• Travis d’Arnaud

    PARTY POOPERS: Dodgers Make Braves Pay for Missed Opportunities, Force NLCS to Game 6

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This has nothing to do with curses and jinxes and narratives long since exhausted, and everything to do with lack of execution and failure to seize opportunities.

    Leave third base a bit early on a ball caught in the outfield? Don’t drive home runners in the early innings? Fail to throw strikes during a tight spot? Sometimes in the regular season, those details get glossed over amid the blur of the daily march to October.

    But when you reach the 10th month of the year, you have to be on point at all times. The Atlanta Braves fell short in too many of those moments in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday, and that’s the biggest reason they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, instead of preparing for the World Series.

    The Braves had their chances but couldn’t take advantage, and the postseason-tested Dodgers made them pay in a 7-3 victory to keep their season alive. And while the Braves still lead the NLCS 3-2 and need just one win this weekend to capture the NL title and head to the World Series for the first time in 21 years, Friday served as a stinging reminder:

    Winning a pennant is not easy. They just don’t hand out trips to the Fall Classic like free samples at the mall food court. And the final win of a series is the hardest one to secure.

    If you get an opportunity, you best not waste it. If the disaster scenario unfolds this weekend and the Braves manage to lose games started by Max Fried (Saturday) and Ian Anderson (if Sunday’s Game 7 becomes necessary), they will rue the chances that slid through their fingers in Game 5.

    It started about as well as Brian Snitker could have dreamed. The Braves turned to A.J. Minter to kick off a bullpen game – welcome to life in 2020, with no off days in playoff series until next week. For Minter, it was his first start since his junior season at Texas A&M, and all the lefty did was strike out seven over three innings.

    Minter left with a 2-0 lead; it could’ve been more. The Braves collected five hits and two walks in the opening three innings, but scored only the pair of runs while stranding four runners on base.

    Atlanta actually put a third run on the scoreboard in the third, albeit briefly. Dansby Swanson’s sinking liner was snagged by Mookie Betts in right field, the former MVP stumbling as he picked the ball off his shoe tops. Marcell Ozuna, who began the inning with a single, left third base early and upon review was called out, the double play ending the inning.

    Regardless of how you feel about the whole momentum debate – which has raged across the airwaves and social media during this series – there’s no denying this game changed on the Ozuna blunder. The stumbles on this night don’t all fall on the loveable designated hitter, though.

    The Braves couldn’t cash in their chances in the early innings. It almost was jarring to see, considering Atlanta’s offense has scored four runs or more in one inning six times this postseason. In a bullpen game, a house of cards that can topple if just one reliever has an off night, three runs are not going to be enough most of the time.

    Not on this night, and certainly not against the Dodgers, who Friday played their 23rd NLCS game since 2016. And almost immediately after Ozuna’s run came off the board, Los Angeles did what the Braves could not.

    Take advantage.

    Corey Seager’s homer off Tyler Matzek in the fourth made it 2-1. And while the Braves still held the lead, you almost could feel what was coming next. Shane Greene wiggled out of trouble in the fifth, but left with two outs and one on in the sixth.

    Will Smith (the pitcher) came on and for the second straight night could not throw his slider for a strike, walking Max Muncy to extend the inning. That brought up Will Smith (the catcher), who golfed a 3-2 fastball into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and a 4-2 Dodgers lead.

    The Battle of Wills: The Dodgers catcher put Los Angeles ahead in Game 5 of the NLCS with a three-run homer in the sixth inning Friday.

    In the seventh, Jacob Webb was one strike away from getting out of the inning. Twice. Betts singled home a run on a two-strike pitch, and Seager followed with a two-strike, two-run homer.

    7-2 Dodgers. See you Saturday.

    Atlanta certainly wanted to spend the day shifting from pennant celebration to World Series preparation. There remains work to do, however. It’s playoff baseball, and the deeper you play, the more amplified the missed chances become. That’s part of it, a part the Braves and many members of their fanbase are learning on the fly.

    That’s not to suggest the Braves suddenly are gripped with overwhelming pressure. You can afford a stumble if you build a 3-1 series advantage, which the Braves did. Friday was Game 5, not Game 7. Fried pitched well in Game 1 and will be on full rest. Critical bullpen arms like Mark Melancon and Chris Martin also are fresh. Saturday is Snitker’s 65th birthday, and what would be a better present than a pennant and World Series berth?

    One also must think the Braves will have a heightened sense of urgency after a few stumbles Friday delayed the party for at least a day. The pressure remains squarely on the Dodgers, whose sole mission from the commencement of spring training is to win the World Series.

    But if this series isn’t over 24 hours from now, we’re having a completely different discussion.

    —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.

    CAPTURE THE FLAG! BRAVES SWEEP, HEAD TO NLCS FOR FIRST TIME SINCE 2001

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They didn’t know if there even would be a season. Their best player missed most of summer camp with COVID-19. Their starting pitching rotation fell apart.

    None of it stopped the Atlanta Braves.

    The Braves put the Miami Marlins out of their misery and ended a sweep of the NL Division Series emphatically and mercilessly, winning 7-0 in Game 3 on Thursday at Minute Maid Park in Houston. For the first time since 2001, the Braves are heading to the NL Championship Series, beginning Monday against either the Dodgers or Padres in Arlington, Texas.

    Say it out loud. Go ahead, Braves Country, you’ve certainly earned the right to shout it from the mountaintop after all the heartache, the close calls, the near misses across the past two decades.

    The Braves are four wins from the pennant!

    The Braves are four wins from the World Series!

    “Coming from where we were five years ago to where we are at now, it’s a complete 180,” first baseman Freddie Freeman – the only holdover from all four years of Atlanta’s rebuild from 2014-17, and who was stricken with the coronavirus in early July – told Fox Sports 1 postgame. “For us to be in this situation is absolutely incredible.

    “We finally got past the NLDS.”

    The Ride Continues: The Braves head to the NLCS for the first time in 19 years after Thursday’s 7-0 victory over Miami to cap a NLDS sweep.

    There would be no other shoe to drop this time, no agonizing end to this magical 2020 season that will roll on for at least four more games. Two seasons after crashing the playoff party and 12 months after giving away the NLDS, Atlanta has won two playoff series in an eight-day span – after not winning one for 19 years.

    And who’s to say it stops there? Sure, Los Angeles or San Diego will present a tougher challenge than the Reds or Marlins. But the Braves look every bit ready for this moment, and the backdrop of the environment in which his team reached this point wasn’t lost on manager Brian Snitker postgame.

    “This has been a tough time for all of us, in our sport, our world, our city, our fanbase,” Snitker said during media availability. “I love the fact we can give those people something to look forward to and watch.”

    Not many expected to still be watching the Braves a week into October. The chorus near and far rang loud throughout the 60-game sprint to this postseason: the Braves just didn’t have the starting pitching to go far. And that was fair, given how the projected rotation outside of Max Fried disappeared due to injuries and underperformance.

    But the cursed manner of Braves starters turned into a huge blessing in disguise, because Ian Anderson (twice) and Kyle Wright (once) have owned the biggest moments of their young careers.

    Thursday was Wright’s turn. It didn’t start out well for the 25-year-old right-hander, but he bore down and found a way to wiggle out of trouble before the Braves slammed down the accelerator. In the first, Wright allowed back-to-back one-out singles before stranding both runners. The second started with Wright walking rookie Jazz Chisholm in his first postseason plate appearance, but two groundouts and a strikeout ended the inning.

    That was huge considering what happened in the top half of the frame. The Braves loaded the bases off Sixto Sanchez on a Travis d’Arnaud single and walks to Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson. Following an Adam Duvall strikeout, Nick Markakis’ sinking liner to left was snagged by Corey Dickerson and d’Arnaud didn’t try to score.

    The inning ended with Sanchez inducing an Austin Riley grounder to short. A missed opportunity, one that could have changed the game had Wright not stifled Miami after the Chisholm walk. A missed opportunity, one the Braves would regret if they didn’t get another chance.

    They did in the third and, as they’ve done all season, seized the moment.

    Marcell Ozuna singled home the game’s first run, followed by d’Arnaud – who finished 6-for-10 with two homers and tied a franchise record with seven RBIs in a postseason series – just missing his third homer in three days, a double off the wall in right-center chasing home Freeman and Ozuna for a 3-0 advantage. Albies then moved d’Arnaud to third and Swanson chased him home to make it 4-0.

    The Knockout Blow: The Braves scored four runs in the third inning to power a 7-0 victory and sweep of the NLDS.

    Wright made sure it stuck after the first two Marlins reached in the third, retiring 12 of the final 13 hitters he faced. Combined, the trio of Fried, Anderson and Wright held Miami to four runs on 12 hits (all the runs and half the hits surrendered by Fried, the staff ace) with three walks and 19 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings.

    After so many October disappointments, the Braves have smashed that narrative with a command performance through five games. Atlanta not only has yet to lose this postseason, it’s allowed runs in just three of 49 innings. Anderson and Wright are the first teammates in MLB history to pitch at least six shutout innings in their playoff debuts in the same postseason.

    Oh, and about the Marlins trying to get under the Braves skin by plunking Ronald Acuna in Game 1? It backfired, bigtime. From that moment – remember, Miami led the opener at that point 4-1 – Atlanta outscored the Marlins 17-1.

    Acuna took to Twitter postgame to send the Marlins a message, and the franchise he plays for added another couple of notches to this 2020 postseason vengeance tour. The Marlins upended the Braves in the 1997 NLCS, and Atlanta was eliminated from the 2005 NLDS at Minute Maid Park in an excruciating 18-inning defeat.

    All of that is history. This current band of Braves continues to make its own. Starting Monday, they will do something the franchise hasn’t done in nearly two decades:

    Play for the pennant and a trip to the Fall Classic.

    —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.

    YOUTH IS SERVED: Rookie Anderson Shines, Pushes Braves to Brink of NLDS Sweep

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Standing on the pitcher’s mound at Minute Maid Park, Ian Anderson surveyed the situation Wednesday. First and second, two outs in the top of the first, Garrett Cooper at the plate and already 23 pitches hurled in Game 2 of the NL Division Series.

    Not many 22-year-olds would thrive in such a situation. But then again, not many 22-year-olds would find themselves in such a situation in the first place. With a confidence that belies his years and three great pitches in his precious right arm, Anderson never blinked. He induced a first-pitch flyout to end the threat.

    And never looked back.

    All Anderson did in his second career postseason start was pitch the Braves to within one game of the NL Championship Series, a 2-0 victory that gave Atlanta a 2-0 series lead. There were plenty of similarities to Anderson’s performance and his playoff debut, a winning outing in the clinching Game 2 of the NL Wild Card series last week against Cincinnati.

    He struggled mightily in one inning (the first Wednesday; the second last week) but escaped unscathed. He baffled opposing hitters with a plus-plus changeup that he didn’t start throwing until after he was taken by the Braves in the 2016 draft out of high school. He allowed three hits with one walk and eight strikeouts across 5 2/3 scoreless innings to stifle the Marlins, six days after holding the Reds to no runs on two hits with nine strikeouts in six innings.

    “His poise, his competitive nature,” shortstop Dansby Swanson told MLB Network postgame in describing Anderson, who sports a nice 0.69 WHIP and .125 opponents batting average through 11 2/3 postseason innings, with three walks and 17 strikeouts. “Each day, each start, he’s the same guy.”

    Two Down, One to Go: Behind Ian Anderson’s strong start and solo homers from Dansby Swanson and Travis d’Arnand, the Braves are one win from the NLCS after Wednesday’s 2-0 victory in Game 2 of the NL Division Series.

    If these Braves find a way to win one more game against the Marlins, they will advance to the NLCS for the first time since 2001 and move within four wins of the World Series. The fact they find themselves in this situation is jaw-dropping in and of itself, given how Atlanta held its starting rotation together with duct tape and prayer through most of the 60-game regular season.

    The conversation around the Braves all season has been centered on the rotation, or to be frank, the lack of one. Ace Mike Soroka blew out his Achilles, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb struggled, Felix Hernandez opted out, and stop-gaps such as Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone couldn’t provide much help.

    In late August the Braves turned to Anderson, now the third pitcher in franchise postseason history to post back-to-back consecutive scoreless starts (Steve Avery in the 1991 NLCS and Lew Burdette in the 1957 World Series). He’s helped Atlanta become just the third team in baseball history to post shutouts in three of its first four game in a postseason (1905 New York Giants, 1966 Baltimore Orioles).

    Awesome Anderson: Braves rookie Ian Anderson has pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings across his first two postseason starts.

    He got just enough offense on this day. No, the Braves didn’t bash opposing pitchers like they did in a 9-5 Game 1 victory. Instead, Atlanta got two timely solo homers from Swanson and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, the duo going deep for the second time in two days in the series to become the first Braves to homer in consecutive postseason games since Javy Lopez in the 2002 NLDS.

    d’Arnaud finished 1-for-3 one day after reaching base five times in Game 1. With each passing day, his signing last November looks like one of the offseason’s biggest steals. From Anderson’s perspective 60 feet, 6 inches away, it’s the veteran’s work behind the plate that stood out the most in Game 2.

    “Travis did a great job putting the fingers down,” Anderson told MLB Network postgame, “keeping me in the right mindset, keeping me in line.”

    Atlanta’s vaunted top of the batting order – Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna – combined to go 0-for-11 with five strikeouts in Game 2, four whiffs coming from Acuna after he jabbed at the Marlins on social media Tuesday evening. It was a rare off day offensively against Miami for Acuna. Freeman, the likely NL MVP, is hitless in eight at-bats in the series.

    It didn’t matter Wednesday. Anderson made sure Swanson and d’Arnaud’s swings held up, as did the Braves bullpen. Four relivers teamed up to cover 3 1/3 scoreless innings, issuing one walk with three strikeouts to put Miami on the brink of elimination.

    Atlanta pitchers have worked 40 innings this postseason, giving up runs in just three. It’s a high bar to match, but Kyle Wright takes his shot Thursday in Game 3. Drafted one year after Anderson following a stellar career at Vanderbilt (where Anderson had committed), Wright hasn’t pitched since Sept. 25. He was slated to start the winner-take-all Game 3 of the Wild Card series Friday on his 25th birthday, an outing rendered unnecessary after the Braves sweep. Wright worked through a simulated game at Truist Park instead.

    He provided plenty of promise in his final three starts of the regular season, going at least six innings in each while allowing a total of five earned runs with six walks and 14 strikeouts. Now he gets the ball with a chance to pitch Atlanta to a place it hasn’t been in 19 years.

    He has that shot because of two big swings of the bat, and a 22-year-old who again shined brighter than the glaring postseason spotlight.

    —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.

    RISE AND SHINE: Acuna Plunking Awakens Braves in Game 1 Victory

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It took him about 10 seconds to race 270 feet, from a first base he occupied after wearing another fastball from another Marlins pitcher to a head-first slide at home plate.

    Safe at home, Ronald Acuna Jr. jumped up with a spin and gazed toward the third-base dugout at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Like somebody who leaps from bed as their snooze alarm goes off for the third time, the Braves outfielder might as well have told the opposition his team was awake.

    The Braves smashed their NL East rivals 9-5 in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, scoring eight unanswered runs after falling in an early 4-1 hole. Staff ace Max Fried stumbled for the first time this season, but Miami resorted to a tired tactic after Acuna’s leadoff homer in the first gave Atlanta a short-lived 1-0 advantage.

    Miami starter Sandy Alcantara buried a fastball in Acuna’s left hip, the fifth time Atlanta’s 22-year-old outfielder has worn one against Miami in three seasons.

    “He hit a long homer, and got hit by 97 (mph),” Braves manager Brian Snitker – choosing his words carefully – told reporters in his postgame press conference aired on MLB Network. “In that situation, if you’re going to go in there, you’ve got to make sure you don’t hit him.

    “It’s happening too much.”

    Slow Start, Fast Finish: The Braves trailed Game 1 of the NL Division Series 4-1 before scoring eight unanswered runs in Tuesday’s 9-5 victory.

    Leading 4-1 after touching Fried for one run in the second and three in the third, all the early momentum sat with the upstart Marlins, who are in the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons. But there was a discernable shift in the tenor of the game after the HBP. And the Braves responded immediately, using back-to-back doubles by Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud to trim the deficit to a lone run.

    “Three-run lead, then give two runs right back,” Miami manager Don Mattingly told the media in his postgame comments, adding he did not think Alcantara intentionally hit the Braves young star. “We had the momentum.”

    But with one wayward inside pitch, it was gone. There is a time and place for everything. If Miami was trying to send some sort of message after Acuna became the youngest player in MLB history to lead off a first inning in a playoff game with a homer, it’s mind-boggling the Marlins would do it in this situation. Even with the recent history between the two division foes, there wasn’t anything leading into the series to foretell something would happen.

    (In case you’re wondering, the Braves host a four-game series against the Marlins on April 12-15, 2021. Mark your calendars accordingly.)

    Alcantara’s fastball may have been a sucker punch, but four innings later the Braves delivered the knockout blow for the game and, perhaps, the series. Honestly, it felt like just a matter of time once Acuna trotted to first base.

    The deficit stayed at one run thanks to two aspects of Atlanta’s game that’s been fantastic all season: its defense and its bullpen. Ozzie Albies made two sensational plays in a row in the fourth inning, and added a basket catch in short center field to open the fifth. Freddie Freeman ended the frame by diving to his right and snagging a Miguel Rojas chopper, flipping to Darren O’Day for the out.

    O’Day restored order after Fried scuffled through four innings (four runs allowed on six hits), needing only nine pitches in a scoreless inning. Tyler Matzek added another impressive frame to his postseason resume, striking out the side on 11 pitches in the sixth. Will Smith threw only eight pitches to sail through a clean seventh.

    Then the Braves offense, which scored just two runs in the first 20 innings of the Wild Card series against Cincinnati, exploded. It started with Austin Riley and Acuna recording singles to chase Alcantara, who otherwise kept the Braves in check with a high-90s fastball and nasty changeup. Ozuna and d’Arnaud came through after Yimi Garcia recorded an out, Ozuna’s single to left tying the game before d’Arnaud – who finished 3-for-3 with two walks and four RBIs – belted a 421-foot homer to dead center.

    Braves 7, Marlins 4.

    Braves wide awake. Marlins one step closer to bedtime.

    d’Arnaud Doubt About It: Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s three-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Braves the lead for keeps in Game 1 of the NL Division Series Tuesday.

    “We just got it going,” d’Arnaud told Fox Sports 1 after the game. “No matter how far we’re down, we’re never out of it.”

    As d’Arnaud’s homer sailed over the fence, Acuna jumped out of the far end of the dugout, waving a white towel in his right hand. Ozuna and Riley raised their arms in celebration. d’Arnaud turned toward the dugout after rounding first base, doing the Braves patented mix-it-up hand gesture. There would be another faux selfie in the dugout upon his return and, two hitters later, Dansby Swanson launched a two-run shot to push the Braves lead to 9-4.

    Perhaps by that point, Miami needed to wave something white. Through the first 2 ½ innings, the Marlins looked like they belonged on the postseason stage. Then they did something an underdog absolutely cannot do:

    Wake up the favorite.

    “Our focus remains on winning and moving forward,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    The Braves have won three playoff games in a seven-day span, matching their win total from the past six years. They look every bit the favorite now in this series, and odds are they won’t need another wakeup call.

    —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.

    Postseason Preview: Red October Beckons as Braves Aim to Overcome Annual Autumn Stumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Alex Anthopoulos cut his teeth on National League baseball, growing up outside of Montreal as an Expos fan before beginning the long journey to his current role as Braves general manager. And even though he found success as GM of the Blue Jays, he remained rooted in baseball played the Senior Circuit way: without a designated hitter.

    Suffice to say Anthopoulos has experienced a change of heart as the Braves prepare for Wednesday’s National League Wild Card series opener against Cincinnati. Thank Marcell Ozuna for that, the former Marlins and Cardinals slugger helping Atlanta deploy arguably its most powerful lineup in years by logging substantial time at DH – in the first season the extra hitter has been used in the NL.

    “I’ve enjoyed the lineup this season with the DH,” Anthopoulos admitted during an interview Monday evening on the Braves Postseason Preview Show on the team’s flagship station, The Fan 680 and 93.7 FM. “Having lived through it, I’ve enjoyed the DH quite a bit.”

    That potent batting order lifted Atlanta to its third consecutive NL East championship and into the expanded 16-team playoff field. It’s a lineup Braves fans hope will lift the franchise to its first playoff series triumph in 19 years. Yes, 2001 hangs around the neck of this fanbase like an anchor.

    So naturally, the Reds arrive at Truist Park with arguably the strongest three-man starting rotation in the tournament. It’s a reason many national prognosticators are selecting seventh seed Cincinnati over the second-seeded Braves, even though Atlanta’s offense led the majors in OPS (.832) and finished second in average (.268), homers (103) and runs scored (348).

    The old baseball mantra says good pitching beats good hitting, especially in the postseason. Will that hold true in a frantic opening round of a postseason like no other? We’re about to find out.

    Five Keys to the Series

    As Easy As 1-2-3: Let’s cut right to the chase, and you’re not going to like it if you’re a Braves fan. Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray could tilt this series decisively in Cincinnati’s favor. The three Reds starters are that good. It starts with Bauer, the NL Cy Young frontrunner and one who never shies away from saying what’s on his mind. Consider his response to a question from WSB-TV (Atlanta’s ABC affiliate) sports director Zach Klein during Monday’s media availability.

    Too Shy? Not I: Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati’s Game 1 starter, speaks to the media Monday.

    Bauer gets plenty of attention for his openness – remember his assessment of Braves hitters’ approach after an April 2019 start in Cleveland – but the dude can pitch. He led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.79), opponents batting average (.159) and hits per nine innings (5.06) this season. Castillo features a changeup that is one of baseball’s nastiest pitches, and he’s a huge reason why I expect this series to go the distance. Castillo led the NL with four wins in September while finishing the month with a 2.20 ERA and .190 opponents average. Gray has revitalized his career after reuniting with his college pitching coach from Vanderbilt, Derek Johnson. The three have driven the Reds staff to 9.5 fWAR this season, third in the majors.

    Feeling Right Against Right-Handers … and Lefties, too: Now for some good news, as all three starters the Braves will see in this series are righties, and that bodes well for one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups. Atlanta hitters slashed .273/.354/.498 for an .852 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season. Regardless of which batter’s box they use, Braves hitters put up a historic season. Atlanta’s OPS is the highest in franchise history during the modern era, the Braves went 31-10 when scoring four or more runs, and led the big leagues by scoring 10 or more runs in 10 games.

    29 Feels Fine: The Braves offense mashed all season, scoring a NL-record 29 runs in a Sept. 9 rout of Miami.

    The top three in Atlanta’s lineup – Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP frontrunner Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna – garner plenty of well-deserved attention, but the rest of the Braves lineup must produce to beat the type of pitching they will face this week. Former Reds outfielder Adam Duvall hit 11 of his 16 homers in September, including a pair of three-homer performances. Ozzie Albies has exceled since returning from the injured list with 25 hits in 18 games to end the season. Travis d’Arnaud finished his first season in Atlanta with a career-best .321/.386/.533 slash line.

    From Boys to Men, Quickly: Mike Soroka isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Cole Hamels, or Felix Hernandez, or Mike Foltynewicz. Instead, after Max Fried looks to extend his brilliant regular season into Game 1, the Braves will turn to rookie Ian Anderson in Game 2 and, if the decisive third game is required Friday, will hand the ball to Kyle Wright. Anderson and Wright have combined to pitch 87 career innings across 18 starts in the majors. The Braves and their fanbase have put a ton of hope into their young arms during and since the rebuild; that faith will be tested this week like never before.

    Anderson must remain poised and aggressive Thursday. The 22-year-old has shown the ability and aptitude to throw his changeup in any count, and he wasn’t fazed by facing Gerrit Cole and the Yankees in his debut, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Wright’s road has been substantially bumpier, but the Vanderbilt product (who would face a fellow Commodore in Gray on Friday) limited opponents to a .164 average while pitching to a 2.37 ERA in his final three starts.

    Sparkling Start: Ian Anderson no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning in his major-league debut Aug. 26.

    Need Relief? Advantage, Atlanta: The Braves poured plenty into their relief corps starting at last season’s trade deadline and continued that effort in the offseason. It paid off bigtime, as Atlanta relievers pitched to a 3.50 ERA and 1.280 WHIP. That includes several arms who will not be on the playoff roster. The nine relievers I mentioned in Monday’s roster post as locks for the series, plus Chris Martin (who was cleared to join the roster Tuesday), combined to strike out 240 hitters in 226 innings while posting a 2.26 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. The Reds feature several power arms at the back end of their pen, but overall their relievers have a 4.53 ERA and .709 OPS.

    Whether it’s a Braves starter or reliever, they will face a Cincinnati offense that has offered up a bunch of all or nothing this season. The Reds finished last in the majors in average (.212), 27th in runs scored (243) and 24th in OBP (.312), but slugged 90 homers (seventh). Cincinnati joins the 1906 White Sox and 2007 Diamondbacks as the only teams in MLB history to finish last in average and still reach the postseason.

    Redemption: Nobody needs to give Atlanta any motivation after the Braves choked away last season’s NL Division Series against St. Louis. Naysayers will remain until the franchise actually wins a playoff series. If the core of this team is indeed going to win a World Series someday, it’d be well served to finally get over the playoff hump.

    Cincinnati hasn’t graced the postseason since 2013, and four weeks ago were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Following an active offseason Cincinnati struggled to find its footing, waking up on Sept. 9 six games under .500 and 6 ½ games out in the NL Central. Then the Reds got hot, closing the regular season with 13 wins in 18 games.

    The X-Factors: First and Foremost

    Freeman has enjoyed an MVP-worthy season, the 31-year-old recovering from COVID-19 over the summer to hit 13 homers with 53 RBIs and career highs in average (.341), OBP (.462) and slugging percentage (.640). Baseball’s leader in fWAR at 3.3, Freeman looks to make amends for a miserable 2019 postseason during which he went 4-for-20.

    Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto is a decade removed from an MVP-winning season, and he hit a career-low .226 in 54 games this season. But the 37-year-old belted 11 homers – a 33-homer pace across a full season after combining for 27 longballs in 287 games across the past two years. Votto has not played in the postseason since 2013, going hitless in the Reds wild-card game loss to Pittsburgh.

    Ready to Rumble: Reds first baseman Joey Votto is full of confidence entering the series.

    The Difference

    Ozuna played a huge role in the Braves losing last season’s NL Division Series, going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored as the Cardinals upended Atlanta in five games. He signed a one-year deal in January, days after Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with Minnesota. Many worried the offensive production wouldn’t be there.

    All Ozuna did was put together a top-five MVP season, leading the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while finishing third in average (.338).

    “He’s had such a positive influence,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said on 680 and 93.7 FM Monday evening. “With the energy he brings, how he approaches the game, how he loves to compete. He’s as good an addition to the Atlanta Braves in as long as I can remember.”

    Ozuna’s regular season was memorable. The feeling here is his postseason will be, too. Like last October, Ozuna will excel but, this time, it will be for Atlanta and not against it. And in a series that’s a coin flip, Ozuna’s presence will make the coin land on the Braves side for the first time in nearly two decades.

    The Pick

    Braves in 3.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NL Wild Card series game, starting Wednesday evening.

    —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.

    Postseason Preview: Braves Must Maximize Roster in Red-Letter Matchup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The finish line at times seemed like a mirage, but after all the trepidation and worry about trying to pull off a shortened season in a pandemic, we made it.

    The 60-game sprint to the finish is complete. And, as it tends to do, baseball provided us plenty of memorable moments. Most of all, it brought back a familiar backbeat of normalcy during a time when for so many of us, normal felt like a foreign concept.

    I think I speak for Braves fans everywhere when I said here is where normalcy should cease and desist. While Atlanta is accustomed to reaching the playoffs after three consecutive National League East titles, it’s the typical status quo in October that has long since worn out its welcome. You know the math by now, by heart, much as it hurts: 19 years sans a postseason series victory.

    Opportunity knocks again starting Wednesday at Truist Park, where the Braves will open the NL Wild Card series against the Cincinnati Reds and their three-headed monster of a starting rotation. While there will be plenty of attention paid to Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray in the days ahead, it won’t be an easy out for either team – especially in a best-of-three opening round that immediately pushes the Game 1 loser into a do-or-die situation.

    Which is why Atlanta can ill afford to have any wasted spots on its 28-man postseason roster. No, it won’t happen but, yes, I absolutely would have Cristian Pache on the bench and William Contreras as the third catcher. In lieu of any personal feelings, here’s my projection of what the Braves playoff roster will look like:

    Starting pitchers (3): Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright. Open spots: none.

    Fried’s six innings pitched since Sept. 6 may be a blessing in disguise, and the left-hander has worked through back spasms and an ankle injury to reach the postseason at 100 percent. His development into a Cy Young contender and staff co-ace has been a saving grace for a rotation ripped apart by injuries and underperformance. Anderson has impressed in his first six big-league starts and the postseason stage doesn’t look to be too much for him to handle. Will we see the Wright from earlier this season (16 walks in 15 innings with a 7.20 ERA in four starts), or the one who shined his final three starts (six walks, 19 strikeouts, 2.37 ERA, .164 opponents batting average)?

    Relief pitchers (11): Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Will Smith, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek, Josh Tomlin, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Jacob Webb. Open spots: 2.

    The biggest injury concern is right-hander Chris Martin, who felt groin discomfort in the regular-season finale Sunday. Martin, of course, hurt an oblique warming up for Game 1 of last season’s NLDS, leading to a late Atlanta meltdown. His injury Sunday certainly sent shivers through the spine of Atlanta’s fanbase, but even without him, this bullpen (3.50 ERA, 1,280 WHIP, 282 strikeouts in 272 2/3 innings) is good and deep enough to swing a close series in the Braves direction. Tomlin, far more effective as a reliever than starter, provides insurance as a long man if a starter falters, and I expect either Huascar Ynoa or Bryse Wilson to also grab a long-man spot. One player I don’t expect to see: Luke Jackson, who has struggled mightily for much of the season.

    Starting lineup (9): Ronald Acuna Jr. CF, Freddie Freeman 1B, Marcell Ozuna DH, Travis d’Arnaud C, Ozzie Albies 2B, Adam Duvall LF, Nick Markakis RF, Dansby Swanson SS, Austin Riley 3B.

    There is room for adjustment in the bottom half of the batting order, but without question Atlanta’s offense is better than a season ago. Acuna, Freeman and Ozuna are as good a trio as any in baseball (a combined .316 average, 45 homers, 138 RBIs and 135 runs scored in 602 at-bats). d’Arnaud’s signing has worked out splendidly (.919 OPS), and Albies has raked since returning from injury (.338 average, .953 OPS with five homers and 17 runs scored in 18 games). One concern: Duvall has cooled of late (.162/.262/.270 in his past nine games) while Markakis was brutal offensively in September (.164 average, .451 OPS in 19 games).

    Bench (5): Tyler Flowers C, Alex Jackson C, Ender Inciarte OF, Pablo Sandoval 3B. Open spots: 1.

    Sandoval made his Braves debut with two walks Sunday, and provides not only insurance if Riley’s right quadriceps remains problematic, but a wealth of postseason experience. But this bench is not good by any stretch of the imagination, and even adding either Adeiny Hechavarria (who was awful defensively last week) or Johan Camargo (27.6% strikeout rate, .611 OPS) doesn’t move the needle. I expect the Braves to carry one of the two plus Jackson and Inciarte, although I’d lean to Contreras (better hitter) and Pache (speed and defense).

    Coming Tuesday: Five keys to the Braves/Reds series, who wins and why.

    —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.

    As Braves Close In On East Clinch, A Moment To Appreciate The Journey Here

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two years ago today, I stopped by a cigar shop and liquor store on a bright autumn Saturday morning. I bought two expensive stogies, four bottles of champagne, and cruised toward what was then called SunTrust Park.

    A few hours later, Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field, the Braves raced out of the first-base dugout, and tears of joy fell as Atlanta celebrated the 2018 National League East championship. Amid the mosh pit behind the pitcher’s mound, hugs were exchanged, T-shirts and hats were handed out, and Braves Country exploded in joy as the long five-year nightmare had ended.

    The rebuild was over.

    My, how things have changed as we sit here on this Tuesday in late September, the Braves potentially being able to clinch a third-consecutive division crown in just a few hours. I won’t be inside what’s now called Truist Park. You won’t be, either. We haven’t attended a Braves game all season, but while the pandemic has kept fans at home throughout this truncated 60-game season, we can take solace in two things:

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

    The “we” in the previous sentence isn’t just applicable to the Braves, but all of Major League Baseball. I certainly had my doubts and fears in the early days of this season like no other, especially after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experienced outbreaks in the initial weeks of this campaign. But here we are with six games left to go, a four-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins!) in the East standings, and another date with October looming on the horizon.

    It pales in comparison to what so many have endured the past six months, but these Braves have relied on a ton of resiliency to reach this point. They watched their pitching rotation fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane – the latest shoe dropping Monday when Cole Hamels, the biggest mistake of the Alex Anthopoulos era, landed back on the injured list and being done for the season after getting 10 outs in a Braves uniform. He joins the laundry list of hurlers who won’t help the Braves moving forward, a list that if you knew in mid-July would be a thing, nobody would blame you for wanting Atlanta to tank the season or just forget it altogether and move on to 2021.

    But these Braves had other plans. We wondered how the offense would look with Marcell Ozuna replacing Josh Donaldson, with the platoon of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo playing every day, with Adam Duvall and the ageless Nick Markakis getting some semblance of regular playing time. It’s turned into arguably the best Braves lineup top-to-bottom since the team moved to Atlanta 55 years ago, Ozuna earning himself a big payday on the open market this winter and Duvall looking like an extension candidate and Acuna and Ozzie Albies overcoming injuries to shine and Dansby Swanson – a recent slump notwithstanding – continuing his offensive progression and Travis d’Arnaud looking like the steal of last winter.

    And of course, Riley winning the third-base job and showing a much better approach at the plate. He’s never going to hit .280 in my opinion, but the power is real and the plate discipline has been much better and he’s showed he can play above-average defense at the hot corner. Duvall is a legitimate comeback player of the year candidate, ranking among the league leaders in homers. Were it not for the massive focus the front office must have (that’s not negotiable at this point, Alex) on starting rotation in the offseason, the Braves would be justified to hand Ozuna a huge four-year deal.

    But as always, the story of these Braves centers not on the prolific offense, the swagger of Acuna, the emergence of Riley and Duvall, the lock-down bullpen, or the way Max Fried has developed into a co-ace with the injured Mike Soroka. No, this story circles back to a tall first baseman from California who has been the one constant in the Atlanta lineup for a decade.

    Freddie Freeman didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball less than three months ago, stricken with COVID-19 and a 104-degree fever. We laughed when he took 30-plus at-bats in a five-day span across intrasquad games and two exhibitions against the Marlins, attempting to ramp up for the season opener. He struggled through the first 13 games, hitting .190 with a .656 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

    Since then, the Braves captain has slashed .382/.492/.711 for a scorching hot 1.202 OPS in 41 games, with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 41 games. The DH coming to the NL spurred manager Brian Snitker to move Freeman to the second spot in the batting order, where the 31-year-old is hitting .407 with a 1.233 OPS and 20 walks in 102 plate appearances.

    Freeman has placed in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times in his career; in my opinion, he should finish no lower than first this time around. The list of Braves who have helped move Atlanta to the verge of another East title is lengthy, but as always, steady Freddie stands front and center.

    Two years ago today, as Acuna gloved the final out of the division clincher, my enduring memory was of Freeman walking away from first base, both arms extended in the air, an expression of unbridled joy and relief awash across his face. He’ll soon have an opportunity to revel in another division crown, another punched ticket to the postseason.

    Who knows what awaits come October? We’ll worry about that soon enough. The moment that will come in the next day or two is one we wondered if we’d see. But it’s here now, as it was each of the past two Septembers. At least that hasn’t changed.

    For Freeman, for the Braves, for their legion of fans, the moment in and of itself is worthy of celebration.

    —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.

    On Another Wild, Weird Day, Braves Capture Home Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if I needed another reminder of just how different this 2020 season is, I got it late Tuesday night as the Braves wrapped up a 2-3, two-city road swing through New York and Tampa Bay to kick off the truncated 60-game season. I realized that, in normal times, I’d be planning for a before-dawn alarm to cook for our home-opening tailgate. There would be beverages already iced down. There would be a giddiness that normally accompanies Christmas Eve.

    Then I realized it’s late July, this Wednesday would be just a normal workday, and my only presence inside Truist Park as the Braves played their first home game of the season would be my cardboard cutout situated nine rows behind home plate. If my partial season-ticket plan had those seats, I could afford to attend maybe four games a season, not the 27 games that are included in my package for seats in the upper deck.

    It’s such a different vibe. I must admit, with the Miami Marlins outbreak and subsequent halting of their season for the rest of this first full week of baseball 2020 (and impacts on the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and Baltimore Orioles), it’s zapped just a bit of my enthusiasm. Not trying to be a killjoy here, but last weekend felt kinda-sorta normal. Then, the news broke of the Miami outbreak and the residual impacts and, well, it again made me think, “why we are doing this?”

    Let’s hope this not only is the lone outbreak within a team that we will experience, but that it serves as a wake-up call to anybody in baseball who thinks this is much ado about nothing.

    Wednesday brought the weirdness of a home opener with no fans, the good news of catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers returning to the active roster, and then shortly after 3 p.m. ET, 2020 decided to act the fool for the countless time: outfielder Nick Markakis, who elected not to play in early July, reversed course and rejoined the Braves. A change in MLB policy allows for players who elected not to play to change their minds and apply for reinstatement by Aug. 1, a provision even lost on some national scribes until Markakis showed up on a pregame Zoom chat with the media.

    A lightning rod on social media – which is hilarious because, seriously, it’s Nick Markakis; you think he’s thumbing through Twitter during idle moments in his day? – he has value against right-handed pitching. Used in the right role (emphasize: the right role, against right-handed pitching, and not hitting fifth every day without fail), Markakis can help this ballclub.

    We’ll wonder about the impending roster crunch of position players once the Woodstock native and Young Harris College product gets in playing shape (the 36-year-old worked out at the alternative camp site in Gwinnett earlier Wednesday; my guess is the ramp time won’t be long). The active roster is slated to drop from 30 players to 28 late next week, but even that may not be the case. Heck, does anybody know anything anymore?

    I do know this team has played six games … it’s also 10 percent of the season. I know. Embrace the weird. A few other thoughts to this point after six games, capped by Freddie Freeman’s four hits in Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over the Rays.

    Who’s Gonna Jive at 3-4-5: Let’s get it out there: the middle and back end of the Atlanta rotation was bad in their first turn through the rotation. No, we’re not going to freak out over three games over the course of 162 … oh, wait. It’s a 60-game season. So, it’s panic time, right?

    It’s concerning, no doubt, but catch your breath for just a bit. The numbers are ugly: an 11.57 ERA, a 2.142 WHIP, 12 runs on 11 hits with nine walks in a combined 9 1/3 innings from Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz and Kyle Wright. The 9 1/3 innings is a problem even in a shortened ramp-up to the season, and that can’t remain the norm, or else the Braves bullpen depth will get torched.

    The Braves do have options to fill that fourth spot now vacated by the organization giving up on Foltynewicz, designating the right-hander for assignment after he gave up six runs in Monday’s start at Tampa Bay. Jhoulys Chacin doesn’t spark a ton of confidence in me, but he is a veteran who did impress following Newcomb in Sunday’s victory. Wright was untouchable for two innings Tuesday, before the control yips hit him again. To Wright’s credit, he offered no excuses, and I’d tell him right now he’s getting the ball Sunday against the Mets.

    I’d also say the same thing to Newcomb; the ball is yours Friday. Yes, he struggled to throw strikes in his first start Sunday with a big lead, but I’m willing to hold tight on both Newcomb and Wright for the moment. Both have the talent to be solid starters in 2020, but check back with me in two weeks.

    If things aren’t better then? That’s trouble. The signing of Cole Hamels looks worse with each passing day.

    Farewell, Folty: I completely expected an announcement after Monday’s game, or on Tuesday morning, that Foltynewicz was heading to the injured list. He just didn’t look right to me while his fastball velocity averaged under 90 mph with not much movement against the Rays. To see the DFA announcement, and to hear that the Braves broke that news to him before the game ended, was a shock.

    I think back to last October. On my 20th wedding anniversary, my oldest son and I sat in Truist Park and watched a sellout crowd lose its mind – in a bad way – when Adam Duvall walked to home plate to hit for Folty in the seventh inning. Foltynewicz was that good on that scalding hot October afternoon, authoring one of the best postseason games I’ve watched pitched in person (and yes, I watched Glavine and Smoltz and Maddux at their postseason best in person a generation ago).

    I know Foltynewicz engendered a lot of frustration for many, many folks in Braves Country. That’s fair. I’ve felt it at times, too. He’s a guy whose highest of highs touched the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and his lowest of lows were difficult to take. Maybe it’s my previous career of covering sports, but I know these guys are human beings first and foremost and, contrary to some folks on social media who think otherwise, here’s a news flash: they don’t really want to suck. They want to be great, they want to excel, they want to win.

    Wishing Mike and his family all the best. I hope he gets things figured out. Regardless, I hope he finds peace, no matter if he’s traded, claimed, or (unlikely in my opinion) remains with the organization and is outrighted to the alternative camp. I’m not sure he ever will find it if he remains a member of the Braves after Game 5 of the NLDS and, honestly, that’s sad. But that’s the business, as people say.

    Whiffs ’R Us: It’s not a totally surprise to me the Braves offense has looked pedestrian through the first part of the season. I wrote and spoke earlier this month of my concerns about the pitching Atlanta would face in this daunting 20-games-in-20-days to start the season. And while I’m a bit concerned about the sheer number of strikeouts piled up by the Braves lineup through six games – 74 punchouts in the first 55 innings of 2020 – I cannot say I’m completely surprised.

    I get it. That’s 24 2/3 innings of not putting the ball in play, and that can’t continue. But even in a 60-game season, I’m electing to breathe just a bit. Pitchers always are going to be ahead of hitters early in a season, especially when the ramp-up for those bats to opening day is only three weeks and not six weeks.

    Atlanta at-bats have been better than the strikeout numbers would indicate through the first six games. We saw that on display Wednesday. Odds are this will even itself out soon, even with the difficult pitching that’s still to come during the next two weeks.

    All Even, Folks: I wrote in my season preview that I would not be worried if the Braves were 8-12 after the first 20 games. So while 3-3 may feel like a bit of a disappointment so far, it’s OK. The back end of the rotation has questions, absolutely, and the strikeouts have come in bunches. Yet, Atlanta finds itself at .500 as we are 30 percent through what I think is the absolute roughest portion of the schedule.

    Again, most importantly, we have baseball. In these crazy times, I’ll take it.

    The home opener is in the books, and I’m sitting at home and not leaving Lot 29. And that’s totally OK. We’ve made it to this moment, the Braves are at .500, and the next eight games are at home. My cutout is 1-0 all-time. Let’s see if that cardboard likeness of myself can stay perfect come Thursday.

    —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 Meetings Wrap-Up: No Power Boost, but Braves Have Time as Market Takes Shape

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves left baseball’s Winter Meetings in San Diego on Thursday without adding anyone to their major-league roster. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos did not acquire one single power hitter, or an impact left fielder, or even another pitcher.

    Heck, I bet he didn’t even visit the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld or the beach.

    Sounds like a monumental waste of four days spent doing nothing to bolster the Braves chances to win the 2020 World Series. Heck, those gaping holes at third base and in the power department make completing a hat trick of National League East titles all the more daunting. Right?

    Y’all. Settle down.

    Look, I get it. The lack of completed work upsets some fans. There wasn’t a “podium moment,” where Anthopoulos stood behind a microphone in a packed press conference to announce the completion of a trade or signing of a free agent.

    But baseball’s offseason didn’t end when the general managers and their staffs flew out of San Diego. Believe it or not, there are more than two months until spring training begins, some 3 ½ months before the first pitch of the season zips toward home plate in Arizona (hopefully Ronald Acuna Jr. smacks that baby into the pool at Chase Field).

    In a normal offseason – and hopefully, we’re resumed normalcy after the snooze-fest of the previous two winters – deals are announced throughout the rest of December and well into January. Many of those deals either were sparked or advanced by conversations held at the Winter Meetings. And while the advancement of technology has taken away the romanticism of smoked-filled lounges, trade proposals scribbled on cocktail napkins, or late-night scrums with other teams in hotel suites, the fact remains the movers and shakers in the sport who get these deals done all are in one place for four days.

    Anthopoulos has zero to gain by saying anything outside of his very measured, now predictable comments that provide no gauge of what he’s thinking. And that’s by design. He may have been born and raised in Canada, but you would think the Braves general manager spent his young days developing his poker face in Vegas.

    What’s next? Here are a few of my thoughts on the Winter Meetings, how it impacts the Braves, and where do they go from here:

    The Hot Corner is Scorching

    Josh Donaldson already was a popular commodity after a bounce-back, injury-free season in 2019, one that resulted in 37 homers and the NL comeback player of the year honor. It sparked a love affair with Braves Country that led the Bringer of Rain to dance through the dugout with an umbrella after homers late in the season. A reunion is a perfect match, but if it happens, it’s going to cost far more than the one-year, $23-million “bet on myself” deal the now 34-year-old signed last November.

    And that price tag got significantly heftier in San Diego. With star pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole going off the board, and with Anthony Rendon agreeing to a deal with Anaheim, Donaldson arguably is the brightest unsigned star on the market. Quite the Plan B for those who unsuccessfully courted Rendon. At least three teams who must/could add a third baseman – the Braves, Washington and Philadelphia – reside in the NL East. The Rangers may be out. The Dodgers may be in. The thought that a three-year deal would be enough to secure Donaldson is out the window. It’s going to take four years.

    I’ve long stated paying for the fourth year (Donaldson’s age 37 season) represents quite the risk, especially considering he is just one season removed from an injury-marred two-year stretch. In fairness, 2017-18 represent the only significant medical issues of his big-league career. Plus, Donaldson’s impact on the 2019 Braves almost makes me think Atlanta must lean in here and guarantee that fourth year. Donaldson found success here and was healthy, developing a good approach with the Braves medical and training staff. That says nothing of how his grit/edge infused itself into the roster.

    Donaldson absolutely could end up with a $100-million deal (perhaps more) across four years. The Braves feel like they have almost no choice but to go there. Right?

    Unless …

    Kris Crossing the “What If”

    I’ve beat the drum on Twitter all offseason that if the Braves can add not one but two impact bats – one via trade, one via free agency – it would vault Atlanta right into the short circle of bona fide World Series championship contenders. You not getting there hitting Travis d’Arnaud fourth and Nick Markakis fifth, that’s for darn sure. And while the thought process has been to re-sign Donaldson at third and perhaps trade for a corner outfield upgrade in left field, the escalation of the Donaldson market may lead to a shift in mindset.

    The Cubs find themselves in quite the situation. Several of their key young stars are going to hit free agency soon, and their farm system isn’t exactly teeming with future stars. Kris Bryant – maybe you’ve heard of him, the former college player of the year, NL rookie of the year, NL MVP – reportedly is available in the right deal.

    Bryant was limited to 102 games due to injuries in 2018, but has hit 29 or more homers in each of his other four seasons. He’s topped .900 OPS three times, and slashed .282/.382/.521 last season when he hit 35 doubles with 31 homers and 108 runs scored. Oh, did I mention he plays third base, corner outfield, and first base?

    How long he’s under club control is an issue given the pending grievance, but assuming Bryant remains under club control for two years, this is the type of bat Atlanta needs, and at a position of need. It’s going to hurt. The rumored price of one bat and two pitching prospects feels a bit light, to be honest, not to mention something about the $40-$45 million the Braves would pay Bryant in arbitration in 2020 and 2021.

    But it’s Kris Bryant, and you’re a legit contender in need of a big bat.

    Should Donaldson sign elsewhere and the Cubs dangle Bryant, the Braves should pounce.

    The Pivot Point – Look Left?

    Marcell Ozuna has his flaws and certainly didn’t endear himself to Braves Country during the NLDS. But he posted a .800 OPS last season while hitting 29 homers and 23 doubles, is two seasons removed from a 37-homer, 124-RBI campaign with Miami, and just turned 29 years old. His defense is adequate enough (he’s not a butcher out there; and yes, I’ve seen the highlight of him scaling the wall and then falling ever so gracefully when the ball changed flight).

    Nicholas Castellanos destroyed opposing pitching in 51 games after being traded from Detroit to the Cubs, slashing .321/.356/.646 with a 1.002 OPS. His defense is less than desirable; of his 312 career games in the outfield, just 20 have come in left. But he smashed 58 doubles in 2019, one season after hitting 46 doubles and 23 homers while playing half his games in Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park.

    Both players figure to get four-year deals, and that’s the problem. The Braves will have top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters at Triple-A to start the season; Pache likely is in center in the majors by late summer, with Waters not too far behind. If given a choice to sign either Ozuna or Castellanos, I’d take Ozuna if that’s the only way to get an established power bat into the lineup. The end of the contract would worry me and certainly there’s not room for four full-time outfielders once Pache and Waters are ready.

    All Eyes on Alex

    Anthopoulos has been praised for being aggressive since the offseason began, but not adding a legit power bat to replace Donaldson should he leave – as I’ve said repeatedly – would be a massive failure. A lineup featuring Johan Camargo and Austin Riley platooning at third base with Adam Duvall and Markakis in left simply is not going to generate enough offense to support Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman in the top three spots.

    Think a fourth year of Donaldson at $25 million in 2023 or dealing Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson as part of a Bryant package is risky? Risky is walking into Arizona on March 26 with d’Arnaud hitting fourth and Markakis fifth.

    Sure, maybe Camargo bounces back after a lost season in which physically and mentally he wasn’t good. Of course, Riley is a very talented player who doesn’t turn 23 years old until April and possesses great potential.

    But “maybe” and “potential” don’t win the World Series. And even though this franchise has not won a playoff series since 2001, winning it all should be the single unabashed goal. The Braves choked away a series win in October that would’ve put them eight victories from the grandest prize in sports.

    The bullpen is vastly improved. The feeling here is the rotation will be solid even if the Braves do not add another starter. But without that power bat to protect Freeman – again, I’ll argue for two bats to further lengthen the lineup – it will be a huge roll of the dice that Anthopoulos cannot take.

    And he won’t.

    The Braves will hit their new spring training home with at least one significant impact bat added to the roster. It didn’t happen at the Winter Meetings. That’s OK. It’s December. But it will happen before camp opens.

    Because Anthopoulos has no choice.

    —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.

    Cole for Christmas is Nice, but Braves Must Pump Up Power

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Many Braves fans felt they were left with coal in their offseason stockings last spring after the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November, then did little else.

    But a different type of coal – Cole Hamels, to be specific – became the latest acquisition of a busy shopping spree for general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday. And while it’s not Gerrit Cole, who figures to sign for a bazillion dollars given the established price of free-agent starters, this Cole will fit into the Braves rotation just fine.

    Atlanta inked a one-time nemesis – stemming from Hamels’ 10 years in Philadelphia – to a one-year, $18-million contract, landing the Braves youthful rotation a veteran left-hander with 422 career games, a career 1.18 WHIP and 2,694 2/3 innings. Add in his 17 postseason games, a World Series MVP award and four All-Star appearances, and it would appear Anthopoulos has satisfied his desire to add an experienced arm to the trio of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

    Since the World Series ended, Anthopoulos has spent like a shopaholic carrying five new credit cards on Black Friday. He remade the bullpen by signing Will Smith, the best closer on the market, and bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. He grabbed Travis d’Arnaud to team with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, after re-signing Flowers and Nick Markakis.

    Including Hamels, Anthopoulos has added $56.25 million to the 2020 payroll. To this point, it’s mostly money well spent (we’ll know for sure after next season). What we do know in early December is this: The bullpen, a source of so much pain and hand-wringing for the first four months last season, is markedly better. d’Arnaud figures to get more than his share of starts following a healthy and resurgent season in a platoon with Flowers. Markakis will work with Adam Duvall in a left field platoon that likely will see Markakis get more starts than he should (because Brian Snitker remains manager, after all).

    Everybody knew Cole (Gerrit, not Hamels) and Stephen Strasburg would command mega deals on the open market, which in turn forced many teams to focus on a second tier centered around Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner. It became clear to the Braves quickly that landing either the East Paulding High alum (Wheeler, who signed a $118-million, five-year pact with Philadelphia later Wednesday) or the Hickory, N.C. native (Bumgarner) would require a heavy investment in years and AAV (average annual contract value).

    So Anthopoulos pivoted quickly to Hamels, who had expressed a desire early in the offseason to take a one-year deal with a contender. And while that World Series MVP award was 11 autumns ago, the soon-to-be 36-year old showed in 2019 he still is capable of pitching at a high level. Hamels posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.39 WHIP with a 3.0 bWAR in 27 starts for the Cubs, both numbers taking a hit after he returned too quickly from an oblique injury.

    Through his first 17 starts (pre-injury), Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP across 99 2/3 innings, allowing nine homers with a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his 10 starts after returning, he pitched to a 5.79 ERA with eight homers surrendered in 42 innings and an unsightly 1.88 WHIP. Most of that damage came in three starts; in the other seven, he gave up a total of 10 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings – a 2.67 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hamels closed the season by giving up three runs on nine hits in 11 2/3 innings across his final three starts.

    Just as important is the influence the Braves hope Hamels will have on their young pitchers. Fried in particular resembles a younger Hamels in both stature (both are 6-foot-4) and mechanics. Another southpaw, Sean Newcomb, figures to get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training (barring acquisition of another starter between now and March). Both should benefit from having an experienced lefty mentor in the locker room.

    Yes, Anthopoulos has accomplished a lot so far this winter. As baseball’s glacier-like pace of offseason moves thankfully has sped up this winter, the Braves are showing signs of a team making progress along the journey from rebuilding franchise to bona fide World Series contender.

    But at this point, it’s just that. Progress.

    Work remains to be done, and now is when things get tricky. Baseball’s Winter Meetings kick off Sunday evening in San Diego. For the moves Braves have completed, a glaring hole remains in the middle of the batting order. Donaldson (who was named NL comeback player of the year Wednesday) is one of the hottest commodities on the open market, viewed as the second-base third baseman behind Anthony Rendon and even more in demand now that Mike Moustakas has signed with Cincinnati.

    I expected payroll to rise this offseason, but it’s moving up at a dizzying rate when compared with the historical thriftiness of Liberty Media. Adding Hamels (and sadly subtracting fan favorite Charlie Culberson, who was non-tendered Monday) to the opening-day locks list, I project 21 players who will be owed approximately $128.62 million for 2020.

    Suffice to say, the work cannot stop now. Especially after all the moves of the past month, Atlanta simply cannot settle with a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley platoon at third base without adding a power bat elsewhere. Ideally, it’s Donaldson at third base, which would mean re-signing the Bringer of Rain for something around $25 million AAV for at least three years (if other camps offer a fourth season, I’m concerned the rain will fall elsewhere in 2020).

    Re-signing Donaldson is the simplest path, one that would take the payroll north of $153 million with four spots left (two on the bench; two in the bullpen). Maybe the Auburn football program could put in a good word for the Braves, considering Donaldson watched his alma mater win Saturday’s Iron Bowl from the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    But if he lands elsewhere, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to trade some of the prospect stockpile and likely Ender Inciarte (and perhaps a bullpen piece) to land a power bat, perhaps Starling Marte from Pittsburgh or Jorge Soler from Kansas City or Mitch Haniger from Seattle, provided he can make the deal sweet enough to compel the other side to jump). The trade market is so much harder to pin down, but every GM in baseball will be at the same place in Southern California for four days next week.

    Given the activity we’ve seen across the sport this offseason, it might be quite a week.

    Regardless, the Braves have no choice. Adding Hamels to the rotation, bolstering the bullpen, and addressing catcher early puts the Braves in a great position with the Winter Meetings approaching. But as long as that hole in the lineup remains, Anthopoulos cannot stop doing everything possible to deliver Braves Country the ultimate prize next autumn, one far greater than coal (or Cole).

    —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.