• Sean Newcomb

    Ozuna Signing Adds Needed Jolt to Braves Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

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

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

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

    The Braves Are Back: Sept. 22, 2018

    At Long and Blessed Last, the Painful Rebuild Ends

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

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

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

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

    Turns out, we all were wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Indeed, the Braves are back.

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

    Acuna’s Slam Hints of Great Things to Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He did much, much better than that.

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 2

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s time for part two of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, looking at baseball’s epic final day of the 2011 regular season that found Atlanta land outside the postseason party after a painful late-season swoon, then taking a stroll through two games in which Braves starters nearly pitched no-hitters (and a nod to the lone no-hitter, at any level of baseball, I’ve witnessed in person across 40 years that also contains an interesting perspective on a tragic night in my hometown’s history).

    As a reminder, you can check out the introductory piece of the series below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

    The Long, Painful Death of a Season: Sept. 28, 2011

    Epic Late-Season Stumble Costs Braves Playoff Berth

    As late August 2011 arrived, it felt like only an act of God could keep the Braves from a second-straight NL playoff appearance. The Phillies were running away with the NL East but the Braves had found their footing, winning 16 times in 21 games to enter the final weekend of the month with the second-best record in the Senior Circuit and a 9 ½ game lead over the Giants for the NL’s lone wild-card spot.

    The Cardinals? Pfft, 10 ½ games behind the 79-53 Braves at 68-63.

    Atlanta flew to New York after taking three of four in Chicago, but Hurricane Irene was heading toward the nation’s largest city, too. The opening game of the Mets series was played in front of less than 23,000 at Citi Field and journeyman Chris Capuano destroyed the Braves, striking out 13 during a two-hit complete-game shutout. The final two games of the series would be cancelled and, with a Monday off day, the Braves suddenly had a three-day break as they were playing their best baseball of the season.

    They never recovered.

    The weirdness of that weekend in the Big Apple began the unraveling. It concluded at Turner Field on Sept. 28, the final day of the regular season. It would go down as one of the wildest, craziest days in baseball history (the Red Sox simultaneously were giving away the AL wild card), and the Braves entered that Wednesday night matchup with the division-champion Phillies having lost four in a row to fall to 10-19 since flying into New York.

    The Braves and Cardinals were tied at 89-72 as I walked into Turner Field alone for what I hoped would not be the final time that season. My sons were home with the next day being a school day, but downstairs in my filing cabinet were tickets to the first two home NL Division Series games. The sheer thought of those tickets being refunded was ridiculous just four weeks earlier, but as the losses piled up in September my sense of dread grew, and I don’t know if I’ve ever walked into a ballpark with so much doom-and-gloom as I headed to my seat in the lower level, midway between first base and the right-field corner.

    For six innings, everything was fine, and I started growing more confident. The Braves took a 3-1 lead on a Dan Uggla homer in the third and Tim Hudson cruised into the seventh inning. But with one out came two hits and an error by Jack Wilson at shortstop to score a run, and I started thinking again about how my heart was going to be shattered. After all, I sat in this stadium nearly a year before and watched the Braves fall apart in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the NL Division Series. I remember looking around and seeing people who must’ve been thinking the same thing, the wheels spinning in our heads with that, “here we go again” refrain.

    Was the seventh the start of the train careening off the tracks?

    Perhaps not. Craig Kimbrel made his first All-Star team, led the National League with 46 saves and won NL rookie of the year in 2011. Save No. 47 would at worst send the Braves into a one-game playoff with St. Louis. But Kimbrel proceeded to give up a single, get a strikeout, then walk two hitters before Chase Utley’s game-tying sacrifice fly. And as extra innings began to march on, I couldn’t help but think of all the opportunities the Braves had squandered over the past month to avoid being in this situation.

    I saw the Braves win the World Series in person in 1995. Three years earlier, I saw the Braves score three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the 1992 NL pennant in person. I’m generally an optimistic person. But that night I found myself fighting that feeling of “not again” over and over. It only grew after Chipper Jones flew out to deep left-center with a runner on to end the 10th, and it grew even more when Jason Heyward reached third on a wild pitch before Martin Prado struck out to close the 12th.

    Of course, the Phillies scored in the top of the 13th on Hunter Pence’s single that barely cleared the infield dirt. Of course, the Braves would get a runner on with one out in the bottom half, only to see Freddie Freeman – the runner-up to Kimbrel for rookie of the year – ground into a 3-6-3 double play. We knew the Cardinals already had won some 30 minutes earlier, that 8-0 result glaring on the out-of-town scoreboard in the ballpark, and when Freeman slammed his batting helmet into the ground behind first base as the season died, the deflation nearly was overwhelming.

    Other than Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a ballpark after a loss as long as I did that night. But the worst part didn’t come on Sept. 28. It came the morning after, when I had to wake up two little boys for school and tell them their favorite baseball team’s season was over.

    Oh, So Close, But No No-No: June 5, 2013 and July 29, 2018

    Julio, Newk Flirt with Every Pitcher’s Dream

    In all the baseball games these nearly 47-year-old eyes have watched through the years – from playing to coaching my kids to my sports writing days and countless games as a fan – I’ve witnessed exactly one no-hitter. It came the night after the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics, in an American Legion playoff game on July 27, 1996, in Gainesville, Ga. Andy Hussion, who would help pitch Gainesville High to a state title the following spring, twirled the gem with his dad, former Furman play-by-play man Chuck Hussion, working the PA at Ivey-Watson Field along the shores of Lake Lanier.

    The bombing was the topic of conversation everywhere, including at the ballpark. I was interning as The Times in Gainesville that Olympic summer. We were owned by The Gannett Corp. (which owned USA Today) at the time, and there were veteran newspaper people with decades of experience onsite. When the bomb went off, the presses actually stopped (just like in the movies, but never in real life). Page 1A was redone and our morning edition had the news, while other newspapers that served our area did not. I lost track of how many people in our circulation area awoke on that fourth Saturday of July 1996 with no idea what had happened downtown until they grabbed our paper from their driveways.

    Why do I share this, something that occurred so long ago? I watched two Braves take no-hit bids beyond the seventh inning in the past 40 years. Both occurred this decade. Both hold significant meaning to me, so I cheated a bit to combine both as one entry.

    June 5, 2013: The Braves had won four in a row entering a Wednesday get-away date with the Pirates at Turner Field. Both my kids were with me, ages 10 and 9 and soaking in the initial days of summer vacation. We sat in the upper deck and watched Julio Teheran dazzle the Pittsburgh lineup. Teheran at the time still sat mid-90s with his fastball, and he had everything working. We got to the top of the eighth, everybody was standing, and I was telling my kids repeatedly not to say what all of us were thinking – fortunately, they both were old enough to understand what was happening.

    Two outs in the inning, four outs away. Brandon Inge came on as a pinch-hitter, worked a 1-1 count, then lined a single to left. Teheran retired Starling Marte to end the eighth, David Carpenter worked a perfect ninth to finish the one-hitter, and my sons and I were stunned as how close we had come to seeing a MLB no-hitter in person.

    Not too long after, something happened that made my life just about completely collapse. In some of those darkest days that followed over the next two to three years, in a season of my life where hope was almost nonexistent, that Wednesday afternoon in the sunshine at Turner Field with my boys was a bright memory and a sign of better days to come.

    It just didn’t result in a no-hitter. And that wasn’t the only close call, either.

    July 29, 2018: By the grace of God, I was in such a better place as that final Sunday of July unfolded. It was the day of Chipper Jones’ induction into the Hall of Fame. My oldest son and I gathered with friends in a hotel suite near SunTrust Park to break bread and catch up, then it was on to the ballpark for the series finale with the defending NL champion Dodgers. The Braves were working to avoid a sweep after being outscored 9-2 in the first two games, as many of our thoughts were some 965 miles northeast in interior New York.

    Sean Newcomb took the mound for his 40th major-league start. He got two runs of support in the first inning and two more in the third, and the Massachusetts lefty took it from there, walking Yasiel Puig in the sixth but allowing nothing else entering the ninth. The ballpark, already an emotional mess as many of us had strained to stream Chipper’s acceptance speech during the third inning, was teeming as Newcomb took the mound to start the ninth.

    I had no doubt Newk was going to do this. Zero. Everybody was standing. I couldn’t breathe. My oldest son was pacing like I’d never seen, and he would admit later he thought it was done, too. After two flyouts. Newcomb was one hitter away. Chris Taylor worked the count to 2-2, including a somewhat questionable pitch he took for a ball, then lined a single to left field as third baseman Johan Camargo dove to his left in vain. The Braves would win 4-1, Newcomb would throw 129 pitches on the day, and the two teams would meet 2 ½ months later in the NL Division Series.

    Oh man, talk about the ultimate “what if.” I chatted with my kid while writing this and he said to this day, he was 100 percent certain Newcomb had it. His stuff was that good. I know there’s been ups and downs with Newcomb at times, but that day in July 2018 shows his potential to dominate a great lineup.

    It also shows that no-hitters are so hard to complete, and seeing one is such a rare treat. And, every day you walk into the ballpark, there’s a chance it happens. Perhaps one sweet day, Andy Hussion will have some company on my list.

    —30—

    On Deck: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    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.

    d’Arnaud Signing Sets Stage for Big Winter Moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Yasmani Grandal signed a four-year deal Thursday with the White Sox, it removed the one game-changing free agent catcher from the market. Nonetheless, as he’s done all offseason, Alex Anthopoulos wasted no time in getting what the Braves needed, even if in this instance it wasn’t perhaps what the Braves really wanted.

    Sunday’s signing of Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year, $16-million deal does not necessarily move the needle on its own standing. We’re talking about a player who played all of four major-league games in 2018. But d’Arnaud put together a solid season while taking quite a circuitous route through 2019, from 10 games with the Mets to one lone at-bat with the Dodgers before landing in Tampa Bay, where the 30-year-old hit 16 homers with 16 doubles, 67 RBIs, slashed .263/.323/.459 for a .782 OPS in helping the Rays reach the American League Division Series.

    Now he’ll help try to push the Braves through the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001 next season. And while adding d’Arnaud on its own isn’t going to make anybody do backflips, I’m of the opinion it’s necessary to look at Anthopoulos’ latest move through two different prisms:

    Locking in Value in a Lackluster Market

    There have been plenty of names bandied about regarding the catcher market, but only one really stood out: Grandal. With him now on Chicago’s southside and $73 million richer (a fair deal in terms of years and money), the rest of the market features quite a few options – from Jason Castro to Alex Avila, from Robinson Chirinos to Martin Maldonado – that weren’t going to make people to buy season tickets or jerseys.

    And that’s OK. The Braves saw that, without landing a real difference maker, the move was to strike quick and get what they felt to be a viable platoon option to team with Tyler Flowers. We all know Flowers has regressed both offensively and defensively, but remains one of the better pitch-framers in the game. He ranked fifth in 2019 according to Baseball Savant in getting strikes in what the website defines as the “shadow zone,” or the edges of the strike zone, among catchers who caught six called pitches in those shadows per team game played.

    d’Arnaud ranked fifth among this winter’s free agent catchers last season, getting shadow strikes called at a 48.7 percent rate (Flowers, by comparison, got strike calls on 52.8 percent of said pitches). The Braves long have valued pitch-framing and ability to guide a young staff, the second box checked by d’Arnaud given his work with young Mets pitchers en route to the 2015 World Series and with Tampa Bay this past season.

    d’Arnaud gave up six passed balls in 578 2/3 innings in 2019 (one every 96.44 innings, while Flowers allowed one every 42.43 innings in 2019) and threw out 28 percent of would-be base stealers. Offensively, d’Arnaud recorded a 20.6 percent line-drive rate (his best since 2015) and overall posted a .745 OPS (again, best since 2015) while matching a career high in homers and setting a new high mark in RBIs.

    To strike quick and cross catcher off the to-do list, it’s hard to criticize this move. At the same time, how effective this looks depends in part on what happens next.

    The Next Shoe to Drop

    The Braves seem destined to soar past their largest opening day payroll this century ($122.60 million in 2017, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts). The d’Arnaud signing pushes the projected Atlanta opening day payroll to $112.42 million with 21 locks at this point for the opening day roster (the caveats offered in recent pieces still apply, with Sean Newcomb moving to the starting rotation and Nick Markakis teaming up with Adam Duvall to platoon in left field, for now).

    One spot remains on the bench and two remain in the bullpen. As opined previously, we’ll give two MLB-minimum salary guys (say Jacob Webb and A.J. Minter) those final bullpen spots, taking the opening day payroll to $113.56 million with three spots remaining – a bench bat, a third baseman, and a starting pitcher. If you assume Atlanta spends $2.5 million on that bench bat (Matt Joyce, come on back, bro), that pushes the payroll to $116.06 million.

    If we think the opening day payroll is going to $150 million – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about the Atlanta Braves, but from where I sit, I actually think that’s plausible – the Braves have $33.94 million left to fill third base and a rotation spot. Going the pure free agent route, the most logical choices are to bring back Josh Donaldson at somewhere near $25 million per season and find a value starter for around $9 million a season.

    I expect the Braves, when all is said and done, to either re-sign Donaldson or, if the bidding gets too high, to pivot quickly to Mike Moustakas at somewhere around a $14 million AAV.

    But I don’t think the Braves are settling for value in the rotation considering the starting staff today consists of two players with just one year each of full-time MLB rotation experience (Mike Soroka, Max Fried), one experienced starter who spent six weeks at Triple-A last season (Mike Foltynewicz), and a starter who ended up becoming an effective reliever in 2019 and only has been guaranteed a chance to nail down a rotation position (Newcomb).

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they sign a veteran at a discount like Tanner Roark or Wade Miley. Maybe they reunite with former UGA lefty Alex Wood. Maybe they can’t completely rid themselves of Julio Teheran and bring the longtime right-hander back on a reduced deal to eat innings.

    I just don’t see it.

    Anthopoulos has stated ad nauseum that trades are an effective – if not preferable – method to build a team. He’s filled in plenty of gaps via free agency in the infant days of this offseason, from the best available closer to multiple veteran relievers to a catcher representing value in an otherwise indistinguishable market. He’s spent plenty of money ($30.25 million of the 2020 payroll, to be exact) via free agency, a number that rises even more if Donaldson or Moustakas are signed.

    Regardless, a trade is coming. The feeling is we’re rapidly approaching the moment where the currency of choice shifts from dollars and cents to prospect capital. Anthopoulos has been on the job for 24 months. He knows the system inside and out. He has his opinions on who on the farm will help the Braves win the World Series, and who needs to go to acquire the pieces that will bring Atlanta a championship.

    The Winter Meetings begin in two weeks in San Diego. The week of Thanksgiving typically is quiet, but the pace again will accelerate with urgency after the turkey is finished. It could be a transformative period for a franchise that continues to emerge as a powerhouse, one with back-to-back division titles on its resume, a painful playoff series loss on its soul, and now in a position to take that leap.

    Work remains to be done, and even the timing of the d’Arnaud signing illustrates how that work really never ceases. Anthopoulos, who was born in Montreal and grew up cheering for the Expos, signed d’Arnaud on Grey Cup Sunday, the news released about two hours before kickoff in Soroka’s hometown of Calgary. As my adopted second sports home of Winnipeg prepared to chase its first Canadian Football League championship since 1990, Anthopoulos made his next move.

    “Wipe away the wing sauce, hold off on the adult beverages and get to writing,” I mumbled to myself (along with a few choice adjectives) as construction of this piece began, as construction of the 2020 Braves continued with no regard to the Canadian sports calendar.

    Safe to say, the building will continue as November fades into December. As the Bombers and Tiger-Cats played to end their decades-long championship droughts, the good Canadian kid continued his work to help his baseball franchise end a title drought of its own.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

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

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

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

    And it should’ve happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —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.

    Bullpen Stumbles Aside, Braves Country Should Be Excited As Big Week Begins

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Monday’s off day for the Atlanta Braves came at a much-needed time for a squad wrapping up 17 games in 17 days with Sunday’s victory at Miami, concluding a stretch that included pulling off several trades at the July 31 deadline.

    The respite also provided the well-meaning-yet-sometimes-maniacal denizens of Braves Country with a chance to do something it doesn’t do nearly enough – breathe.

    Then around lunchtime, Major League Baseball dropped the 2020 schedule right into our turkey sandwiches and side salads. Immediately, thoughts turned (albeit briefly; there’s a division title and hopefully more to pursue in the here and now) to how each week next season will unfold. It gave me a chance to think back to last winter, when the prematurely-bursting-into-prominence Braves were looking toward this 2019 season.

    It wouldn’t take long back in those cold December days to look at the second full week of August, spy three home games with the Mets, followed by the Dodgers for three, to realize that, “aye, that’s going to be a big week.” And here we are, that big week arriving with the first game against the red-hot fellas from Queens unfolding Tuesday night at SunTrust Park, when Max Fried takes the ball against the pride of East Paulding High, the almost-traded at the deadline and unscored-upon-since Zack Wheeler.

    On those cold winter nights, sipping on a beverage while watching Jets hockey or Hawks basketball, you think about where your team will be at certain points in next season’s schedule. Nobody could have foreseen the Mets rolling into the ATL winning 15 of their past 17 games after being nine games under .500 and rumored to trade everybody not named Pete Alonso in the days leading to the end of July. Certainly, most figured the Dodgers would sit atop their perch above the Senior Circuit, a juggernaut that looks hell-bent on rolling to a third-consecutive NL pennant and hoping a third trip to the World Series will be the charm three-decades plus in the making.

    As for these Braves? We thought they would be good. And they have been. But mercy, it’s been a bumpy ride at times, especially once the late innings arrive. The acquisitions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline were supposed to smooth the final two to three innings, pushing closer-by-circumstance Luke Jackson back into lower-leverage situations. And yet, there was Jackson, battling through what remains unworldly bad BABIP luck to escape Miami with a save in a 5-4 victory Sunday that salvaged a series split to send Atlanta into its off day with at least a less-foul taste in its mouth.

    On to this week. As the kids say, it’s about to get lit. One may say the Braves bullpen has been in a perpetual state of getting lit up. The first 11 days of the Martin-Greene-Melancon era (which sounds like a law firm advertising on local TV at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning) have not fostered any feelings of confidence and calm. Quite the opposite. Their struggles have fanned the flames of relief discontent, although Sean Newcomb did his part in an inadvertent way to put out the fire in the visitors clubhouse of Marlins Park after Saturday’s train wreck finish.

    No, Greene was not going to pitch to a sub-1.20 ERA all season. No, Melancon is not the guy who saved 51 games for the Pirates a few years ago. Yes, Martin is not too far removed from working in a warehouse and thinking a chronic shoulder injury had derailed his big-league dreams permanently. In a vacuum, that statement doesn’t spark a lot of optimism, just like the vacuum of 11 days and sub-par performance makes one think, “why couldn’t we do more?”

    The steadier view is all three guys are better than they’ve showed in their initial forays with a tomahawk across their chest, that four days in their new “home” city right after being uprooted from their previous ports-of-call, followed by a week-long road trip, hasn’t allowed for the settling that has to happen anytime somebody transfers for a job with less than 24-hours notice.

    The thought here is all three will settle in this week. Their team needs them, too. This is an important week. The Mets are carrying a New York-sized dose of attitude, and rightly so. This series is a chance to shove it to their cynics, who fairly point out most of the work during their spellbinding surge came against some of the dregs of 2019 big-league baseball. Then the Dodgers arrive, a team that swept the Braves out of Chavez Ravine with little regard in May, a team that dominated the plucky-yet-overmatched Braves in last season’s NL Division Series.

    And now, a word regarding the hometown nine. Atlanta leads the NL East by six full games over Washington, eight over the hard-charging Mets, nine over the stupid-money Phillies. When the Braves take the field at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, 48 days will separate them from the end of the regular season and a potential second-consecutive division crown. While nobody is suggesting Atlanta try to sit on the lead and run out the clock (we all know the scar-inducing disaster that unleashes), the fact remains the Braves are a half-dozen games in front of the Nationals.

    It’s a very good team. Ronald Acuna Jr. has exploded into the transcendent star we all believed he could be, as the first 30/30 season since Ron Gant on the worst-to-first 1991 Braves is a mere formality, and baseball’s fifth-ever 40/40 season is a possibility. Ozzie Albies has found his stroke from the left side, locking down the second spot in the order moving forward, even upon Dansby Swanson’s return from a bruised right heel that has shelved the Marietta High product far longer than any expected.

    Freddie Freeman is Freddie Freeman. Mike Soroka continues to make the “Maple Maddux” moniker seem more realistic every fifth day. Fried has steadied himself after a rough stretch in early summer. Julio Teheran, the quiet veteran who’s seen the awful days, keeps shoving and shining. A nod to Ender Inciarte, burned at the stake by Braves fans on social media, who is healthy and contributing; Brian McCann, and his solid homecoming season; and Josh Donaldson, who with each passing day makes the front office seriously consider if paying for his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons would be a worthwhile investment (for the record, I’m far more onboard with this than I was two months ago).

    The path to October never is easy (well, unless you’re the Dodgers, and you’re clearly better than anybody else in the league). There are fits and starts, struggles and injuries, along with plenty of “did you see THAT” moments. That’s what makes baseball so great. It’s every single day. Win? Lose? Process it, go to tomorrow. That cadence is why, even on a day off, you see a clean slate for a season that doesn’t start for another 7 ½ months and begin pondering the possibilities.

    And that’s why, for the hiccups and finding of roles from the relief corps, you should look to Tuesday and the week to come with excitement. When you’re losing 90 games and trading assets at the deadline for prospects, these games in August and September don’t matter. That was the Braves of 2015, 2016, 2017.

    That’s not these Braves. They’re clearly in the window now. Sure, the glass gets smudged at times. Sometimes there is dust (or residue from a fire extinguisher) that blows in and makes things messy. But beyond the calamity of the moment the view remains glorious, one this team has a chance to bring into full focus starting with this homestand.

    —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.

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The first full month of the season sits in the rear-view mirror, 31 games are in the books and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a position they did not reach at any one point during their glorious run to the 2018 NL East championship.

    Under .500.

    The Braves have befuddled many of us through the first five weeks of 2019, looking at times like a World Series contender and at other times like an also-ran – sometimes within an inning or two of each other – as they now begin their first extended road trip. A 10-day, 10-game, three-city journey begins Friday night in Miami, where old friend Jose Urena awaits his assured retribution for his gutless plunking of Ronald Acuna Jr. last season. From there, Atlanta flies west for three games against the pennant-winning Dodgers and four at Arizona, against the same Diamondbacks squad that swept a three-game series two weeks ago at SunTrust Park.

    Often, the first weeks of the season begin answering the questions we all have about a team throughout the offseason and spring training. In some respects, I think we can begin drawing early conclusions on some topics. For others, I have no better clue now than I did in late March, before attending 11 games in person and watching/listening to every pitch of the season to this point.

    Atlanta leaves town for a while, but questions remain. Such as …

    Is this team where you’d thought it would be at this point of the season?

    In a word, no. I didn’t expect the Braves to be below .500 through 19.1 percent of the season. Granted, they’re one game under. It’s not like their buried in the East. But I thought if there was a month early in the season that might challenge them, it would be the month we’re in now, and not the one that preceded it. That concerns me a bit, to be honest.

    What’s the most disappointing part of Atlanta’s start?

    Duh! It’s the pit of misery … eh, the bullpen. Look, many of us – myself included – thought the Braves needed to upgrade their relief corps and were disappointed Alex Anthopoulos could not secure at least one upgrade for the bullpen. But did I think that group would be this bad? No, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as they’ve shown.

    But they’re not great, either, and they’ve already cost the Braves games they can ill-afford to blow in a tightly contested division. A.J. Minter has shown rust and inconsistency after missing most of spring training. Darren O’Day remains missing in action. Jesse Biddle hit a funk you wouldn’t wish on anybody. Others have taken their turns struggling to throw strikes.

    There have been signs, albeit small ones, that a correction is coming. Minter looked good in Wednesday’s save. Jacob Webb earned a win and a save on back-to-back days. Josh Tomlin has become a revelation once he started getting work. And what else to say of Luke Jackson, who has gone from fanbase whipping post to downright lovable? Action Jackson is the most unexpected singular aspect of this season.

    Is what we’ve seen from Max Fried and Mike Soroka real?

    In my opinion, yes. That’s not to say Soroka will pitch to a sub-2 ERA all season and Fried will win 22 games and the Cy Young. But both young hurlers have filthy stuff, which we’ve seen in flashes.

    But now, we’re seeing it every fifth day. Fried isn’t getting yanked between the rotation, the bullpen, and Gwinnett. Soroka is healthy. Both are pitching with a ton of confidence, and guided by veteran catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers, each is showing the ability to trust their stuff, pound the strike zone, shake off the inevitable mistake, and keep on rolling.

    Fried reminds me so much of a young Steve Avery, it’s scary. Soroka has the poise and makeup of a young Tom Glavine. High praise, yes, but these two kids are good. Really good. Legit, rotation-anchoring good.

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

    A little bit, but only because he’s made just two big-league starts and we’re roughly 1/5th of the way through the season. Folty’s fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and today his slider was flat against San Diego. Coupled with some shaky defense (including a bad throw of his own doing), and it’s easy to see how today came off the rails.

    But he was locked in for much of his first start against Colorado. If Folty has five, six starts under his belt and he’s still sitting 94 mph, then I’d be more concerned. Hard to read too much into two starts, for a guy who won 13 games and made the All-Star team a season ago, then spent four weeks in Triple-A going through his spring training. Give it time and let him get into a rhythm.

    Is the offense better than you thought?

    Absolutely, and it’s not just because of Josh Donaldson (who is so much better defensively than I realized) or Freddie Freeman or Acuna, even though the superkid has struggled the past two weeks. It’s because Ozzie Albies has solidified himself at the top of the lineup – and credit Brian Snitker for recognizing the second baseman needed to hit leadoff regardless of that night’s starter – Nick Markakis has regained his early-2018 form, and the strides Dansby Swanson has made offensively.

    Add in the production out of the veteran catchers, and the Braves 1-through-7 in the order have been every bit as tough as any lineup in the game. There has to be a bit of regression somewhere, at some point, but even if Markakis and the catchers cool off their opening-month pace, this still is a very good offensive team that can help carry it through some bumpy nights pitching-wise.

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

    I’ve preached patience with Swanson since his struggles in 2017. Last year he was hindered (more so than we realized at the time) by a wrist injury. He’s healthy now, and he’s blistering line drives all over the field. His power has expanded, he’s hitting the ball just as hard to right-center as left-center, and he’s still playing outstanding defense.

    It’s 31 games, so let’s see it continue to play out. But I think it’s real. And if Swanson continues to hit like this – and you have to expect some of those liners right at folks are going to find grass at some point – you suddenly have an elite shortstop to add to the linchpins of this lineup. The Braves already have locked up Acuna and Albies. A continuation of this type of play for Swanson the rest of the season certainly makes his next-man-up to sign on the dotted line long term.

    There’s one hitter not mentioned yet … why does Ender keep getting playing time?

    Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he’s won three straight Gold Gloves in center field and he’s historically a poor offensive performer in April? There are plenty of people who have cried for Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to be promoted to the majors after their hot starts at Double-A Mississippi. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.

    Inciarte infuriates the fan base with grounders to second and swinging at the first pitch. He also collected 200 hits two seasons ago and does his best offensive work once school lets out. Some of the patience asked for with Swanson the past two years can be applied here. You have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Inciarte. You just have to … wait for it.

    If Ender still is struggling in six weeks, maybe you have a conversation. For now, the pseudo-platoon of putting Acuna in center and sitting Inciarte against some lefties is doable. Credit Snitker for putting Inciarte lower in the order, and we’ve started to see some signs of life with the bat and a few more balls hit to left and left-center.

    What else has stood out to you in the first five weeks?

    Sean Newcomb had to go back to Triple-A to try and find his rhythm, and he’s turned it around with back-to-back outings with zero walks. … Matt Joyce, signed late in camp, actually has been a nice asset off the bench from the left side. … I’ve been pleased that Snitker has given Johan Camargo starts all over the field, and the two hits today hopefully signifies he’s getting right at the plate. … Julio Teheran hasn’t been that bad, actually, but cannot afford outings like his doubleheader debacle in Cleveland. … The Gwinnett shuttle has worked out for the most part, although I remain befuddled and upset Bryse Wilson didn’t get a longer look in the major-league bullpen before being demoted last weekend. … I hope Wes Parsons gets back and continues to excel. … Charlie Culberson is my favorite position-player pitcher of all time, and his work off the bench – despite too few at-bats – has been impressive.

    What needs to happen this month?

    The other three contenders in the East have flaws just as damning as the Braves, so I don’t expect anybody to have an 18-8 month and pull away. Given Atlanta makes two separate trips to the coast, plays six games against St. Louis and three with Milwaukee, I wouldn’t be upset with .500. That means you don’t stub your toe against Miami or San Francisco, get some payback at Arizona, and hold your own against the Dodgers.

    That keeps you well within striking distance once June begins, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. I think teams falling out of the race are going to look to move guys earlier. The Giants already are listening on several bullpen pieces. Does the Corey Kluber injury shift the balance of power in the AL Central? Will Baltimore cave in on dealing Mychal Givens? And with the draft in early June, does that finally push somebody to sign Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel?

    Those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Braves have plenty of questions of their own as they fly toward South Beach, and the sprint to October ramps toward full speed.

    —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.

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —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.