• Ryan Flaherty

    Braves Go Cyber Monday Shopping, Bolster Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There were plenty of people who did their research, scoped out the best buys, figured out their budget and set their sights on Cyber Monday, one of those holiday events where many of us upgrade our wardrobe, electronics or household.

    Who knew Alex Anthopoulos also had that day circled on his calendar?


    Now granted, the Braves general manager probably did not set out specifically to make the first two moves of this pivotal offseason on the same day you were saving 30 percent on a pair of jeans and a flat-screen TV. But when you slip on those new jeans and fire up that TV come April, you’re going to see a familiar face and a hugely impactful face wearing Atlanta Braves jerseys.

    Atlanta welcomed home longtime catcher, Duluth (Ga.) native and eternal fan favorite Brian McCann on Monday, signing the veteran catcher to a one-year, $2 million deal. Injuries and decreased offensive production diminished his impact the past two seasons in Houston, but one of the better framing catchers in the game did help the Astros win the 2017 World Series. Reportedly, the soon-to-be 35-year-old turned down more lucrative offers for the chance to play in front of family and friends in his hometown.

    Certainly, this move did not move the needle holistically as much as it did for sentimental reasons. This correspondent even tweeted that this move did not look great at the moment, but likely would in a month or two given the moves that would come, taking care of the catching position, not spending but a mere pittance (in baseball terms) to get it done. After all, this is not the same player who made seven All-Star appearance wearing an Atlanta uniform earlier in his career.

    Then came news – merely minutes after McCann’s signing was announced by the club – that made adding a catcher who hit .212 in 63 games last season much more tolerable, sentiments be darned.

    The Braves inked slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal late Monday, reuniting the former Blue Jay with Anthopoulos, the general manager who acquired the Auburn University product after the 2014 season to help Toronto reach back-to-back AL championship series.

    That’s a lot of money for a guy who, like McCann, has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. But any return to form for Donaldson, who will be motivated to parlay this one-year deal into a huge free-agent contract come next winter, would pay tremendous dividends for an Atlanta lineup that – for all its sizzle and shine a season ago – lacked the right-handed power threat to slot behind Freddie Freeman in the cleanup spot.

    There’s a lot to like about these deals together, from an inward and an outward perspective.

    Inward, the Braves are a better team now than they were at sunrise. McCann will provide tremendous leadership behind the plate for Atlanta’s youthful staff, the catcher certainly benefitting from working with the likes of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander since he left the Braves after the 2013 season. He gained valuable experience playing in the postseason with the Yankees (who he signed with after leaving Atlanta) and Houston, including the 2017 World Series title.

    Likewise, Donaldson has his share of playoff experience, including the aforementioned two years with Anthopoulos north of the border. The soon-to-be 33-year-old only played 52 games a season ago, but slugged 33 homers with a .944 OPS in 113 games the year before, and only is three years removed from a MVP campaign in which he blasted 41 homers and drove in 123 runs. Anything approaching those numbers in 2019 gives the Braves one of the absolute most dangerous lineups in the NL, hands down.

    And what of Johan Camargo, the young fan favorite whose anchoring of third base the final four months of 2018 is hailed as one of the reasons the rebuilding Braves transitioned into the playoff-clinching Braves? Folks, I can’t see Camargo going anywhere. He has experience playing three infield positions, will get some work at first base and corner outfield in camp, and profiles exactly as the type of player Martin Prado was at one time and Marwin Gonzalez (McCann’s former Houston teammate) is at this time.

    Those guys are incredibly valuable. Baseball today has changed. Used to be, the best eight guys played every day. Not anymore. Remember the NLDS, where the Braves fell in four games to Los Angeles? Atlanta’s bench was piecemeal, while the Dodgers routinely brought guys off the bench who could’ve started for the majority of teams in the majors.

    Camargo will see time on the bench, sure, but also will get plenty of starts spelling Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Donaldson (the beauty is Donaldson does not have to play 150 games for this deal to be a winner for the Braves), a few starts in a corner outfield spot. Social media lit up immediately after the Donaldson news broke with questions of whether Camargo or Swanson would be moved.

    My feeling is neither. Anthopoulos and Brian Snitker – ironically, the man who as a minor-league manager told a 21-year-old McCann at Double-A Mississippi in 2005 that he was going to the majors for the first time – realize depth is a need if this franchise is going to play deeper into October in 2019. Donaldson’s addition allows that to happen. Consider that on a particular night, you could have Camargo (or Swanson, or Albies, or Donaldson) as your top option off the bench, with McCann as the second catcher on days Tyler Flowers starts, along with the ever-versatile Charlie Culberson?

    Beats Ryan Flaherty and Danny Santana.

    It’d be foolish to think the Braves are done, either. Certainly, Anthopoulos will take some of the remaining payroll flexibility and save that dry powder for spring training or the trade deadline, but Atlanta still has money to spend (even more so if it can find a taker for Julio Teheran, knowing it likely will have to eat some of his $11 million owed for 2019). Were Donaldson an everyday player last season, there is no way he takes a one-year deal. McCann three years ago would not have come home for $2 million.

    But here they are, and there still is room for the Braves to work.

    Not to mention Atlanta has dealt exactly zero prospects from its overflowing pantry of young talent. The capabilities are there to make a major move on the trade front, and I think that’s where the Braves will strike next. Could Cleveland’s Corey Kluber be had for a high prospect price, giving Atlanta three years of control of a perennial Cy Young candidate who is a bona fide ace? Could Seattle be enticed to deal outfielder Mitch Haniger and/or closer Edwin Diaz for a big package, allowing the Braves to address corner outfield and closer with long-term controllable pieces?

    Anthopoulos filled two needs on Cyber Monday. Time will tell if he got the most bang for his buck. And with the Winter Meetings looming and plenty of options on the table, today’s spending spree likely is only the beginning.

    —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.

    CHOPTOBER BOUND! Braves Pull Together, Reclaim NL East Throne

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The manager spoke with tears welling in his eyes, his voice quivering with the emotion of 40-plus years spent with one organization. The veteran first baseman and team captain referenced losing 90-plus games each of the past three years. The front-runner for rookie of the year leaped into the air as he approached the human mosh pit.

    And all around SunTrust Park, baseball’s newest stadium that didn’t even have turf laid on its field 19 months ago, Braves Country lost its collective minds in a symphony of cheers, tears, hugs and certainly more than a few beers.

    The Braves completed their remarkable ascent from the depth of rebuilding to the top of the National League East. Atlanta officially slammed the door shut on the nearly five-year painful trudge through the rebuilding of the organization, clinching its first division championship and playoff berth in five seasons at 3:44 p.m. Saturday when Ronald Acuna glided to his left and gloved the final out of a 5-3 triumph over second-place Philadelphia.

    Many thought these Braves would be winners eventually, but certainly not this fast. History provides two significant breakthroughs since this franchise uprooted from Milwaukee and brought pro sports to the South in 1966. The 1982 Braves rode the momentum of a 13-0 start and a national fanbase cultivated by TBS on nationwide cable, America’s Team shocking the world by winning the NL West and reaching the postseason for the first time since 1969. Nine years later, following six awful years of baseball the 1991 Braves went from worst-to-first in the NL West, chasing down the Dodgers before stunning the Pirates in the NLCS and pushing the Twins to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series.

    Take the stage, 2018 Braves. You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your 1982 and 1991 counterparts.

    That’s how remarkable this campaign has been, and unlike those two squads – who did not clinch until the final weekend of the season – these Braves finished their business with a week to spare. The 2018 NL East champs now have the luxury of resting starters, as we saw in Sunday’s 2-1 victory, of lining up their playoff rotation, of determining who makes the NL Division Series roster.

    How did we get here? So many have their fingerprints all over this championship, critical ingredients into the mix that results in Atlanta gracing the postseason stage starting Oct. 4.

    Leadership, Not Dictatorship: The rookies and young players filling out so many spots on the roster get plenty of attention, but the veteran leadership in the room has been a steadying influence since spring training. One thing guys like Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis did was show the way to do the job while not squelching the enthusiasm the young 20-somethings brought to the ballpark. On the field, Freeman and Markakis anchored the 3-and-4 spots in the lineup on a daily basis, and both have been among the top 15 players in the NL all season.

    The Children Shall Lead Them: Certainly, the Braves needed several of their young and talented players to step up for this to happen so soon. Boy, did they ever. Mike Foltynewicz developed into a front-line starter. Sean Newcomb was sensational at times. Ozzie Albies earned an All-Star berth while burning up basepaths and playing stellar defense. Dansby Swanson continued evolving into one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, and his hitting late in games was nothing short of remarkable. Then there is Acuna, who slammed homers at a breathtaking pace, played outstanding defense, jump-started Atlanta’s sprint to October once he moved into the leadoff spot, and his being plunked by Miami’s Jose Urena seemed to galvanize the team and the fanbase.

    Seize the Day: There were opportunities for both veterans and newcomers to shine, and it seemed like the Braves came up golden at every turn. Ryan Flaherty and Preston Tucker helped carry the offense in the first three weeks of the season. Rookie starters Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson each won their major-league debuts. Brandon McCarthy won four games against the Phillies in the season’s early weeks. Even Jose Bautista hit a homer during a failed experiment at third base. Speaking of which …

    The Goat and Charlie Clutch: One of the biggest questions entering the season was how would Johan Camargo perform with a full season of at-bats. Slowed initially by an oblique injury, Camargo grabbed third base in late May after Bautista was released and hasn’t looked back, providing clutch hitting time and time again (he scored two runs in the first two innings of Saturday’s clincher) while providing jaw-dropping defense. When Camargo wasn’t at third base, it was Charlie Culberson, the throw-in piece in the Matt Kemp trade who developed into a cult hero. Born in Rome and raised in Calhoun, Culberson bookended an early-summer homestand with walkoff homers, played seven positions (including a stellar scoreless inning on the mound that featured a 94 mph heater) and epitomized the Braves mantra of doing whatever it takes to win.

    The Unsung Savior: Most any other season this would be Culberson hands down, but the nod here goes to a guy who didn’t join the team until the final week of spring training. Anibal Sanchez, who admitted he thought about retiring at the end of last season, was signed after being released in March to provide veteran leadership. All he did was help solidify a rotation spot after returning from a hamstring injury in April, taking young pitchers under his wing with the peer-to-peer guidance every successful team needs. He is a viable candidate for comeback player of the year and certainly will get one of the Braves first three starts in the NLDS.

    Filling In the Gaps: Give it to Alex Anthopoulos, who walked into a mess 10 months ago with a franchise reeling from not just three-straight losing seasons, but a nasty front-office scandal. All he did was preach patience, no rash moves, serving originally as one who evaluates, looking to see what he had before really diving into getting the team ready to contend in 2019. But Anthopoulos recognized this bunch had something special, so he supplemented the bullpen and the rotation at the trade deadline, did not hesitate to promote young players who proved they were ready to play in the majors, and brought a much-needed breath of fresh air that permeated from top to bottom throughout the organization.

    A Country United: Braves fans get a bad rap at times, but there is no denying this team unified its fanbase like no Braves team has in a generation. Atlanta averaged more than 31,000 fans per home game at SunTrust Park, and as the season unfolded, the players seemed to pick up on the fans’ emotion and vice versa. Rebuilding takes time and the aforementioned scandal left a scar, no doubt, But after four long and miserable years, the fans responded and were rewarded with a magical season, one that will carry into October.

    Steady at the Helm: Say what you may about Brian Snitker and his in-game tactical decision making. The players on this team absolutely love him. Many felt Anthopoulos would seek to bring in his own manager after 2018, but after this storybook ride to October, there is no doubt Snitker will get an extension. And it’s richly deserved. He kept the Braves from spinning out of control at several key junctures this season, his ability to relate to players old and young one of the many reasons cited over and over again as one of the common foundational threads of this championship. It helped keep the team from getting too high or too low, bore out in the number of comeback victories that propelled the Braves to the top.

    And as he stood on the field Saturday afternoon, his players embracing him one-by-one, Snitker reflected on his four decades in the organization. The tears built in his eyes as he tried to encapsulate for the media what this title means. After a long pause with emotion clearly bubbling to the surface, he told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and The Athletic, “I’m a Brave.”

    He, and his team and the organization he truly loves and the adoring residents of Braves County near and far, awoke Sunday morning wearing another label:

    Champions.

    —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 Head West with Sense of Urgency After Wednesday Meltdown

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are certain defeats each season that feel like the proverbial kick in the, well, you know where. Then there are the couple of losses that feel like you’re flying down one of those old 10-foot metal slides we had at my elementary school, and just as you reach maximum speed and just before you reach the bottom, there’s that one little jerk in every fourth-grade class who sticks out his fist at the absolute worst possible time.

    Fifteen minutes later, when you’ve been convinced that, yes, you are medically OK and no longer a danger to land in suspension for strangling the instigator, the heartrate drops, you look around and try to figure out just what in the heck happened.

    Welcome to Wednesday for the Atlanta Braves.

    It flowed swimmingly for seven blissful innings in the matinee finale of a disappointing eight-game homestand, the NL East leaders building a 7-1 lead on a Boston squad that looks like – outside of Houston – a hands-down World Series title contender, but on this day fielding a junior-varsity squad on getaway day for the bunch with baseball’s best record.

    And then it all fell apart, in spectacular, slow-motion train-wreck fashion. The Braves endured their cruelest defeat of the season, a parade of relievers spitting the bit constantly and the infield defense cracking yet again in a six-run eighth to level the score, only to see Freddie Freeman put the Braves ahead again, only to see former friend Brandon Phillips, making his Boston debut, hit one halfway to his home in Stone Mountain with two outs in the ninth.

    Got all of that? If not, pull up a barstool. There’s plenty of Braves Country already here tonight, deep into a drowning of sorrows that resembles anything but a happy hour.

    The game came unhinged in a number of moments, but go big picture here. That portrait was splendid for the first six innings, as Mike Foltynewicz continued pitching like an ace and limited the Boston sub-varsity to two hits and one run while his teammates smashed out of a recent offensive funk. Foltynewicz threw a scant 87 pitches through six frames, and conventional wisdom dictated with the starting pitcher and his mates on cruise control, in a game which the Braves needed to win to finish the homestand at .500, in advance of a seven-game road trip to two locales in Arizona and San Francisco where the Braves typically play like crap, you keep it in fifth gear and keep on trucking.

    Then Brian Snitker fumbled the shifter, missed the clutch and pulled arguably his most bonehead move of the season.

    Yes, I love Snit and root for him. Yes, I know the players love him. Yes, I criticize his in-game management at times. Yes, he only can fire the bullets that have been loaded into the guy by Alex Anthopoulos. But this was over-management at its highest, worst-timed level. It triggered a series of dominos that eventually led to the Braves losing a game no team ever should lose, regardless if Boston rolled out maybe the best bench in baseball history in the late innings as the game morphed from a getaway-day play-it-out-and-fly-home, to a stirring victory on the Red Sox’s march to 110 victories.

    In fairness to Snitker, the very talented writer from The Athletic Atlanta and the Marietta Daily-Journal, Nubjyas Wilborn, shared with us tonight that Foltynewicz noticed his velo had dipped in the sixth inning, plus he was feeling the impact of the bone-spur issue that has impacted him at times this season.

    Still, it could not have resulted in a worse outcome. How so? If the Braves miss the playoffs, Wednesday might cost Brian Snitker his job. And that would be a shame given the job he’s done in steering this ship from the wreckage of 90 losses to surprise contention in a scant 28 months.

    But winning in October – the destination for a franchise stripped to the foundation, at a time that may not be now but darn well will be by 2019 – comes down to those tactical decisions. When you are in first place in a tightly contested playoff race, you ride your horses deeper in September than you do in April or May. That’s why this is the worst loss of the season. Miss me with the Cubs wind-and-rain-palooza at Wrigley in April. That was April.

    This is September, pennant-race baseball. It only gets hotter from here, and now the Braves fly across the continent with the unenviable task of washing away the most bitter loss of recent vintage and set their sights on two teams against which Atlanta is 1-5 this season.

    Yeah, that painful feeling just came back in the pit of your stomach, didn’t it?

    Having to cover nine outs with a bullpen that’s struggled at times and has a multitude of arms at or approaching career highs in innings is different from covering six outs. Snitker loosened the lid of the jar and unleased the fury, but there also is responsibility for the folks who took the ball.

    Dan Winkler had surrendered three hits in his past nine appearances before beginning the eighth inning by giving up four hits in a row.

    Jonny Venters, he of the 3 ½ Tommy John surgeries, made his fourth appearance in seven days, giving up one hit and two runs. Both Venters and Brad Brach, who had allowed two hits total in his previous seven outings, each saw a pair of inherited runners score.

    While all this chaos was breaking loose on the mound, an Atlanta defense that is playing tighter as the calendar gets deeper into September reared its ugly-of-late head at the absolute worst moment. Johan Camargo bobbled a potential inning-ending double-play ball and then sailed the throw past fill-in first baseman Ryan Flaherty – remember, the Braves were up big, and Freeman did not start for the first time this season. Turning two there ends the inning with Atlanta ahead 7-5.

    In the previous 41 games leading into the homestand, the Braves allowed 11 total unearned runs. Care to guess how many Atlanta gifted to opponents during the eight games at SunTrust Park? Yep, you guessed it: 11.

    Freeman did his part to save the day, belting a dramatic homer in the eighth that put the Braves ahead by one. But all that did was set the stage for Phillips, the Atlanta-area native who endeared himself with fans during his brief stint with his hometown squad last season, so much so that he drew a nice round of applause before his first at-bat.

    His last at-bat deflated those left in the ballpark, save the thousands of Red Sox fans who infiltrated STP and The Battery throughout the series.

    It now remains to be seen how deflated Atlanta is moving forward. One thing about these Braves is they’ve proven resilient beyond their years at every crossroads this season. That’s a big reason why, for all the gore and angst of Wednesday, Atlanta will arrive in Phoenix leading the East with 22 games to go.

    But a cautionary tale, especially with seven games remaining against the Phillies in the season’s final 11 days. These are the types of defeats that have felled many a talented team amid the glow of a pennant race. A loss like this at this point in the calendar doesn’t just highlight a missed opportunity within a singular 24-hour window, but can pull a team into a tailspin that its players and fan base spend months, if not years, lamenting.

    Was Wednesday’s loss that bad? We’re about to find out.

    —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.

    Braves Are Fun Again: From Every Angle, Lots of Positives

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Pardon us for doing a little celebrating on this night, but the Atlanta Braves have won 11 games.

    Eleven wins through April’s third week doth not make a postseason team. For some franchises, it hardly would cause a blink of the eye. But consider this tidbit: we are talking about a franchise that did not win its 11th game last season until May 2.

    Two years ago? Win No. 11 came on May 20.

    Welcome to the early minutes of April 20. The Braves are 11-7 through 18 games, a mere 11.1 percent through the season, but for those of us who predicted this team to finish around .500 – I’m on the record saying 80-82 – Atlanta already is nearly 14 percent there and we still have 10 games left in the opening month of this 2018 campaign.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday's 12-4 win over the Mets.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday’s 12-4 win over the Mets.

    These Braves may not be a playoff team, but this team has been an absolute joy to watch. Aggressive baserunning, good starting pitching, clutch hitting and, yes, some overachieving performance at the plate. And thewunderkid Ronald Acuna Jr. remains in Gwinnett, trying to settle his swing and string together enough hits to warrant a promotion.

    Where to begin with this intriguing bunch? Let’s hit a few topics as we go around the horn following Thursday’s series-opening 12-4 rout of the Mets to kick off a four-game set at SunTrust Park:

    Just Win Series

    We heard the sage Bobby Cox say this mantra over and over again during his second run as Atlanta manager (remember, he managed this team from 1978-81, when individual victories were cause for celebration). The Cox approach was if you win series, that’s a recipe for success.

    The Braves entered Thursday’s four-game series with the Mets having played six series. Four of those series, 11 games, came against playoff teams from last season. Three of those series were played against playoff teams, on the road, in miserable conditions.

    (As an aside, the scheduling by Major League Baseball is awful.)

    Atlanta emerged from that 11-game stretch – one game lost due to weather; another game that should’ve been lost due to weather, a contest the Braves lost – at 6-5. You could argue two of those losses were giveaways, the middle game in Colorado and the final game in Chicago, but on the whole, for a team that’s lost 90-plus games the past three years, it definitely was a strong showing.

    Unsung Heroes

    Every team that overachieves has to have guys who step up and provide that “did he really do that?” moment. The Braves have provided plenty of those through the first 18 games. Consider:

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington's Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington’s Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    ♦  Preston Tucker: He was just a placeholder for Acuna, and yet the former Houston farmhand has 18 RBIs through 18 games after driving in five runs in Thursday’s victory over the Mets. He’s belted a trio of three-run homers, his defense has been better than expected, and he provides left-handed power in the lineup that sorely is needed.

    ♦  Ryan Flaherty: How does this guy keep hitting? He arrived with a great glove to fill in at third base while Johan Camargo rehabbed from an obliqueinjury, but the journeyman Flaherty has established himself for now as a viable piece in the lineup. He’s hitting .352, belted a three-run homer Wednesday against Philly, drew two walks against the Mets (bumping his OPS to .954) while providing the steady defense we expected. The early-season production for Flaherty is not sustainable. Tucker likely is not sustainable, either. But Atlanta is deciding to ride the hot hands for now, starting Flaherty over Camargo and keeping Acuna in Gwinnett while Tucker does his thing.

    ♦  Matt Wisler: When Anibal Sanchez – who himself has bolstered the pitching staff – injured his hamstring the night before he was scheduled to start the series opener against the Mets, the Braves tapped Wisler, one of the “early rebuild” arms who failed to meet expectations. But he brought a renewed confidence and aggressiveness against a Mets team that entered the series opener at 13-4, carving up New York across seven tremendous innings. If nothing else, he earned the right to take the fifth starter’s turn in the rotation Tuesday at Cincinnati. He was that good.

    What About Acuna?

    The 20-year-old, who crushed at every level of the minors last season, then won Arizona Fall League MVP honors last fall, and then dominated the Grapefruit

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    League this spring, remains in Triple-A. The main reason? He’s pressing, going 8-for-44 with 17 strikeouts at Gwinnett through his first 11 games. For an organization that sent him down to work on “development” stuff – in other words, to guarantee an extra year of contract control – it would seem odd to promote a .182 hitter and pronounce that development compete.

    Folks, Ronald Acuna is going to be in the majors, and soon. Nobody expected Tucker to perform like he has, and likely didn’t expect Acuna to struggle so far through his first 51 plate appearances at Gwinnett. But the bottom line is once Acuna gets on a roll – and it’s coming – he will be in the majors. There is no worry there. I’d hit that kid cleanup from the get-go once he gets here, but that’s just me.

    Bautista and Bat Flips?

    Young Ronnie has some pretty good bat flips in his arsenal, but Atlanta signed the bat-flip master Jose Bautista to a one-year, minor-league deal on Wednesday. The longtime Toronto slugger, who maintained his relationship with new Braves GM Alex Anthopolous, is at extended spring training, working at third base and looking to prove he can play in the majors.

    I have my doubts. This Bautista is not the guy who finished in the top eight in American League MVP voting four times in six seasons from 2010-15. His on-base percentage has dropped each of the past four seasons, and his slugging percentage has fallen each of the past three seasons. Bautista struck out 170 times a season ago.

    I know some folks want to envision the 2014 Bautista hitting behind Freeman. I don’t see that at all. If he provides a right-handed power bat off the bench, that is a bonus. But I’m not counting on him.

    A Star in the Making

    Is there anybody in the majors today who is more fun to watch than Ozzie Albies? The kid is flat-out awesome to watch, be it diving to snag ground balls, turning double plays, blasting balls into the seats and hitting line drives into the gap.

    Seeing Ozzie round first on his way to an extra-base hit is one of the pure joys of watching baseball today. He plays with so much passion and joy, and he is so fast. His speed and baserunning is game-changing stuff.

    When the All-Star ballot comes out, punch Ozzie’s name at second base, repeatedly. If his production stays anywhere near the level we’ve seen through 18 games – .316 average, .995 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs, 15 extra-base hits, outstanding defense – he has to be the front-runner for top second baseman in the Senior Circuit.

    What About Julio?

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

    Teheran has made a big change in his past two starts – relying more on his slider and changeup and mixing in a curveball, as well. In his first two starts of the season, Teheran relied solely on his fastball and opposing lineups pounded the heat, which sat around or just under 90 mph with little movement.

    Maybe Julio has found something with more mixing in of the breaking stuff. I think we all know he’s not an ace, but with four pitches in the mix, JT becomes more effective and more attractive – given his contract status – if Atlanta looks to deal him.

    ***

    It’s just 18 games, but compared to recent history, these Braves in 2018 have pushed the envelope. It’s a fun bunch to watch. There is so far to go but, so far, so good.

    —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 off to Red Hot Start … and It’s Been Fun

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – High-fives in the middle of the diamond, a happy mid-afternoon crowd cheering into the cool Georgia air and another game that feels like something not seen often in these parts recently.

    The Atlanta Braves opening homestand of the season is complete, and it goes in the books as a resounding success. The team currently leads all of Major League Baseball in runs scored with 48, and team batting average, .297. The pitching, on balance, hasn’t been bad either. Braves pitchers boast a 3.86 ERA through 6 games.

    The result: Four victories in six games, a fifth victory just sliding away thanks to a bad slide at home plate. Good crowds, thirsty for signs of spring and perhaps a little more edgy for some winning baseball. Two series victories against NL East rivals, one that dominated Atlanta like Sherman last season, the other who occupies the division’s penthouse suite.

    And yet, as I made my way from the chilly confines of SunTrust Park after the Braves 7-1 thrashing of Washington on Wednesday, I kept thinking about one thing:

    It’s been one week.

    Four words made famous in song by the Bare Naked Ladies 20 years ago, but four words that fit here.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday's 13-6 win over the Nationals.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday’s 13-6 win over the Washington Nationals.

    What to make of these Braves, who sit 4-2 on the season and head out for the Frozen Tundra Trip – let’s face it, who doesn’t yearn for an early-April trip to Denver, Washington and Chicago – looking far more entertaining than the squads that combined to win a total of one game across the opening six contests the past two years?

    For any team to overachieve, there must be surprises. And while it’s been one week, it’s been one week a few guys wearing the tomahawk likely won’t forget.

    Or repeat. Consider:

    Charlie Culberson: Born in Rome – home of Atlanta’s Low-A affiliate – Culberson showed brief flashes of being able to produce offensively to go with his outstanding defensive abilities. He hit .293 in 99 at-bats for Colorado in 2013 and batted .299 three seasons later in 67 at-bats with the Dodgers. A 5-for-11 showing with three extra-base hits in the NLCS last season helped lift Los Angeles to the pennant, but those moments have been few and far between.

    The 28-year-old only has six at-bats in three games, but has made the most of them with two hits and two runs scored. Culberson has matched last season’s hit total (2-for-13 in 15 games). Any offensive production at all is a bonus from a guy who took his one season of regular playing time in Colorado (233 plate appearances in 2014) and promptly slashed .195/.253/.290.

    Ryan Flaherty: I bashed this signing endlessly on Twitter. The Braves already had a guy on the roster, Culberson, who plays great infield defense but can’t hit. Flaherty brought his career .215 batting average in 1,270 career plate appearances to town, and promptly raised that career average by five points in six games.

    How? By going 10-for-23 with four doubles and six runs scored. He became the third Atlanta third baseman to score four times and collect four hits in one game, joining a couple of fellas you may have heard of (Terry Pendleton, and some dude named Chipper). His on-base percentage, which was .284 in six seasons with Baltimore, sits at .500.

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves' bullpen Wednesday

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves’ bullpen Wednesday

    Preston Tucker: He made the team out of spring training as the DDTFIUAT (Dude Designated To Fill In Until Acuna Time). The 27-year-old has flashed promising power – 13 homers in 300 at-bats with Houston in 2015, and 100 career minor-league homers in 535 games – but strikes out in bunches. Like 40 strikeouts in 140 plate appearances in 2016 with Houston bunches, and 102 whiffs in 128 games in Triple-A last season.

    Now? Tucker has struck out four times in 21 at-bats, but when he hasn’t whiffed, he’s produced. Two homers, four runs scored and eight RBIs. Not bad for a guy who drove in 41 runs in his first 146 games before this season. His first-inning homer Tuesday into the Chop House flipped the script after the Nationals built a 3-0 lead, and his three-run opening-frame blast after a Washington error off the impenetrable Max Scherzer Wednesday launched Atlanta ahead for keeps.

    Shane Carle: Admit it, you had no clue who this dude was two weeks ago. Acquired in a quiet offseason deal with the Pirates for the ever-famous “player to be named later or cash considerations,” Carle earned a roster spot by not allowing a run in five of his final seven spring-training appearances.

    He took the loss Friday against Philadelphia by allowing one run in a two-inning stint, but he absolutely saved Julio Teheran and the Braves in Tuesday’s slugfest. Summoned in the third inning, Carle threw 26 of his 37 pitches for strikes and allowed only one hit in 3 1/3 steady innings of relief as the Braves bludgeoned the Nationals.

    The catchers? Nobody could see this coming.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    Atlanta already has started four guys in six games, as Tyler Flowers is on the disabled list and Kurt Suzuki is lucky he didn’t land there. Chris Stewart came on to replace both after injuries in the first two games, made three starts – complete with a two-hit, two-RBI performance Saturday – then was designated for assignment.

    Wednesday’s starting catcher? Carlos Perez. He was in the Angels organization Saturday.

    It’s been one week. An interesting one, for sure. And yet, a successful one for the Braves, who found themselves 1-5 after six games last season and 0-6 en route to a 4-17 start in 2016.

    Surely, there will be regression back toward the mean for these guys. Right?

    Here’s what we do know. Freddie Freeman may be putting the opening brushstrokes on a MVP-caliber season. Dansby Swanson looks confident at the plate. Ozzie Albies, albeit hitting just .172, is putting together solid at-bats. Nick Markakis, whose ninth-inning homer on opening day capped a furious late-inning comeback, owns a .934 OPS.

    And reinforcements are coming. Suzuki should be back early on the road trip. Third baseman Johan Camargo, provided all goes well in his injury rehab, could join the team in Denver. And there’s that Acuna kid, who we presume is a little more than a week away from making his much-ballyhooed debut.

    By then, it will have been more than one week. At this juncture, it’s been one week.

    And it’s been fun to watch.

    —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.