Atlanta Braves

The Peach Curse

By: Kipp Branch

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Ten run top of the first inning, blown 25 point Super Bowl lead with 17 minutes left in the game, 2nd and 26 in the National Title game, 4 game sweeps after having the best record in the NBA Eastern Conference, back up QB playing like a Heisman winner in 2018 SEC Title game, Loss after loss to Florida in Jacksonville in 2002, 2003, 2005, when UGA has clearly better teams, 3-2 sliders drilled over the left field fence to change the balance of a World Series, being beat into submission by a FSU home run barrage in the 2019 Athens Baseball Regional.

You get my drift? The list goes on and on. The curse of Georgia sports is real and right now there does not seem to be a cure at this moment in time.

The latest debacle was masterfully created by the 2019 Atlanta Braves.

We should have seen this one coming from a distance. The Braves went 97-65 in the NL East, clinched a division and slumped into the playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Braves were drilled 13-1 in a deciding game 5 in the NLDS. BTW, Atlanta has not won a post-season baseball series since 2001.

Yeah, we should have seen this one coming, but the 2019 Braves provided something the Georgia sports scene longs for and that is hope.  All of that hope faded in about 20 minutes during the 5PM hour on October 9th, 2019.

The debacle started before the series even began when Mike Soroka was slated to only get one start in the series. How does your two most consistent starters during the regular season Mike Soroka and Max Fried only get one combined start in the NLDS?

Fried, a 17 game winner, was relegated to the bullpen in the series where he struggled at times. Maybe his manager could have given this 25 year old kid a confidence boost by giving him something he earned during the regular season, which was a start in the NLDS.

Why didn’t Mike Soroka get two starts in this series? Seven strong innings in game three, but yet he was slotted as a game three starter after a meaningless start in New York on September 29th, which he was coming off 10 days rest after beating the Phillies on 9/19.

If the rotation was Soroka, Keuchel, Fried, Foltynewicz, and Soroka do the Braves win this series? Then you have Keuchel ready for game one of the NLCS.

We know Dallas Keuchel did not pull his weight in the series; or maybe he would have if he was not pulled in the 4th inning of a 1-1 game in game 1 with 2 outs.

Atlanta signs him for $13 million in June for a playoff run and you don’t let a Cy Young winner pitch out of a little jam in the 4th inning?

Why not let Josh Tomlin stay in the game in game 4 when he was mowing down the Cardinals at the time?

We know Freeman, Donaldson, and Markakis struggled at the plate in the series batting .200, .158, and .143, respectively. Freddie, just one fly ball in game 4 and you are hosting the Nats with a World Series on the line.

Why do managers feel like they have to manage differently in the playoffs? I get the all hands on deck mentality in elimination games, but Fried in the bullpen with 17 wins during the regular season raises a lot of questions. Baseball is a funny game maybe our most unpredictable game.

Position players have to produce runs, pitchers have to get outs, and managers have to make the right moves.

As a team the Braves failed in all three areas. The team is young and will continue to grow. Brian Snitker got badly out-managed in this series and I just did not see that coming.

This was a bitter defeat for the Atlanta Braves, and it appears the Curse of Georgia Sports is alive and well.

UGA is undefeated in football, but you have this sick feeling in your stomach don’t you Georgia sports fans that you cannot explain?

The Washington Nationals in the NLCS really stings.

Home Fried Cooking

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

After a travesty of a NLDS Game 1, the Atlanta Braves, behind a stellar outing from a flame-throwing Mike Foltynewicz, evened up the series with a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Now the Braves travel to enemy territory. They will need to win at least one of the two games to be played at Busch Stadium in order to keep their hopes alive of winning their first postseason series since 2002 and advancing to the National League Championship Series.

The Braves will be sending their ace and master of the road game Mike Soroka to the mound on Sunday to face off against the Cards’ veteran Adam Wainwright. That should make for a compelling match up, and one worth watching.

The hopes of Braves Country, however, rely less on Soroka’s pitching ability, that is likely to be on point, and more on whether or not he can pitch deep into the game.

The blowing of the 3-1 lead during Thursday’s Game 1 could arguably be attributed to Chris Martin or to Chris Martin’s oblique, which got hurt during his warm up pitches and forced him from the game in the 8th inning.

With that, the reliable Shane Greene/Martin/Mark Melancon triad was disrupted, and instead Brian Snitker brought in Luke Jackson, who promptly gave up a moonshot to Cards’ first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Then Jackson allowed two more baserunners before Melancon came in and allowed one to score, tying the game up.

It isn’t really Chris Martin’s fault. Jackson was going to be the scapegoat no matter what happened, because he’s Luke Jackson; but Melancon hasn’t been a treat to watch either. He also allowed the tying run to the plate on Friday’s Game 2 before recording the save.

It’s a small sample size, but in the postseason when it’s life or death, a small sample size is enough. It might be time to rethink the way the bullpen is being used going forward.

Martin, unfortunately, isn’t coming back. Even if he heals quickly, taking him off the NLDS roster because of an injury makes him ineligible to return for the rest of the series and for the NLCS as well.

Taking his place on the roster is Julio Teheran. Teheran carried the team on his back for much of the year and also stumbled so mightily in September that his lack of inclusion on the DS roster was a shame but not a shock.

Unfortunately, that gives Snitker two guys, Julio and Jackson, who didn’t enter October on a high note as option from the bullpen.

Melancon hasn’t looked like the kind of shutdown closer that World Series winners tend to employ.

Max Fried has, though. Fried has now made two scoreless one-inning appearances in two games, with two strikeouts to boot.

At this point it’s unlikely that he’ll start Game 4 (it might be Julio, it might be Keuchel on short rest), and instead he’ll continue being a weapon in relief. Even though it’s not the role he thrived in all season, I think it’s time to go all-in on this notion.

Even if he doesn’t necessarily close games out, Fried should be the guy, along with Greene, to get the high-leverage situations.

He’s got a power arm and a sharp curve that can strike batters out with ease, as he’s already shown.

He’s not one of the mercenary relievers that the Braves picked up at the trade deadline, but in these desperate times he’s looking like the guy who can save – no pun intended – the Braves postseason hopes.

 

Young Guns

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Going into Spring Training, the Atlanta Braves felt like they had two strong anchors in their starting rotation in Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman.

Both guys had a few years in the bigs under their belts and both had successful campaigns in 2018. Gausman’s success coming after he was traded to Dixie from the Baltimore Orioles, in particular.

It was the rest of the rotation that was covered in question marks. The loss of Anibal Sanchez to Sean Newcomb’s second half crash to the ever-changing consistency of Julio Teheran, the starting corps was less of a strength and more of a potential strength.

The talent was there. The Braves had built up a mountain of wealth in the arms department but there was no track record because a few flashes of brilliance from most of the prospects.

So, there was reasonable concern when both Folty and Gausman couldn’t make it to the finish line of Spring Training healthy. These were the guys Atlanta needed to lean on while the prospects and younger arms of the rotation were put to the test.

Flash forward to the June 1st, the season is two-thirds of the way done, and the Braves have two strong anchors in their rotation: but the twist is that the anchors are two of those same prospects the Braves weren’t sure they could count on in March.

Mike Soroka and Max Fried have been the stalwart performers of Atlanta’s starting rotation in 2019, leading the team in earned run average and wins, respectively, and each of them rank second in the category they aren’t leading in.

In fact, the question marks surround Folty and Gausman, who both returned from the Injured List and have been inconsistent at best (Gausman, for the most part) or just bad at worst (Folty, for the most part). They haven’t been able to secure wins for their team, going 3-8 collectively, and neither can boast an ERA under 5.50.

If there’s good news among the bad, it’s that both are talented enough to break out of these funks. In fact, both have had recent games that looked like a turnaround point only to have poor outings the following turn.

Soroka and Fried, on the other hand, have been consistently great. Fried has kept Atlanta in pretty much every game he’s started, as his 7 wins show. Finally, getting a chance to stick in the rotation (he made a total of 9 starts out of 23 appearances over the past two seasons), Fried is showing why the Braves coveted him so much when they traded Justin Upton to San Diego for him in December of 2014.

Soroka has been a revelation; picking up from where he left off last season before he got hurt and proving that he’s got the moxie to be a top starter even at the age of 21.

Soroka has been so good since joining the rotation that when he went eight innings in San Francisco against the Giants last month and only gave up one run, his ERA actually went up.

The kicker is that the last piece of the rotation puzzle, Julio Teheran, has actually been pretty good this year as well. He may have finally settled into the middle-of-the-rotation guy he was probably always destined to be anyway.

What this all amounts to is this: if (when?) Folty and Gausman figure it out, the Braves rotation will be among the most formidable quintet in the game today. And that’s thanks in large part to the teams two studs: Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

Not Going Back

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Atlanta Braves are, unsurprisingly, leaning on youth to win ballgames during the first half of the season.

The young pitching that has been so highly touted for the past several years has shown up and produced, with Mike Soroka the undisputed ace of the team and Max Fried leading the squad in wins after nearly two months. That is to be expected, with the hype that surrounded those two and their fellow pitching prospects.

However, with all the focus and fanfare surround the young arms on the Braves and throughout their farm system, it’s easy to forget that there are some talented position players that have been waiting to get the call and make an impact in the big leagues.

After flat out decimating Triple A for more than a month, the Braves pulled the trigger and called up prospect Austin Riley to play left field, even though his natural position is third base.

That didn’t stop him from making an impact, homering in his debut and staying hot ever since, including a game tying bomb in the series finale against the Giants in San Francisco.

That home run was Riley’s FIFTH since his call up on May 15th. He’s also hitting for a high average and has played solid defense in left in addition to a few starts at third base to spell veteran Josh Donaldson.

It’s been less than two weeks, but even with a small sample size, there is no way the Braves are sending Riley back to the minor leagues when Ender Inciarte is ready to come off the Injured List.

More than simply hitting well, Riley’s call up has reinvigorated a Braves team that had been embarrassed by Los Angeles the week before and squashed by St. Louis the night before. Atlanta has been tearing it up since the 22-year-old joined the team. The energy is high, and there’s certainly a correlation with Riley’s arrival, if not a direct causation.

While Riley’s and team’s success is an absolute good, it doesn’t bode so well for the Gold Glove centerfielder, Ender Enciarte, whose trip to the IL prompted the call up.

Inciarte has never set the world on fire with his bat and in fact is notorious for having slow starts every season before heating up during the second half; but he’s unmatched on the squad in center field.

Ronald Acuna, Jr. has slid over to man center in Ender’s absence, and while he’s faster and younger, he still hasn’t developed the defensive instincts that make Ender such an asset.

An outfield with Acuna in left, Ender in center, and stalwart Nick Markakis in right is a superior defensive outfield, no one will argue that. However, the dividends that Riley’s bat pays out may make it impossible for Brian Snitker to give Ender starts once he gets healthy.

Aside from spelling Donaldson at the hot corner, Riley is almost certainly going to be the starting left fielder for the Braves going forward, which Ender coming in as a defensive replacement late in games as long as he remains untraded.

Speaking of, that’s another feather the Braves have been able to add to their cap with Riley’s instant success. Ender will make an appealing trade piece. He’s a young veteran with a cheap contract that ends on a team option. Riley has given Atlanta the flexibility to flip Ender as part of a package for that constantly needed bullpen help.

Whatever happens, Austin Riley is leading the charge for Atlanta, and he’s here to stay.

Fire Fighter

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

There is such a thing as beating a dead horse – so head’s up: I am about to do it.

I am about to talk about relief pitching, and it will not be a positive column. You have been warned.

The Arizona Diamondbacks swept the Atlanta Braves, finishing up yet another series in which the Braves proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they desperately need help in their bullpen.

Reliever AJ Minter took a loss in the series, spoiling a great start by rookie, Max Fried. Both Minter and Chad Sobotka gave up 3 earned runs a piece in the loss.

That dumpster fire was followed up by an extra innings loss after Jesse Biddle couldn’t hold the tie game in the 10th inning.

Then Mike Soroka took a loss even though the young hurler gave up one run on six strikeouts and a walk in five innings, but Sobotka gave up another three (two earned) to let the game get away from the Braves.

I’m not sure this can be considered a silver lining, but in the first game of the doubleheader against the Indians, it was Julio Teheran who gave up the most runs in the Braves’ fourth straight loss (Wes Parsons did give up three as well; that bullpen will not be outdone!).

So back to that dead horse. Even though we haven’t brought him up in the SSE for a while: let’s talk about Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel is still sitting at home with a week and a half left until May. From what I’ve read, there’s an increasing chance that Kimbrel’s asking price has dropped from the reported six-year, $100 million-or-so to possibly even a much more palatable three-year contract.

Interesting note, Kimbrel’s agent is the same guy who represents Ozzie Albies, which is bonkers when you think about it: one guy is sitting at home because he’s asking for too much, the other guy took roughly 1/10th of his value for the next decade.

But let’s throw money out of the equation for now and pretend that the Braves and Kimbrel could reach a deal that would satisfy both the flame-throwing righty as well as Liberty Media.

Would Kimbrel really be the savior of the season if the Braves actually inked him to a return deal? Well, no. Despite being one of the greatest closers of all time even this early into his career, he’s still just one guy.

He can replace Arodys Vizcaino at the back end of the bullpen (Vizcaino, possibly the most reliable piece on the relief staff, is out for the season), but he can’t set up for himself, or do damage control for three innings in the middle of a game. He’s a great pitcher, but he’s not five great pitchers.

The starting rotation, which has been very good, isn’t going to provide eight innings every night, either.

Unfortunately, that’s the only situation in which signing Craig Kimbrel solves all of the Braves’ problems. That being said, it also would be a good start. The best bullpens are built from the 9th inning on down, and a reunion with Kimbrel would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Fake Ace

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Pay attention, because this one is going to have a twist ending.

Julio Teheran, the right-handed pitcher whom the Braves once thought could be their stud, is sadly kind of an afterthought in Atlanta these days.

Mike Foltynewicz is the young, flame throwing ace and he’s backed up by Kevin Gausman and a slew of homegrown prospects like Sean Newcomb, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, and what feels like dozens of others.

There was a time when Julio was the next big thing and he’s got a pretty nice paycheck to prove it. He’s got two All Star appearances to his credit, and three out of his first four seasons he managed an ERA of 3.21 or less.

But something has just failed to click. He hasn’t been awful in the two seasons since that run, but he hasn’t been able to rack up wins. He went 7-10 in 2016, 11-13 in 2017, and dead-even 9-9 despite an ERA under 4.00 last season. For whatever reason, he just hasn’t been the guy that Braves Country wanted him to be.

Teheran has slipped from being a top-of-the-rotation piece to being the guy everyone was positive would get moved at the trade deadline. That did not happen but everyone knew he would get traded in the offseason. However, that didn’t happen either.

And now, instead of being traded, Julio Teheran is going to make his sixth consecutive Opening Day start next week.

Why not the ace of the staff? Where is Folty? Folty is hurt; maybe for all of April. Gausman has only made two appearances this Spring due to injury. Soroka has been sent down to the minors to begin the season. Newcomb’s second half struggles from last season seem to be following him into the new year.

So, Julio Teheran will make his sixth straight Opening Day start; not because he deserves it, but because he is the only option.

By hitting six in a row, Julio joins the illustrious ranks of legendary Braves pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Except, here’s the thing: no, he doesn’t.

He’s already surpassed them. Maddux never made six in a row. Neither did Glavine. Nor John Smoltz or Phil Niekro or Johnny Sain.

In fact, the only other pitcher in Braves history to start six consecutive Opening Days is Hall of Famer Warren Spahn.

In fact, Julio will be fourth all-time in overall Opening Day starts by the end of the week, trailing only Spahn, Niekro, and Maddux.

I don’t mean to crap on Julio. He seems like a nice guy and I like him. He’s been remarkably healthy for a pitcher in the 21st century: he started 30 games his rookie year and has never started fewer in the five seasons since then.

He’s never had an ERA above 4.49, and his next highest is 4.04. That’s far from awful.

But the guy whose rookie season set Dixie on fire didn’t evolve into an ace. He didn’t become a guy who should be pitching the first game of the season for a sixth year in a row. And yet, here we go.

Beast Of The East

By: Kipp Branch

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The teams of the NL East have been busy this off season trying to get better quickly.

The National League East hasn’t been decided by fewer than seven games since 2012 and the division race hasn’t come down to the season’s final weekend since 2008.

The Atlanta Braves won the division in 2018 by 8 games and pulled away from the Phillies down the stretch.

How did the NL East teams get better this off-season?

Let’s take a look:

Atlanta Braves: GM Alex Anthopoulos went out and signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann. The Braves also brought back Nick Markakis. They have the youngest talent in the division, but need a number 1 starter, and closer help.

They won 90 games in 2018. It may be tough to match that win total in 2019. I think the Braves haven’t done enough to address starting pitching concerns this off-season. Will that hurt them? Probably and will have to be addressed at the trade deadline.

NY Mets: New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has come in making moves.

Van Wagenen already has traded for perennial All-Star second baseman Robinson Canó and elite closer Edwin Díaz.

He also brought fellow late-inning reliever Jeurys Familia back to New York. Wilson Ramos was signed for $19M to come in and catch. Great move by Mets. The Mets have the best starting pitching in the division. Don’t be shocked if the Mets win this division. I like the moves they are making.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies in their own words want to spend stupid money.

They signed Andrew McCutchen for three years and $50 million during the Winter Meetings and acquired shortstop Jean Segura from Seattle.

They traded for catcher JT Realmuto and think they will sign either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. That could be scary in that hitter friendly ballpark in Philadelphia. The Phillies have been bold and aggressive during the winter and I think it will pay off this season.

Washington Nationals: The Nats brought in elite starter, Patrick Corbin, catchers Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes, and re-signed a big bat in Matt Adams.

The Nats need bullpen help and potentially an outfielder to replace Harper. I don’t think Washington did enough to offset the pending loss of Harper.

Miami Marlins: The Marlins at this point, only develop talent and trade it away. They are no immediate threat in the division. I don’t understand this organization. The Marlins can spot, draft, and develop talent as good as any club in baseball, but will not pay to keep it.

NL East Predictions:

 

  1. Phillies
  2. Braves
  3. Mets
  4. Nationals
  5. Marlins

Don’t be surprised if the NL East produces a Wild Card Team in 2019. This division is on the rise. I love the start of baseball season. Spring, warm weather, sand gnats, shorts, flip flops, and eventually the beach gear gets pulled out of the boxes.

Ronald Acuna Jr. is the best young player in baseball, and will win the NL MVP within the next three years.

Flat Out Crime

By: TJ Hartnett

GeorgiaSportsEdition.com news services

I’ve made the case for several years now that Fred McGriff should be in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

His time on the BBWAA ballot has come to a close with this year’s vote, his tenth shot at immortality the old-fashioned way. As he didn’t surpass 25% last year, it’s a safe bet to assume he won’t be reaching the 75% needed to be inducted into Cooperstown this summer.

That is a shame and has been for a decade now. But something happened earlier in December that makes it all the more shameful: Harold Baines was selected for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Now, I don’t mean to knock Harold Baines. He was a force for the White Sox in the 80s, and I’m sure he’s a very nice man but what he was not better than Fred McGriff.

To be clear, Baines was not elected to the Hall via the BBWAA ballot. He was elected by the Eras Committee, which is 16 people who vote in overlooked players from particular eras of the game.

This years’ batch, the Today’s Game Committee, inducted Baines and former all-time saves record holder Lee Smith. This makes the BBWAA’s failure to elect McGriff more palatable. Let’s not rule out the Crime Dog finding himself enshrined through this same process, but Baines is still going to have a plaque on the hallowed walls first.

To the naked eye, it might seem like Baines and McGriff are relatively similar players, or even that Baines is superior. Look closer.

Baines had more hits. He had more RBIs. He had a higher batting average. He also played in 370 more games than McGriff. That’s not insignificant if you’re comparing counting stats. If McGriff had played 370 more games even at his lowest level of production, he’d easily make up the RBI difference and close the hit gap, if not pass him there as well.

There is also the matter of intangibles. If Baines is a Hall of Famer, then surely McGriff is based on their respective significance. Baines was a consistent hitter throughout his long career, but was never a dominant one who could be considered the best. McGriff in the late 80s and early 90s was as feared as any hitter in the game at that time.

Baines was a piece of the puzzle on the teams he played for. McGriff was traded for in 1993 and both literally and figuratively Atlanta caught fire. He was the cleanup hitter for the 1995 championship team, Atlanta’s first ever.

Baines, on the other hand, spent the prime of his career on White Sox teams that were mired, in what would eventually be, an 88-year championship drought.

These “intangibles” are not nothing. Many voters will tell you that they vote as much on whether or not a player “feels” like a Hall of Famer as much as they will vote on their statistics.

Jack Morris’ entire argument for getting into the Hall of Fame was his postseason dominance and his 1991 National League Championship Series Game 7 performance in particular. Morris, for what it’s worth, also failed to get into the Hall through the traditional ballot but was selected by the Modern Era committee for induction last year.

While Baines’ induction this month and McGriff’s inevitable snub next month will be frustrating to those who believe that the slugger (who is just seven home runs shy of 500) is deserving of the call, all hope is not lost.

In fact, Baines’ induction should comfort those same people. Because once the Era Committees cycle back around to Today’s Game, they won’t have a leg to stand on in keeping the Crime Dog out of the Hall. It will be overdue, but it will be very deserved.

 

Beasts From The East

By: Mike Anthony

GeorgiaSportsEdition.com news services

From beginning to end, the 2018 Major League Baseball season went mostly as the experts predicted.

High payroll teams that fattened up even more before April got the returns on investment that were expected as the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers all lit up scoreboards throughout the season, with Boston ultimately topping Los Angeles in the World Series as the Dodgers came up just short for the second consecutive season.

Other teams that entered 2018 with rosters that were mostly the same as their winning counterparts from 2017 also excelled.

The defending world champs from Houston made it to another American League Championship Series, Cleveland once again dominated the AL Central and the Chicago Cubs looked like a World Series contender until hitting a late snag.

The one division that played against type last season was the National League East. The division was supposed to be the Nationals’ for the taking, but Washington spun its wheels for two-thirds of the season and never looked like a playoff team. The Mets once again had all the pitching in the world and once again watched as all of those pitchers went down with injuries.

In the end, it was Atlanta and Philadelphia. They were picked fourth and fifth in most preseason predictions. The Braves ultimately claimed the lone playoff spot out of the division, only to bow out in the divisional series.

That left an interesting question heading into the offseason and the always-exciting winter meetings. Would the Nationals and Mets take advantage of windows to win that were allegedly still open, or was the standings flip-flop a sign of big changes coming?

The NL East seems to have chosen option ‘C’, in which just about everyone is making moves as if they expect to be making noise in October.

Washington had a busy December, picking up former Braves Kurt Suzuki and Matt Adams for bench depth before signing arguably the best left-handed pitcher on the free agent market in Patrick Corbin.

The Mets were involved in one of the biggest trades of the offseason so far, as they shipped veteran Jay Bruce and some prospects to Seattle in return for eight-time All-Star Robinson Cano and ace closer Edwin Diaz.

The Braves signed former American League MVP Josh Donaldson to upgrade at third base. Another former All-Star – and fan favorite – will return to town as Brian McCann returns to the club where he cut his teeth in Major League Baseball.

Philadelphia traded for an All-Star shortstop in Jean Segura, signed former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and remain as a team constantly linked to free agent crown jewels Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.

And in much less interesting news, the Marlins will still be the Marlins.

Regardless of the myriad moves sure to be made between now and Opening Day, gauging the National League East will be a tough task.

The recent bullies on the block (Washington and New York) have been too inconsistent to believe that the division will be one of the best in the league. Yet, the quick turnarounds and evident investment into continued improvement of Atlanta and Philadelphia will make it tough to write off any team in the division that isn’t playing its home games in Miami.

Injuries, a brutally long season and the notoriously quirky ups and downs of baseball make it impossible to make a call on the division as the final days of 2018 tick away, but anyone paying attention to the offseason hot stove will agree that the NL East should provide plenty of drama next season.

Acuna Matata

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Braves fans were already chomping at the bit for Ronald Acuna, Jr. to be awarded the NL Rookie of the Year award all the way back in February. As the league’s top prospect, he seemed a safe bet for the award.

A late debut wouldn’t make much of a difference but missing nearly a month to injury and a good, but not stellar initial run in the lineup threatened to derail those plans. Not to mention the emergence of Juan Soto as a legit contender for the award.

Acuna’s return and subsequent move to the leadoff spot has put him firmly in the running once again. The two young phenoms’ numbers are incredibly similar and it looks to be a tight race for the trophy.

But I think Acuna could aim a little higher. As in, Ronald Acuna, Jr.: National League Most Valuable Player.

ROTY tends to be handed to whichever player puts up better pure numbers. The MVP award tends to fluctuate on that point, sometimes going to players with higher slash lines, sometimes going to players who lead a team to the postseason.

What the appropriate criteria should be is a debate for another time. What tends to be the case when an MVP is awarded to a player on a last place team is that their numbers are so gaudy or historical that they are worthy of merit (A-Rod’s MVP while he was on last-place Texas Rangers team, for example).

The NL features no such player in 2018. No one has run away with the award and in fact there could be as many as five or six players worthy of the trophy come season’s end. And one of them, arguably the most deserving, is Ronald Acuna.

Since taking over the leadoff spot in the batting order, Acuna has been on an incredible tear and has been a huge part of solidifying the Braves’ spot at the top of the NL East.

The Braves briefly dropped out of first place over the summer but Acuna heated up and has been the sparkplug that has the Braves on the cusp on an NL East Title.

He’s hovering around .300 and could very reasonably reach 30 homeruns by the time the season comes to a close. He will have barely played in over 100 games.

To that point, his OPS would be tied for best in the National League, except he doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify.

So regardless of slash line, counting stats (RBIs is a notable deficiency), or impact on a team’s postseason aspirations, Ronald Acuna, Jr. has an incredibly strong case for National League Rookie of the Year AND Most Valuable Player.

There’s precedent too: Ichiro pulled off the trick in 2001, so writers are willing to throw votes at a rookie (Ichiro’s standing as a true rookie was, of course, debatable).

Will it happen? If Acuna can get and stay over .300 and reach 30 home runs for a playoff team, it might convince a few voters.

Standing in his way, ironically, would be his teammates. Freddie Freeman was considered the frontrunner for the MVP for most of the season but his production lately hasn’t been up to MVP level. If Freddie finds another gear to close out the season, it might actually be tougher for either of the Braves stars to win. A split vote would be more likely.

But whatever happens, Atlanta has seen something truly special in 2018 and he’s only 20. So, regardless of whether or not he wins this year, Acuna needs to buy himself a trophy case sometime soon. A big one.