TJ Hartnett

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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

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

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.

Geaux Tigers

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The SEC is Alabama’s conference, at least lately.

The SEC West is even more specifically Alabama’s division in Alabama’s conference. For residents of Tuscaloosa and its many supporters, that’s terrific; but for everyone else, it’s less than ideal. It’s a drag on most college football programs but maybe most of all it’s a burden to bear for Louisiana State University.

The main reason for that burden is the man at the top of Alabama’s successful run; former LSU head coach Nick Saban.

Ed Orgeron had big enough shoes to fill when he took over the Tigers’ program from Les Miles but really, he’s trying to fill the shoes of Miles who was trying to fill the shoes of Saban – and Saban’s success has loomed large ever since he left.

Miles brought a national title to LSU, but the Tigers haven’t beaten the Tide in the regular season since 2011.

When the university removed Miles from the top spot in 2016, Orgeron was tasked with two things: bringing the program back to the top, which also meant shaking off Saban and his team’s dominance as well.

Pretty much only Dabo Swinney can claim to have truly matched Saban’s level of success – against Saban, crucially.

Orgeron hasn’t yet come close. He has made great strides getting LSU back to being a fearsome program. The Tigers notched double-digit wins last year and finished in the top 10 for the first time since 2011.

Dave Aranda led a typically stellar defense out of Baton Rouge in 2018, and QB Joe Burrow found another gear late in the season and brought the best out of the team’s offense (which would have finished the season on a much higher note if not for the bagillion overtimes in their loss to Texas A&M).

Promisingly, much of Orgeron’s 2018 talent is returning for 2019 and coupled with the third best recruiting class in the nation, LSU’s prospects and looking very good.

Burrow is returning alongside most of his favorite targets from last year and the offensive line tasked with protecting him is stocked with veteran players.

Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger has plenty to play with, especially if he wants to try out improving LSU’s underutilized running game with recruits John Emery or Tyrion Davis-Price.

Aranda has got a likewise deep defensive squad for 2019, even with the loss of first-round picks Greedy Williams at cornerback and Devin White at linebacker. White’s shoes could be filled with the likes of K’Lavon Chaisson or Micah Baskerville, and Kristian Fulton showed off his upside when he was on the field last season. That’s the one thing these potential replacements aren’t guaranteed, health.

That recruiting class is a natural consequence of a big season for LSU and Orgeron has rewarded the university’s faith in him since 2016.  Wins lead to recruits, which in turn lead to more wins, which in turn lead to more recruits and so on and so on.

However, even with the double-digit wins and top 3 recruiting class, there is still the black spot: Alabama.

The Tigers have a very good shot at winning 11 games in 2019. They’re the favorites in nearly every game. Nearly, because the Crimson Tide waits on the schedule, salivating at the opportunity to hang another 29-0 loss on the Tigers like they did last season.

The Tigers will be good this season. They’re good already. But the shadow of Nick Saban darkens the hope and excitement of the 2019 season for the Tigers.

Is having 10 or 11 wins and being victorious in bowl games enough to satisfy LSU when Alabama is annually wiping the floor with them and contending for national championships?

Florida Baseball In October?

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Baseball is a strange and wonderful game. Sometimes incredible things happen; like the Angels throwing a combined no-hitter on the night they honor their fallen teammate Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs passed away a couple of weeks ago.

Sometimes bizarre things happen, like an attack swarm of midges derailing the Yankees’ playoff hopes in Cleveland in 2007.

Sometimes things are both expected and unexpected – like the Tampa Bay Rays finishing the first half of 2019 in 2nd place in the AL East, 6 ½ games behind the New York Yankees and 2 games above the mighty Boston Red Sox.

This is unexpected because the Rays are always overlooked and consistently underfunded. People always seem to forget about Tampa Bay, with their lack of superstars and roster that seems made up of cast offs.

People also always forget that over the past decade or so, the Rays have been pretty good. They’ve been to the playoffs four times since 2008, and made a real run of it just last year and yet I don’t think many expected them to be in this position after the All-Star Break.

But here they are. At one point in May (that’s the second month of the season, mind you) Tampa Bay had the best record in all of baseball.

The Yankees heated up at the opportune time (when the Rays cooled down) and even with two and half months left in the season the Bronx Bombers seem uncatchable, but going into Saturday’s games Tampa is on top of the Wild Card heap by a game over Cleveland and Oakland. If they keep on as they have been, there will be playoff games in Florida for the first time since 2013.

A lot of the winning ways have come from Tampa’s starters, namely Charlie Morton, who brought some Houston Astros winning mojo with him when he signed during the offseason.

He’s leading the American League in ERA with a 2.32 mark and is in the top 5 in strikeouts with 142 whiffs. Assuming more of the same in the 2nd half, the Rays can count on wins every time Morton takes the mound for them.

The offense isn’t leading the pack in the way that Morton is, but they have been consistently average throughout the season so far.

They are a bit of an outlier in 2019, as they are a contending team that doesn’t hit the ball over the fence. The Rays have only 114 runs, outside of the top 10 in the AL.

However, while that’s abnormal for a good team in today’s game, it’s also kind of normal for Tampa Bay to be abnormal. They’ve always found creative ways to win, dating back to when Joe Maddon was at the helm of the team.

Looking ahead, there is a lot for the Rays to look forward to and take advantage of. Specifically, the number of games against the teams looking up at them from below in the AL East.

Tampa plays the Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays a combined 23 times over their last 70 games. These are bad teams and should be easy wins for the Rays.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t challenges. The Rays have a west coast trip ahead, including a showdown with the Los Angeles Dodgers, far and away the scariest team in the National League.

There’s also the unfortunate scheduling happenstance that the Rays only play the Yankees six more times before the season ends (again, it’s unlikely that they’ll be making up those 6 ½ games).

That being said, if the Rays can stay the course (or even add a little something before the July 31st trade deadline) they should be in a good position to claim a Wild Card spot come this October.

Braves Tomahawk First Half

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Braves will be entering the All-Star Break sitting pretty atop of the heap of the National League East.

That fact, plus a three-All-Star showing in the personages of Ronald Acuna, Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Mike Soroka, should make baseball fans all across Braves country rejoice.

It’s especially sweet given the potential offseason improvements made by the Washington Nationals (adding Patrick Corbin, among other things) and Philadelphia Phillies (adding Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, and Jean Segura, among other things), both of whom are tied for 2nd place in the East at 6 games back going into Sunday’s contests.

The Mets too, made moves to improve themselves (blockbuster trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz), and they sit under .500 at 13 games back going into Sunday.

The Braves, for their part, made very few headlines in the offseason other than signing Josh Donaldson to a hefty $23 million contract for a year and he has only really been bringing the rain for the past two weeks or so, offensively.

So, the fact that the Bravos have managed to put a relatively nice cushion between them and the rest of the NL East at the end of the first half is truly an impressive feat, though maybe not an entirely surprising one, as they did win the division last season.

The question is: can they maintain the lead they’ve carved out for themselves during the second half of 2019? And if they can, are they capable of playing deeper into the playoffs than their fairly unimpressive showing against the Los Angeles Dodgers last October?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. The Mets are being the Mets and seem to be on the verge of implosion, so let’s table them for the time being.

The Phillies are a talented squad but the Braves have shown that they can handle them, winning the last two series against them and outscoring them 50-25 over those six games.

The Nationals are a bit more of an unknown factor. The Braves have only played them five times so far this season, and have gone 2-3 so far. Granted, they took 2 out of 3 from them in the nation’s capital two weeks ago, so recency bias has the Braves at an advantage for their season exchange going forward.

The Braves have won with a nearly unstoppable offense in 2019. They’ve set a new season record for home runs before the break and tied the franchise record for most players with 15 bombs in the first half – both records set by the 2003 squad (note: if Ozzie Albies knocks one out on Sunday, the new record will be set with six – SIX – players with 15 homers).

The pitching for Atlanta in 2019 has been more inconsistent, which is partially why the answer to the second question is probably a no.

Mike Soroka has earned his All-Star selection, but the Atlanta rotation just hasn’t shown it can get the job done day in and day out. Obviously, the team has been winning, but that doesn’t mean that if the Braves draw the Dodgers in the first round again that they won’t get spanked.

There’s potential here. However, Julio Teheran has found his old self in 2019, though he still has his poor streaks.

Mike Foltynewicz has proved that he can be better than he has been this year, and I feel confident we haven’t seen the best of Dallas Keuchel in an Atlanta uniform yet (he just got started, after all).

But these guys need to find another gear if this second exciting year atop the NL East is going to end differently than the last one.

Hawks Free Agent Radar

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The NBA offseason, unlike the MLB offseason, is divided somewhat neatly into two parts: pre-draft and post-draft.

This is to say that teams look forward to adding to their rosters primarily with the excitement and intrigue of the draft during the short time between it and the preceding NBA finals; and then they look forward to fortifying the rest of their squad afterwards via free agency.

Now that the NBA Draft is in the rearview mirror, the Atlanta Hawks need to look ahead. That starts with filling out the rest of their roster.

They have enough pieces that a serviceable team could conceivably be put on the court without any other additions, but there are enough question marks and uncertainties that free agency could hold some appeal for Travis Schlenk, should he want to pull the trigger on anyone.

Now we’re not talking about Kevin Durant, functioning Achilles’ or not. That’s obviously not in the cards for a ton of reasons (money for one, but also KD will want to go after an immediate ring, and the Hawks are still in rebuilding mode).

However, there are a few significant names that could potentially be lured to Atlanta. Malcolm Brogdon, for one, could work off of Trae Young or even sub in for the point guard when necessary.

He might find playing for his hometown team a sufficient enough draw to join the team, but – and this is why it’s unlikely to happen – he’d need to take a significant discount to return to his roots.

Thaddeus Young (Georgia Tech) and Al-Farouq Aminu (Norcross High School) have local connections as well, and both could fit in well with the way the team is constructed, but again both are unlikely to find Atlanta’s offer better than something they could get elsewhere.

There’s a real question about options at center. Dewayne Dedmon is a free agent but he may yet return to the Hawks and solve that problem.

In truth, he might be the best available (and most affordable) option that Atlanta has. There are some other free agent centers, however – like Kevon Looney, who is young and talented, but who the Golden State Warriors might not let go of so easily.

Willie Cauley-Stein and Maxi Kleber are both on the table as well, but with the caveat that they’re restricted free agents and therefore their prices may be prohibitive.

Let’s not forget (very recent) former Hawk and future Hall of Famer Vince Carter as a potential free agent pick up for Atlanta. Carter, the oldest player in the league, seems to want to return and the Hawks are likely interested in the prospect as well.

The Hawks would know what they were getting in Carter, who would once again bring an invaluable intangible to the roster as a veteran, even though his lack of future value does drag down a team in the midst of building for the years ahead.

The Hawks are currently sitting with 14 contracted players (assuming that second round pick Bruno Fernando signs his deal in the near future) with space to add one more.

Any of the above could be Hawks before the season starts this fall (or several – there’s no reason to think that Schlenk couldn’t maneuver more roster spots through a savvy trade or two).

Whichever route they choose to take during this free agency period, expect the moves to be more practical than splashy. Deciding on a rebuild and sticking to it is a tough road to navigate, but so far it seems like the Hawks are planning to stay the course.

K Is For Keuchel

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Atlanta Braves’ big-ticket item has arrived. Former Cy Young award winner, Dallas Keuchel made his debut on the road in our nation’s capital.

For months, Braves Country clamored for a big signing. The bullpen was the primary focus of grief and most would have assumed that Atlanta would go after former Brave Craig Kimbrel.

However, it was starter Keuchel. In truth, his arrival comes at an opportune time, the same time as Kevin Gausman’s fairly epic fall from grace (his placement on the Injured List seems less like a physical injury concern and more like making room for someone who’s going to hopefully win more games).

On the other hand, Gausman’s poor performance may have quickened the pace at which Keuchel was brought up to the big-league team. Regardless, after two minor league starts, Keuchel was called up and put on the mound against a division rival.

And it went…pretty well, actually. Keuchel took the loss in a 4-3 game against the Nationals, but it was a pretty promising outing.

Yes, he gave up four runs over the course of five innings, but only three of those runs were earned and that’s good enough to win most games.

Given the Braves recent average of over seven runs per game, allowing three or four runs is actually giving the team a great chance at a victory.

Beyond that, Keuchel also impressed with three strikeouts and – most importantly – no walks.

For a guy making his third professional appearance of the season, that kind of control is a joyous surprise. It’s also indicative of Keuchel’s renowned skills. Not an overpowering pitcher, he won his Cy Young and had a great 2018 season because he can locate the ball. To see him demonstrate that same skill this early in tenure is a very good sign.

And we can’t overlook how early it is. Obviously, the guy is a professional athlete and he clearly spent his unemployment time doing workouts and staying in shape, but Spring Training exists for a reason. Pitchers need time to recalibrate and stretch out.

The stretching out doesn’t seem as necessary as he’s thrown about 100 pitchers per start, but the point remains that he’s not even in midseason form and he’s still keeping his team in the game against rosters that are.

So, looking ahead, the Braves have found themselves a piece that should be able to help them hold onto first place into the National League East.

All in all, the addition of Dallas Keuchel is something to be excited about for Braves Country. It isn’t the return of a prodigal son, as signing Kimbrel would have been, but a starter is going to pitch far more innings and have a bigger impact if the Braves can hang on and make it to the postseason (where Keuchel has performed and won a ring).

This is going to be a huge get for Atlanta.

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