• Touki Toussaint

    After deadline whiff, Braves try to power through with shaky rotation

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It’s been eight days since the trade deadline passed, and I still catch myself glancing at my phone looking for the notification that the Atlanta Braves have traded for another warm body disguised as a starting pitcher.

    Granted, it’s an exercise in futility, much like it has been watching the land of misfit toys known as the Braves rotation try to navigate through opposing lineups the past month. Braves fans, who see an offense churning on all cylinders and a bullpen that’s been every bit as good as advertised through the first two-thirds of the truncated 2020 season, are seeing red at the inability of Alex Anthopoulos to find another live arm to add to the decimated starting pitching corps.

    Fans have spent the past week screaming from the rooftops in rage at Anthopoulos’ failing at the deadline to land more than just lefty Tommy Milone, who in fairness to the 10-year veteran stumbled in his debut but acquitted himself just well enough in his second start. On its own, the Milone acquisition was fine. The problem is the Braves needed at least one more arm to help hold together what’s left of a rotation that’s seen Mike Soroka lost for the season, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright banished to Gwinnett, Cole Hamels still stuck on the sidelines (it’s September for crying out loud), and Felix Hernandez long since opted out.

    Time for a moment of realization: there is no way Anthopoulos – or anybody else, for that matter – could predict every single thing that torched Atlanta’s rotation plans. The “they should’ve seen this coming” tweets are beyond old and predictable at this point. If you saw all of this unfolding, put down Twitter and go to Vegas, because in 40 years of following this team, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

    And “this” got even worse Tuesday morning, when the lone survivor of the Braves preseason rotation depth chart, Cy Young candidate Max Fried, landed on the injured list with a back injury. The organization says they expect the lefty to miss just one or two starts. Pardon the fanbase if they take that news with a healthy dose of skepticism, along with a chaser of gloom and doom.

    Sure, as I said, there is no way Anthopoulos could guess his rotation would be down to Ian Anderson, Wright (summoned back from the alternative site to start Tuesday against the Marlins), Josh Tomlin, Milone, and Robbie Erlin as the first full week of September unfolded. But here we are, and the Braves general manager does bear some responsibility for the state of the Braves starters.

    The signing of Hamels to a one-year, $18-million deal in the offseason has turned into the biggest mistake in his 34 months at the organization’s helm. Faux pas 1A is not landing at least somebody else at last week’s deadline. No, he should not have emptied the farm for Mike Clevinger. Cleveland clearly wanted quantity; which three major-league players and which three top-10 prospects would you have dealt for Clevinger, who himself was sent away to the Indians alternative site after breaking COVID-19 protocol?

    Lance Lynn? Last I checked, he’s still with the Rangers, who held the market hostage for a pitcher who’s been good the past two seasons and is on a club-friendly deal in 2021. But it would not have been worth blowing up the farm system, which clearly is what it would’ve taken – Texas got burned by not moving Mike Minor at last summer’s deadline, and now hopes Lynn won’t follow a similar course as the former Braves left-hander.

    But Minor, who struggled this season before being shipped to Oakland for two players to be named later, would have been worth the risk. If not Minor, then SOMEONE to plug a hole for three or four starts. Anthopoulos spending his post-deadline press conference focused on what he has at Gwinnett felt not just odd, but unacceptable for a fanbase whose goals go far beyond winning a 60-game sprint to a division title.

    Because if the guys at Gwinnett are doing that well, there is zero excuse for them not being in the big-league rotation. If Foltynewicz is throwing 94 mph, I’d much rather take my chances with him than Erlin.

    The deadline has passed, and this is what the Braves have for the stretch run and October. Perhaps Hamels comes back and is healthy. Maybe one of the guys sent down returns and pitches well (Wright doing so Tuesday would be a big boost for everybody). It’s not ideal, but you have to go with what’s here and hope for the best.

    That’s not a strategy any World Series contender should have to employ, and that’s squarely on the general manager’s shoulders.

    It’s too late to do anything about it now. But this offseason, Anthopoulos has no choice. He must land a dependable, controllable starter to go with Soroka, Fried and Anderson. The madness of 2020 affords him the slightest of passes here, but the benefit of the doubt is gone.

    —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.

    Of Young Pitchers, Nighttime Nick, and A Historic Pace

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This writer opined a few days ago that the Atlanta Braves rotation – ravaged by injuries and opt-outs and diminished velocity (let’s hope the locusts stay away for a few more days) – would be best served by looking at a trio of long-promising starters and saying, “here’s the ball.”

    One time through, nothing has changed my mind.

    Sure, Sean Newcomb took the loss in Wednesday’s 2-1 home defeat to Toronto and Kyle Wright saw a strong overall outing turn on two bad pitches in Saturday’s 5-0 setback at Philadelphia. In the middle, Touki Toussaint spun a gem in Thursday’s 10-1 rout of the Blue Jays, plus the bonus of a rainout Friday night in the City of Brotherly Love.

    Through 25 percent of this season that borders more on the absurd with each passing day, the trio of Newcomb-Toussaint-Wright is a combined 0-3 with 27 earned runs allowed in 27 2/3 innings. But go a bit beyond the surface, and you’ll see why I’m so bullish on giving each of these arms regular run through the Atlanta rotation.

    Newcomb was a hard-luck loser against Toronto, coming one pitch away from getting out of the fifth inning. He walked one hitter (just two free passes over nine innings combined in his past two starts), gave up just five hits and struck out four. Two runs allowed on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings is something any major-league manager will take in this truncated 2020 season.

    Toussaint was on from the first pitch the next night, surrendering three runs on four hits with no walks a career-high nine strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings, the best of his eight career big-league starts. Mixing in a quick-pitch delivery that reminded some of Johnny Cueto, the 24-year-old limited Toronto to one hit through the first six innings, finishing with 59 strikes in 83 pitches five days after allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings in relief at Tampa Bay.

    Wright tap-danced through trouble Sunday against the Mets, but did not allow a run despite four walks and five hits in 3 1/3 innings. Saturday was much better except for the fourth inning, when he hung a curveball that J.T. Realmuto smashed for a homer to lead off the inning. Later in the frame, after getting squeezed on what looked like a strike on the inside corner, Wright allowed a three-run shot to Jay Bruce on a hanging slider. Despite the two mistakes Wright pitched well, throwing 59 of his 91 pitches for strikes while walking three with three strikeouts in a career high-tying six innings.

    There’s plenty clamoring for Atlanta to make a trade (not happening, not at this point) or promote one of a promising batch of arms at the alternative training camp site. After one time through the rotation following the season-ending injury to Mike Soroka, the progress is there, even if the results aren’t exactly what you want just yet. And you can’t measure progress unless you let these guys keep taking the ball.

    Nick at Nite Felt So Right

    It wasn’t Opening Day, there weren’t 40,208 jammed into the ballpark, and Gabe Kapler wasn’t coming out to yank Aaron Nola after 68 pitches with a five-run lead. But in a way, Thursday win felt a bit like March 29, 2018, when the Braves rallied in the season opener from a 5-0 deficit to stun the Phillies 8-5 on a walkoff homer by Nick Markakis.

    Some 861 days after Markakis belted his first big-league walkoff into the Chop House and turned the ballpark then knows as SunTrust Park into delirium, the 36-year-old outfielder capped his first start since returning to the team after originally electing not to play due to COVID-19 with a solo homer in the ninth to lift Atlanta to a 4-3 victory.

    In his first start since returning to the Braves, Nick Markakis called game with a solo homer in the ninth inning Thursday against Toronto.

    Markakis causes plenty of debate on social media, which as I’ve mentioned before is so ironic because Nick Markakis and Twitter are about as similar as a lava pit and the Arctic Circle. With Ozzie Albies on the injured list with a right wrist bone contusion and Matt Adams joining him with a left hamstring strain, Markakis hitting fifth against a right-hander when Travis d’Arnaud sits is perfectly acceptable.

    It also provided a pretty cool moment Thursday, regardless of how you feel about the veteran out of Woodstock (and, yes, Young Harris).

    Ynoa Start? Here Ya Go, Huascar

    I saw Huascar Ynoa make his big-league debut against the Phillies on June 16 last season, the hard-throwing right-hander allowing one hit with two strikeouts in two impressive innings. His lone other major-league appearance exactly one month later wasn’t as smooth: six runs on five hits in one inning at Milwaukee.

    Ynoa signed with Minnesota as a minor-league free agent, joining the Braves in the Jaime Garcia trade a week before the 2017 trade deadline. The 12th-ranked prospect in the Atlanta organization according to MLB Pipeline, Ynoa sits mid-90s with his fastball but touched the upper 90s during his relief appearances with the Braves a season ago. He pitched to a 5.33 ERA in 17 appearances (14 starts) at Triple-A in 2019, and Atlanta will look for him to get through the Phillies lineup at least one time to begin the first of two seven-inning contests Sunday.

    Falling Off the Pace

    Saturday’s loss dropped the Braves to 9-6 on the season, which I’m sure is disappointing to fans. Not because Atlanta is on a .600 win pace so far (good for 97 wins in a 162-game season), but that defeat put the 2020 squad one game off the pace for best record ever by a Braves team through 15 games of a 60-game campaign.

    Huh?

    Yep, the Braves franchise has done this before, but you have to go back … way back. All the way back to the 1878 season, when the Boston Red Stockings (they would become the Braves for the first time in 1912) went 41-19 en route to a second-consecutive National League pennant. A 1-0 victory over Indianapolis on June 13, 1878, lifted the Red Stockings to a 10-5 record, and pulled them within 1 ½ games of first place in the NL.

    That victory was the fourth game of a stretch where Boston went 14-2. The Red Stockings would lead the NL by as many as 7 ½ games at the end of August before a 4-6 September resulted in a four-game cushion at the end of the season.

    Far and away, there was one player who carried the lion’s share of the load for the eventual pennant winners. Right-hander Tommy Bond led the NL with 40 victories, made 59 starts (yes, he started every game but one), went the distance in 57 of those assignments, pitched nine shutouts, posted a 2.06 ERA, and piled up a staggering 532 2/3 innings. He led the NL with 182 strikeouts; he also led the league in hits allowed (571) and homers surrendered (five).

    Suffice to say, even if the 2020 Braves end up with a better record, those numbers won’t be touched. And that 1878 campaign came one season after the Red Stockings also won the pennant with a 42-18-1 record. That one tie in the 61-game 1877 season? A 1-1 stalemate on opening day against the Hartfords of Brooklyn, who in time would become the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    —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.

    Ready or Not, It’s Time: Let the Kids Pitch

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Through the first 10 games of a season like no other, the Braves had overcame shaky pitching from 60 percent of the starting rotation and a slow start from a few key offensive cogs, riding a lights-out bullpen and a handful of hot bats to seven victories.

    But in a year where nothing feels solid, the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to this team occurred Monday at Truist Park. Ace Mike Soroka – and yes, I’m labeling the kid who turns 23 today with that lofty designation – tore his right Achilles tendon breaking toward first base in the third inning. The Kid from Calgary, lying in the infield grass after trying to walk, was helped off the field while Braves Country’s collective heart stopped in unison.

    Sure, any time you lose your top starter, it’s a big blow. But when you’ve watched the final three spots in your rotation struggle to the degree Atlanta experienced through the first two trips through, it’s nothing short of devastating.

    Oh, by the way, did we mention there are just 49 games to go, in a season when more teams in the National League will make the playoffs (eight) than go home (seven)? That is, if there isn’t yet another Marlins- or Cardinals-type outbreak of COVID-19 that convinces Major League Baseball to look at the number of games already postponed, the growing number of pitchers coming up with arm and shoulder fatigue, and say, “forget it, see you in 2021.”

    Don’t expect Alex Anthopoulos to find an immediate answer outside the organization via a trade market that is non-existent right now – the Atlanta general manager told media members Tuesday morning he’s been making calls since summer camp ended almost two weeks ago. Maybe that changes as the Aug. 31 trade deadline approaches, but I have my doubts.

    If you’re the Braves, you’ve hoarded pitching prospects like canned green beans for a half-decade. Some of them didn’t pan out or were moved; a quartet of them now occupy spots in the big-league rotation, even if for a couple of them it’s by necessity. Several others are working out at the Braves alternative site camp at Coolray Field in Gwinnett, a phone call away from reaching the show.

    What should the Braves do?

    Baseball likes to say, “let the kids play.”

    I say, “let the kids pitch.”

    But not the kids you may think.

    Look, at this point, is anybody going to really call for Anthopoulos’ job if the Braves miss the playoffs in this bizarro-world of a 2020 season? Even without Soroka, the Braves just need average starting pitching behind Fried to finish in the top eight in the NL – which doing so guarantees you only a best-of-three crapshoot in the opening round.

    So why not give some of the young arms a chance to prove themselves, and not in spot-start-then-back-to-long-relief-or-Triple-A fashion, but with a sustained stretch of taking the ball in the bigs every fifth day.

    Yes, I’m aware 18.3 percent of the season already had expired by the time Max Fried – the one remaining asset in Atlanta’s starting squadron that engenders no worry – took the ball for Tuesday’s series opener against Toronto. Fried is 26 and made just his 42nd career start. But he’s a proven commodity regardless of Soroka or this season; in this current landscape, he might as well be a 15-year veteran.

    Sean Newcomb is seven months older than Fried. But he needed 161 pitches to cover 7 2/3 innings in his first two outings, struggling with control in his first start and getting hit hard in his second outing. Touki Toussaint, 24, struck out six in an otherwise rough relief appearance in his season debut, but provided some stability with four shutout innings in Saturday’s start against the Mets. Kyle Wright, also 24, had a dreadful inning at Tampa Bay after two masterful ones, then spent Sunday tap-dancing around four walks and five hits en route to 3 1/3 scoreless appearance.

    That’s your 2-3-4 in the rotation right now, folks. And you know what?

    That’s how it should stay, at least for the next three weeks.

    Nobody is asking anybody not named Fried to offer more than four good innings at this point. Yes, it’s the third time through the rotation, but I see an opportunity to try and find out how these guys could do getting regular starts. Getting into the fifth inning (or the fourth) also provides piggyback opportunities for the Josh Tomlin’s and Tyler Matzek’s of the world, both of whom have impressed in their initial appearances.

    Matzek’s tale is quite intriguing, from being out of baseball with the yips to impressing from the left side for one of baseball’s best bullpens. That relief corps figures to get better sooner rather than later, as free-agent acquisition Will Smith is slated to throw again Thursday as he continues his return from quarantine.

    Could Matzek, who made 24 starts for Colorado in 2014-15, get stretched out enough to fill the currently vacated fifth spot? Perhaps. Or, a more intriguing thought: using the 29-year-old – who has nine strikeouts with no walks in 5 1/3 scoreless innings so far – as an opener.

    There are plenty of calls to unleash the real “kids,” guys like Ian Anderson, Kyle Mueller and Tucker Davidson, that trio among the organization’s top 10 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. All three have high upside, certainly. Davidson, in particular, intrigues with high-90s velocity from the left side and an impressive showing at Gwinnett last season (2.84 ERA in 19 innings), while drawing attention during both spring training and summer camp.

    There are other options, from the veteran Jhoulys Chacin to another one of the youngsters, 22-year-old Bryse Wilson, to whatever Mike Foltynewicz can salvage from a disastrous beginning to his 2020. But I want to see what’s in front of me here and now. Newcomb has shown at times he can be an effective starter before control problems last season landed him in the bullpen (where he pitched well). We’ve seen glimpses, albeit brief, from Toussaint and Wright.

    This confluence of difficult events has afforded the trio an opportunity.

    It’s time for the organization to give them a chance to seize 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.

    Ten Games In, and the Braves are Off to a Hot Start

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves played a Sunday home game today, and I wasn’t in the ballpark. As someone who’s held a 27-game A-List membership since the franchise moved into what is now called Truist Park for the start of the 2017 season, I can count on one hand the number of Sunday home games I have not attended in recent years.

    Most of those can be attributed to coaching my kids’ baseball team in 2017, their final year of baseball. One kid played for 11 years; the other played for eight years, opting to do other sports in those three years. The fees for all that baseball, and other pursuits, were paid in part by freelance work I did for Gracenote Sports, starting all the way back in November 2010.

    That relationship ended with a contract termination email landing in my inbox Friday morning, thanks to the global pandemic. But no tears here. I choose to tip my cap and remain thankful for the opportunity to spend nearly a decade writing game previews for the Braves, the Winnipeg Jets, the Hawks, and SEC and ACC football and basketball. It’s yet another reminder of just how tenuous the year 2020 is in so many respects, and how we all should count our blessings.

    We are 11 days into the regular season, and the Braves not only have avoided an outbreak of COVID-19 positive test results, their opposition also has stayed healthy enough to avoid any schedule disruptions. Atlanta has completed 1/6th of its season, and arrives at this junction in a place far, far better than I anticipated. Today’s 4-0 home shutout victory over the Mets pushed the Braves to 7-3 on the season.

    Remember, I wrote and said if Atlanta completed its 20-games-in-20-days opening stretch at 8-12, there would be no need to panic.

    The Braves have opened this crazy 2020 season by scoring runs in bunches, rallying from behind as if there were 40,000 of us in the stands cheering them on, riding two arms at the top of the rotation who look as good as anybody in baseball, and with zero regard to the starting pitching they have faced from the Mets and Rays.

    Now that we’re through 16.6% of the season (wasn’t opening day just yesterday?), and with no guarantee we’ll actually get to play the final 50 games of this unprecedented campaign, a few observations about the hometown nine, one that’s tied for the most wins in the majors as the first full week of August begins:

    2.7 is the new 1: In this new baseball world of 2020, we remember a 60-game season means each game carries 2.7 times the weight of one contest in a 162-game stretch. To put the Braves start in perspective, in a normal season, a 7-3 beginning equates to roughly a 19-8 start. That’s not too shabby. It also goes to show, after going 2-3 through the opening five games of the season, how a good week can tilt the tables with so few games on the schedule.

    Mike and Max, and that’s the facts: There are some things you can toss aside given the shortened schedule, but the top of the Atlanta rotation is legit. Let’s go ahead and say it right here and now: both Mike Soroka and Max Fried are aces. Flat-out studs. Fried pitched maybe the best game of his career Thursday against the Mets after an impressive performance in his season debut at Citi Field last weekend, while Soroka has shined in his first two starts. Bottom line: both guys not only give you a chance to win when their turn arrives, but we’re now at the point where you except the Braves to win when they toe the slab. Those two are that good, and that’s a great feeling. Now, for the rest of the rotation …

    Looky looky looky, here comes Touki: The Cooks Pest Control jingle on the Braves Radio Network has a new connotation, and one the Braves desperately need after a rough showing from the back side of their rotation. Touki Toussaint, pressed into the rotation after Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment and, after clearing waivers (still a surprise to me that some team didn’t take a chance on him), headed to the team’s alternative training site at Gwinnett, gave Atlanta four scoreless innings in Saturday’s 7-1 victory. The young right-hander did his job on that night, despite three walks and throwing just 45 of his 74 pitches for strikes, and he absolutely has to get the ball again Thursday against Toronto. And if it’s four clean innings out of the gate for now, we certainly will take it.

    Dansby is doing it: Dansby Swanson singled in Sunday’s victory, giving him at least one base hit in each of Atlanta’s first 10 games. Slowed by injury in the second half of last season after a good start, the Marietta kid – he played high-school baseball nine miles from Truist Park – is hitting .368 with a 1.005 OPS and 14 hits through the first 10 games. Never mind his go-ahead single in extra innings against the Mets on July 25 and his stellar defense. Is this the season we see the Vanderbilt product break through offensively? So far, so good.

    Comeback player of the … decade?: Colorado selected left-hander Tyler Matzek 11th overall in the 2009 draft. He made his big-league debut five years later with seven innings against the Braves, but after 25 appearances in 2014-15, he was out of the majors. Across the next few years, he battled the yips and didn’t pitch professionally in 2017, landing in the Braves organization in 2019. But the 29-year-old impressed in spring training and summer camp, and in four appearances in the majors in 2020 has allowed four hits with nine strikeouts across 5 1/3 scoreless innings, getting the win Sunday (his first MLB win since April 27, 2015, against Arizona) after fanning four hitters in two innings.

    The kid will be fine, part I: Ronald Acuna Jr. entered Friday’s series opener 4-for-28 on the season with one extra-base hit and 14 strikeouts. Parts of social media already were losing its never-reasonable mind over the slow start by the Braves outfielder, but the 22-year-old had squared up several balls against the Rays after a rough showing in the opening weekend in New York. Acuna enters Monday on a three-game hitting streak, belting his first homer Saturday night and not striking out in a game for the first time this season by going 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored in Sunday’s victory.

    The kid will be fine, part II: Ozzie Albies is off to a slow start, hitting .194 with a .550 OPS through the first 10 games, and has not started two of the past three contests due to right wrist soreness. It’s a cause for concern but, remember, this is a season of the likes we’ve never experienced before (and hopefully, never will again). Albies will be fine and likely is back in the lineup for Monday’s series finale against the Mets.

    The other shoe … when does it drop?: Anybody else waking up daily and wondering if we’ll get the news that baseball is closing up shop, or at least is pausing for a few days? Because I am, as much as I hate to admit it. We can’t deny the facts: The Marlins and Phillies have played three games. Washington has played seven. The Cardinals have played five; the Brewers have played six. To see so many teams sitting idle on the opening weekend of August should underline how unprecedented these times are, and how every game is a gift.

    A gift the Braves have paid back to their adoring fan base more often than not through the opening 10 games of 2020. Let’s continue to hope that the season continues, because for Braves fans, it’s started in about the best way imaginable.

    —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.

    A Sobering Fourth, Positive Tests, and Should We Even Try to Do This?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Fourth of July normally is a celebration of all things Americana, complete with summer heat, burgers on the grill, family and friends and, of course, Braves baseball. It’s one of the landmark days on the baseball calendar, along with Memorial Day and Labor Day, when we size up where our team sits and whether it actually is good enough to make it to October.

    But not this year. And we got a stark dose of our current, cold reality splashed right into our faces as the second day of Braves summer camp unfolded Saturday morning at Truist Park.

    I had no inside information, and while some folks mentioned it on social media, I hesitated greatly to speculate on the players I did not see in pictures and videos from the Braves and various onsite media from Friday’s workouts. But I’ve watched this team as close as anybody for years, and not seeing Freddie Freeman’s face pop up in a single image Friday left me wondering if the captain of the Braves indeed had been stricken by the coronavirus.

    Those worries were confirmed by the team Saturday morning, the first baseman and linchpin of the Atlanta lineup testing positive for the virus. He has company, sadly: newly signed closer Will Smith, along with pitcher Touki Toussaint and non-roster infielder Pete Kozma, also testing positive for a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans. According to published reports Saturday, manager Brian Snitker said Freeman has been running a fever and might not be back for quite some time. Freeman’s wife, Chelsea Freeman, commented via her Instagram account that her husband, “literally never gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks.”

    In normal times, we would discuss what Freeman’s absence would mean to the Braves. Three years ago tonight, we were celebrating his return from a wrist injury (at third base, remember? Ah, the Matt Adams days). These obviously are not normal times. Heck, I should be sitting in Truist Park tonight, celebrating Independence Day with 41,000 of my closest friends, enjoying seeing Mike Trout play in person for the first time, welcoming home former Braves standouts Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran. Instead, I’m here in the Braves Room, streaming a Winnipeg Goldeyes games online (Peg City is up 9-0, by the way) while an IMSA race at Dayton plays on my muted TV.

    Normal? Nope. I don’t even know what IMSA means.

    I spent today the way I spent the previous two afternoons – fishing along the shores of Lake Lanier, burning vacation time for work that would’ve been spent at the home opener and the opening homestand and at Fenway Park two weeks ago. The only chop in my world right now comes from boat traffic lapping against the lake shore. The Braves, according to a New York Post report tonight, are scheduled to open the truncated 60-game season on Friday, July 24, at Citi Field against the Mets.

    It’s fair to wonder tonight: Will it happen?

    More importantly: Should it happen?

    Sure, it’d be great to have Braves baseball on our TVs 60 times across 66 days starting two weeks from Friday. The distraction would be welcomed. Just listening to this Goldeyes radio broadcast tonight (Winnipeg roughed up former Mississippi Braves hurler Tyler Pike for seven runs, in case you’re wondering) has provided a bit of comforting and somewhat familiar background noise on a Fourth of July that otherwise feels like no other July 4 in my memory.

    But at the same time, it feels foolish to spend much time wondering how the Braves cover for Freeman’s likely absence when the season begins at first base and the now-gaping hole in the third spot of the batting order. I mean, with everything going on right now, is investing the energy into whether it should be Austin Riley or Nick Markakis or Yonder Alonso playing first base worthwhile?

    Perhaps it is, and perhaps that’s how we keep on keeping on, right? I often come to you here with blunt opinions about this franchise and this sport, but I’m conflicted tonight. Seeing Snitker speak to the media today was difficult. You could see the pain in his eyes as he discussed not only the four positive test results, but also the fact popular first-base coach Eric Young Sr. has opted out of being onsite this season. Say what you will about Snit, but you can’t deny how much he loves this franchise he’s represented for four decades, and how much that man adores every single person who is a part of it.

    The Fourth of July is here, and this is where we sit. It’s a heavy time, accentuated further by Dodgers pitcher David Price and Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman opting out of playing in 2020, by positive tests for Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola and two teammates, by positive tests that have popped up already inside the NBA and MLS bubbles. And sobering news late Saturday: Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle ace who impressed in his initial Braves spring starts before the shutdown, opting to sit out 2020 because of the virus.

    And can you blame him, honestly?

    Trout, the best player on the planet, would be roaming center field for the Angels at Truist Park tonight. Instead, he’s home with his pregnant wife, undoubtedly weighing the heaviness of whether putting on his No. 27 for the Halos is worthwhile in this unprecedented time. I don’t blame him one bit. Honestly, I’ll be surprised if the best player on the planet takes one AB this season.

    I want baseball back, desperately. But deep down, stripping away my Braves fandom and my insane love for this amazing sport, I must admit I’ve wondered if one day I’d reach a point when I’d say, “let’s not do this.”

    This weekend, around the most American date on the calendar and one when our national pastime shines so bright, one typically spent celebrating with family and friends while watching our beautiful game on display, I’m closer to that point than I ever thought I’d be.

    —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.

    Restarting Baseball Won’t Be Easy, But There’s a Way to Get There

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The weekly Zoom call with some of my tailgate buddies is finished. I am watching a replay of a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) game on ESPN2. The Kia Tigers are playing, and Preston Tucker is in the lineup – remember when he hit a homer off Max Scherzer to cap the season-opening homestand in 2018, a homer my oldest son actually called from our seats in Section 431 on a Wednesday get-away day in early April?

    OK, quit lying. You do not remember it. Tucker would be replaced in a few weeks in left field by some hot-shot prospect. Think his name was Acuna? I don’t know. But my kid will not let me forget the moment he told me, “Tuck’s going yard here.”

    We so wish random memories from a game a couple of years ago could dominate our thoughts right now. That’s not the case, obviously. I admit, we are reaching here as we dive into the ninth week of the Coronavirus shutdown that has shuttered North American sports. And yet there are signs – as we hopefully are reopening to get folks back to work while keeping the curve flattened – that some leagues are ramping up. NASCAR, which embraced online technology brilliantly with its iRacing series, plans to run a real race next weekend. NBA training facilities are staring to open, gradually. Same with MLS.

    And Major League Baseball apparently has a plan. It’s a plan that makes sense, given this different time in which we’re living, and given that the decision makers for not just sports leagues, but corporations and local municipalities and state governments and up to the federal level, have no baseline by which to measure the decisions they’re making. I have my opinions, but let me say this: this ain’t easy for any of them. In this time, kindness and grace carries the day, the way I see it, regardless of anything else. And they’re trying, folks.

    As far as firing up MLB again, I know it also is not easy. But there is a plan that was reported by The Athletic (subscription required) on Saturday that feels like it just might work. In summation, MLB is going to present the bones of the plan to the owners on Monday and, provided it gets owners approval, could be presented to the players association as early as Tuesday.

    Of course, there are far more questions than answers. I get that. And those questions are fair. The owners and players could halt this movement if they do not agree to some sort of revenue-sharing agreement, with the likelihood no fans will be in the stands. I do think neither side wants to come across as greedy in this moment. Actually, collaboration between the owners and players association could lay groundwork toward a collective bargaining agreement, considering the current CBA expires after the 2021 season.

    In summation, the plan would produce a shortened season – and without fans to start, obviously. Let’s hope we can get fans back in the stands at some point. The number of games thrown around, dictated by basic math, is 78 games (81 games is ½ of a normal MLB season). Teams would be limited to play only their division opponents, plus the teams who make up their corresponding division in the other league. The Braves play in the National League East, so that means your schedule is comprised of the other four teams in the NL East, plus the five teams in the American League East.

    You play four three-game series against your division opponents, and two three-game series against each team in the other corresponding division. So, 48 games within division, and 30 games against the other division. I would like to see if we could expand that schedule to include a few series with Central division opponents. You’d love to see the Braves play three games against the Cubs at Wrigley, or host three games against the Cardinals. But if 78 games is the limit, we will take it.

    And sure, the “AL and NL East” division would be a tough sled for anybody. Look at last year’s standings. Yes, you have the Marlins and Orioles (two rebuilding franchises) in there, but you also have the Nationals, Yankees, Rays, Mets and Phillies. The Jays have tons of young talent. For the Braves, it would be a tough slog, but they also are among the really good teams.

    And honestly, do you care if the teams in your division are better than the other divisions right now?

    There have been rumors MLB told teams to tell their players to start ramping up, and I noticed evidence of that on social media. Late this week, I watched an Instagram story from Ronald Acuna Jr. in which he shared a pic he took outside Truist Park. Over the next two days, there were IG stories of Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo hitting together.

    Camargo had stayed in Tampa – where he worked this offseason to shed weight and get ready for spring training – and Acuna had traveled to the Miami area after the shutdown. Albies had returned to the Atlanta area after camp was halted. The three of them hitting together was the first sign to me that things might be about to fire up again.

    The conventional wisdom is spring training would start in early-to-mid June, with games beginning in early July. The thought is teams would play in their home stadiums, unless the COVID-19 virus spikes in a particular venue – sadly, New York City comes to mind – and the people involved (players, coaches, umpires, trainers, doctors, PR staff, bat boys, etc.) would get tested frequently.

    Here in Georgia, the governor has told us that anybody who wants a test now can be tested. There was open testing at the park today where I coached my kids in youth baseball for a decade, for example. The City of Orlando has told the NBA’s Orlando Magic to go ahead and test their people freely, as the city now has enough testing for frontline workers to allow for testing for something as frivolous as a basketball team’s personnel.

    We must shift our perspective from what we have experienced previously. It truly is an unprecedented time in our nation’s and our world’s history. Baseball in this moment will not be the same. Let’s embrace that first and foremost. Provided it can happen, this season will be like no other. That statement applies to life in general in these strange days and nights. And there are plenty of salient questions that require answers before an umpire shouts, “play ball!” What happens if a player tests positive? What if a city – be it New York City or Phoenix or Minneapolis or Atlanta – experiences a sudden surge in cases, as more and more locales ease lockdown restrictions? What happens if a baserunner slides hard into second base, gets tangled up with the second baseman, and one of them tests positive the next day?

    I’m not looking for answers right now because, honestly, none of us have those answers. What we do know is this; our sport is going to be different. That’s fine. Lean in here, and get creative. Nodding to the NHL daily roster model, I would love for MLB to have an active roster (thinking 30 guys) plus an inactive list (an extra four players) for each game, with the ability to interchange guys from one day to the next. I also wonder how we handle the minor leagues, which very well may not happen in 2020. If you’re the Braves, do you have Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, and the rest of the prospects playing intrasquad games at North Port, ready to be called up to the MLB inactive list or the 30-man roster if a need arises?

    Starting pitchers, even with a three-week spring training, only will be able to go three, maybe four innings at the onset of the season. One of my centric baseball concerns in this time is starters trying to go deeper than they should and blowing out, and getting lost for most of 2020 and 2021. I think you have to let starters piggy-back each other. The Braves depth helps here. So, Mike Soroka starts a game in early July? He goes three frames, then give the ball to Sean Newcomb or Felix Hernandez (or Josh Tomlin) to try and get you through six, then turn it over to arguably the deepest bullpen in the NL.

    In a truncated schedule, starting quickly is going to be critical. And I think the Braves are well positioned here. They have plenty of depth pitching wise – remember the arms that really stood out before camp shut down? Newcomb. Hernandez. Kyle Wright. Touki Toussaint. Then think about the bullpen. If you use Will Smith, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin on one day, you can come back the next day with Shane Greene, Darren O’Day and Luke Jackson. Each has experience closing games in the majors.

    Alex Anthopoulos never could have have envisioned this environment – heck, who could have? – but the Braves arms are positioned well as anybody for the remarkable, memorable, strange season that we all hope is about to unfold. And, if the season unfolds like we think it might, the Braves might be as positioned as well as any team.

    Hope everyone is safe. Hope everyone is well. Hopefully, we are covering ball here soon. Thank you for reading. Thank you for reaching out via social media. Take care, and hopefully we get to write about baseball soon.

    —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.

    Winter is Here, but Work for 2020 Starts Now

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – We’re knee-deep into the offseason and, if you weren’t 100 percent sure after a painful choke in the NLDS, a World Series title signed with a curly W that has made me moved our prescriptions from Walgreens to CVS, and the missing daily backbeat of live baseball, just walk outside.

    It’s cold enough to snow. In North Georgia. In November.

    Pardon me while I throw up in my mouth.

    Welcome to winter. Or, to be more specific, welcome to baseball’s offseason. Recency bias tells us it’s a long, slow slog that will continue well into spring training. It shouldn’t be that way, but if the dispatches we’re seeing on Twitter from the MLB General Managers meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week are any indication, we may see a shift back to a more normal cadence of moves.

    Heck, four free agents have signed already, all four with Braves connections! Atlanta technically made Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis free agents for about 17 seconds thanks to some creative bookkeeping – a smart move that freed up an extra $4 million for the 2020 payroll – then the Braves brought back right-handed reliever Darren O’Day for $2.25 million (a good move in my opinion) and the Cardinals signed former Braves first-round draft pick and the pride of St. Simons Island, one Adam Wainwright.

    I shared some personal thoughts on the St. Louis righty during our NLDS coverage. He’s a pillar of the St. Louis baseball community, but if there is any other place he would pitch besides under the Gateway Arch, it would be in his home state. That won’t happen in 2020, but plenty of moves remain to be made for the National League East champs.

    Let’s get into a few topics as we stoke the coals in the hot stove on this chilly November evening:

    Is There Rain in the Forecast?

    I’ve made it known far and wide for months that objective numero uno this offseason for the Braves is to re-sign third baseman Josh Donaldson. The soon-to-be 34-year old bet on himself in 2019 and the move came up aces, as he slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS in a (still mind-blowing to me) 155 games.

    The good folks on Braves Twitter are losing their minds with every passing day, hitting refresh every four seconds hoping to see the tweet that the Bringer of Rain has re-upped with Atlanta. People, relax! Donaldson is going to take his time, rightly so, and for a reason. There are numerous contenders who need a third baseman and have money to spend. Donaldson has vaulted himself into the No. 2 position in the market, only behind Anthony Rendon and the massive contract the former Washington third baseman will land.

    Donaldson has earned this right to take his time. A tweet from Jon Heyman of MLB Network (who blocked this author because, well, he’s a boob) on Wednesday indicated what I long suspected, and what didn’t throw me into a tizzy while every tweet reporting Donaldson interest scuttlebutt sent Braves fans into cliff-diving mode: Donaldson’s camp is talking to other teams, but he will circle back to the Braves once that’s done. At that point, Atlanta will measure the market and make what I think will be a strong offer.

    Will it be enough? I still think it will be. There is strong interest on both sides to re-sign with Atlanta. If somebody swoops in with, say, three years at $30 million a year (or a fourth year guaranteed), that’s likely too much for the Braves. But three years at $26 million? I see the Braves doing that. Just relax. This process will play out.

    What if the Forecast is Clear?

    And yet, it’s quite possible Donaldson dons a new jersey next season – push me for odds, and I still think it’s 65%-35% he returns to Atlanta. If he does go elsewhere, then contrary to the tone on social media, the franchise will not fold. There actually is a Plan B out there that, in some respects, is quite attractive vs. sinking $26 million into a soon-to-be 34-year old.

    If there is a poster child for the free-agent freeze in recent years, it’s Mike Moustakas. After hitting 38 homers for Kansas City during an All-Star season in 2017, Moustakas could not find the deal he wanted on the open market and returned to the Royals, signing in spring training. Four months later he was shipped to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, finishing 2018 with 28 homers and 33 doubles between the two teams.

    He re-signed with the Brewers as spring training opened in February for $10 million, a salary that netted 35 homers, 87 RBIs, an .845 OPS and a 3.2 bWAR season. Back on the open market again, Moustakas figures to finally land a multi-year deal as the third-best third baseman behind Rendon and Donaldson, and the Braves figure to be all over him, especially if they feel Donaldson may sign elsewhere.

    FanGraphs Steamer projections paint Moustakas as a 35-homer guy against in 2020 with a .260 average, a 2.8 fWAR (same fWAR as he posted in 2019) and an .824 OPS. Yes, it’s a step down from Donaldson but not as much as people think. He will play the bulk of 2020 at age 31, and most projections peg Moustakas earning an AAV somewhere between $11 million and $14 million. It’s a sizable reduction in salary for production that comes pretty close to what Donaldson provided. If Donaldson isn’t back, you could do far worse than a three-year, $40 million deal with Moustakas.

    Making Up for the Lost Offense

    I’d look no further than where Moustakas played 197 games the past two years. Milwaukee catcher Yasmani Grandal is on the open market, and in my mind he – combined with either Donaldson or Moustakas – would give the Braves the most length we’ve seen in an Atlanta lineup in close to two decades.

    Grandal just turned 31, is a switch hitter, and would give Atlanta a legit front-line catcher – relegating Tyler Flowers to 35-40 starts (which I think is optimal). Grandal has hit at least 22 homers in each of the past four seasons, is regarded well defensively – despite a hiccup with the Dodgers in the 2017 playoffs – and last season in Milwaukee posted an .848 OPS and 2.5 bWAR, which from the catcher’s spot totally is acceptable.

    Grandal would be a great addition, regardless of who plays third base. Yes, catchers are scary when they cross age 30. Yes, it won’t be cheap, as he projects to make somewhere between $16 million and $20 million per year. And yes, Atlanta has two strong catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, both of whom could be in the majors in two years. But a switch-hitting catcher who produces offensively and can shoulder a large bulk of the workload (126-plus games in five of the past six seasons) would be well worth the investment.

    For Starters, How About a Starter?

    There’s no question Alex Anthopoulos wants to fortify the starting rotation. Atlanta figures to enter 2020 with three starters locked into the rotation: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz. A fourth arm from the rebuild, Sean Newcomb, will get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training after spending 2019 as a valuable lefty relief arm.

    There is no shortage of arms available on the open market, from World Series hero and North Carolina native Madison Bumgarner, to East Paulding High alum Zack Wheeler, to resurgence candidate Jake Odorizzi. But if the Braves fill third base and catcher via free agency, I think they will pivot and try to trade for a veteran starter.

    Perhaps that’s Matthew Boyd of Detroit, whom the Braves were rumored to be in on at the trade deadline and whose performance plummeted in the second half (3-6, 5.51 ERA, 20 homers in 78 1/3 innings after the All-Star break). Perhaps that’s Corey Kluber, the Cleveland ace whose 2019 was scuttled after he took a line drive to his arm.

    And perhaps the final rotation piece resides in house, be it Kyle Wright (whose 90 mph slider was very impressive in a couple of late-season relief appearances), or Bryse Wilson (who was inconsistent in the majors, yet dominated the Phillies in a July start), or Touki Toussaint (who endured a completely lost season in 2019, but whose raw stuff remains tantalizing). Ian Anderson probably needs more time at Triple-A; same with Tucker Davidson.

    What About the Big Targets?

    There is plenty of chatter about superstars nearing free agency who could be on the trading block, partly because their teams know they cannot afford them once club control expires, and partly to pivot toward keeping other stars on their roster. Three names bantered about have created quite the stir: Boston outfielder Mookie Betts, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor.

    Betts is a non-starter for the Braves, even though he is 12 months removed from a MVP award. He’s under contract for only one year with a projected arbitration price of $27.7 million. Anybody who thinks Atlanta should open its prospect vault for one year has lost their grip on reality. This isn’t a team whose winning window is about to close; it’s just opened. Dealing multiple top prospects to Boston for one year of Betts would undercut the years Atlanta spent trying to rebuild its franchise and farm system.

    Bryant is more interesting. The Cubs have a slew of talent that helped Chicago break their 108-year World Series curse in 2016, but with guys like Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo getting close to free agency, there simply isn’t enough money to go around. I expect Bryant to be moved this offseason, but a projected $18.5 million salary for 2020 with his injury history gives me cause to pause. Perhaps striking out on both Donaldson and Moustakas changes my tune.

    The one I’m fascinated by is Lindor. A two-time Gold Glove winner (remember, he plays in the same league as Andrelton Simmons) who has playoff and World Series experience, who turns 26 on Thursday, who has placed in the top 10 in AL MVP voting (likely to be there again when the award is announced Thursday evening). Lindor has slugged 32-plus homers with at least an .842 OPS in each of the past three seasons, with 22 or more stolen bases each of the past two years, and he hit .284 in 2019 with 22 steals (thrown out just five times), 40 doubles and 101 runs scored.

    Lindor truly is a generational talent, and he’s under club control for 2020 and 2021. There is a thought process that putting him with the Braves makes Atlanta the most dynamic lineup in the NL. I see it. Can you imagine that dude with Acuna and Albies and Freeman and perhaps Donaldson or Moustakas, and perhaps Grandal?

    There will be a price, certainly from a money perspective (Lindor is projected to make $16.7 million in arbitration, a figure that could soar above $20 million in 2021), and certainly from a fanbase perspective (as Atlanta native Dansby Swanson absolutely would be included in the deal, and perhaps center fielder Ender Inciarte as well, to help offset the money). But Lindor is a game-changing talent, and one under control for two years. If there is a risk to take on the trade market, this makes sense for Atlanta to explore.

    Patience is a Virtue

    There has been far more chatter this November than the past two autumns. Sure, some of it is agent-driven noise, designed to try and accelerate the market. But the feeling is this offseason will unfold differently, and quicker.

    Traditionally, there are few moves made during the GM Meetings. But it’s the first chance for general mangers to get together in one place, compare notes, discuss needs and wants and desires. It feels like the weeks between now and the early December Winter Meetings will see more action than recent years, with a flurry of activity happening between now and Christmas.

    The Braves figure to be right in the middle of it, shaking off the chill of winter’s onset with a burning desire to get to 2020 as quickly as possible, with an evolving roster that by spring better be capable of winning the World Series.

    Anthopoulos has been on the job for two years. He’s been splendid in many ways, frustrating in others. This is the offseason to make his mark.

    The market is ripe, and the time is now.

    —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.

    Settling on Markakis cannot signal end of Braves moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s funny, if not downright ironic. Nick Markakis is the consummate professional, a man’s man who never shows emotion, speaks quietly to the media (when they can drag a quote out of him), and just goes out and does his job, for better or for worse. This is not the type of player who sparks divisive debate and impassioned argument among a fan base.

    But in the moments after the Atlanta Braves announced the 35-year-old right fielder would return on a one-year, $4-million deal for 2019, social media became lit, as the kids say. And there was no middle ground, with reaction falling into one of two camps:

    • Absolutely outstanding to bring back a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner who earned his first career All-Star berth.
    • Absolutely inexcusable to bring back a mid-30s outfielder who slashed .258/.332/.369 in the second half and went 1-for-12 in the NLDS.

    The stats in the second bullet were pulled from a notes file I compiled in looking back on 2018, a season that saw the Braves slam shut the rebuild and fling open the window to compete. In no way was Atlanta capable of a World Series run a season ago, but entering 2019, expectations have changed. Hence why, within that notes file buried on my hard drive, I typed the following in my Markakis section:

    “Expect him to be elsewhere in 2019.”

    Yeah, about that …

    I am among those who voiced my, shall we say, displeasure with what I feel on the surface is the Braves settling for the status quo one season later, in a division that is markedly better, with a team that cannot be satisfied with just a winning season in 2019. Markakis’ second-half swoon may be a by-product of fatigue from his insistence to play every single day – an approach that absolutely cannot be repeated – or it could be a signal of regression for a player who slashed .272/.350/.391 in his two seasons before 2018.

    And that’s not bad. Not at all. But it’s nowhere close to the .323/.389/.488 slash line Markakis put up through the first half of the season. In other words: the feeling that Markakis’ first four months were more of an anomaly than the norm isn’t just a stance to back up an opinion. It’s a fact.

    What’s also a fact is this team, like it or not, now is viewed through a different lens. Sorry folks, that what happens when you start winning. And if you’re going to have a mid-30s outfielder posting a season OPS+ of 97 (his average for 2016-17 before a 117 last season), you’re going to need big-time offensive performances from several other spots in the lineup to be a World Series contender.

    Yes, Ronald Acuna Jr. turned the baseball world upside down, Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate until a late-season slump, Ozzie Albies was an All-Star (he also struggled in the second half), and in Josh Donaldson, Atlanta has the potential to possess the MVP-caliber thumper this lineup needs to go with Freeman in the lineup. But Acuna enters his first full big-league season, Freeman turns 30 in September, Albies begins his second full major-league campaign, and Donaldson has battled injuries the past two seasons.

    In other words, right field felt like a natural place to chase an upgrade. And let it be known, the Braves chased. Michael Brantley wasn’t coming here because he wanted to play in Houston, with no state income tax and for a team that won 103 games last season and the World Series the autumn before. Atlanta was not going to pay Andrew McCutchen the stupid money Philadelphia did (rightly so). They like A.J. Pollock but not at the years/money for a talented yet oft-injured outfielder on the other side of 30. Carlos Gonzalez’s splits away from Denver scared them (again, rightly so). Adam Jones arguably is as big of a regression candidate as Markakis.

    Don’t like the Markakis signing and want to be mad about it? Direct your anger toward Phoenix and Seattle. Arizona tore down part of its core and yet, insists on not trading David Peralta as the Diamondbacks front office holds illusions of competing. Seattle has “reimagined” its roster but refuses to deal Mitch Haniger – understandable considering the club control of the rising star.

    On the surface, Atlanta realistically never could have been in on Bryce Harper, although I’ve said all winter he would be the absolute perfect fit in right field and the cleanup spot. The Braves, even if they were awash with a $200 million payroll, could not do a 10-year deal for anybody, not with the names hitting free agency after 2021 (Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz), 2022 (Dansby Swanson), 2023 (Albies, Sean Newcomb, Johan Camargo), 2024 (Acuna, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint), etc.

    A shorter deal with opt-outs and a high AAV always was the only realistic path, and there is no doubt in my mind Atlanta went there with Harper. Whether it was shot down immediately or considered somewhat seriously, who’s to say? Harper, of course, remains unsigned.

    Markakis truly is one of those guys you want on your team, but his presence should not preclude Atlanta from trying to bolster the offense as we approach spring training. Does that mean J.T. Realmuto and the never-ending soap opera with the dysfunctional Miami front office reaches its long-overdue finale? Does that mean another push for Peralta or Haniger? Or, using some reverse thinking here, does it mean Atlanta finally trades some of its prized prospects for a true ace (Corey Kluber)? With Markakis signed for a small price, do the Braves look to the reliever market (hey, aren’t you Craig Kimbrel)?

    There are positives in bringing back Markakis, of course. You know what you’re going to get. Hard work. Discipline. Leadership. No distractions.

    It would be folly to expect a full season of what Markakis provided in the first half of 2018. But let’s hope what we see this season is closer to that and not a continued downward trend toward the final three months of last season. Because at the end of the day, the answer to that question may turn out to be the biggest one in determining if October baseball awaits for a second consecutive season.

    There will be plenty of rightful second-guessing of Alex Anthopoulos for this signing if it doesn’t.

    —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 2018 Run is Done, but for Inspiring Braves It’s Only the Beginning

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The cadence of a baseball season is unique in that it starts with the sleepy slumber of late winter, the nearly seven-month marathon that builds to a crescendo, then concludes with a frantic sprint to a championship by 10 teams. One squad lifts the big trophy, and the other nine see their dreams end with the subtleness of running head-first into a concrete wall.

    Regardless of final result, for all teams the season’s conclusion does signify an end. But there are teams that the end only hints of a grander beginning, an earmark of better things to come. The 2018 Atlanta Braves embarked on their season March 29 at SunTrust Park against the Philadelphia Phillies, looking to avoid a fifth consecutive losing season. Some 193 days later, their season closed with a 6-2 defeat Monday to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

    There will be plenty of time in the weeks to come to discuss what this franchise’s accelerated progression from rebuilding squad to NL East champion means in the grand scheme of building a World Series champion, what moves will be made, what vulnerabilities were exposed. Now is not that time, not when the bandage has been ripped from the wound, when the standing ovation the home crowd gave the Braves as they walked off the field one last time still echoes in our ears, while many of us still are smiling with pride while tears trickled down our cheeks.

    No, this is a time to sit back, to breathe, to go ahead and laugh about how far the Braves have come in just six months and nine days, and yes, to cry a little bit. Because whoever said there is no crying in baseball never has lived and died with a baseball team for years, then to experience a season sprinkled with so much pixie dust, you find yourself looking at your friends or spouse or children or parents and repeatedly asking, “how is this happening?”

    Like many of the great pure joys of life, you just let it ride. And boy, what a ride these Braves took their beleaguered fanbase on in 2018. A .500 record? Yeah, right. How about 90 victories, a division championship, and a respectable battle put up against a team that played for the World Series title last fall? All the walk-off victories. The emergence of so much young talent, names we heard mentioned during the dark days of the rebuild, names typed on prospect lists, names we saw at Rome or Mississippi or Gwinnett, and wondered how they might fare amid the grind of a big-league schedule.

    You know the names by now, from the generational star-in-the-making Ronald Acuna to the All-Star Ozzie Albies, from the emerging Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb to the next wave of great arms fronted by Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Kolby Allard. Guys like Johan Camargo, who finally did enough to get the third-base job for keeps and never looked back. Guys like Chad Sobotka, who started the season at High-A Florida and ended it pitching in the NLDS. Don’t forget Dansby Swanson, lost for the playoffs with a hand injury but one of the NL’s best clutch hitters and defensive shortstops in just his second full major-league campaign. Or Ender Inciarte, acquired with Swanson in the now-famous heist of a trade with Arizona, anchoring Atlanta’s defense in center field while delivering his typical strong offensive second half. Or Charlie Culberson, who authored several of the season’s most signature moments.

    These Braves took all that youth and blended it with the veteran leadership provided by Nick Markakis, who made the All-Star team for the first time at age 34, the tandem of Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers behind the plate, the resurgent Anibal Sanchez – plucked from the free-agent scrap heap in March, but who pitched so effectively he earned a NLDS start while mentoring the young arms along the way – and a nod to one of this team’s lightning rods of criticism in recent years, the veteran Julio Teheran, who didn’t get a start in the NLDS but proudly came out of the bullpen in Game 4 and held the Dodgers at bay.

    And then, there is the constant.

    In Sunday’s Game 3, the first postseason game in the two-season existence of SunTrust Park, Acuna nearly brought down the house with a grand slam that staked the Braves to a 5-0 lead. The Kid gave Atlanta a cushion that the dogged Dodgers chipped away at until drawing even, and that fear of the run ending with a postseason sweep certainly creeped into the minds of even the most optimistic Braves fan.

    But that’s where The Captain came in. Freddie Freeman watched the Braves tear down the organization to the nubs in the years following Atlanta’s last postseason appearance in 2013. He never wavered, never complained, set the tone, led by example, excelled even as his prime years began with the Braves seemingly no closer to contending. All he did this season was lead the NL in hits and played Gold Glove-level defense while serving as the steady face of a team on the rise.

    Freeman slammed a long leadoff homer into The Chop House leading off the sixth inning of Game 3, turning SunTrust Park upside down in a moment that had you closed your eyes, you would swear you were standing inside long-gone Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the early 1990s. That homer proved to be the difference in the Braves lone victory in this series, but served symbolic in that the franchise foundational cornerstone had delivered the knockout blow on the national stage.

    So, of course it was Freeman striding to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4, Atlanta’s remarkable season hanging by the slimmest of threads. Freeman struck out to end the game, the series and the season, but not before the packed house serenaded him with chants of “Fred-die! Fred-die! Fred-die!”

    When the season ended – when the journey collided with that concrete wall of finality – at 8:16 p.m., the disappointment quickly faded into the aforementioned ovation. A few minutes later, Freeman told the media that for how proud he is of how far the Braves have come, the ultimate goal is to win the World Series. He emphasized and repeated the point.

    At the end of previous seasons, that type of comment would’ve be met with laughter. Nobody’s laughing now. Yes, the hearts ache and the tears fall, if for nothing else this team and its players have left an indelible impression on us all. The hashtag #ForEachOther rang true all season long, as players and fans truly felt they were in this together.

    Yes, 2018 has reached its end. But in every way imaginable, this also feels like only the beginning.

    —30—

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