• Exclusives

    That Time of Year Again: Big Goals, Bullpen Battles, and Hope in Abundance as Braves Start Spring

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The feeling sitting by the lake Sunday was quite comfortable, and it had little to do with my fishing line in the water, the sun breaking through the clouds and the temperature nudging past 70 degrees.

    It had everything to do with the sounds coming through my headphones. The crack of the bat, the thud of a ball hitting the mitt, the scattered rumbling of fans – real people, not cardboard facsimiles – clapping as a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays unfolded before their very eyes along Florida’s west coast.

    Spring training is off and running, and hopefully we continue rolling unabated toward April 1 and the Braves season opener in Philadelphia. Four games in the books – and if you care about the record, can I ask why, because it means absolutely nothing. Four afternoons of familiar sounds and warm thoughts of spring and welcoming voices on the mic and the hope that baseball season brings – a hope that feels a little more meaningful this time around.

    A few thoughts as the Braves continue their first week of Grapefruit League play:

    All Grown Up: I was struck listening to Freddie Freeman’s press conference Tuesday. It’s noteworthy when the reigning National League MVP speaks, certainly. But there was something in his voice, in his expressions, that depicted a man not only completely at peace with his present, but poised for the next step in his future.

    The MVP Is Here: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman spoke at length with the media Tuesday.

    The story of the Freeman family expanding from three to five is heartwarming and inspiring, and adds yet another compelling chapter to what was a notable 2020 for the Braves first baseman. He’s the face of the franchise, the captain – I still would love to see a C on his jersey, a la hockey – and now at 31 years old, undoubtedly one of the top 10 players in the majors.

    The only thing missing from Freeman’s resume is something he alluded to with confidence and openness in his remarks: a World Series ring. He’s got a heck of a shot to get it, considering the combination of talent in the organization and the lessons learned from the past three Octobers. I suspect Freeman will hold court with the media again before the team breaks camp, after Atlanta and its leader agree on a richly deserved contract extension.

    Right from the Right Side: The Braves watched a trio of valuable right-handed relievers depart this offseason. And while Mark Melancon headed to San Diego and Darren O’Day signed with the Yankees (Shane Greene curiously remains unsigned), there is no shortage of candidates to fill that void. Two names stand out to me, both who are on the 40-man roster and both with intriguing potential, if – and there’s the caveat – they can stay healthy.

    Victor Arano posted a 9.1 strikeouts-per-nine ratio across 60 games in 2018 for the Phillies, finishing with a 1.197 WHIP. His 2019 season ended after just three games due to elbow surgery that May, and the 26-year-old was limited to 10 innings in the Mexican League last year. While his fastball sat in the mid-90s before the injury, what set Arano apart was the movement on his heater, slider and changeup.

    Braves fans are quite familiar with Jacob Webb, who has made 44 appearances across two injury-derailed seasons. An elbow ailment ended his 2019 campaign after Webb posted a 1.39 ERA and a 1.113 WHIP in 36 games, and a shoulder strain last summer shelved the 27-year-old after eight appearances. Control has been an issue – Webb has issued 17 walks in 42 1/3 big-league innings – but his stuff is plenty good enough.

    Good health this spring for both Arano and Webb – the same can be said for non-roster invitee Carl Edwards Jr. – could ease the concerns about the offseason veteran exodus and make for some interesting decisions come the end of the month.

    Let The Kid Play: More than once during the NL Championship Series, I wondered what it would be like to have four major-league at-bats then, suddenly, find yourself in the lineup playing every day against the best team in baseball for a trip to the World Series.

    Freeman wondered that, too, joking that he had no idea how super prospect Cristian Pache acquitted himself so well during the NLCS. Yes, Pache went just 4-for-22 against the Dodgers last fall, but the organization’s top prospect registered a hit with a RBI in four games, belted his first big-league homer, and impressed with the poise he displayed in running down balls in center field and grinding out at-bats.

    His Time Is Now: Cristian Pache is expected to begin the season as Atlanta’s starting center fielder.

    Sure, the Braves weren’t going to come out in February and name Pache the starter, especially with the proud veteran Ender Inciarte (he with the $8.7 million price tag) still around and looking to salvage his career. But make no mistake: center field is Pache’s to lose. He took a pitch on the outer half of the plate Monday against Boston and drove it with authority to right-center field, yet another impressive sign that the 22-year-old is ready for everyday duty in the bigs.

    Don’t Forget About Me: On a roster oozing with young talent – Pache, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, William Contreras, et al – it’s easy to get overlooked. But another 22-year-old in camp definitely deserves attention and, potentially, a shot to line up on the foul line for opening day ceremonies four weeks from Thursday.

    Huascar Ynoa landed in the Braves organization after a trade deadline deal for Jaime Garcia in 2017. He made his big-league debut in a blowout victory over the Phillies in 2019 and has made 11 appearances – five starts – across the past two seasons. The casual observer will recall his 92-pitch, one-hit, four-inning relief outing in the Game 3 NLCS blowout loss, but those who have watched Ynoa work know there is tons of potential in that right arm.

    Ynoa impressed in his spring debut Monday. I don’t focus on results too much this early in camp, but every time I watch this kid pitch, I want to see more. Control has been an issue so far, but with upper-90s gas and an impressive slider, it’s not difficult to envision Ynoa having a role with the big-league team – especially if Atlanta wants another power right-hander in the bullpen and the Triple-A season not starting until May.

    —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.