• Yasiel Puig

    2020 Season Preview: Braves are Built Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Entering Unprecedented Campaign

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nobody could have predicted what we have been through the past few months. Nobody could imagine the impact the coronavirus would have on every single aspect of our everyday lives, on things far more serious than the doings of a baseball franchise seeking its first World Series title in a quarter-century.

    Yet, in some weird way, Alex Anthopoulos built an Atlanta Braves team that seems poised to handle baseball’s 60-game sprint quite well. It certainly wasn’t foresight into what this 2020 baseball season would look like – one that will be as unprecedented as any baseball campaign in the history of the sport – but rather, by how the Braves general manager viewed his team after back-to-back National League East championships.

    Anthopoulos felt the Braves needed depth in their bullpen. He first addressed it with three moves at last season’s trade deadline, and further bolstered it by signing Will Smith in early November. There is the seemingly never-ending supply of pitching prospects gurgling in the upper levels of the minor leagues, including some arms the Braves hope are ready for prime-time duty under the bright lights of the majors.

    The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League automatically lengthened Atlanta’s lineup, a lineup that saw a logjam at third base with Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, plus a logjam in the outfield. Certainly, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be in the lineup almost every day, and even with Nick Markakis electing not to play, the Braves still have Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall (plus Cristian Pache waiting in the wings).

    Adding the designated hitter also can help these Braves address a deficiency that could be an Achilles heel – bats that mash right-handed pitching. Often those guys are left-handed hitters, and the Braves brought Matt Adams back this week hoping to see the type of power he displayed here three seasons ago. The reported and rumored signing of Yasiel Puig would have addressed that, too (the erstwhile Dodgers slugger bats right-handed, but features reverse splits). But once again, COVID-19 and 2020 reared its ugly head, Puig testing positive for the virus and announcing the news via social media just minutes after the Braves captain – Freddie Freeman – joyously trotted onto the field Friday at Truist Park, following his harrowing journey through having the virus.

    Freddie Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times, but the four-time All-Star found himself sick from COVID-19 in early July.

    Freeman embarks on his 10th season in the majors; how has it been that long? Without question this is his team, much as Terry Pendleton led the early 90s Braves, much as Chipper Jones carried that torch for more than a decade. Thankfully, Freeman looks healthy and his swing looks great. A week ago, we all wondered what a Freeman-less Braves would look like embarking on a truncated schedule that begins with 20 games in 20 days, against plenty of great pitching.

    Consider who the Braves may see in those opening 20 games: Jacob deGrom (twice) and Steven Matz of the Mets, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Rays, Hyun Jin-Ryu of the Blue Jays, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees. That’s nine of your first 20 games against a group of pitchers who are on many people’s short list of All-Star hurlers.

    It’s all going to be different. This isn’t going to be your father’s baseball season. The methodical marathon that frames our spring and summer evenings? Not this year, folks. This is a 400-yard dash for a sport accustomed to logging 26.2 miles. Teams that start quickly are going to be positioned to potentially steal playoff spots. But before crying doom and gloom if the Braves arrive at their first off day on Aug. 13 at 8-12, consider two schedule quirks across the final 40 games that might prove more important than having to start 14-6.

    The middle 20 games: Atlanta faces Philadelphia and Washington 12 times. Six of the other eight are against Miami and Boston (this Red Sox team certainly is not of the ilk of the 2018 champs). Even if the Braves stumble a bit out of the gate, not only do they have an opportunity to catch up against two subpar teams in the middle part of the schedule, they also play 60 percent of their games in that stretch against the two teams I feel will challenge them for the NL East title.

    The final 20 games: The Braves play 13 against the Marlins, Orioles and Red Sox. Atlanta ends the season with a seven-game homestand against Miami and Boston. The Yankees and the Rays are likely to rule the AL East, and Boston’s pitching is quite suspect. Miami will be better; its young pitching is maturing, and the Marlins have a few guys who are developing into good players (they’re a couple of years away from being a real problem for the NL East). If you’re going to wrap up the season with a week at home, other than Baltimore, there are no two teams in the combined East you want to face than the Marlins and Red Sox.

    What will it take to get to that point, 53 games in the books, one week to go, with a shot at October? The more I look at it, the more I think the Braves are built for this.

    Atlanta’s youthful exuberance, a hallmark of the Braves resurgence the past two seasons, remains (minus the hugs and high-fives). Acuna remains an emerging megastar. Ozzie Albies is developing into a star in his own right. The rotation is fronted by two of the better young arms in the game: Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in modern Braves history to earn an opening-day starting assignment, and Max Fried, who could develop into a sneaky Cy Young candidate if his change-up continues developing.

    22-year-old Mike Soroka finished second in NL rookie-of-the-year voting in 2019 and sixth in Cy Young voting, providing a cool presence at the top of Atlanta’s rotation entering his second full big-league season.

    There are question marks. Can Cole Hamels get healthy? Can Dansby Swanson replicate his 2019 first half and postseason while staying healthy? Can Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz settle the middle of the rotation? Will Ender Inciarte start the season hitting like it’s April or July? Can Smith, who is out with the virus but asymptomatic, test negative twice and get back on the mound?

    We are forced to acknowledge the 50,000-pound weight hanging over all this. What happens after three weeks of play, of flying into different cities and staying in hotels then returning home, if positive tests spike and a team (be it the Braves or another team) finds itself with an outbreak? Nobody knows, and that’s part of the trepidation I feel in offering a projection of where this Braves team lands when this season like no other reaches its conclusion on Sept. 27.

    But we’re going to hope and pray things go well – for every team in the majors – and we’ll forge ahead with a best guess. And it’s just that: a guess. We have no clue what’s going to happen. There is no playbook, no guideposts. This is the strangest season preview I’ve ever authored, fitting for the strangest year of my life.

    This incredibly unpredictable sprint rests on simple math. Each singular game is worth 2.7 times one regular game in a 162-game season (subscription required). If you win 37 games, that’s a .616 win percentage (a 99-win pace over a full season). Win 27 games? That’s a .450 win percentage (a 74-win pace).

    I don’t see these Braves reaching either that peak or that valley. Even with an 8-12 start, I think they’re good enough – based on their depth, Freeman being ready from the jump, the young talent on the roster, and motivation after choking away what should have been the franchise’s first postseason series victory in 18 years – to finish 34-26.

    That’s a 91-win pace over 162, and I think that’s just enough to land the Braves one game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Philadelphia. That would put Atlanta into the postseason party, and in a world where everything seems to have changed, the overarching goal has not:

    Win 11 games in October and capture the World Series title. There is no telling who will do it, or what will happen along the way, but it’s time to start the journey.

    After all we’ve been through, how sweet that sounds.

    —30—

    On deck as we preview the 2020 Atlanta Braves season: A Braves Opening Day like no other.

    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.

    Puig’s Your Friend Now, Braves Country, and Other Notes as Camp Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yasiel Puig does not exactly blend in with the crowd, be it the gregarious way he plays baseball, his larger-than-life personality, and the fact he’s built like a nose guard.

    So it wasn’t exactly stunning when the rumor began Tuesday on Twitter that Puig – or his long-lost twin brother – had been spotted in The Battery, adjacent to Truist Park, where the Atlanta Braves would play their fourth intrasquad game later Tuesday evening. The Braves would do so missing left-handed hitting outfielder Nick Markakis, who last week elected not to play the shortened 2020 season. They also took the field without Freddie Freeman, one of the best hitters in the game, who remains sidelined with the coronavirus.

    The news broke later Tuesday afternoon: Puig and the Braves had agreed to terms on an unspecified deal, one that won’t be announced until Puig passes a physical. Certainly, that will include a coronavirus test that even Puig himself probably won’t enjoy – trust me, I found out for the second time Monday that it’s not fun – but the newest Braves outfielder will have plenty of fun soon after things are official.

    The 29-year-old teaming with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna is going to drive some opposing fan bases crazy, especially with the Braves poised to be a contender in the wild setup of a 60-game sprint. The Braves Way has been dead for quite some time, thankfully. Now, the oomph meter just shot to 11, “let the kids play” should be shouted louder than ever, and let’s face it: some folks are going to be mad about it. Big mad.

    But if you’re a Braves fan, I don’t see how you can be mad about this. Puig’s Your Friend now, after all.

    If there’s a nit to pick with this Braves squad as it’s assembled in 2020, it’s hitting against right-handed pitching. It goes without saying not having Freeman and his .304 career lifetime average against right-handers is a considerable blow. Remember, there’s no template or blueprint for a baseball player returning from coronavirus. Is it two weeks from now before Freeman can stride into the left-handed batter’s box? Four weeks? Seven weeks? We just don’t know.

    And with Markakis deciding the risks of playing this season weren’t worth it – and I’ll never blame any player for looking at this landscape and saying, “nah, I’m out” – Atlanta lost another valuable bat against right-handed pitching. So while some will opine that Puig is yet another right-handed bat in a right-handed heavy lineup, he also is a career .285 hitter against rightys with a .845 OPS and, with the presence of the designated hitter in the NL in 2020, the Braves lineup looks more formidable than it did this morning.

    It also looks more fun. Yes, Puig is loud and plays the game with an edge that sometimes boils over. He’s also approaching age 30 and free agency, so the thought here is he’ll behave himself. There will be far fewer dollars on the open market this winter than in years. And if you truly believe Puig is going to poison his limited chances at a good deal for 2021 by poisoning the Braves culture, well, in my opinion that’s a ridiculous thought.

    We play ball in 10 days at Citi Field. At least we hope. A few other notes from the past few days:

    Do the Braves remain the Braves? I wrote my thoughts about the tomahawk chop a few months ago. The manufactured chop beaten relentlessly into fans’ heads needs to go. But the name of the team? I don’t think it will change, a stance backed up by the team to season-ticket holders and the media Sunday.

    Wither Cole Hamels? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. I talked with somebody in February whose opinion I trust; that person doubted Hamels would be ready for the scheduled opening day in late March. When I spoke to that person last month weeks ago, their perspective had not waivered.

    At this point, 10 days before the season commences, Hamels still has not thrown as much as a BP session. I think you must cross him out for the rotation for at least the first two times through, which is 10 games – or 16.66% of the regular season. I’m happy the team signed Josh Tomlin – who looked pretty good in four innings during Monday’s intrasquad matchup – and I’m really excited with what I saw out of Kyle Wright in spring training. It’d be great to see Wright on the mound, however. Like Hamels, we’re still waiting. Speaking of the rotation:

    What about Folty? It was hard to see from watching the feed of the intrasquad game Wednesday, considering the camera was positioned at the top of the ballpark, but the lanky right-hander returned to the mound at Triuist Park for the first time since the infamous Game 5 NLDS meltdown and shoved for three innings, only allowing a walk to Culberson but nothing else.

    We’re so quick to forget just how good Folty was after he came back from his demotion to Gwinnett: 2.65 ERA, .211 opponents batting average, 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings across 10 starts (6-1 record). That does not include seven shutout innings with no walks and three hits allowed in Game 2 of the NLDS. His work in 2020, in my opinion, will be critical to the Braves success. To that point, Folty made sure he would be ready for this unprecedented season. To that point:

    Cheers to the Spartans: I got a message from someone in mid-April, saying a handful of Braves pitchers had secured a high school to work out at while practicing social distancing. As we’ve learned publicly last week via comments made to Atlanta media, it wasn’t just throwing.

    Several Braves hurlers took the shutdown seriously.

    When you go through the annuals of Atlanta sports, Campbell High in the northwestern suburb of Smyrna probably would draw mention for Brian Oliver, the shooting guard who helped lead Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four (teaming with Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson to form the vaunted “Lethal Weapon III”). But if the Braves reach the postseason in 2020, give a hat-tip to the Campbell Spartans and their staff.

    Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Mike Soroka threw at Campbell High six days a week during the shutdown, firing full bullpens twice weekly. They were joined on occasion by teammates Acuna, Albies.  Johan Camargo, Charlie Culberson and others.

    With 20 games in 20 days to begin the season, starting fast is going to be more critical than ever. If the Braves ride solid pitching to a good start, don’t forget the work these guys did at a Cobb County high school field, one the baseball coach and athletic director made sure was ready and open for their MLB neighbors, while also working to keep that news quiet.

    What if Freddie can’t go out of the gate? Losing a solid bat and elite defender at a key position, not to mention the captain of the team, is not a good thing. Let’s all hope the Freddie, and Chelsea and Charlie, stay well and get over the virus.

    We have no playbook, as I referenced on ESPN Coastal last week and earlier in this piece. We’re going into this blind. But I think the Braves turn first at first to Austin Riley and his potential power if Freeman is not well enough to start the season. Riley has played a little first base, and after taking grounders a little bit at first base in spring training, has put in some work at first base during summer camp and in intrasquad contests.

    Yes, Atlanta has a couple of first basemen on non-roster invites in Peter O’Brien and Yonder Alonso – both of whom are getting time in some intrasquad games. But If either of them are on the active roster come opening day on July 24, this team is in trouble. Let’s all hope Freddie is OK and ready to go in Queens when the season starts. If not, we’ll hope some semblance or Riley and Adam Duvall and Camargo can cover first base till Freeman is back.

    To the Max: Unsolicited private comment from somebody who was in Trust Park watching Max Fried pitch in last Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage. “Fried looks poised to be a bad ass upper-tier pitcher.” Glad he’s on my fantasy team, and my favorite team, one that is hopefully a few days away from kicking off a season the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before.

    —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.

    It’s Tomahawk Town vs. Tinseltown: Of Course, Resilient Young Braves Face Dodgers in NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When you get right down to it, of course this was going to happen. It happened the last time the Atlanta Braves reached the playoffs in 2013, a last gasp at glory before a wretched four seasons in the wilderness. It happened in 1991 and 1983 and 1982 and heck, even back in 1959, when the Milwaukee Braves lost a postseason tiebreaker that ended their quest to reach a third-consecutive World Series.

    The histories of the Braves and Dodgers franchises are intertwined at multiple points, from Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer in 1974 to the last great pennant race in 1993 ending with the Dodgers boat-racing the Giants while the Braves won their 104th game to capture the division title by one scant game. And here we go again, starting Thursday night at Chavez Ravine as the Braves make their glorious and long-awaited return to the postseason stage against, of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

    You know it was going to happen, right?

    Perhaps the Colorado Rockies would have been a better matchup. Perhaps having home-field advantage would have proven advantageous. Those are bygones at this point, not worth the time to consider. Not with the first pitch of the postseason coming at some time Thursday (we’re waiting on you, MLB). Time to focus on the fact the Braves, losers of 90 games three seasons running, stunned the baseball world by winning the NL East and finishing with 90 victories. The have swash-buckled and grinded and rallied all season to slam shut the door on the rebuild far sooner than most of us dared to dream.

    Their reward: The six-time defending NL West champion, just 11 months removed from Game 7 of the World Series.

    Go get em, boys.

    Seriously, the task appears somewhat tall on first glance, and that’s understandable. The Dodgers have one goal and one goal only: to snap a 30-year world championship drought, which is massively mind-blowing when you consider the Braves, Reds, Angels, White Sox, Astros, Marlins (twice!) and Giants (three times!!) all have captured the brass ring since Kirk Gibson’s famous homer sparked L.A. to a stunning four-game sweep of Oakland.

    Clayton Kershaw, balky back and all, still anchors the rotation. Walker Buehler is one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Kenley Jansen, recovering from a heart scare two months ago, is one of the game’s top closers. The lineup is young, deep and powerful, with plenty of firepower from Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and the dude who came out of nowhere, Max Muncy. And did we mention Manny Machado, the July acquisition looking to show out under the national spotlight before embarking on free agency and a contract that will be worth more than some third-world nation’s GNP, roams shortstop and solidifies the batting order?

    This series will be fascinating to watch for a variety of reasons:

    Too Young To Know Better: Every time we felt these Braves might begin sliding as this special season unfolded, they kept the train on the tracks. Yes, the playoffs are different. No, I don’t think the Braves and their squadron of youngsters will be fazed by the bright lights and heightened stakes. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Foltynewicz and Johan Camargo have combined to play zero postseason games, but they and the rest of the young key components of this Braves New World have a tremendous chance far earlier than expected to gain some critical playoff experience. They haven’t blinked to this point. The feeling here is they won’t now.

    Give Dansby a Hand (No, Seriously, Somebody Give Him a Hand): One huge key for the Braves is their passionate hometown heart-and-soul shortstop, who provides outstanding defense at a critical position while proving to be one of the best clutch hitters in the NL. A partially torn ligament in his left hand ended his regular season five days early, and there is concern he won’t be available for the NLDS. If that’s the case, the former Dodger and current Braves Country cult hero Charlie Culberson will fill in admirably, but the Calhoun High graduate being in the starting eight significantly weakens the Atlanta bench.

    Buehler? Buehler?: Anybody who watched Monday’s tie-breaking win over Colorado saw what the fuss is all about with the Vanderbilt product. Buehler may be the best pitcher in the Dodgers’ rotation right now, but because L.A. had to deploy him in Game No. 163, he only can pitch once in this series. Kershaw has the ability to lock down any lineup on any given night, but we saw the Giants get to him Saturday (he owns an un-Kershaw like 3.89 ERA in his past six starts) and has far less tread on the tires than when he faced the Braves twice in the NLDS five years ago.

    Pressure! Under Pressure: Just as almost nobody expected Atlanta to be here, most everybody used indelible ink to put the Dodgers deep into October. The pressure of expectations sits heavy on L.A., which trailed the West by nine games on May 8, sat 10 games under .500 on May 16, and ended the season 9 ½ games in arrears of its Pythagorean win-loss record (92-71 vs. 101-61). Add in the sometimes-shaky manner in which the Dodgers bullpen has gotten the ball to Jansen, and the fact that manager Dave Roberts does not have a contract for next season, and we will see how the Dodgers handle the pressure-cooker of October.

    House Money: The Braves and their fans will hate seeing that phrase, but it’s true. This feels like an awakening of a franchise where everything was stripped down and built back up carefully, in pain-staking, patience-testing fashion. The view from 30,000 feet is the Braves already are winners, getting to the playoffs so soon, the breakout seasons of Acuna, Albies, Foltynewicz, et al, and accomplishing anything beyond this point is gravy. Yes, that’s true. But honestly, the Braves should play with absolutely no pressure. The vast majority is going to pick the Dodgers in this series, and that’s not surprising, given the Dodgers beat Atlanta five times in seven games during the regular season while outscoring the Braves 35-18.

    If they played the games on paper, then this would be irrelevant because not only would Atlanta not win this series, the Braves already would be on the golf course after a season many thought would finish with 75 wins and even the most optimistic prognosticators said .500 would be a fantastic next step. Instead, they leaped forward and never looked back.

    The Braves are in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. As they prepare for their first postseason content in 1,823 days on Thursday, it’s no surprise who stands in their way.

    —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.