TJ Hartnett

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Hot Seat?

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The University of Georgia Bulldogs stumbled early on in 2019, losing a game in September to a South Carolina Gamecocks squad that would eventually end the season with a 4-8 record.

They battled back and scored big wins against the likes of Auburn and the University of Florida to propel them to a third consecutive SEC East Championship and a showdown against the Louisiana State University Tigers for the SEC Championship.

Given that they didn’t have to play Alabama, the specter that haunted them each of the previous two seasons, this seemed like a golden opportunity for Kirby Smart to right the ship after a disappointing follow-up season in 2018 to the 2017 College Football Championship run.

However, Joe Burrow and the Tigers showed up to Mercedes Benz Stadium and sealed their own CFB playoff spot instead.

Burrow blew the ink dry on his Heisman campaign with 349 passing yards and 4 touchdowns to boot. Jake, from State Fromm, managed 1 touchdown while throwing for 225 yards but tossed two interceptions as well.

It was, as I mentioned before, UGA’s second loss of the season, while LSU remained undefeated.

You have to wonder now if the Bulldog’s rabid (no pun intended) fan base is going to turn against Smart. Even though he was sending out a depleted roster to take on a Tigers team that averaged nearly 50 points per game during the season.

Kirby followed in the footsteps of Mark Richt, who – like Smart – took a season to get acclimated to Athens before winning the SEC Championship in his second year.

That victory was in 2002 and Richt earned another in 2005 before a decade of pretty good, but not quite great, football.

All the goodwill Richt earned by winning the first SEC Championship in 20 years had pretty much worn off by the time he was dismissed in 2015 and Richt remains a debated figure by the UGA faithful.

Smart may not get the 10 years that Richt had, but he led a team to the National Championship game and has taken steps back in the two years since.

Today’s coaches are on the hot seat the second they’re hired. Especially, in the SEC.

I’m not saying that Kirby Smart isn’t going to make it to the New Year with his job intact but he’s in definite danger after losing a second straight SEC Championship.

The Bulldogs seemed like they were trending up just a couple of short years ago, but that trend has seemingly done an about face.

A double-digit lead over Alabama in the 4th quarter in the National Championship Game in 2017 led to a loss.

A double-digit lead in the 3rd quarter in the SEC Championship the very next year led to a loss and to the exact same team, no less.

They followed that with an embarrassing Sugar Bowl loss to Texas. Now they’re entering Championship games as the underdog and the upsets aren’t happening.

That’s a dangerous path for an SEC coach to be on, especially with popular former Bulldog player & coach Mike Bobo suddenly in the unemployment line.

I know there have been calls for Kirby to bring Bobo onto his staff but now I wonder: after this loss and with this continuing trend of getting farther away from greatness, will those calls now change to calling for Bobo to replace Smart?

Becoming A Man

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

I’m friends on Facebook with this guy I went to college with and after every single Atlanta Hawks game, he posts the exact same status update: “Trae Young is the best PG in the league!” After every single game.

Whether or not that statement is true might be debatable, but Young is certainly an incredible player. Young became the second player in NBA history to have at least two 49+ point games before turning 22 years old.

And just to make sure you’re following: that means that Trae Young is only 21.

Those 49 points tied a career high for the young Hawk (Young Hawk, even); he also matched a career best with eight three-point shots, his third time reaching that mark.

Despite the team’s overall struggles (the Hawks are 4-15, tied for dead last at the bottom of the Eastern Conference pile with the New York Knicks), Young has emerged as a bona-fide superstar.  He is the kind of home-grown talent that the Hawks have been yearning for and missing out on for years.

Atlanta may be losing, but it’s nothing to do with their star point guard. In fact, both of Young’s 49-point master classes have come in games that Atlanta has lost.

He’s top ten in the league in points and top five in assists, having massively improved upon a rookie campaign that was in equal turns fascinating and frustrating.

All last season, Young had critical eyes on him. He wasn’t Luca Doncic might’ve been the consensus; and he’s a smaller player, so how’s going to play on defense? Will his scoring translate to the NBA?

All that chirping had to have put a chip on Young’s shoulder, and he’s playing like that chip lit a fire under him, if I may mix my metaphors.

He finished up his first year in the league on a high note but has gone far beyond simply picking up where he left off. All of his offensive stats are higher than last season’s. Atlanta is starting to grow accustomed to 25-30 points per game with double-digit (or close to it) assists.

Does he need to improve his defense? Sure. But with his offense game so stellar, it’s something he can afford to work on.

He also has work to do on midrange shots. While his size disadvantage doesn’t really matter when he is drilling threes, the closer he gets to the basket the tougher it is for him to produce.

But even there he’s showing improvement, from 10 feet from the hoop to the 3-point line, Young has been shooting over 5 percent better this season than last. For a player that has the ball as much as he does, even that small improvement goes a long way.

His maturity and leadership are a big part of his game as well. He’s made these improvements and broken out, not just with a struggling team, but with a vastly different one than he started with last season.

With so much turnover on the roster, it would have made sense for Young to need time to get acclimated to his new teammates. Instead, he’s been hot right from the first tip-off.

The team is going through growing pains but that isn’t a surprise.

Even if the Hawks could have predicted the huge steps Young would take this early in his career (and they certainly couldn’t have foreseen this), the team wasn’t going to be a contender; at least, not yet.

But they know they’ve got a centerpiece around which they can build a winning team. They’ve got at least a sense of the player Trae Young can be. Which is to say: the sky is the limit.

Hall Of Fame Steal

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame is always a fascinating thing to unpack and dissect as we examine the bona fides of the newly eligible and reevaluate the careers of those who have remained on the ballot from the previous year’s attempt.

Several former Atlanta Braves populate the several dozen potential Hall of Famers eligible for induction in the summer of 2020, including the first (and, sadly, probably last) appearance of popular shortstop Rafael Furcal.

With Furcal, we have the spark that started off games for the last six years of Atlanta’s legendary 14-straight NL East Division wins.

‘Fookie,’ as Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox called him (would ‘Raffy’ have probably been better? …yes.), exploded onto the scene in 2000, making the leap straight from Single A to the Major League ballclub thanks to an offseason injury to then shortstop (now bench coach) Walt Weiss.

Furcal hit .295 with 40 stolen bases that season en route to a Rookie of the Year award.

He was a consistent presence at the top of the lineup after that, never hitting below .275 and never swiping fewer than 22 bases. Other highlights during his time with the Braves include hitting three triples in a game (tying an MLB record) and recording the 12th-ever unassisted triple play in 2003.

When he left Atlanta, Furcal put in five and a half solid years (one of which – 2005 – was pretty spectacular) with the Los Angeles Dodgers, before being traded to St. Louis in 2011, where he won the World Series.

His career did not end with the same pop with which it began – a 9-game stint with Miami in 2014 – but he hung his cleats up with a .281 batting average, a .748 OPS, and 314 stolen bases. Is it enough to make the Hall?

It isn’t. This will undoubtedly be Furcal’s only season on the ballot – it’s too overcrowded with better candidates for him to get the necessary 5% of the vote to stick around another year.

It’s a shame, too, because while Furcal didn’t have the kind of eye-popping numbers that merit induction, he was an indispensable piece of winning teams for his entire career (almost every winning team has a player like this – essential to the team and overshadowed by his teammates).

There were plenty of factors that led to the end of the Braves’ 14-season winning streak, but the fact that Furcal leaving coincided with that end is no coincidence.

The fact that Furcal’s teams made the playoffs in 10 of 14 seasons is no coincidence either (10 out of 13 if you discount that week and a half he played for the Marlins). Fookie was a winning player, and that’s not nothing.

Unfortunately, it also isn’t going to be enough. Furcal’s biggest skillset was his speed – both bat speed and baserunning speed – and that’s a skill that conveniently doesn’t slump (hence his consistency) but inconveniently doesn’t age well (hence his numbers beginning to dwindle at age 33 and his retirement at age 36).

Maybe if Furcal’s seasons of peak production had stretched out a little longer, he’d have a better case; but alas, it isn’t so.

It also can’t help that headlining this year’s new Hall of Fame candidates is one of the best shortstops of all time, Derek Jeter.

Furcal pales in comparison, though, to be fair, so do most players at any position. Jeter is likely to be the second unanimous election come January (now that we’re done with that no-unanimous-elections nonsense – what a joke that was for decades).

Despite the fact that he won’t be immortalized in the Hall, Furcal should be able to rest easy knowing that he was a crucial and cherished part of winning teams for his whole career. It’s not a plaque in Cooperstown, but it’s enough to be proud of.

The Closing Act

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

While the first two moves of the Atlanta Braves’ offseason failed to impress (the re-signing of Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis), Alex Anthopoulos and company made a bigger splash by signing the best free agent relief pitcher on the market.

Atlanta inked All-Star closer Will Smith to a 3-year, $39 million contract (with a 4th year club option for another $13 million), shoring up what was their most glaring weakness going into the 2019 season and checking off one of the bigger offseason boxes on their list (though far from their only need).

This is a signing that looks good and should pay dividends, even if Brian Snitker keeps Smith’s former teammate from the San Francisco Giants Mark Melancon in the closer role.

Smith’s numbers against lefties are ridiculous. He has allowed a .157 batting average against and an OPS of a meager .395 from southpaws, not to mention an insane 42-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties. That’s 42 strikeouts for every 1 walk that he surrenders.

Really bonkers stuff from Smith. His numbers against righties (.212 average, .709 OPS) are strong as well. He gets strikeouts, with 37% of his outs coming from a K, and he’s managed to keep walks low and balls in the ballpark for his whole career.

The indication that Melancon will retain his role as the team’s closer isn’t much of a surprise, given that Melancon converted all 11 save opportunities after Atlanta acquired him midseason.

He’ll back the guy who’s played for him; but it may not stay that way for long. Smith seems like the more natural choice, given his stuff and his strikeouts, plus the fact that Melancon has one year left on his contract and Smith just signed for three (maybe four). That means the job will be Smith’s eventually anyway. Time will tell how things shake out.

Perhaps, the more interesting (and immediate) consequence to consider of Smith’s signing is what it means for the rest of the Braves’ offseason. $13 is nothing to scoff at, which could mean one of two things: 1) Liberty Media has decided to open their checkbook and Atlanta is ready to spend on talent, or 2) this was the big signing of the offseason for the Braves.

Knowing Liberty Media, the latter does seem likely.

Josh Donaldson is still out there, having predictably rejected the Braves’ qualifying offer of nearly $18 million to play third base for them in 2020.

The market for him will be one to watch. I still feel that everything being relatively equal, Donaldson will return to Atlanta, umbrella in tow.

I don’t foresee him signing with the team sight unseen, but even with a salary discrepancy of, say $10 million (another team offers him 3 years, $80 million vs. a Braves offer of 3 years, $70 million), he’ll be back at the hot corner in Suntrust Park this April.

I also think that Madison Bumgarner is still on the table after the Smith signing. I do wonder, however, if both would be.

Certainly, signing Donaldson to somewhere around $25 million eliminates even the vaguest possibility of a Gerrit Cole joining the Braves. (A long shot regardless – the Braves can’t win a bidding war.)

Madison Bumgarner might be looking at something more akin to $10-15 million per year for 2 or 3 seasons. That’s not unreasonable for the Braves to afford.

The issue then becomes finding a catcher and deciding what to do in the outfield (start the season with Inciarte, Acuna, and a farm hand?).

Questions are infinite, but at the end of the day the Braves took care of a need, and that’s a good start.

Cocktails In The River City

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The University of Georgia and the University of Florida have fought the same battle on the same battleground for nearly a century. That won’t be changing for the next several years.

The city of Jacksonville, Florida, where the two rivals have played their annual game since 1933, agreed to continue hosting the collegiate contest through at least 2023 with an option to extend to 2025.

Press releases were sent out with all parties involved expressing a positive feeling about the deal, espousing words of tradition and history; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, essentially.

The idea behind playing this game in Jacksonville each year is housed in the notion that it’s a neutral ground. With the two teams claim to be the “University of” their respective states, Jacksonville also serves as a borderland over which the game’s victors can claim.

But it’s not quite neutral territory, is it? Ignoring the fact that the game is played inside the state lines of Florida, the geography is actually staggeringly lopsided.

The rabid, eager fans of the Georgia Bulldogs make the trip every year, often with a pit stop on a beach or coastal island like St. Simon’s, to cheer on their team. Thus, is the level of their passion.

It’s an overnight trip, for sure. It takes over five hours to make the trek from Athens, Georgia to Jacksonville.

Gas money, hotels, food and alcohol, and eleven or more total hours in a car are all costs that the Bulldog faithful must pay to root for their home team.

The Florida Gator Nation? They could easily sleep in their beds the night of the game. It’s less than an hour and a half travel time to get from Gainesville to Jacksonville. Sure, many Gators will stay in Jacksonville and revel in the festivities, but with a DD in tow, driving back home is very much an option.

Granted, so many fans of college football – and these two teams in particular – aren’t current (or have ever been) students of their respective schools; but the stadiums in Gainesville and Athens aren’t filling up with 5-hour commuters every Saturday. They’re being attending by people who can commute to the games.

So, even those season ticket holders for UGA, who aren’t living in Athens aren’t living an hour and a half from Jacksonville either.

This isn’t to say that Florida has home field advantage every year but it’s not a far cry from it.

There’s been talk of moving the game from Jacksonville in the past. Recently there has been a notion for a home-and-home series between the two teams, for example.

I’ve even heard it suggested that the annual game switch between Jacksonville and Atlanta (for those counting mileage, the travel times essentially switch, but with a slightly shorter trip time from Gainesville to Atlanta than Athens to Jacksonville).

Last week’s news of the game remaining in Jacksonville puts those options to bed, for now, anyway.

Truthfully it does seem unlikely that a game with such rich history in one location would be altered. Especially now that they’re locked in for a 90th year, why stop shy of a century?

Who knows if either of those options, or a third, heretofore unknown choice, will ever be utilized.

The game is too big each year to not involve some kind of pomp and circumstance, even when the teams aren’t having their best years.

So maybe Jacksonville isn’t the most elegant solution; it doesn’t seem like there will be another one anytime soon.

Chopped

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Let’s get this out of the way: “Redskins” is a racial slur, and the fact that the NFL has allowed a team to continue using that term as a mascot is both abhorrent and, apropos of the team being in our nation’s capital, disappointingly unsurprising.

The reason I start this piece off with such a disclaimer is because the recently-ousted-from-the-playoffs Atlanta Braves had a few headlines during their NLDS appearance owing to the comments of a St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher.

If you weren’t following or haven’t heard, it boils down to this: Cards’ pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee tribe, expressed to the media that he was disappointed that Atlanta still hands out their famous foam tomahawks and encourages the Tomahawk Chop.

In Helsley’s estimation, the Tomahawk Chop is a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people and Native Americans in general, and is disrespectful.

In response, prior to the 13-1 drumming Atlanta took at the hands of St. Louis in Game 5, the Braves decided not to hand out the foam axes and reduced the usage of the Tomahawk Chop music over the loudspeakers during the game.

There was some chatter about this during and following the game (including some foolish notion being spread that the removal of the tomahawks was the reason for the embarrassment…I can’t even start with that nonsense), with varying opinions.

Being a die-hard Braves fan, I’ve been asked several times about this. Should the Tomahawk Chop be cast into exile?

I have a two-part answer. Stick with me.

The first part of my answer is this: to me, the Braves nickname and the Tomahawk Chop is so very tenuously associated with Native Americans that I don’t really consider that a part of Atlanta’s brand.

At worst, the nickname “Braves” is akin to “Warriors” – a group of the strongest fighters that, if anything, is celebratory. But I don’t see the letters across the chest and think about “Indian Braves.” I don’t do the Tomahawk Chop and think about a Native American war cry – they’re specifically, for me, associated with Atlanta’s baseball team, and that’s all.

That is, in part, because the Braves have done a relatively good job of doing away with Native American iconography as a part of their brand. The screaming Indian is gone (despite a brief attempt at a comeback in 2013 that was mercifully rejected), Chief Noc-A-Homa has been retired and there are very few feathers adorning the uniform outside of the 1970s throwback.

All that adds to me – this is one man’s opinion – not feeling like I’m appropriating a culture. There’s just not any association in my mind.

However. Here’s the second part, and it’s much more important: I don’t care one little bit about the name of the team. I genuinely don’t. I don’t care about foam tomahawks and the Chop and all of that. To paraphrase Shakespeare: the team by any other name would still be my team.

So, here’s the thing: if the Native American community thinks that the name and the Chop and the tomahawk are offensive or in any way inappropriate, then let’s change the damn name of the team.

I’m a white man. I can’t reasonably tell you what is or isn’t offensive to Native Americans. So, if changing some inconsequential things about the team that I love will make a group of people who have been disenfranchised by this country a little happier, then by god let’s go ahead a do it.

Look, I’m not out campaigning for change. If this dies down and nothing comes of it, then I’ll be back next season doing the Chop with a tomahawk on my chest, because I see those as a baseball thing, not a Native American thing.

But that’s just me, and if a change needs to be made, then that’s fine with me too. I’ll still be back next season, cheering on my team.

And if you’re sitting at home, reading this, grumbling about how people shouldn’t get upset over something like the Chop, then maybe try to assess who’s got a more sensible reason to be upset, and check your privilege at the Right Field Gate next April.

Chop or not, I’ll see you next season.

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.

 

The Second Guessing Game

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Monday morning quarterbacking is a very real epidemic in sports fandom and it’s certainly not limited to football fanatics.

That’s where the term comes from, of course, but the desire to second guess any team’s coach and manager’s every move is so alluring and satisfying that it has permeated into every sport in which decisions are made.

Baseball is, of course, included. Fans of every team revel in post-correcting their favorite(?) manager’s lineups, defensive alignments, rotation choices, and bullpen management.

Managers are mortal men, mind you, so mistakes can be (and are) made. I would never claim otherwise. For the record, I also do some managerial criticism from time to time.

Even reigning Mangers of the Year get criticized for anything and everything; one such person is Atlanta Braves’ manager Brian Snitker, who I hear get criticized constantly by friends, by family, and by sports radio hosts.

Folks in Braves Country always have one thing or another to complain about when it comes to Snit and his managerial decision-making.

I’m not here to tell you that you can never criticize Brian Snitker again. He will, someday in the future, maybe soon, make a decision you disagree with. You are allowed to share your disagreement. But today I want to celebrate him. Because I just watched him get thrown out of a game, and I’m fired up about how much I like the guy.

The game I just watched was against the Washington Nationals. You’ll know it as the horrific game in which Charlie Culberson took a fastball off his face on a bunt attempt. Insanely, it was called a strike.

Brian Snitker really didn’t like that.

MAYBE second to the Jose Urena Incident, this was far and away the most pissed off I have ever seen the usually-calm Snitker.

At the time, I was far too shaken from Culberson’s injury to really appreciate the fight Snit was putting up against a godawful call.

Looking back on it now, I see the Snit that these Braves players love to play for. He was arguing about a strike, but under the surface you just knew that Snit was channeling the fear and love that the whole clubhouse has for Charlie into that tirade.

Snitker seems like a paternal figure to this team in a way that Fredi Gonzalez never was – and before you get ahead of me, he’s not quite Bobby Cox either.

The Braves under Cox, whom I love, were always professional to a fault.

Snit’s team is allowed to be little more expressive. There’s a lot of youth and excitement on the team, but Snitker seems to encourage it. He’s also going to provide a firm hand when necessary, like pulling Acuna for lack of hustle just a few weeks ago. And yet, I feel confident that Acuna wouldn’t have an ill will for his skipper.

And at the end of the day, the thing that matters is that these Braves want to play for Snit. Guys like Freddie Freeman notably advocated for Snitker to get the full-time job after his interim stint a few years ago.

His bullpen usage will be what it is – he’ll make whatever decisions he thinks will help the team win or will help a player in one situation or another – but the guys on the field want him filling out the lineup on a daily basis. They want to win for him. And they are.

 

Picking Teams

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

A playoff spot is pretty much a lock at this point for the Atlanta Braves. The math is starting to catch up, as the Braves’ magic number lowers each day.

That being said, the Braves have had all kinds of contributors to their winning ways in 2019 but only 25 of them will be called upon to be on the playoff roster. This week we’re going to try and predict who’s going to be helping the Bravos win their first playoff series since 2001 and (hopefully) play deep into October.

STARTING PITCHERS

Mike Soroka

Dallas Keuchel

Max Fried

Julio Teheran

Mike Foltynewicz

This one is pretty easy, as the starting rotation has been one of the more consistent parts of the Braves’ team this year, especially after Alex Anthopoulos picked up Keuchel and Folty was called back up from Triple A Gwinnett.

I chose to include all five starts despite the fact that, at most, the Braves will only throw four of them in a five-game Division Series.

My reasoning is this: it’s pretty clear that Soroka and Keuchel will go 1-2, and Fried probably locked down the third start, but Teheran has been steady all year and has earned his spot in the playoff rotation.

With Folty as the odd man out, you’ve got a flamethrower who could ratchet up the heat coming out of the bullpen for long relief or even just to get a much-needed strikeout.

BULLPEN

Mark Melancon

Shane Greene

Chris Martin

Sean Newcomb

Luke Jackson

Jerry Blevins

Darren O’Day

The first five here are obvious. Melancon, Greene, and Martin were the big ticket items acquired at the trade deadline in July, Newcomb has found new life in relief, and Luke Jackson, despite his still-frustrating missteps, has been the mainstay of the bullpen all year long.

Jackson held down the role of closer for months when the ‘pen was a mess, and his ticket is punched to the postseason.

Blevins will make the roster so that Newk isn’t the only southpaw, and while O’Day was hurt up until this week, he’ll be given every opportunity to show Brian Snitker that he can take the ball in high leverage situations.

CATCHERS

Brian McCann

Francisco Cervelli

Tyler Flowers

It’s a little unorthodox, but my gut tells me three catchers. Cervelli may not even see a pitch (batting or catching), but his presence allows Snit to use Mac or Flowers as a pinch hitter late in games.

INFIELDERS

Freddie Freeman

Ozzie Albies

Josh Donaldson

Dansby Swanson

Adieny Hechavarria*

The fifth spot is the interesting one here.

Johan Camargo was abysmal in the big leagues during 2019, but he turned things around in Gwinnett and brings more versatility to the bench than Hechavarria does.

I’m not sure that Camargo will get enough playing time over the next few weeks to erase the bad taste from the season’s first half. That’s why I think the veteran will get the nod here – maybe (see below).

OUTFIELDERS

Ronald Acuña Jr.

Austin Riley

Nick Markakis

Matt Joyce

Charlie Culberson

Billy Hamilton*

*One or the other

This is where things get hairy.

Markakis, assuming he makes it back on the field in the next week or so, will get a playoff spot.

The real question mark is Ender Inciarte. Ender was tearing the cover off the ball before he got hurt for the second time in 2019.

The Gold Glover, who is the de facto center fielder, can’t just be discarded if he’s healthy. If he does make it back, that throws the rest of the outfield into disarray.

Austin Riley struggled enough in the second half that he might not get the call if Ender resumes his starting duties and Acuña heads back to left.

Matt Joyce has been an undervalued presence off the bench all season long, and his work should warrant a playoff spot.

Culberson hasn’t had as many clutch hits lately as Braves Country is used to him having, but the fact that he has that history and can play all over the field pretty much guarantees him playing in October.

That versatility may also come into play by not including Hech OR Camargo, letting Charlie serve as the lone backup infielder and picking Billy Hamilton to come off the bench as a pinch runner/defensive replacement.

This scenario seems like a good idea if Inciarte doesn’t make it back and Riley is starting in left.

The good thing is, however the roster is structured, the Braves have a lot of talent at a lot of spots and that bodes well for a playoff series win.

 

Braves Spare Parts

By: TJ Hartnett

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The Washington Nationals have been hotter than hell the past couple of weeks, scoring big win after big win; including a three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley. For most ballclubs, a hot streak like the one the Nats are on right now would be a highlight of the season – a cause for joy; but for Washington, it must be very frustrating.

Since winning 13 their past 16 games, the Nationals have gained essentially no ground whatsoever in the National League East. That’s because the Atlanta Braves have matched their hot streak blow for blow.

Atlanta has been winning a lot lately, including huge series wins against the hard-hitting Minnesota Twins and a landmark statement series victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the best team in the National League and the squad that wholly outmatched them in the playoffs last October.

The fascinating thing about the Braves’ current run of wins is the players they’ve been winning with.

Atlanta has actually been bitten by the injury bug in a really big way of late. Lineup stalwarts Nick Markakis and Dansby Swanson went down in July, followed shortly by Ender Inciarte, Austin Riley (who had been Ender’s replacement the first time he hit the IL), and Brian McCann in the weeks following.

These successive injuries called into question the Braves’ depth.

General Manager Alex Anthopoulos also seemed to think that Atlanta had a depth problem. Since July 31st is now the only trade deadline during the season (meaning no waiver wire acquisitions during August) he went to the scrapyard to look for spare parts. What he found there did more than plug holes in the lineup: they made it sing.

Adeiny Hechavarria was dropped by the New York Mets, so Anthopoulos picked him up to fill in for Dansby (since Johan Camargo was having a horrendous 2019 showing).

The Queens castoff hit nearly .400 in his first week and provided an incredible bat flip for Braves country after a 2-run bomb his first weekend with the team.

But it seemed like all of the Braves pickups provided game-influencing dramatics after joining the team. Outfielder Billy Hamilton provided huge hits after being plucked off the discard pile from Kansas City, and Rafael Ortega, who has bounced around from team to team and from minors to majors for the past decade, made an immediate impact as well.

Once McCann went down, the Braves acted quickly to pick up Francisco Cervelli, the longtime Pittsburgh Pirate, who was on the brink of retirement earlier in the season.

The veteran has been a Brave less than a few weeks and has already made a huge difference to the win/loss record.

Swanson has returned, relegating Hechavarria to the bench. Likely similar fates await the rest of the newest Braves but their impact when they were needed the most cannot be understated.

Most teams, when faced with both mass injuries and a second-place team that won’t lose, would crumble; the Braves have managed to thrive.

Best of all, many of these weapons have their use beyond filling in for injured players in the short-term. Think about Billy Hamilton pinch-running late in a tight playoff game; shades of David Roberts (whose Dodgers might be on the receiving end of some Hamilton fireworks)?

Regardless of what happens going forward, these “scrap heap” players have secured their legacy in the annals of Atlanta Braves lore.

When the Bravos finish the year on top of the NL East, a major part of their story will be the potential August slump that never happened thanks to these ballplayers.

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