• Phil Pfeifer

    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.