TJ Hartnett

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A Brave Future

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

There may not be any actual baseball being played right now but the march of business continues on, as the 2020 MLB Draft has come and gone.

For the Atlanta Braves, it’s a chance to restock the farm system as more and more of their highly touted prospects show up to the big-league club.

All signs were pointing to Alex Anthopoulos aiming for high school pitching as his focus – let’s see how that played out and what kind of potential gold Atlanta struck last week.

The first pick for Atlanta, and the number 25 pick overall, was Wake Forest lefty Jared Shuster.

An interesting pick, without a particularly long track record. Shuster broke out last summer during the Cape Cod League and continued to impress during (an albeit shortened) spring.

He may not end up being an ace, but the potential is there for a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy. The kind of draft pick that’s not very sexy, but one that could pay out in a big way.

Quick note: what would have been Atlanta’s second pick was given to the Cardinals after the Braves signed Marcel Ozuna.

It’s always a calculated risk when a team signs a player that costs them a draft pick, but this one will sting a little extra since at best Ozuna will play about half-a-season’s worth of games or at worst won’t play a single game for the Bravos.

So, with what should have been their third, but in reality, was their second pick, Anthopoulos and company took outfielder Jesse Franklin from Michigan.

An injury that COVID-19 never left Franklin recover from might be the only thing that kept this power and speed guy from going top 50 in the draft (a skiing accident shut him down for a month or two, and had Michigan played their whole season he would have been able to show off his recovery).

He’s shown the ability to hit for power, but he’ll need to couple that with a higher average to sniff the Majors.

Spencer Strider, a right-handed pitcher from Clemson, came off the board as the Braves’ fourth-round pick. Yet another guy who could be seen as a risk, Strider was a huge recruiting get for Clemson and played a lot as a freshman, though he struggled with his command.

Tommy John surgery took him out of the game last year, though he did make it back to show off in a short sample size this season before it was shut down.

Strider didn’t appear to be on a lot of radars since he hit the college circuit, but the Braves liked his live arm enough to pull the trigger and hope he shows more of what made him so highly-sought-after in high school.

Lastly, we have Bryce Elder right-handed pitcher from Texas. He’s been the Longhorns’ ace despite not being an overpowering-type pitcher.

However, he’s got a good mix of all of the things that made a good pitcher and could be a rotation mainstay for a lot of years if he develops right.

So, as you’ve probably noticed, there were no high school pitchers drafted.

This is a very interesting class; it’s not a flashy group, and a couple might have needed more time to prove themselves, but given the situation baseball is in, a lot of teams had to take leaps of faith in this draft.

It isn’t the greatest class Atlanta has ever seen, but there’s potential here to supply the Braves with valuable pieces in the future.

The Extra Guy

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

This might just be unwarranted optimism, but it is kind of starting to feel like January again.

Not in terms of weather, but in terms of baseball. There seems to be a feeling that a truncated MLB season could start as soon as early July, with about half as many games as normal, expanded playoffs, modified divisions, and – our subject for today – a universal designated hitter.

I’m starting to get that anticipatory excitement I always feel right before spring training. We’ve all felt it once this year, only for COVID to pull the rug out from under us; but that feeling is back and baseball just might be on the horizon.

What could this mean for the Atlanta Braves?

For one thing, it could mean that neither Austin Riley nor Johan Camargo sees any time in whatever the minor leagues look like this season.

They had begun battling it out for the starting third base job before spring training was suspended, but that suspension could very well mean that neither of them needs to worry about not being on the big-league club.

Now, there’s likely going to be a significantly expanded roster at the major league level this season, which might factor into the Braves hanging on to both third basemen more than the DH would. Having that extra spot in the lineup could potentially mean that both guys are essentially starting.

Camargo might get the majority of the starts at third while Riley DHs, with a switch whenever necessary.

On the other hand, a DH could mean that Camargo and Riley platoon and Nick Markakis or Adam Duvall get the DH spot instead. The righty/lefty matchup works out, in a traditional sense, and it would keep both bats from getting stale, especially with Ronald Acuna, Jr., Marcell Ozuna, and Ender Inciarte likely keeping them on the bench otherwise.

There’s also the option of not having a consistent DH (or platoon). Having the extra spot in the lineup would allow manager Brian Snitker to rotate his starting eight through the designated hitter position throughout the week. That would allow rest for the likes of Freddie Freeman every half inning and replacing them on the field with their backup.

That also serves the purpose of providing relatively consistent at bats for the backups, who normally only see pinch hits and a start once every week or two.

The last option would be for the Braves to go out and get themselves a designated designated hitter (not a typo).

There are actually some intriguing options still on the market. For example, the Braves might not have wanted to risk the money or the potential headache of signing Yasiel Puig to a whole season for a whole season’s worth of money. However, with a much shorter risk period, Atlanta could now go out and sign the outfielder to a fraction of what he’s worth and make him their DH with occasional starts in the outfield.

Mark Trumbo is another guy who can be signed for cheap. He’d likely be exclusively a DH. He has lots of strikeouts but a ton of pop, too.

The point is, maybe the Braves will want a guy to show up and mash and not be required to do anything else.

Those are the kinds of possibilities having a DH for the entire season in the National League will bring for the Braves.

Waiting to see which way they go is just a part of the pre-spring-mid-summer training excitement.

Brave Title

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Fox Sports recently satiated our collective thirst for baseball, albeit briefly, by airing the Atlanta Braves’ greatest triumph: the 1995 World Series against the Cleveland Indians.

For six straight nights, Braves Country was treated to a Braves squad at the height of their powers, barely a third of the way into their 14-straight division titles. I don’t usually go for reruns – I never watch the next-day replays during the season – but this was compelling television, despite knowing the outcome.

The 90s and early 00s Braves went through little eras within those 14 years, but that 1995 team’s pitching staff and batting lineup is usually the one people could name.

Sure, the early 90s had Otis Nixon, Terry Pendleton, and Steve Avery in his prime, but no Chipper. The early 2000s had Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal, but that scrappy Jeff Blauser/Mark Lemke tandem was gone (and then, eventually, so was Tom Glavine).

I think the 1995 team was almost perfectly constructed. Ironically, I don’t think they were the best team the Braves fielded in the 90s, but they’re the one that won it all. So, since they’re fresh on our minds, let’s look back at what made that team special.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the starting pitching was firing on all cylinders. Greg Maddux captured his 4th straight Cy Young award in 1995 (going 19-2 with a freaking 1.63 ERA), and Glavine and Smoltz were in their primes (they both had sub-3.20 ERAs, plus  Glavine was World Series MVP and the next season Smoltz would be the first Cy Young winner in five years who wasn’t Mad Dog).

Avery was on the downside of his short career and Kent Mercker put up serviceable but not great numbers in the five spot. The three-headed monster at the top of the rotation made up for any deficiencies.

The bullpen gets little credit, but Mark Wohlers had a 2.09 ERA and led a stellar group of relievers with Greg McMichael, Brad Clontz, and Pedro Borbon. All of those guys had fantastic years on the bump.

The starting lineup was a classic baseball lineup. You had speed at the top of the order in Marquis Grissom, who won a Gold Glove in center field in 1995, followed by a scrapper in the two-hole in Lemke.

Then came the bashers: Bobby Cox thrust the weight of the three-hole onto rookie Chipper Jones, who rose to the occasion and was protected by sluggers Fred McGriff and David Justice hitting fourth and fifth, respectively.

Underrated slugger, Ryan Klesko was up next (he hit .310 along with his 23 homers in 1995), then catcher Javy Lopez, who hit .315 (the two highest averages on the team, for those keeping track at home).

Bringing up the end of the batting order was light-hitting (unless it was a contract year) shortstop Jeff Blauser (who I didn’t remember not playing the Series in ’95 due to an injury – Rafael Belliard took over in his place.)

The interesting thing about this lineup was that it was well-constructed enough that no one really needed to rise above the rest – note that McGriff led the team with 27 home runs and 93 RBIs that year.

McGriff and Klesko were the only members of the team that slugged over .500 (in just 107 games, mind you). But the offense worked and coupled with the pitching, they won 90 games.

More impressive is how that offense got the job done when stacked up against a Cleveland Indians team that was for the ages. A young Manny Ramirez was hitting 7th. And I’m not talking about a green, unproven Manny Ramirez; this guy hit .308 with 31 home runs and 107 RBIs. From the 7-spot.

But they couldn’t get it done. The 1995 Braves were a team of destiny but they were also a team of immense talent.

The Bravest

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

As this long stretch of time without any baseball games continues stretching out even longer, we’ve got time to look back on games, players, and teams of the past, and reflect.

The Atlanta Braves are one of the most celebrated franchises in baseball, with three World Series championships across three cities (a record), a run of 14-straight division titles (a record), and some of the greatest players the game has ever seen donning an Atlanta uniform.

It’s those players I want to look back on today and try to figure out the best ever player at each position for the Braves.

That is, I’m going to make up an all-time Braves roster – the greatest to ever suit up at each position, with one starter and one reliever.

Some of these will be easy. You’ve already thought them up after reading these first few sentences; some of them will be tough to single out just one player; and some of them will seem like I’m bending the rules, which I will be, because there are no rules. I’m making this up with impunity.

Let’s do the position players first.

Catcher: there are actually a few good options here, beyond what you may think of off the top of your head: Brian McCann, Javy Lopez, Joe Torre, even Dale Murphy, if you felt like it.

I, however, don’t feel like it, and therefore I’m going with Javy Lopez.

Lopez caught the best pitching trio of all time in Atlanta (ironically the only no-hitter he caught was thrown by Kent Mercker), and won the division every year he was on the team, compared to 3 out of 10 for Mac. Javy also had some of the biggest seasons at the plate when he was behind it.

First Base: Fred McGriff should be in the Hall of Fame, but Freddie Freeman is the guy here. He’s in the top 10 all-time for the franchise in WAR and he’s 30.

Second Base: There are a lot fewer options here than most other positions: Marcus Giles and Glenn Hubbard are the only two with long and memorable stints in the past few decades, and while both were notable, I’m going to jump the gun a little and go with Ozzie Albies.

Albies is locked up to a long-term deal, so I’m looking ahead here and assuming that if his production at least stays consistent to what it has been, he’ll be the obvious choice.

Shortstop: here’s one where the Braves keep almost having a franchise player, but then don’t: Andrelton Simmons being the most recent example (jury’s out on Dansby). I’m going to go with Rafael Furcal. He was an above-average defender and a better hitter than he has ever been given credit for.

Third Base: Eddie Mathews. The only guy to play for the Braves in all three cities. Hall of Famer. 512 home runs. He gets overshadowed in the Braves lore a lot by another Hall of Fame third baseman, but Matthews was the real deal.

And before you riot…

Left Field: Before you accuse me of riding a crazy train, keep in mind that Chipper Jones was the full-time left fielder for two and a half seasons. Yes, he’s a third basemen by trade, but the years he spent patrolling the outfield were enough to allow me to squeeze both him and Mathews onto this roster (if I weren’t allowed to put Chipper in left? He’d be the third baseman. Sorry, Eddie).

Center Field: Andrew Jones. Duh.

Right Field: Hank Aaron. Duh.

Starting Pitcher: Okay so originally I was going to provide a full starting five, but I decided to make myself pick one guy from the wealth of starting pitching legends the Braves have employed dating back to Hall of Famer Kid Nichols (who played 11 season with the Boston freakin’ Beaneaters and was apparently never replaced by a relief pitching in his entire career).

So, given the limitation I placed upon myself, I narrowed it down to Nichols, Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Mike Hampton (just kidding).

Maddux is the guy. Spahn is close, but Maddux gets the edge because I got to watch him play and I could rarely believe what I was seeing.

Closer: I could go Smoltz here and include two of the three greats of the 90s, but in truth the best closer the Braves have ever had is Craig Kimbrel. The stats back it up.

There you have it! Disagree? I’m sure you might.

Hollywood Baseball

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

It should have been Opening Day 2020.

Unfortunately, global circumstances beyond MLB’s control led them to delay the start of the baseball season. While there’s still hope that we will all get to hear “play ball” before too long, there is currently no end in sight for our collective lack of professional baseball.

If you’re like me, this has been a frankly depressing couple of days but, if you’re like me, you’ve turned to the best substitute available for the hole in your life (outside of re-watching actual games, which for whatever reason I don’t find all that enjoyable): baseball movies.

There have been dozens of baseball movies made and several of them are wonderful and remind me of why I love the game so much. So, in lieu of being able to write about actual baseball, I’m going to provide you with my top 5 favorite baseball movies.

5. A League of Their Own: You know the line. You’ve said the line. Despite the fact that I’ve seen plenty of baseball players cry and in fact I’ve cried over baseball before. Stripping the ideology that “there’s no crying in baseball” of any semblance of truth, the late Penny Marshall’s love letter to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League is a warm blanket of baseball goodness any time you watch it.

Tom Hanks is great, but the focus of the movie is the team of women (not girls), led by Geena Davis. It’s a joyful and funny movie and a notable one. Sports movies starring women continues to be a hole in Hollywood’s resume.

4. Bull Durham: This one feels the most like inside knowledge. Probably because writer/director Ron Shelton actually played minor league ball in the Baltimore farm system.

The main plot of this movie, a love triangle between Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins, doesn’t actually do much for me. However, the on field stuff, like meetings on the mound and Costner’s catcher Crash Davis telling the opposing batter what’s coming is why this movie is in the top 5.

3. The Sandlot: Is this movie great? Probably not. But I’m 32 years old and I dare you to find a single baseball fan anywhere near my age who doesn’t absolutely love this movie. You won’t.

This movie is childhood for so many kids who just loved playing pickup ball anywhere they could. It’s top 3 and I won’t apologize for it.

2. Field of Dreams: I’m a sap. You don’t know me well enough to know that, so I’m telling you.

This movie is sentimental, probably to a fault, but this movie celebrates baseball as a pastoral, innocent, and elegant miracle of a game.

Going to an MLB game early and watching players take batting practice and shag fly balls, while the grounds crew puts the chalk down the first and third base lines is the purest form of contentment imaginable to me.

That’s what this movie strives for (it notably doesn’t strive for accuracy – could they not find a lefty to play Shoeless Joe?!) and often succeeds.

It’s always one that I like to revisit during spring training in order to get reacclimated with the love of the game. So, I may have to watch it a few times this year.

1. Major League: Surprised, perhaps? Major League is neither the most acclaimed work of cinema, nor the most celebrated baseball flick by baseball fans. However, it’s a classic sports movie.

It’s still really funny after 31 years (see: literally everything Bob Uecker says) and believe it or not it’s really the only movie on this list that’s actually about a baseball team playing baseball.

My friends and I quote this one constantly; from opposing teams’ home runs being “too high” to the rapid-fire monologue of “hell of a situation we got here,” Major League is full of joy and it’s my favorite baseball movie.

And right now, that’s all we’ve got.

 

The Shorter The Better

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shadow over the entire world for weeks, forcing people into quarantine and changing the way people live and work.

One of the most publicized effects of the pandemic has been that of the sports world and the now lack of its existence.

First, it was a few basketball and soccer games being played without fans in the arenas and stadiums, followed by March Madness being cancelled. Then, after Utah Jazz Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, the NBA suspended their season.

The NHL followed suit, as well as just about every other sport going on and suddenly ESPN was showing replays of bowling instead of SportsCenter (this may be an exaggeration).

Major League Baseball hadn’t yet begun their 2020 season and instead was about halfway through Spring Training when they decided to call it and delay Opening Day.

At first, MLB was going to delay two weeks. As time has gone on, the rumors have swirled about when baseball will be played again. Memorial Day maybe? Sometime in June?

Like pretty much everything else, when baseball starts is up in the air right now but the owners and players seem intent on getting a season in. This is, of course, happy news.

Whenever “play ball” is finally called for the season, it will certainly be the start of a diminished calendar. Even if the schedule is loaded with double headers, there’s really no way of getting a 162-game season in and still having playoffs at a time of year in which baseball is still playable.

That is, and bear with me here, good news for the Atlanta Braves. Continue bearing with me, because I’m about to make an argument based on an incredibly small sample size of evidence, but you don’t have any actual sports to read about so what else are you going to do?

The Braves are famous for winning 14 straight division championships, a record. They are equally notorious for winning only one World Series in that 15-year stretch.

Did anyone catch the math?

14 consecutive championships in 15 years doesn’t make sense; unless you know that in 1994, there were no division championships.

There was also no World Series. That’s because the players went on strike and the season was called. They were still on strike in the spring of 1995. Eventually, the union went back to work and 18 days after the season should have started, baseball began.

If that year sticks out to you, it’s because that’s the year Atlanta won it all.

That’s significant, because in all the rest of Atlanta’s postseason stints, that world-class pitching in the regular season often couldn’t meet its own high standards in the playoffs but with (slightly) less wear-and-tear on their arms, the Braves were able to run through their opponents and win the big prize at the end of the season.

The baseball gods tend to abandon Atlanta come October but maybe it’s just that the Braves run out of gas after a grueling full schedule.

Granted, every team plays the same number of games, but the Braves always seem a little more beaten down than their opponents do, with the exception of the shortened ’95 season.

Maybe, with a guaranteed shorter season on the horizon, the Braves will get a little of that 1995 mojo working.

Maybe two less months of regular season games will put life into Mike Foltynewicz’s arm come the fall. Maybe four months of games instead of six will keep Freddie Freeman healthier than he’s ever been in October.

Maybe, it’s a small sample size, but hey, the track record is there.

Talking Braves

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

More than a week has passed since Spring Training games officially rang in the start of the 2020 Major League Baseball season.

In that time, the Atlanta Braves have won three games, lost five, and ended one in a tie (a Spring-only event).

Win/loss record aside (a meaningless ratio at this point anyway), there’s plenty from the past week to unpack as we roll merrily along towards the first pitch of Opening Day at the end of the month.

First, to briefly follow up on my article last week, Felix Hernandez has gotten off on the right foot. With two solid starts under his belt and Cole Hamels expected to start the season on the Injured List, Hernandez has begun to make believers out of a lot of folks who maybe didn’t think he had anything left.

It’s too early to make a true judgement call, but if he keeps it up, King Felix will be holding court at Truist Park to start the season.

Next, we have to talk about Freddie Freeman. After spending nearly the whole back half of the 2019 season playing hurt, Freddie healed himself up during the offseason and said he felt great when he reported to Florida.

However, he was scratched from a game early in the week and hasn’t played since. Everyone and their mother has told the press that they aren’t worried and that the extra rest is merely precautionary. We’d better hope that’s true.

A healthy Freddie means everything to this team, so we’ll be on the lookout for him to start getting more spring at-bats here in the coming days.

Mike Soroka seems to have picked up where he left off. The Braves lost his one start so far 5-3, but Soroka pitched two scoreless innings in his Grapefruit League debut, scattering three hits.

The real proof that he’s seemingly in mid-season form already is that after the game he talked about inducing a ground ball thanks to a scouting report. A scouting report. In his first Spring game.

Moving on. The biggest positional battle (fielding-wise, anyway) in Braves’ camp this year is that for third base. In which, once and hopeful future Johan Camargo is competing for at bats with erstwhile left fielder and early-on slugger Austin Riley.

So far, both have come on figuratively and literally swinging, with each prospective operator of the hot corner hitting over .300 in this brief period of judged time.

Next, beloved Brave, Charlie Culberson has disappointingly failed to get a hit in 10 Abs. Culberson has managed four bases on balls.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that all of Braves Country is rooting for Charlie Clutch to make the MLB roster out of Spring Training this year, especially given the cruel end to his season in 2019.

His path to the team isn’t cleared for him and therefore he’ll need to start turning heads beyond pulling walks out of pitchers, who are just getting their mechanics in order.

Lastly, let’s talk about the future: top prospects Christian Pache, Drew Waters, and Ian Anderson have all seen game time. The hype may very well be real.

Sure, Waters and Pache don’t have the sexiest stat lines in the game, but they’ve looked good enough to instill excitement in the hearts of those paying attention.

Anderson got into two games over the course of the week, pitching 2 and 1/3 innings and allowing one run. That isn’t not too shabby for the kid.

Overall, with these three, who we already know won’t make the roster at the start of the season, things are looking good. We might even prepare ourselves for their debuts sometime before September.

 

King Felix

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Any professional sports team has to know that a projected roster is just about the furthest thing from a guarantee there is.

Whatever a general manager does, injuries, slumps or any number of other things can change what a roster looks like.

In baseball this is a rule with no exceptions, as a 162-game schedule that takes place over more than 6 months dictates that no 26-man roster will be consistent from Opening Day through the end of the season. It’s a safe bet that no teams will make it to the end of the season’s first month sporting one roster throughout.

But with roster turnover comes opportunity for those who weren’t expected to be on the team just yet (or at all). Sometimes those opportunities even present themselves before the first pitch of spring training.

The Braves’ newest member of the starting rotation – or should I say projected member – is Cole Hamels, who has a minor injury and is shut down for three weeks.

As a consequence of that, he won’t be on the roster come Opening Day. Now, barring injury, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz are expected to be in the rotation when the regular season kicks off on March 26th.

Hamels was to be the fourth starter (his spot is still guaranteed upon his delayed return), and the fifth starter was to be determined during the exhibition games on Florida.

With Hamels out for the start of the year, the Braves are now needing to fill two spots in the rotation to begin the season and one might be filled by a very unexpected pitcher.

Erstwhile Seattle Mariners legend Felix Hernandez was inked to a minor league contract by the Braves last month.

That’s 6-time All-Star, Cy Young Award-winner King Felix, as he was affectionately known in the Pacific Northwest.

Once Hernandez was one of the best pitchers in the game of baseball. Hernandez has fallen enough that I had completely forgotten that the Braves had signed him until I turned on Atlanta’s first spring game and there he was on the mound.

His 1-8 injury-plagued season in 2019 contributed to his “forgotten man” place in both my mind and on the roster, though he hasn’t been the Felix Hernandez that made him famous since 2015.

That being said, Hernandez is only 33 years old. His best fastballs are behind him, but he was special enough for a long enough time that he must have developed enough pitching know-how to survive without the arm of a 22-year-old version of himself.

With an extra spot opening up in the rotation and one belonging to a veteran, no less – Hernandez’s two-inning stint on the mound to kick off Atlanta’s spring slate suddenly took on a lot more meaning and pressure and Hernandez delivered.

Hernandez allowed one walk and no hits with two strikeouts against the Baltimore Orioles. He looked comfortable, capable, and healthy on the mound. It’s a small sample size, but it could be the beginning of an impressive enough spring that pave the way to a rotation spot come the end of March.

A healthy Felix Hernandez, who is even half of what he was during his prime in Seattle, would be a MASSIVE feather in the cap of Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves.

This is a guy with 169 career wins (and would easily have over 200 if he’d played on better teams). He is also a guy who has never pitched in the postseason. That’s the kind of motivation that leads veterans to have career resurgences (Nick Markakis’ career year in 2018 could likely attest to that).

We’ll have to keep an eye on Hernandez as spring goes on and the competition becomes a little stiffer (he did after all face not just the awful Orioles on Saturday, but their early spring training road team).

But if he can seize the massive opportunity in front of him, everyone wins.

A New Ocean?

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Going into any offseason, there’s also tons of focus on big-name free agents and stars that might available for trade.

This year there was Gerritt Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, and a host of other players available on the market, as well as potential trade targets like Mookie.

In the past few years there have been several big names that held out for months; sometimes into the next season itself, before inking with a new team. This year, as Spring Training is here, that didn’t really happen. The players at the top of the free agent list have signed and know to whose camp they need to report to.

But there is one player, a guy who has managed to go relatively overlooked until suddenly he became the lone holdout of the offseason, who is still looking for his next contract: Yasiel Puig.

Puig is a former All-Star for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finished up a very good year split between the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians.

His big personality and reported troubles in the clubhouse have continued to follow him around, overshadowing the .267 batting average, 30 doubles, 24 homeruns, 19 stolen bases, and .785 OPS that he managed in 2019, not to mention that his batting average and OBS improved down the stretch after the trade (his slugging percentage did take a .475 to .423 dip).

These are the kind of offensive numbers that any team would be delighted to have roaming around in their outfield. However, he hasn’t gotten much love through the offseason until now.

People are starting to wonder if he might not find himself in Tampa Bay.

At first glance that seems unlikely: The Rays are notably crowded in the outfield, with plenty of players fighting for at-bats and innings as it is. Plus, there’d be no guarantee of 500+ plate appearances even for a player with Puig’s pedigree. So, what would be the appeal for Puig?

Well, the big money, multi-year deal he was certainly hoping for has not panned out, so he may be looking for somewhere to sign a short-term contract and try again after the 2020 season has ended.

Platooning wouldn’t be a logical choice, but the appeal of playing in Tampa would bring two other things: championship opportunity and image rehab.

The Rays, as we seem to have to learn year after year after year, can never be counted out in the AL East.

Despite the New York Yankees going full Yankee and signing Cole to a contract they’ll likely regret and putting themselves even further in front of the division (on paper), the Rays are talented enough, savvy enough, and have enough of a proven track record that they may very well challenge for that title. If nothing else, at least continue to battle for an AL Wild Card spot.

A team that might give him a one-year contract to play full-time in the outfield might not be contending for a playoff spot and while he could pad his numbers in a place like Kanas City or back in Cincy, surely, he’d like to fight for the postseason?

Plus, it benefits to Puig’s image. If he goes to a team where he willingly accepts a smaller role in order to help the team win it can erase whatever’s left of teams’ hesitancy to bring him into their clubhouse in the future.

It remains to be seen if these rumors will turn into factual reporting (and I’d be curious to see what kind of monetary value Puig and the Rays could meet in the middle with) but Puig to Tampa is a real possibility – and a very interesting prospect.

Hot-lanta’s Hot Corner

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Atlanta Braves’ acquisition of outfielder Marcell Ozuna to fill the role of cleanup hitter behind Freddie Freeman doesn’t mean that the Braves won’t make a move to upgrade their options at third base but it does make it a lot less likely.

After Josh Donaldson was more or less forced to leave Atlanta by Alex Anthopoulos’s unwillingness to sacrifice one or two bad years for two or three good ones, the rumor mill began to swirl about potential replacements for the erstwhile Bringer of Rain.

One of the more popular and exciting rumors was that the Braves would make a trade for the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado or for the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant to hit fourth and man the hot corner.

Bryant’s future is still up in the air as he waits to find out whether or not he’s eligible to hit free agency at the end of this season or the next; The Rockies have said that Arenado would be in a Colorado uniform at the start of the season (and boy did he not like that announcement).

Those factors, coupled with the signing of Ozuna to a one-year deal, means that Atlanta is probably going to enter Spring Training and then the regular season with what they have at third base: namely, Austin Riley and Johan Camargo.

Is that good enough? For the large chunk of Braves Country that thought Nolan Arenado might be coming to Atlanta, Riley and Camargo are certainly let downs but they may not necessarily be that come game time.

Yes, Camargo really made himself questionable last season, but he was also shuffled around the diamond and lineup. He was forced to be a utilityman after going into the previous offseason under the impression that he’d start at third base in 2019.

Inconsistent at bats make a big difference to Major League ballplayers and, evidenced by the tear he went on in Gwinnett after he was demoted, he’s still got the ability if those ABs come more frequently.

Camargo had an insane OPS of 1.221 during his short stay in Triple A (only 58 at bats, but still) and we never got a real chance to see if that hot streak would stick around when he was promoted back to the bigs.

In short, the evidence suggests that with regular at bats, even if it’s just as part of a platoon, Camargo can bounce back.

Riley, of course, burst onto the scene upon his arrival from Triple A, blasting 16 homeruns in less than 200 at bats before the All-Star Break, after which his production tanked.

While that kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde act meant that the Braves couldn’t rely on him to bat cleanup going into this upcoming season, the kid is only 22 years old and isn’t anywhere near developing as a complete player just yet.

He also will finally get the chance to play his natural position with more regularity, and comfort is a real factor in production for plenty of ballplayers.

Perhaps the best thing about having these two are the primary options for third base is that they don’t need to produce at an elite level to be a big part of a winning team. With an offense that includes Freeman, Ozuna, Ronald Acuna, Jr., and Ozzie Albies, Riley and/or Camargo don’t need to feel the pressure of shouldering a large part of the team’s production.

They simply need to be good enough and if one of them should take off and play at an All-Star level, then they’ve simply exceeded both their own expectations and their necessity on the roster.

So no, neither Riley nor Camargo are Arenado or Bryant or Donaldson but they also don’t need to be.

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