By: TJ Hartnett
TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services
The Atlanta Braves have been scorching hot lately. They leapfrogged the Phillies to take sole possession of first place in the National League East.
With the All-Star Break rapidly approaching, the Braves appear to be positioning themselves well to go into the second half as the team on top and that might mean that General Manager Alex Anthopoulos may be able to make moves (on top of the Dallas Keuchel signing) before the trade deadline to bolster some of the weak spots on the roster.
That being said, let’s take a brief look at some of the things that have led the Braves into first place, as well as a few things that need improvement.
The Really Good:
Austin Riley – It’s not a coincidence that Riley’s promotion to the big leagues proceeded the Braves rise to the top of the heap.
Riley has been beyond exceptional for Atlanta, not just hitting the ball out of the yard but also coming up with clutch hits and playing better left field than a third baseman has any right to.
Nearly the rest of the lineup, for the most part, has been roaring during this surge. Ozzie Albies has found his stroke, Freddie Freeman is putting up MVP-type numbers, Dansby Swanson and Ronald Acuna have been consistent (Acuna loves that leadoff spot), and the catching platoon has been reminiscent of the Flowers/Suzuki platoon a few years ago.
Mike Soroka – The undisputed ace of the staff in 2019, picked up right where he left off in 2018. He has a razor-thin ERA and composure on the mound far exceeding his years. With Keuchel as an unknown factor at the moment, Soroka starts Game 1 of the playoffs for this team.
Julio Teheran – To the surprise of many (myself included – see my unflattering and now-proven-wrong article about Julio from the end of March), Julio Teheran has recaptured the magic that caused the Braves to extend him years ago. He’s been more reliable than Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman, stepping up as the veteran presence in a young rotation.
Luke Jackson – A relief pitcher? Yes. Jackson opened up the season with an atrocious showing, but has since taken over the closer role and has been a solid – if imperfect – piece to close out Atlanta’s victories in 2019.
The Not So Good:
Josh Donaldson – The Bringer of Rain has managed to hit 10 homeruns and has a surprisingly robust batting average with runners in scoring position, but he has failed to earn the $23 million the Braves gave him during the offseason.
It’s unlikely the Braves will find a trade partner for the veteran, but with Riley’s emergence it seems like that Donaldson’s tenure in Atlanta will not span past one season.
Folty and Gausman – The two steadiest presences in the rotation in 2018 were both injured during Spring Training and neither seems to have come back quite right.
Gausman hit the Injured List, and with Keuchel waiting in the wings he may have made his last start for the year.
The Rest of the Bullpen – I know it. You know it. Let’s move on.
I’ll do the math for you, there’s more good than bad on the team right now.
Plus, the weaker points can be improved: Keuchel for Gausman is sure to be an upgrade, and the party line for months has been that Anthopoulos will make moves if the Braves are contending and first place is certainly contending.
If things continue as they are or improve even slightly, Braves Country is in for a great second half.
By: Mike Anthony
TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services
Putting together a winning team in Major League Baseball is a tall order.
In a sport where each team needs to cover so many different and individually specialized positions, a shortcoming or a rash of injuries anywhere on the diamond can be the source of an entire season’s worth of frustration and the difference between an elated or frustrated fan base.
For fans of the Atlanta Braves, it doesn’t take more than a split second to identify the area on which the 2019 season hinges.
The defending National League East champions are in position to rule the division once again and possibly do much more as their talented core of youth comes into its own, but seemingly every game gets transformed into a three-ring circus every time the bullpen gates open and the Braves’ relief pitching comes into play.
The Atlanta bullpen was one of the only weaknesses in the 2018 squad and despite high hopes for another postseason run this season, fans were a bit on edge this spring when the team did almost nothing to improve its late-inning options in 2019.
If the front office’s hope was that another year of experience would bring improved performance, that plan ran off the tracks early as closer Arodys Vizcaino was shut down for the season just after opening day.
A.J. Minter was the next man up to fill the closer role, but was sent back to the minor leagues after posting a 9.82 ERA and walking 11 over nine innings of work.
The Braves seemed to find an answer at the end of the game in Luke Jackson, who converted four consecutive saves from May 10-17, but Jackson has looked shaky since.
Even for the best teams in baseball, solidifying a bullpen is never an easy task. After all, there aren’t many guys whose lone career track has been that of a reliever.
Just about every pitcher in every bullpen in the majors began as a starter, but was moved to relief due to a lack of effective number of pitches or an inability to hold opponents scoreless for more than an inning or two.
That said, the Braves have found themselves in that dreaded position where no lead feels safe and everyone in the ballpark is on pins and needles until the final out is in the books.
The bullpen issues need to be addressed, but that is easier said than done. Braves fans have been getting louder in their constant reminders that Craig Kimbrel is still a free agent.
But Kimbrel is still demanding a salary and contract length that the notoriously stingy Atlanta front office doesn’t seem to be interested in.
On top of that, any team wanting to sign Kimbrel would have to forfeit a first-round draft pick unless they wait until after next week’s draft to sign him.
If a return to Atlanta for Kimbrel isn’t in the cards, there are plenty of other options for the Braves to manage the late innings. Any scout in baseball will tout the Braves’ young pitchers – either still in the minor leagues or called up to the majors last season – and predict big things for them in the future.
They could provide immediate help, but that would raise the question of whether it’s prudent to derail the progression of a future starting pitcher in order to put him to work in the bullpen.
The shuffling and experimenting will continue so long as the shaky relief outings continue to mount. However, the good news is that solid starting pitching and a young lineup that is hitting the ball better with each passing week should give the bullpen plenty of leads to attempt to preserve as the season continues.
There’s a long way to go, and the Braves look to be in for another playoff push. And if those bullpen questions are answered, 2019 is looking very bright for Atlanta.