson

    When news broke Monday that Tommy Hanson was in a coma in an Atlanta hospital after a friend found him not breathing, Braves Country became immediately concerned about the former Brave. The phrase ‘once a Brave, always a Brave’ has never meant as much as it does in times like this. News came Tuesday that Hanson, 29, had died.

    Hanson spent the 2009-2012 with the Atlanta Braves. After the first half of 2012, he was traded to the LA Angels of Anaheim.

    Hanson spent the 2009-2012 with the Atlanta Braves. After the first half of 2012, he was traded to the LA Angels of Anaheim.

    In 2009, Tommy Hanson burst on the big league scene after lighting up the minors with his unhittable fastball. His reputation preceded him. In 2008 while pitching for the Mississippi Braves, Tommy threw a no-hitter, earned a MiLBY for Class A Advanced Single Game Performance, was rewarded for a dominant season with a spot on the Baseball America’s Minor League Team of the Year, was the Arizona Fall League’s MVP and was named Braves Pitcher of the Year. It is no exaggeration to say the league was anxiously anticipating his debut.

    We often forget how promising Atlanta’s pitching staff was in the late 2000s. Jair Jurrjens, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Craig Kimbrel and Tommy Hanson were either on the roster or making their way through the minors to The Show. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado were only a year or two away. The front office had acquired Tim Hudson, Eric O’Flaherty, Kenshin Kawakami, Derek Lowe and Billy Wagner to round out the staff and offer veteran leadership to the up-and-coming arms. Of course, pitching rarely works out as planned. Kawakami was a bust, the Braves ate money to move Lowe, Medlen and Beachy required Tommy John and Tommy Hanson, well, Hanson saw the highest highs and lowest lows of the sport.

    Hanson did as everyone thought he would: He burst onto the scene in 2009 making his arrival noticed with a 3rd place running in the National League Rookie of the Year vote. That after having debuted in June! People forget that the Atlanta Braves brought Tommy in after cutting none other than Tom Glavine. They had a lot of hope for this young, 6’6″ red head from California. And he didn’t disappoint. His 2009 season is the kind pitchers’ dream of: 11-4, 2.89 ERA and 116 strikeouts (8.2 SO/9) in 127.2 innings pitched over 21 starts. But Tommy wasn’t just a line of stats to the Braves, he was a good clubhouse guy and a great teammate. You won’t find a former teammate that doesn’t say he was a joy to have around and one of the best guys to have on your side.

    In 2010, the Braves sent long-time manager Bobby Cox off in style. Their 91-71 record got them the Wild Card. Hanson’s 10-11 record on the season is hardly as telling of his season as his 3.33 ERA. He was a workhorse, going to the mound for 202-2/3 innings of work. Tommy was in or near the top 30 in both ERA and strikeouts that year. The Braves would go home after a mediocre loss to the Giants in the NLDS, but there was hope for a return to the postseason with such strong arms in the Braves’ system.

    The Braves did make it back to the postseason in the first ever National League Wild Card game, a game they lost. But Tommy Hanson didn’t pitch, his fellow Californian Kris Medlen did. And at this point, it was clear that something was very wrong with the righthander’s arm.

    By the end of 2012, even I, a fan of Tommy, was calling him “a shell of his former self.” In October of that year, I wrote:

    “Though it seemed injury was the likely culprit at the end of last season and again midway through the 2012 season, those who follow the Braves are fearful that Hanson’s drop in velocity and dominance is a sign that the Tommy of old will not be returning.”

    It was painful watching Tommy fall as quickly as he did. In 2009 he looked as if he had a long career in baseball and one that would, if not consistently at least flirt with dominance. At the end of 2011, Tommy dealt with a nagging injury that can reasonably be blamed for his late struggles.

    The trade that sent Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden was widely heralded as a wise trade and one that would be good for both players. Anaheim didn’t need Walden to close and the Braves hoped a change of scenery would return Tommy to the pitcher he was when he broke into the league. Tommy’s ERA had been growing, he had spent time on the disabled list with a back strain and he hadn’t looked himself. While it was hard for the team and their fans to part with Big Red, as he had come to be called, everyone was rooting for Tommy Hanson. It was impossible to not root for Tommy.

    Despite his struggles within the game, outside the game he remained a great friend and teammate. The outpouring of condolences to the Hanson family from members of the Braves, Angels and Rangers organizations are proof. Something former Brave Kris Medlen said in a text to Dave O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution struck me:

    “I also feel bad for anyone who didn’t get a chance to know the man. He was the kindest, most loyal person I’ve ever met. He loved his family more than anything in the world, and his friends felt like family when around them. He was not ‘like’ a brother to me, he was my brother and I’m going to miss him so much.”

    Tommy Hanson joined his teammates in Hawaii for the weddingKimbrel's teammates pose in tribute to the Braves' closer

    Tommy Hanson joined his teammates in Hawaii for the wedding of former (and now current) Brave Peter Moylan.

    We as fans may not have known Tommy personally, but we got to see these young Braves come up alongside him and we got to appreciate just how close they all were.

    I was reminded of when Braves fans everywhere were posting pictures of themselves doing “The Kimbrel” and one of those pictures came from the players themselves. Attending Peter Moylan’s wedding in Hawaii, Tommy joined Medlen, Moylan and Kimbrel to show their support for the unusual stance of their teammate. It is a reminder of something we often forget about these players we watch for 162 games a season: They are first and foremost people. They have friends. They have family. And yes, sometimes their teammates become their family, but that isn’t a given. That Medlen calls Hanson a brother speaks to the kind of man he was.

    Baseball is just a game. This comes as a surprise to some, I know, but after the toughest game, the worst loss, the high of winning and even the end of the season, it’s just a game. There is life outside baseball. Both the game and life outside it aren’t always easy. Tommy knew this better than most. As Braves Country heals from this loss and moves on to another season, the last at Turner Field, it’s important not to forget this.

    Personally, I will never forget Tommy’s brilliant first half in 2011 and how disappointing it was to not have him named to the All Star team. That summer his finest start came against Houston. He entered that game with 2 games already where he’d recorded 10 strikeouts. That didn’t stop him from topping his best. He went 7 innings with 14 strikeouts and 1 earned run. It was one of those games when you knew this kid was special. Not only was his pitching unbelievable, his spirit was contagious. All 6’6″ of him stood on that mound and in that dugout, his flaming red hair and brilliant smile on display, and showed us that there was truly something special about Tommy Hanson.

    May Tommy rest in peace and be forever in our hearts.

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

    Braves Off-Field Photo Album

    Here’s a look at a few pics posted to Twitter by Braves players’ themselves over the winter:

    Bullpen Coach, Eddie Perez, and RHP Kris Medlen.

     

    Right Fielder, Jason Heyward, chillin' at home

     

    Braves right-handed pitchers, Peter Moylan and Kris Medlen

     

    RHP Peter Moylan getting inked

     

    1B Freddie Freeman

     

    A tribute to Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

     

    If the Braves Reported to Camp Tomorrow…

    By Kent Covington

    Braves remain confident in their current roster, but are hoping for an upgrade.

    As us Braves fans, bloggers and commentators wait patiently impatiently for General Manager, Frank Wren, to upgrade the roster, let’s take a moment to reflect on what’s already here.  What if the Braves reported to camp right now?  What if spring training started tomorrow?

    Here’s the likely opening day roster if it remained mostly unaltered:

    STARTERS:

    T.Hudson

    T.Hanson

    J.Jurrjens

    B.Beachy

    Minor/Teheran/Delgado

     

    RELIEVERS:

    C.Kimbrel (R)

    K.Medlen (R)

    A.Vizcaino (R)

    C.Martinez (R)

    Venters (L)

    O’Flaherty (L)

     

    STARTERS:

    F.Freeman (1B)

    D.Uggla (2B)

    T.Pastornicky (SS)

    C.Jones (3B)

    B.McCann (C)

    M.Prado (LF)

    M.Bourn (CF)

    J.Heyward (RF)

     

    BENCH:

    E.Hinske (1B/LF)

    Ross (C)

    Constanza (OF)

    Diaz (OF)

    unnamed veteran SS/INF

     

    REMAINING QUESTIONS:

    • Will the Braves add another bat?

      RHP, Peter Moylan was non-tendered by the Braves, but could still return to the team.

    • If so, what kind of bat?  Could they broker a deal for a potential everyday impact player… or will they aim for a less costly target, such as Cody Ross?
    • Is Atlanta looking for a situational lefty to replace lhp, George Sherrill, who will depart as a free agent after one year with the club?
    • Will the club bring rhp, Peter Moylan, back?
    • Who will the Braves acquire to back up their rookie starter at shortstop?

    I am convinced that the Braves will find the veteran backup shortstop they seek, even if it happens after the team reports to camp.  I also believe it is more likely than not that the team will add a bat… but who?

    The success of the Braves pitching staff will hinge largely on health.  Before the all star break last season, Jurrjens and Hanson combined to go 22-7 with a 2.14 ERA.  No other pair in baseball put up the kind of numbers “JJ” and Hanson boasted in the first half.  That duo, along with Tim Hudson, formed as effective a trio as there was anywhere in baseball.

    But hampered by shoulder and knee ailments, respectively, Hanson and Jurrjens were non-existent in the second half of the season. After the All-Star break they were a combined 2-6 with a 6.75 ERA.  So again…

    Jurrjens and Hanson:

    Before All-Star break – 22-7, 2.14 ERA

    After All-Star break – 2-6, 6.75 ERA

    If both remain in Atlanta, much will hinge on the health of Hanson/Jurrjens

    Tim Hudson had surgery to address an ailment of his own (herniated disc) over the winter.  He is expected to be ready for spring training, and the Braves don’t seem concerned about him.  That said, he will turn 37 years old during the ’12 season.

    The development and performance of a few young arms will also affect the success of this staff. Can Brandon Beachy build on his impressive ’11 rookie season (7-3, 3.62 ERA, 169 K’s)?  What will the Braves get from their 5th starter (who will likely be the product of a spring competition between rookies Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran)?  And if Jurrjens is traded—he’s been the subject of multiple rumors this winter—the performance of young hurlers will play a tremendous role in the Braves’ 2012 fortunes.

    As for the offense, without a significant upgrade via trade, the Braves will rely heavily on the ability of Martin Prado and Jason Heyward to remain healthy and rebound from disappointing ’11 seasons. They’ll also have to hope Rookie of the Year runner up, Freddie Freeman, fares better in his sophomore campaign than Heyward did last season.  And it certainly wouldn’t hurt if some of rookie shortstop, Tyler Pastornicky’s, offensive success at the AAA level translates to the big leagues.

    Contrary to popular belief, Atlanta COULD compete with Philly in the East and earn another postseason berth without any noteworthy alterations.  The Braves were, after all, just 2.5 games behind the Phillies in July of last season, before injuries effectively sidelined their top two starters for the remainder of the season.  And that was with the horrendous first half of Dan Uggla and no leadoff hitter at the time.

    Consider also that Atlanta led the NL in on-base percentage in 2010 and was 6th in the league in runs scored. After the ’10 season, the Braves upgraded by effectively replacing Troy Glaus and Melky Cabrera in the lineup with Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. Amazingly, despite a substantial upgrade, the offensive numbers actually went down, not up.

    Point being, this offense considerably underperformed in ’11.  That’s why Larry Parrish’s first year as Hitting Coach in Atlanta was his ONLY year as Hitting Coach in Atlanta (not that he shoulders all the blame).  This lineup is capable of much more than it showed last season.

    If the team reported to camp tomorrow, this would be a ballclub CAPABLE of competing at the highest level.  HOWEVER, if the roster remains largely as is, Atlanta’s chances will be qualified by a lot of “Ifs”.  IF the Braves’ “big 3” of Jurrjens, Hanson & Hudson can remain healthy. IF Prado stays healthy and returns to ’10 All-Star form.  IF Heyward can avoid injury an fulfill his potential of over the course of a full season.

    The Braves can compete with their current complement of talent. But, obviously, the more talent they add, the more margin for error (or injury) they’ll enjoy… and the less they’ll be forced to rely upon good fortune.

    Either way, IF Lady Luck smiles upon the Braves in ’12, they could be among the best teams in baseball next season. There is ample cause for concern, but there are also plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

    P.S. The Fried Baseball podcast will return in early 2012 with an entirely new feel. More guests, more interviews and more insanity. See ya then!