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3rd November 2020 - Reflections

Posted by theprincipality on November 3, 2020 at 3:20 PM Comments comments (1)

It’s been a few weeks now since the Braves’ season was ended by Cody Bellinger and the Dodgers. Proving too strong for the Rays, Los Angeles marched relentlessly to the World Series they have so coveted for so many years and so with the last out of the Series, as it always does, the baseball season ended. It’s fair to say that the 2020 season was like no other. For the most part, it has been memorable for all the wrong reasons. Deep into Spring Training, the virus that has caused death to so many and immeasurable suffering to everyone else halted the season in its tracks.

 

After the shutdown, a bitter dispute between players, owners and MLB followed over how to start the season, how many games to play, how much the players should be paid, whether fans should be allowed in, what health and safety protocols needed to be followed and so on and so forth to the point where it looked likely there would be no season at all. Then, once it did begin, an immediate outbreak in the Miami Marlins organisation undermined the new protocols and threatened to derail the season before it got going. After their opener, Miami didn’t play another game for over a week. The schedule was a mess. The liberal media blasted MLB for playing, whilst social media relentlessly mocked the sport - and yet baseball persevered.

 

Many people rightly asked what the point was. But baseball persevered. It persevered like Rocky Balboa in Moscow and in the face of deafening criticism, eventually started to get the same result as the Italian Stallion. The metaphorical boos began to die away, to be replaced with cheers. Miami came back and started winning some games, giving people an underdog to root for. The new protocols started to work and no more games were cancelled. People found excitement in the shortened season and expanded playoffs, as teams not used to reaching October suddenly found themselves with something to play for. Baseball was alive again and capturing the imagination of America.

 

It was no more evident than in Atlanta. For much of the late Spring and early Summer, Atlanta had been one of the major focal points of civil unrest following the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police in Minnesota. In an election year, Atlanta was a blue city in a red state and the great schism of division was being felt. It is easy to get carried away with hyperbole and suggest that baseball brought the city together. It did not. Tensions are still high (I write this on election day, with the winner as yet unknown) and unrest may well return. However, the Atlanta Braves did give the city some hope. So often have Atlanta sports been the butt of jokes around the country. Yet this year was different.

 

The Braves lineup was a juggernaut. As the rotation fell apart around it, the lineup kept producing night after night. The bullpen was incredible and bit by bit, the Braves brought home a third straight division title. In many respects that was the easy part. For a team with championship aspirations, but who had not won a playoff series since 2001, the expanded postseason threw in an additional hurdle to overcome: a best-of-three wild card round where they would have to face their opponent’s aces, countering with an untested, patchwork rotation. To make matters worse, Atlanta’s opponent was the Cincinnati Reds, who would send out likely Cy Young Award winner, Trevor Bauer.

 

As we know, Game 1 was an epic pitching duel that went scoreless into the thirteenth inning. Anything Bauer could throw, Max Fried could come back with. Since the Reds sent out the likely Cy Young winner, it was only fitting that the game was ended by the likely MVP, when Freddie Freeman got the walk off hit to win it 1-0 for Atlanta.

 

Game 1 answered the questions that were being asked over Max Fried, but the big question was who the Braves would send out after him. Ian Anderson got the nod. A rookie with only 5 Major League starts under his belt and tasked with ending a 19-year playoff drought, the pressure was on. Perhaps nobody expected him to do what he did, but Anderson’s playoffs ended up being historic and the Braves shutout the Reds for the second straight day to advance. The juggernaut rolled on and the belief grew and grew as they swept Miami and took a 3-1 series lead over LA.

 

The history books will show that LA proved ultimately a bridge too far and a juggernaut in their own right. Yet after insipid performances and tame playoff defeats in previous years, there was something about the Braves 2020 run that demanded attention and announced them as a contender for years to come. There was disappointment, but no sadness after their elimination. Through the chaos of a deadly virus and social unrest, baseball had survived and the Braves returned home to Atlanta as heroes. It had been a memorable season, often for the wrong reasons. But in the city of Atlanta, the 2020 season will live on in the memory as the year they emerged as a true force to be reckoned with. Expectations for 2021 are high and only a fool would bet against them going even further than they did this year.

5th July 2020 - Baseball in the Time of Covid

Posted by theprincipality on July 5, 2020 at 12:45 PM Comments comments (6)

In early March, at the time I would normally start preparing this website for the new season, it seemed a far-fetched idea that the disease emerging from China would have such a profound effect on the world. After all, we had seen SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu come and go without much disruption and at the time it was probably felt that Covid-19 would follow much the same pattern.

 

As Spring Training got underway, it was becoming clearer that this disease was different. Unlike its cousin, SARS, Covid-19 is contagious before symptoms start to show and highly contagious. As such, it spread like wildfire first across Asia, Europe and then swiftly into the Americas. Governments everywhere went into panic and imposed restrictions on people’s lives unheard of in peacetime. Mass gatherings were banned, including weddings, funerals and sporting events as health services scrambled to find beds and ventilators for the sick and dying. It was a global catastrophe never before seen. Major League Baseball cancelled the remainder of Spring Training and postponed the season, as had almost all other sports around the world. This had never happened before. There was no playbook from which to run. Policy was being created as the virus progressed.

 

Now, three months later, Covid-19 is still very much with us. Worldwide there have been over half a million deaths and 10 million known cases. The majority of the dead are elderly or had an underlying condition. For those of us left, life continues, but not as we ever knew it. Face masks are a common, if not mandatory, sight. Businesses all over the world face bankruptcy after three months locked down. Social distancing sees long lines outside supermarkets and keeps families apart. Yet it has become blatantly apparent that we cannot simply lock ourselves away until this disease disappears. Quite frankly, there would be nothing left to come back to should we do that. So governments are taking steps to reopen economies and to try to return life to as normal as possible, whilst minimising the risk of further spreading the infections.

 

Asia and Europe appear to have made great strides. Italy, Spain and the UK were the hardest hit, but each has “flattened the curve” and both death rates and infection rates are vastly reduced. The United States continues to struggle though, in my opinion hampered by contradictory and unhelpful advice from the White House, combined with large swathes of the population who refuse to give up elements of their freedom in order to curtail infections. In terms of timing, the death of George Floyd and the outpouring of anger and protest that it brought could not have come at a worse time for the country as thousands flocked to the streets. Any good work that was done to reduce the infection rate has been erased, as record numbers of cases are emerging, showing a second wave much larger than the first. But the show must go on. African Americans deserve social justice and an end to racism. People of all races need to earn a living and life needs to get back to normal as quickly as possible, otherwise for everyone that is left, the cure will become worse than the disease.

 

And so enters baseball. So long hailed as America’s pastime, a staple of Summer, it would raise national morale to see the season begin. And yet, aping the national dialogue of ‘us and them’, of hate and mistrust, the season almost ended before it began. The team owners and the Players Union squabbled over salaries, as the owners backtracked on a deal that was struck in March for pro-rated pay. At one point it seemed a 100 game season might have been possible, but whilst the players wanted more games, the owners and MLB, it seemed, wanted fewer. Eventually a deal was struck for 60 games to begin around July 23rd, but it seems like a scenario in which nobody is happy. Several high profile players have announced they won’t participate, with perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout publicly discussing his discomfort, unsure if he will join them. The season feels forced and contrived, but perhaps will feel differently once it gets going. Other sports in Europe, particularly soccer, have restarted without fans in attendance and what is left are stadiums devoid of atmosphere and enjoyment. I have said all along that fans make sport what it is and that playing in empty stadia to satisfy TV contracts will harm the brand in the long-term. A walk-off home run being greeted by a mob of teammates at home plate and a Gatorade shower is part of the spontaneous passion that makes sport great. Nobody wants to see instead a thumbs-up from across a socially distanced dugout. But what will be, will be.

 

As of writing, the Atlanta Braves find themselves battling the effects of the virus as four players, including Freddie Freeman, Touki Toussaint and Will Smith, test positive for Covid-19. Hopefully all make swift recoveries, but should a player fall seriously ill or, even worse, die from it, how can MLB justify forcing through a truncated season? As much as I love baseball, I feel that it is perhaps in the best interest of the sport to scratch 2020 and prepare in earnest for 2021, when hopefully this deadly virus has been defeated.

 

24th October 2019 - Value of Momentum

Posted by theprincipality on October 24, 2019 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (8)

It’s been a few weeks now since the Atlanta Braves were unceremoniously dumped out of the Major League Baseball playoffs by the St Louis Cardinals, thus continuing the team’s postseason dry spell that dates back to 2001. After a period of reflection this loss ranks right up there with the most difficult to take. In part this is due to the fact that the team’s division rivals, the Washington Nationals are 2 games up in the World Series at point of writing and in part because with the team Atlanta put together this year and the quality they showed all year long, this feels like a real missed opportunity.


For the better part of six months, Atlanta has impressed not just the National League with its exciting mix of youthful enthusiasm and veteran experience, but the nation as a whole. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr both had career best years and were in the running for the NL MVP award right up to September, Josh Donaldson surprised everyone with a comeback year that made everyone think his $23m salary was a bargain, Mike Soroka established himself as a front-line starter in a year that were it not for New York’s Pete Alonso would have made him a certainty for the rookie of the year and Max Fried was second in the NL in wins with 17.


In contrast, the Cardinals had a solid, if unspectacular year. Atlanta went 4-2 against them in the regular season and on paper, should have had more than enough firepower to send them to an early exit. However, as we all know, the game is not played on paper and getting postseason wins is as much about luck and individual performances as it is about the quality shown during a 162-game regular season.


So where exactly did it all go wrong for the Braves? After 7 innings of Game 4, it seemed like the ticket to the NLCS was already punched and yet the Cardinals came back to take that game in extra innings, then, well, we don’t need to dwell on what happened in Game 5. Freddie picked the worst possible time to make an uncharacteristic error, Folty picked the worst possible time to put in his worst start for three months and Fried just ran out of steam. Regardless of what happened in Game 5, the series should have been done and dusted before it even got to that stage. The fact is that during the season, Atlanta relied heavily on the bats of Freeman and Donaldson, but in the postseason they went AWOL, along with those of Nick Markakis and Brian McCann. Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran put in some very ordinary performances and it was enough to level the playing field.


Yet it wasn’t the NLDS where the rot started. The entire second half of September was a disappointment where the Braves lost 5 games of their 9-game lead to the Nationals in just two weeks. The signs were all there that an early postseason exit was coming. Acuna, Freeman and Donaldson all had Septembers to forget and it was only the contributions of the pitchers and supporting cast such as Adam Duvall and Francisco Cervelli that allowed the Braves to clinch the division as early as they did. It was after a series win in Washington when the division was effectively won and after that point Atlanta went 4-7 to finish the year. Washington went 11-3, including a 5-game sweep of the Phillies and 3-game sweep of the Indians to finish the year.


They took that momentum into October, winning the Wild Card game, beating the top-ranked Dodgers, who had also won their division early, and then did what the Braves should have done and sweept the Cardinals to make it to the World Series. That momentum has continued in the first two games against the Astros. You cannot overvalue how important momentum is in sport. Atlanta checked out and Washington had to fight right to the end. It is no coincidence that the Wild Card-winning teams are overrepresented in the World Series compared to the 2 and 3 seeds.


Back to the Braves’ series and momentum rule would have predicted a Cardinals win. All through the season they went about their business without making too many headlines, but had to fight off the challenge of the Brewers (and the Cubs) right down to the final game of the season. They took the fighting mentality with them, whilst the Braves said things like “The adrenaline will take over in the playoffs”, trusting more to hope than form.


Nonetheless, Atlanta was not outmatched or overawed and were it not for one highly forgettable inning, things could have been so very different. Focusing on the positives, Ronald Acuna once again showcased his talent on the national stage and Dansby Swanson (and his hair) had an amazing series so as we head into the offseason there is reason to be optimistic for 2020. However, if come September we do find ourselves in first place, we need to remember that it is a 162-game season and every game is important – not least for the value of momentum.

 

25th July 2019 - Emerging Powerhouse

Posted by theprincipality on July 26, 2019 at 1:45 AM Comments comments (2)

It hardly seems any time at all since I last wrote and said the Atlanta Braves needed to improve significantly if they were to challenge for a second straight NL East title. On May 13th I wrote that 21-20 (becoming 83-79 over a full season) would not be enough for a division win in a competitive NL East, nor enough for a wild card spot in a stacked National League. Yet so much has changed since I wrote that blog. Dallas Keuchel has come on board as the big-name ace, Mike Foltynewicz has been sent down to Triple-A, Austin Riley has emerged as a major home run threat and the Braves went on a tear to find themselves 60-43, a full 17 games over .500 and holding a four-game lead in the NL East. That was the kind of improvement I had in mind!


All of a sudden the Braves are the media darlings. Mike Soroka and Ronald Acuna became the first teammates aged 21 or under to go to the All-Star game. Acuna performed admirably in the Home Run Derby, whilst Soroka pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the game itself. Freddie Freeman was also in attendance, elected to start at first base for the second straight season, whilst simultaneously quietly putting together another MVP calibre season. The talk in the media has gone from how the Braves might fare down the stretch in challenging for the division, to how far the Braves will go in October.


As a fan, the national attention is both flattering and a little scary. The Braves have blown big division leads down the stretch in recent years and over the last week or so have gone 2-6. However, the four-game lead is, for now, a comfortable cushion a-top the standings and well worth a Wild Card spot if everything were to go pear-shaped. I don’t believe however that Atlanta’s struggles of the past week will continue for too long. The team is just too good. The permanent threat of Acuna, the experience of Freeman, Markakis, McCann and Donaldson means this team will continue to win more games than it loses.


The big looming question is what, if any, action will the Braves take as the July 31st trade deadline approaches? It is pretty much assumed that the Braves will be active buyers. Whilst the lineup is formidable, pitching remains highly suspect. Braves beat-writer Mark Bowman believes both a frontline starter and a reliable reliever will be on the team’s shopping list, but with each passing game the higher priority seems to switch. For what it is worth, I think the bullpen is the biggest priority and that the rotation is adequate. Keuchel was signed because he is a proven postseason ace. Soroka has been magnificent all year and would justify an October starting role. Julio Teheran has been excellent this season, despite a 5-7 record, so just one more starter would be enough. However, that additional starter is the luxury you add if your intention is to win it all. Far more pressing is, as would likely be the case, in a close game who do you turn the ball over to in order to get the last three outs? Any Braves fan that has Luke Jackson in their answer is clearly deluded!


Jackson has been a reasonable asset this year, but a closer he is not. Currently he has 17 saves from 24 opportunities. That is a terrible conversion rate for a first-place team. If it is Game 7 of the NLCS and the Braves hold a one run lead going into the bottom of the ninth, surely nobody is saying “Here comes Jackson, we’re going to the World Series!”. The other internal options for closer are rather limited as well. A.J. Minter would be the first cab off the rank, but struggled in the early part of the season and spent some time back in Gwinnet. Anthony Swarzak has pitched well since he joined the team, but there are lingering doubts about the durability of his shoulder. Jacob Webb has also helped plug a leaky bullpen, but has also had injury concerns and is untested in the high-pressure role of closer.


The bottom line is Atlanta needs to make a big trade and pick up a big name reliever. A few names have been mentioned: Will Smith of the Giants, Ian Kennedy of the Royals, Wade Davis of the Rockies and even Edwin Diaz of the Mets, but none really stand out from the pack as proven postseason heroes. The Braves front office have been very quiet and keeping their cards close to their chests, not yet having publicly stated their intentions, with less than a week to go. A part of me is expecting Alex Anthopoulos to turn round out of the blue and pull off a surprise trade involving the likes of a Craig Kimbrel (although not Kimbrel, as the Braves were unsuccessful in their bid to secure his services the same time they signed Keuchel). However, Alex is a very intelligent, patient and conservative GM and if there is truly nobody on the market at the right price, then one can expect him to continue with the assets he has already. I doubt this will be the case though. The rest of the league know Atlanta are buyers and have the stocks of Major League-ready talent to spend.


So now to prematurely look ahead to the playoffs. Given the huge lead the Dodgers enjoy in the West and the comfortable position the Braves find themselves in behind them, it is safe to assume that they would avoid Los Angeles in the first round and wind up playing the winners of the NL Central. That division remains tightly contested between the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals, so any one of them could prove to be the opponent. The season series’ stand at 5-2, 3-3 and 4-2, respectively, so the Braves would go confidently into the NLDS knowing they can compete with every team they might face.


That said, Atlanta has not won a playoff series since sweeping the Astros in the 2001 NLDS. Every postseason appearance since that point has had Atlanta as underdogs. 2002 vs Barry Bonds and the World Series-losing Giants. 2003 vs the if-only-Steve-Bartman-hadn’t Chicago Cubs. 2004 saw us lose to the Astros and a red-hot Carlos Beltran. 2005 saw a repeat, with the Astros going onto the World Series. 2010 was a loss to the eventual World Champion Giants. In 2012 we lost in the crap-chute of the Wild-Card playoff game with St Louis, then in 2013 and 2018 we were beaten by superior Dodgers teams. Every year the same story. However this year feels different. Sort the pitching and watch us roll. I talked about Luke Jackson in a game-on-the-line situation, but I doubt any opponent of the Braves would be making travel plans in the same situation when faced with Acuna, Swanson, Freeman, Donaldson, Markakis, Riley, Albies and McCann. We are on the cusp of something big and nobody should rule out Atlanta raising that famous trophy in late October. Watch this space!

 

13th May 2019 - Igniting The Spark

Posted by theprincipality on May 14, 2019 at 1:20 AM Comments comments (1)

Six weeks into the 2019 season and I can’t help having a feeling of frustration over what my beloved Atlanta Braves have done so far. Coming off a ridiculous 20 games in 20 days, of which the final 10 were on the road we find ourselves a solitary game over .500 at 21-20. This team knows it is better than that. It also knows that extrapolated out for an entire season, 83-79 will not be enough to defend the NL East, nor will it be enough to win a Wild Card playoff spot.


However, things could have been much worse. The recent road trip concluded with the Braves winning the final three games at Arizona, garnering some much-needed momentum as they head home to play St Louis and Milwaukee. Prior to that though, they had looked woeful in being swept by the LA Dodgers and throughout the first month of the season had some really ugly losses where the starters had not gone deep into games and the bullpen had been coughing up walks and runs like they were going out of fashion.


The return of Mike Foltynewicz from injury was supposed to herald a return to stability, but rather Folty has struggled since his return, with two losses from three starts, an ERA approaching 6 and a concerning dip in velocity, which could indicate further problems yet to be discovered. I am reminded of Jair Jurrjens, who went from All-Star to nobody in the space of about 12 months after some time away with injury and was never heard of again. Folty needs to rediscover his form quickly if the Braves are to have a chance of reaching the postseason.


Nonetheless, the buzz around Atlanta is suddenly very positive. Young hurlers Max Fried and Mike Soroka have been the surprise cornerstones of the rotation so far. Fried is 5-2, whilst Soroka is 3-1 and has a miniscule 1.21 ERA from 5 starts. Soroka is yet to give up a home run this season, and hasn’t conceded any dating back to his debut last season. For all the prospects Atlanta has tried so far (the team has used 23 different pitchers already), Fried and Soroka have established themselves ahead of the rest of the pack and this, coupled with a couple of quality starts from Julio Teheran and Kevin Gausman, has meant the rotation has finally started to take its shape for the rest of the season.


Aside from the starters, the real woes (of the entire NL East, in fact) have been in relief. Quality relief pitchers are in short supply across the league it seems and it has been noted by one scout that the team that sorts its bullpen out first will win the NL East. For all the Braves’ struggles, they remain in second place and within a series of the free-spending Phillies. And guess what? The Braves bullpen has quietly been starting to get its stuff together. Sean Newcomb has come in following his demotion to the minors and been throwing nothing but strikes. Luke Jackson has been thrust into the closers role after impressing early in the season and the strugglers (Minter, Sobotka, Biddle and Carle) have all been sent down to work on their issues, allowing Winkler, Webb, Tomlin and Dayton to create some stability in the most suspect part of the organisation.


Given all the bullpen problems around the league, I find it truly astounding that Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned, and now likely will until after the draft in June. Cries of “We want Kimbrel” have rung out around SunTrust Park during the first quarter, with fans knowing full well that the Braves could both afford Kimbrel and offer him the home comforts of returning to the team that gave him his MLB start (he still remains the Braves all-time leader in saves). For all the pressure put on him, it is admirable that GM Alex Anthopoulos has not buckled and gone after Kimbrel. Now it looks like the bullpen is sorting itself out and we are not financially tied to Kimbrel for three years (and would have lost a draft pick in the process). Good for him!


The biggest worry for most, coming out of the nightmare series in LA, was not the pitching, but how quiet the bats had gone. Acuna’s average was down to around .270 and he hadn’t homered in three weeks. Josh Donaldson hasn’t looked anything more than an average player with occasional power and Ozzie Albies tends to blow hot and cold. As a result, Brian Snitker did what we all wanted him to do from day one, which was to put Acuna in the leadoff spot. For the Arizona series the lineup got an overhaul, with the much-improved Dansby Swanson batting second and Donaldson moved down to the clean-up spot. The shake-up had the desired effect. Acuna and Donaldson both homered in the series and the Braves won 3 out of 4, with 6 different players getting RBIs in Saturday’s win.


So in the end, Atlanta finished the 10-game road trip 6-4 and back in contention. The rotation is taking shape, the bullpen is righting itself and the lineup is rediscovering its form. As they return home now to face the best of the NL Central they take with them confidence and momentum and once again excitement is building in Atlanta for a red hot summer of baseball.

25th March 2019 - Standing Out From The Pack

Posted by theprincipality on March 25, 2019 at 12:15 AM Comments comments (1)

With 2019 Braves baseball just days away, excitement is building as to what this young team can achieve as an encore to their unexpected 2018 NL East crown. The core pieces of the team have all returned, with outfielder Nick Markakis back for one more year and fan favourite Brian McCann returning to the club following 5 years in the American League with the Yankees and Astros. Joining them is former AL MVP and marquee signing Josh Donaldson to man the hot corner and provide a big bat to help Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna in the middle of the lineup.


However, the questions surrounding the Braves are less about what they did in the winter, but what they didn’t do. Atlanta had an uncharacteristic quiet offseason, during which their pursuit off a front-line starter, a catcher and a powerful outfielder came up fruitless. GM Alex Anthopoulos seemed unconcerned and unwilling to give up prize prospects without the necessary returns. So whilst the rest of the NL East stacked their decks, Atlanta looked back to its recent past with Markakis and McCann and took a chance on Donaldson, who has spent a good portion of the last year injured.


Whether the decision to hang onto its prospects ultimately benefits Atlanta, or leaves it kicking itself will only be known in the fullness of time, but it is interesting to look at the Phillies – a rival NL East team who took the opposite approach. Buoyed by a surprisingly good 2018, the Phillies seemingly decided not to leave anything on the table this offseason, making bigger headlines with every roster move. First was Andrew McCutchen, signed to a 3-year $50m contract. This was followed by J.T. Realmuto, a catcher coveted by the Braves for a number of years and completed by the biggest free agent prize of the offseason, Bryce Harper. Make no mistake, the Phillies intend to win and win now.


That said however, there is no guarantee the new Phillies core will gel and I always maintain that it is pitching that wins Championships, to which the Phillies have not made any significant upgrades and will rely once again on Aaron Nola as their ace. Conversely, the New York Mets are all pitching and no offense. deGrom and Syndergaard will anchor their rotation and will be very hard to score runs against, particularly if deGrom can back up his Cy Young Award-winning year with something even remotely comparable. However, only the oft-injured Yoenis Cespedes will strike any real fear into opponent pitching and I suspect the Mets will once again be the Jekyll and Hyde of the NL East.


The Nationals will be looking to improve on a frustrating 2018 campaign where 2nd place in the NL East flattered them. Losing Bryce Harper will hurt, especially then having to see him play against them 18 times a year and a hole like Harper’s will be hard to fill. The Nationals’ major upgrade came to the rotation by adding Patrick Corbin to a staff that already contained Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Making way though was Gio Gonzalez, so a lot of expectations will rest with Corbin to ensure that this is an upgrade and not just a like-for-like.


The Marlins, on the other hand, continue to make people ask why they continue to exist. When your best player is Brian Anderson, you know you’re in for another long year of sub-10,000 attendances and off-field confusion. The Marlins most positive change this offseason was to remove the outfield home run monstrosity outside the ballpark. For most, that is not near far enough!


So for 2019, it is hard to pick a winner from a well-stacked NL East. The Braves must go in as favourites, being the defending champs, but a lot rides on a very young, inexperienced pitching staff and keeping Ronald Acuna healthy. If Acuna can continue where he left off last year and with another year of experience amongst Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, the Braves can certainly repeat their 2018 success, but without the major pitching upgrade, it is doubtful they will advance any further.

11th October 2018 - Inevitable Fall

Posted by theprincipality on November 2, 2018 at 8:45 PM Comments comments (0)

In the end, the inevitable happened. Atlanta, having defied all expectations to win their first NL East title in five years, found themselves outmatched by an LA Dodgers team now in their third consecutive NLCS. The gulf in class was evident right from the outset. Los Angeles is a decorated team of household names like Kershaw, Machado, Puig and Bellinger. The only surprise was the difficulty with which they eventually took the NL West. It was really the deadline trade for Machado that was the catalyst for their run to the postseason. Yet despite their scuffling into October, right from the word go of Game 1, they looked polished, professional and much stronger than the Braves.


So it is with a sense of déjà vu that we find ourselves eliminated at the first postseason hurdle. Down in four games to a classy Dodgers team having led Game 4 but let it slip. Shades of 2013 and Juan Uribe. The difference between then and now though is the immense sense of hope in Atlanta. This team was not supposed to be this good this soon. They still have a long way to go, as was shown this past week but people are now talking about the Atlanta Braves.


Ronald Acuna Jr has announced himself to the world. If you hadn’t heard of him before this week, you sure have now. Bases loaded in Game 3 and he didn’t miss out, becoming the youngest player to hit a postseason grand slam. Acuna is just one of the talents who will just get better. Ozzie Albies, Touki Toussaint, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara are all only just starting to realise their potential and yet they walked away with the NL East this year.


Yet the question remains how to win in October? This is when the big boys bring their best. You might split a series in the regular season, but to beat the best in October is a different animal altogether. You need to be confident in your rotation and not go bullpen by committee. Your aces (yes, plural) need to dominate and not give up home runs, whilst a couple of guys need to get hot in your lineup and carry the team through adversity. This is where the Braves still lack completion, but hopefully they will go away from this season and not lick their wounds but learn from their experience. They won’t always have to play the Dodgers, but to be the best, you have to beat the best and somewhere along the way they will face a dominant pitcher like Kershaw and an imposing lineup like the Dodgers have. Only in victory over these teams will a World Series come South again.

19th April 2018 - Acuna Matata

Posted by theprincipality on April 20, 2018 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (149)

It's been a whirlwind start to the 2018 MLB season. We're 17 games in and so already 10% has been and gone. What we have seen so far has been encouraging, but at the same time frustrating - as any Braves fan will have come to expect from the past few years. A 10-7 record to start the year is, on the one hand, a good sign. We haven't had a winning record at any point over the past two seasons and to be 10-7 is no fluke. Atlanta has won its first four home series for the first time since 2000 - and those victories have been earned in what looks to be a very competitive division.


On the other hand though, 10-7 could easily be 13-4. The bullpen continues to look suspect and whilst you have to admire Brian Snitker's faith in Jose Ramirez, I don't see it lasting. Ramirez has single-handedly cost us the past two losses and has a fantastical 17.5 ERA for the season. He has however now landed himself on the DL, which as anyone knows is the first step to finding yourself out of work when you're a reliever!


The Mets lead the East at 13-4, but that is unlikely to last, despite a healthy pitching corps this year. An improved Philadelphia and all-star Washington will make sure that East remains a tight four-horse race well into the season. Unsurprisingly, Miami (after their latest firesale) languish in last place and I really don't see any way they finish anywhere else. The larger problem they face is that, despite a large hispanic population, Miami is a football town and always will be - but I digress.


All the preaseason hype this year has surrounded just one of the Braves' many prospects. Outfielder Ronald Acuna has been labelled as baseball's number two overall prospect and could provide speed and power in the middle of Atlanta's lineup for years to come. People are rightly excited to see this kid in action, especially after an impressive spring. However, I think the team are doing the right thing by keeping him in the minors a bit longer. They could have promoted him on April 13th, without losing an extra year of arbitration eligibility but have opted to let him develop in AAA. This is the right call because Acuna was struggling with the transition and hadn't been hitting well, despite a home run a few days ago. Snitker thinks he may be trying a bit too hard and the weight of expectation could be a bit much for the youngster. Nonetheless, we can expect to see him in Atlanta before the end of the year.


A perfect example of why you should be pateint with prospects is Dansby Swanson. Swanson was the first overall draft pick a few years ago and was of course the headline trade when Atlanta shipped Shelby Miller to Arizona. Starting his first full campaign last year, Swanson couldn't get out of second gear and found himself back in the minors for a portion of the year. It took a lot of effort to get back to Atlanta and dividends are being reaped this year as Swanson continues to hit over .300.


Whilst Acuna waits in the wings, there are other faces admirable filling in the gap. Preston Tucker has performed well in left whereas Ryan Flaherty leads the team in average, whilst manning the third base duties. Ironically, having gone from having no third baseman, with Flaherty as a stop-gap, Atlanta now has an embarassment of riches to choose from with Flaherty, Rio Ruiz, Johan Camargo and Jose Bautista to pick from. Bautista is an interesting one. We are not long past the days where Bautista was the AL's top home run hitter. But much like Ryan Howard was last year, Bautista is a no-risk experiment for the Braves. Should he make the Major League roster, his salary will only be $1m. Compare that to the $17m each we are paying Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir this year simply to have offloaded Matt Kemp and create some payroll flexibility next year.


Perhaps with that payroll flexibility, we can pick up a top-drawer starter. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm feeling totally uninspired by the rotation this year. There was all the talk about trading Julio Teheran, which came to nothing and he still anchors the rotation. Brandon McCarthy is the main acquisition, but whilst he has a 3-0 record from 4 starts this year so far, he seemed a little bit of a gamble given previous injury woes. If the Braves are not going to pick up a top free agent, then inspire us with our young stars, yet only Lucas Sims is on the roster, and as a reliever. The Mets' rotation consists of Syndergaard, Harvey, deGrom, Matz and Gsellman, all of which were home-grown. The Phillies have Jake Arrieta, a recent Cy Young winner and the Nationals have Scherzer, Strasburg, Roark, Gonzalez and Cole, a good mix of ace, veteran and youth. Atlanta needs to keep up with its rivals and start getting its youngsters ready for the bigs.


So as everyone waits on tenterhooks for the arrival of Acuna, the Braves have quietly started the season well. Breaking .500 wasn't a big deal and Kevin Seitzer's hitting policy of making contact appears to be paying dividends, with all but Ender Inciarte over .300. The question is for how long this will continue?

5th October 2017 - Dodgy Dealings

Posted by theprincipality on October 6, 2017 at 6:25 AM Comments comments (4)

I was getting ready to prepare my final blog of the season, all set to talk about a deflating finish, where we barely held off the Mets to stay third in the NL East, then the team made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. An MLB investigation, which nobody in the outside world knew was happening, revealed the Braves had made some serious breaches of the rules regarding international signings. Next thing we know, GM John Coppolella resigns/jumps before he was pushed and potential sanctions await.


It was certainly a bombshell to wake up to, though the exact breaches of the rules are as yet unknown - just described as 'serious'. It's probably the case that Coppy has been made the scapegoat, but I have to back the club's decision. As GM, it was his responsibility to ensure we acted within the rules and clearly we have not. We can only hope now that any sanctions are not too serious, given the near completion of the so-called rebuilding phase.


Not to condone whatever we have done, but it seems inevitable that something like this was going to happen. A couple of years ago the club dismissed GM Frank Wren, had a firesale of all its marketable stars and embarked on a self-proclaimed journey of rebuilding where only baseball's ultimate prize would be sufficient. John Hart was brought in to oversee the process and in turn Coppolella to replace Wren. With a brand new, state of the art stadium under construction and a run of successive losing seasons ahead with the promise of brighter days to come, the pressure on the Braves management to succeed has been enormous. It would seem that the ethos was to win at all costs.


It is probably important to note that these breaches only seem to have occurred where international players are concerned. Moving into geographical areas beyond the jurisdiction of MLB and the United States has always been frought with corruption and dodgy dealings, not least in Cuba and Venezuela, which historically have been enemies of the US. Money and prestige is important here, along with an entourage of minders, agents and bureaucrats protecting young assets and all open to bribery or at least greasing the wheels. Most Major League teams covet the young talent from these countries and obtaining signatures is a competitive business. The Braves' recent success in procuring international talent was sooner or later going to attract the wrong kind of attention.


Of course, I have no doubt the Braves are not the only team to have engaged in unethical practices on the international market. It is just they are the only team to be caught for it, so far. Over the last three decades John Schuerholz has prided himself on running an organisation that meets the highest ethical and professional standards, so make no mistake, this is a serious black eye for the Atlanta Braves and as such no surprise that Coppolella had to go. It is a shame because he was otherwise doing a great job, but no one person is bigger than the organisation, so we must say farewell and look towards the future.


In brighter news, manager Brian Snitker had his contract option exercised for 2018 this morning. There had been some doubt whether he would remain in the role after a disapponting end to the season saw the team finish 3rd in the NL East, 25 games back of the Nationals and 18 games under 500. Nonetheless, Snitker was popular with the players and with the sudden upheaval created by Coppolella's departure, I expect the club decided that was enough change to cope with all at once.


I think Snitker did a reasonable job. If you take the second half of last season and the first half of this, we were one of the best teams in baseball. He was let down in many ways by a terrible bullpen (save for a couple of pitchers) and a young pitching staff experiencing growing pains. His veteran pitchers did not exactly set the world alight. Teheran, Dickey and Foltynewicz all had periods where they impressed, but also periods where they couldn't buy an out. With respective records of 11-13, 10-10 and 10-13, all with ERAs of over 4, it is easy to see that pitching inconsistencies were the main reason our season unfolded as it did.


As has become a familiar theme in these blogs, the focus now turns to the future. Atlanta has a huge crop of talent, many of which have Major League experience with the others not far away. 2018 will still be part of the rebuilding, but could see a postseason push and should almost certainly be a winning season. Expect big things from Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, Luis Gohara, Max Fried, Lucas Sims and Mike Soroka. Anchored by All-Stars Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Julio Teheran, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Just need to sort out the bullpen now!

29th August 2017 - Giving Up (Again!)

Posted by theprincipality on August 29, 2017 at 8:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Someone should tell the Atlanta Braves that the season doesn't end at the All-Star break, because their miserable performances in the second half of the season is becoming a habit. Sure, 2016 was a positive second half, but in that case the team didn't show up until August. Now, here we are in 2017, barely a month out from having an even record, 14 games below 500. It is like they did the hard work getting back to parity, gave themselves a pat on the back and considered it a job well done - forgetting there were two months to go!


As embarrassing as it is accounting for 25% of Philadelphia's wins or having only one starter with an ERA of under 4 (and barely that), the worst part is that they have thrown away what was turning into a really promising season. Obviously they are still trying hard, but since my last blog there are very few areas of improvement and we will end the season with that well-known feeling of disappointment.


I can pinpoint where it started to go wrong. Having been swept by the Cubs, the Braves rolled into Los Angeles for a four-game set with the red-hot Dodgers. Unworried by the Chicago series, Atlanta took the first two games, much to everyone's surprise. The team then immediately traded Jaime Garcia to Minnesota and they haven't looked the same since.


I'm not saying Garcia was the difference in winning ballgames, nor was he the life and soul of the clubhouse, but having reached that point in the season having only used six starters, his trade left a rotational hole and disrupted the rhythm of the rest of the club. Management rightly used the opportunity to give some exposure to some young prospects, but so far Blair, Wisler and Sims have experienced inevitable growing pains, added to those being suffered by Sean Newcomb. With two spots in the rotation filled by struggling rookies and one by a faltering ace in Julio Teheran, this has put pressure on Mike Foltynewicz to win every start and it would appear the pressure has got to him as well. He has gone from rotational anchor to junk in just a few starts. Only the experienced RA Dickey has excelled during this time.


The failures of the rotation have added to the workload of the bullpen, thus causing more scoreboard woe. Jim Johnson, having been demoted from the closer's role, has let his ERA balloon in recent weeks. There is simply nobody in the bullpen taking a leadership role. Vizcaino and Ramirez maintain respectable ERAs but that's about it.


Offensively, the bats have collectively cooled from their electric first half. Freddie Freeman has hit more for average than power since his return from injury, but the lack of power threat has changed how oppositions pitch to our lineup. Most surprising of all, the most power recently has come from Kurt Suzuki, who has now reached 15 home runs for the year whilst basically being confined to a backup role. Dansby Swanson has yo-yoed back from Triple-A and bats alongside Ozzie Albies at the bottom of the lineup. Albies has looked good after a slow start to his Major League career, and Swanson has hit well since his return. Hopefully this bodes well for next year.


The biggest question mark in 2018 is what to do with third base. Currently occupied by Brandon Phillips, it is probably safe to say he won't return next year. Phillips reluctantly accepted third base duties, having played his entire career at second, but the fact he had to go away and think about it shows he doesn't have the team's best interests at heart. For me that just confirms rumours I'd heard about Phillips as a teammate over the course of the last decade. It is likely Johan Camargo will get another shot at the hot corner when he returns from injury, but it remains to be seen whether he can sustain the same level over the course of an entire year.


So the question remains how the Braves can turn this second half slump around and stop it becoming an annual event. Chances of getting back to 500 this season are pretty much done, so 2018 must have a fast start and some positive trade activity around the break, as effectively all we did was this season was sell. The rotation needs a reliable anchor from the get-go and this must be the offseason priority to stand any chance in 2018.

 


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