• Tom Glavine

    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.

    Cooperstown Bound: The Incredible Career of Chipper Jones

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The crowd gathered around the 23-year-old peach-fuzzed kid, who stared into the sea of microphones and cameras, and responded to question after question following a four-hit, four-RBI performance to help lift his team to victory.

    Part of that media scrum late in the evening on June 6, 1995, inside the cramped no-frills locker room of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, included a 22-year-old peach-fuzzed kid holding a pen and a notepad. At some point amid the back-and-forth, the novice reporter summoned up the courage to ask the young baseball player what he hit to drive in two runs in a bases-loaded fourth inning, and followed up with a question about approach given that hit came on the first pitch while the other four at-bats of the night were worked deep into the count.

    The kid in the spotlight provided a quick analysis of his performance, giving the kid holding the notebook a couple of quotes that would land in a college newspaper’s weekly summary of recent Braves games.

    Some 277 months after that exchange, both those kids have kids of their own, are immersed into new realities, carry a few extra pounds and, yes, both have facial hair tinged with gray. Welcome to middle age, Chipper Jones, who Sunday will take his rightful place in baseball’s Hall of Fame, the crowning achievement of a 19-year career which produced a World Series title, an MVP award, All-Star games and 10,614 plate appearances – all with one team.

    The blunt numbers scream Hall of Famer, but for Chipper Jones – a kid from Pierson, Fla. – it goes far beyond just the raw data. It goes to something etched on a plaque hanging in my Braves Room, a quote that sums up the essence of Jones’ relationship with the team he signed with in 1990, the team I’ve loved since the late 1970s and a team that I covered a bit from time to time during a previous life.

    “I’m a southern kid and I wanted to play in a southern town where I felt comfortable.”

    That comfort level brings much discomfort for opposing fanbases, most notably the one who pledges allegiance to the New York Mets. Chipper made a livelihood out of crushing the Mets, from hitting 49 career homers against the team from Flushing in 245 games to his famous smash job against New York during the 1999 race for the National League East title, in which he belted seven homers while hitting .400 with a 1.510 OPS in 12 games.

    But this story goes beyond the numbers. It goes to a relationship between father and son, the elder imparting wisdom and spinning yarns of heroes of yesteryear, of games watched together, of batting practice and little league and travel ball, of going away to play baseball in high school, of growing up and making mistakes and learning to be a man – lessons we have to learn regardless of athletic prowess or lack thereof.

    For me, it goes to the moments. I saw his first major-league hit – Sept. 14, 1993 against the Reds, in the midst of the last great pennant race, a chopper to third base that Juan Samuel could not field in time to throw out the fleet-footed switch-hitter. I saw his last major-league hit – Oct. 5, 2012 against the Cardinals in the NL wild-card game (a game remembered for the worst officiating call I’ve witnessed in 40 years of attending and covering sporting events), another infield single in his final at-bat as a major-leaguer.

    In between, I was fortunate to be in the building when Chipper celebrated winning two pennants and a World Series championship, was a member of the press asking him about the disappointment of losing the first two World Series games at home in 1999, covered him belting a home run in Atlanta in the 2000 All-Star game, and countless other moments as fan and sports writer that are blurred by the passage of time.

    During that stretch, I grew up, got married, became a dad, changed careers and started coaching baseball. Chipper is one of a select few I always pointed to when players and parents would ask for somebody in the majors for their children to watch and learn how to play the game. He never took a pitch off, wanted to be in the lineup every day, wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and put his heart and soul into every game in which he took the field.

    Friday night, I sat in SunTrust Park with my oldest son. Jonny Venters, who the Braves acquired from Tampa Bay the night before, made his first appearance with Atlanta since that 2012 wild-card game. When I showed my son a tweet by Kevin McAlpin of 680 The Fan and 93.7 FM stating how long it had been since Venters pitched for the Braves, my son immediately replied: “Chipper’s final game.”

    It was interesting to watch the All-American boy with the good looks and the immense talent grow up before our eyes. Consider the greats of that era of Braves baseball. Glavine was drafted in 1984. Smoltz was traded for in 1987. Neither transaction moved the needle because, to be blunt, the Braves were irrelevant in a town captivated with Hawks basketball (and I loved me some Atlanta’s Air Force back then) and college football and little else, especially a baseball team that finished buried in the old NL West every year from 1985-1990.

    Maddux? Sure, that was a huge move, but it came in the winter following the 1992 season, after the Braves had captured the city’s heart and soul with two consecutive NL pennants. Cox? He managed here from 1978-1981, left for Toronto, then came home to serve as general manager starting in 1986 until he moved back to the dugout in 1990, during the aforementioned awful years. Even Schuerholz, the architect of that worst-to-first 1991 squad, had been here nearly three full seasons before Chipper arrived.

    The point being: Chipper went from start to finish in the midst of one of the greatest runs in American pro sports history, with all eyes on him, with the pressure of a city and a fanbase eager to shake its reputation of being a bad sports town. And Chipper delivered, often in dramatic, “did you see that?!” fashion. Even his last homer, the walkoff blast off Jonathan Papelbon on the Sunday before Labor Day in 2012, still elicits tremendous emotion nearly six years later.

    I started my third year of college as a 20-year-old when I sat in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched Chipper leg out an infield single for his first knock in the majors. I sat in Turner Field as a 39-year-old husband and father of two, with my oldest son by my side, when Chipper legged out an infield single in the ninth inning of the 2012 wild-card game in his final at-bat.

    Off the field, Chipper made his share of mistakes. His biography, “Ballplayer,” written by the fantastic former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Carroll Rogers Walton – who was more than kind to a young sportswriter trying to find his way once upon a time – is a tremendous tell-all of that side of the guy who went from hot-shot, cocky top prospect to franchise icon.

    And now the journey arrives this weekend in Cooperstown, and enshrinement in the hall of baseball immortals. I’ll spend Sunday in a hotel room next to SunTrust Park at a private watch party before the Braves game with the Dodgers, and I’ll lift a glass in honor of a player who brought this fanbase so much joy for two decades.

    Seventy-eight days after Chipper’s first big-league hit, a song was released that played constantly on radio during my college days. “Mr. Jones” became Counting Crows’ biggest hit, and I think often of this lyric from that song anytime I think about Chipper’s journey:

    “We all wanna be big stars,

    “But we don’t know why, and we don’t know how,

    “But when everybody loves me,

    “I wanna be just about as happy as I can be.”

    Suffice to say, Chipper became one of the biggest stars of all. And it sounds like he’s happy with his life. Any of us who go through life pray for happiness and contentment. That transcends any success we find in our chosen profession. As someone who is in that place, I’m so happy Chipper has found that peace.

    Sunday, in a small village in upstate New York, he will cement his rightful place amid the greatest of the greats. And to think, we’ve been watching this journey for a quarter-century.

    Well done, kid.

    —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 Drawing Attention from Near and Far

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    AUSTIN, Texas – There are moments when, in the midst of transitioning from rebuilding to contending, something happens that illustrates the shift in fortunes is grabbing attention.

    For me, it occurred some 965 miles west of SunTrust Park earlier this week.

    On a business trip to Austin, I strolled into the lounge at my hotel Monday night after arriving a few hours earlier. Relieved of deadline and work activities on arrival day, I grabbed a seat at the bar and looked forward to some quiet time while watching the NCAA Super Regionals. I ordered dinner and a beverage, and upon delivering my food, the bartender noticed my Braves shirt and hat.

    “You have one heckuva baseball team there,” he said, which sparked a conversation that lasted more than an hour. In that time, between bites of food and sips of Austin amber brew – which, for the record, really is good – I learned from the bartender and a couple of waiters that while they still are riding the emotional wave of the Astros winning the World Series, they recognize what’s happening in North Georgia.

    The bartender, who appeared to be around my age, kept referencing the big arms that defined the Braves for the better part of two decades – Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine, Avery, Neagle, Millwood. But the difference is those references to yesteryear began to intertwine with comparisons to the present day.

    Foltynewicz. Newcomb. Soroka, Nearly 1,000 miles away from home, these folks rolled those names off the tip of their tongue at every opportunity.

    What to take from that conversation while bellied up to the bar on the second floor of the Intercontinental in downtown Austin?

    It shows just how far the Braves already have come.

    In the words of the older bartender – who obviously knows his stuff about ball, from mentioning Jeff Blauser to Charlie Leibrandt to, gasp, Dion James and Damaso Garcia – he’s watched the Braves a few times this season and summarized, “this team is about to burst through and ascend toward the top of the majors.”

    Walking out of SunTrust Park late Sunday afternoon – six days after that conversation – the Braves only had added more validation to this phenomenal surge. Atlanta wrapped up a 5-1 homestand by downing the Padres 4-1, as Julio Teheran returned from the disabled list with six no-hit innings.

    Here are the Braves, 13 games above .500 for the first time in five seasons, leaders of the National League East by 3 ½ games. Sample size bias? Nah, not now. Atlanta has played 71 games, nearly 44 percent of its schedule, and it sits on a 95-win pace with a favorable schedule.

    Back to Austin a few days ago. There were conversation tracks focused on Ozzie Albies, on Freddie Freeman, on Dansby Swanson and on Ronald Acuna. But the talking points kept coming back to pitching. And can you blame them? These folks watched Houston’s dominant rotation pave the way to a world title last fall that brought so much joy to this part of the world.

    To step away from the biased viewpoint of tweets and text messages, to hear folks I never had met before and may never meet again, hit on the same observations, leads me to realize that what the Braves are doing is resonating far beyond the borders of Braves Country. In this part of the world, the Astros endured a miserable rebuild that featured three consecutive seasons of 106-plus losses and finishes in the division of 40-plus games out of first.

    Houston’s win total jumped from 51 games in 2013 to 70 games in 2014, to 86 and 84 the following two seasons, then 101 wins and the world championship in 2017. A dynamic pitching staff with young star power aplenty has the Astros poised to compete deep into autumn for years to go.

    But they’re not the only team following such a blueprint. There’s another team, one based in Georgia’s capital city, that is on the rise. And people far from SunTrust Park are starting to take notice.

    —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.

    How The Braves Can Win In 2016

    As the Braves’ 2015 season draws to a merciful close, it’s time to start thinking about next year. Well, okay … it was time to start thinking about next year a long time ago. But now that the offseason is almost upon us, let’s have a closer look at what next year’s roster might look like.

    After chatting with many Braves fans on Twitter, it has come to my attention that some are pessimistic about the direction of this ball club. Twitter, as you know, is a wonderful place defined always by thoughtful discourse, level-headed debate and rational, well-reasoned viewpoints. So imagine my surprise when some took to calling Braves Director of Baseball Operations John Hart an “idiot”—or worse—for his execution of the team’s deconstruction and reconstruction over the past year. “This team still going to suck in 2017,” some told me. (Opening Day, 2017 being the target date when the Braves’ front office plans for the team to once again be strong postseason contenders.)

    Braves Director of Baseball Operations, John Hart

    Braves Director of Baseball Operations, John Hart

    Look, it’s been a long year in Braves Country. Fans who attend the remaining home games at Turner Field should receive a t-shirt emblazoned with a Braves logo and the words “I survived 2015!”  It’s been tough. I get it. But I think pessimism about the Braves’ long-term future is unfounded. And while feeling less than giddy about next season is far more understandable, I wouldn’t write off 2016 as another 6-month-long drinking game waiting to happen (A Braves reliever just served up another run-scoring hit… “SHOT!”  Wait, two runs scored? “DOUBLE SHOT!”).

    In fact, I think the Braves can win in 2016. Will they? I have no earthly idea. But I believe it’s quite possible. Now, that might seem hard to swallow on the heels of season in which Atlanta will have lost well over 90 games, but it’s not nearly as far fetched as it might sound at first blush.

    Here are the keys to a winning 2016 season:

    BRING IN AN ACE:

    I’m on record as predicting that the Braves will pursue one of the available free agent aces this winter. They are: David Price, Zach Grienke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann. Other quality free agent starters will include Mike Leake and Jeff Smardzija.

    But why, you might ask, would the Braves pursue a free agent ace this winter, rather than waiting for 2017? There are several reasons:

    1 – They would like to build some momentum heading into the new ballpark. If the Braves are coming off of back-to-back terrible seasons when SunTrust Park opens its gates, it’s could be tougher to get fans excited about the new beginning.

    LHP David Price is one of several top-end starting pitchers on the free agent market.

    LHP David Price is one of several top-end starting pitchers on the free agent market this winter.

    2 – Why not? They have the money. In a recent interview, John Hart pointed out that the Braves have shed a lot of payroll and now have a lot more flexibility to spend money on talent, adding “I think, again, what we do with that financial flexibility remains to be determined. But I think it’s going to be something where we’ll be aggressive in our approach.”  Also, consider the fact that any free agent starting pitchers the Braves might pursue are going to be looking for 5+ year deals. If need be, Atlanta could structure a deal to pay a little less in year-one of the contract and make up the difference over the balance of the deal when the new ballpark revenue is flowing.

    3 – The opportunity may not be there a year from now. There are at least a half-dozen quality starting pitchers, including several aces, available via free agency this winter, but the 2016-2017 free agent pitching market is shaping up to be a thin one. So if the Braves want to add a veteran free agent ace to anchor this young rotation going forward, it makes sense to do it now–this winter, rather than wait.

    4 – Acquiring another top-of-rotation starter opens up the possibility of trading Julio Teheran for a bat, if/when the Braves feel another young hurler is ready to replace him in the rotation. And who knows? That opportunity could arise at some point during the 2016 season.

    BETTER PERFORMANCE FROM MIDDLE/BOTTOM OF ROTATION:

    A free agent ace, together with Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran, could form a heck of a trio. But, they’ll need to have Terhan back on track. It’s been a tough year for Julio, but you have to remember that this is the same guy who posted an ERA right around 3.00 over 400+ innings though the two seasons prior. He posted a 2.89 ERA in 2014 and opposing hitters batted .232 against him. And he looks to be finishing strong this season.

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

    Hey, he’s 24 years old. Perhaps it’s a bit reactionary to write him off after one substandard season, don’t you think?

    The Braves need Teheran to step up, and there is reason to hope that he will, but they’ll also need better performance from the bottom of the rotation. Rookie starters Williams Perez, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos all currently feature ERA’s north of 5.00. Now, it is worth noting that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery all posted 5.00+ ERA’s in their rookie seasons too. That should tell you that first-year stats are not a reliable predictor of future performance.

    But while early-career struggles are entirely normal, if the Braves are going to win in 2016, they’ll have to get more out of the bottom of the rotation than they what they got this season. They don’t need anyone to compete for a CY Young award here at the back end of the group. ERA’s well down into the 4.00’s would suffice.

    REVAMP BULLPEN:

    The Braves bullpen has been terrible. So bad, in fact, that it may be hard to believe that the Braves can turn it around in a single winter. But consider a few things:

    First, the bullpen, as bad as it’s been, isn’t barren. Arodys Vizcaino has been a huge ray of light. If he continues to dominate, the Braves may have their closer for years to come. He gives Atlanta something to build around as they reconstruct the bullpen. Also, Matt Marksberry has shown himself to be a highly effective left-handed specialist as long as he’s limited to that role. Lefty hitters are batting just .154 against him. And Peter Moylan might be able to hang around as a groundball specialist for double play situations.

    RHP Jasn Grilli

    RHP Jasn Grilli (right) With catcher A.J. Pierzynski (left)

    Second, some of that cash the Braves will have to spend could be invested in relief help.

    And finally, the Braves have several quality bullpen arms on the DL right now, who are expected to return to action early next year:

    • Jason Grilli expects to be healthy and ready for training camp in February.
    • Chis Withrow, who the Braves acquired earlier this year from the Dodgers, has back-end-of-the-bullpen stuff. He is recovering from Tommy John surgery and should join the team early next season.
    • Shae Simmons also underwent Tommy John surgery, and like Withrow, has the potential to be a late-inning guy in this Atlanta ‘pen. He will likely be ready for spring training.
    • Paco Rodriguez, a hard-throwing lefty also acquired from the Dodgers, is rehabbing from elbow surgery (not Tommy John) and should be ready in the spring as well.

    When you consider the relief arms the Braves have on the shelf, as well as the ability to spend some cash on a free agent reliever (trades, of course, are also a possibility), there is every reason to believe the Atlanta bullpen could be vastly improved next year.

    OLIVERA MUST HIT:

    The Braves rolled the dice over the summer in trading for 30 year old Cuban standout Hector Olivera. John Hart and Co. believe Olivera can provide offense at the hot corner and be a consistent middle-of-the-order bat to protect Freddie Freeman in the lineup. The Braves think he has a good chance to be the offensive equivalent to Scott Rolen or Travis Fryman. The Dodgers, of course, believe in him as well, having inked him to a deal worth more than 60-million dollars before he ever took his first swing in the big leagues.

    3B Hector Olivera

    3B Hector Olivera

    Here’s hoping they’re right about him. He’ll be a big key for 2016. If he hits, that could make a big difference for this lineup.

    SCRATCH OUT RUNS:

    Even if Olivera lives up to expectations, the Braves lineup won’t set the world on fire. But if the pitching is solid next season (and it has a chance to be), the lineup only has to approximate its performance through the first half of 2015. At the midway point of this season, Atlanta was squarely middle-of-the-pack in runs scored and on-base percentage, and they were 5th in the NL in team avg. They made it happen with a scrappy lineup that was willing and able to put pressure on opposing pitchers and play A-B-C baseball. If the pitching staff does its job, that kind of offensive output would likely be enough to push the Braves over .500.

    If you feel good about the possibilities for next season, you’re not crazy. After all, the Braves were a .500 ball club halfway through the 2015 season. Injuries to Freeman and Grilli led or contributed to a midseason skid, followed by the selloff of veteran anchors like Jose Uribe and Kelly Johnson along with multiple relievers, at which point the wheels came off. Again, the Braves have a lot of bullpen help on the way, and other veteran help can once again be imported.

    I’m not predicting that the Braves will win next year. The only thing I can say with confidence is that next season will be better than the present one. But that’s not saying very much. They may very well finish near the cellar once again. My point is simply that there is a realistic scenario in which they could win.

    If the front office brings in a high-end starting pitcher and a few people step up next season, the Braves could turn things around in 2016. Don’t look for them to compete for a World Series ring, but eclipsing .500 would be a vast improvement over the torturous season Braves fans have just endured. And that may be an attainable goal.

    Will the Braves win in 2016? Tell me what you think: @FriedbasballATL

    Kent Covington is a national radio news reporter and BravesWire Editor.