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12th April 2022 - Uncharted Waters

Posted by theprincipality on April 13, 2022 at 11:25 AM Comments comments (43)

It's been six months since that amazing night in Houston, when (as if you needed reminding) the Atlanta Braves ended 26 years without a championship. It's a strange feeling starting a season as the team to beat. Sure, in the NL East we've had targets on our backs before, but this time the entire league is ready and waiting to take a shot at the World Champions. It's a challenge, but it's a great position to be in and with a bit of luck we won't disappoint in our quest to repeat.

 

What's happened since then has been very hard for Braves fans. Our beloved first baseman, Freddie Freeman, has left us for pastures new. It felt like a long two years as the Braves and Freeman tried to agree an extension to his contract, but as the off-season wore on, it became more and more apparent that the two sides were not going to find some common ground. Then of course Freeman was in high demand from some very rich suitors, which included the Yankees, Red Sox and the Dodgers. By this point the Braves were never going to compete on contract value alone, so if he were going to stay in Atlanta it needed to be on the intangibles such as his young family and love for the city in which he played his whole career.

 

Of course, if it were going to be on the intangibles, Freeman would have signed long ago, so credit to Alex Anthopoulos once again for being proactive and trading for the best available replacement in Matt Olson from the Oakland As. By all accounts, Olson will be a great fit. He is a talented defensive first baseman with great power potential, as well as hitting for average. The question is whether or not he will bring the same leadership qualities to the clubhouse that Freeman had in abundance. So when Olson signed, it signalled the end for the Freeman era. It was only fitting that his final contribution was to take the throw at first base that ended the World Series. We wish him the very best of luck in Los Angeles.

 

You would have had to be living on the moon with your fingers in your ears as well not to have heard about the lockout that lasted most of the winter. In the sport's first work stoppage since the 1994/95 player strike, the owners locked out the players when the two sides failed to come to an agreement over a new collective bargaining agreement. Personally I found it a case of two sides being equally as greedy as each other. In the past I've been critical of the Players Association (MLBPA) in these sorts of negotiations. Even the rookies earn more in a year than many people do in a lifetime, whilst the superstars command salaries of over $30m a year and try to justify the amount they earn by saying their careers are shorter. Poor Manny Machado and his shotr career with a $300m contract!

 

Of course, it's not just the players being greedy though. The owners have a lot to answer for here as well. Whilst the top teams have payrolls in excess of $200m a season, the revenues for those teams extends well into the billions. For the owners to risk work stoppages and the subsequent bad feelings amongst fans over what to them is small change also seems petty. In the end it was a classic case of brinksmanship, as the lockout threatened both the revenues of the teams and the livelihoods of the players. But at the end of the day, the biggest losers of any work stoppage is always the fans. Thankfully an agreement was reached with only a week of the 2022 season lost, which will ultimately be made up over the next 155 games. MLB should ensure that this situation never comes around again!

 

And so what of the Braves? Freeman aside, the bulk of the championship-winning team has returned. Olson is a like-for-like replacement for Freeman in an otherwise unchanged infield, with Duvall, Acuna, Ozuna and Rosario returning in the outfield. World Series hero Jorge Soler has departed for the Marlins and clubhouse hero Joc Pederson has also found a new club, but it was always assumed these players would only be rentals anyway. On paper, pitching has been bolstered by the addition of Kenley Jansen as closer, which should take the pressure off Will Smith (who we forget struggled in the 2021 regular season). Fried, Morton and Anderson return to the rotation, with Kyle Wright and one other to fill the remaining spots. The team should be competitive once again in what is a stacked NL East.

 

However, though we are only 5 games into the season, what has been shown so far has been less than inspiring. Fried and Anderson both struggled in their opening starts, whilst the bullpen had difficulties closing out the wins we have already got. The offense is yet to get going, although Olson has been a bright spark and drilled his first home run for the Braves off a 100mph fastball in the win over Cincinnati. Preseason, Mark Bowman predicted we might be good for a 100 win season. I think that is wishful thinking! I think it will be another close fight between the entire East division, with everyone beating everyone else. The Mets are particularly loaded this year, having picked up Max Scherzer to partner Jacob deGrom in a deadly one-two combination. Perhaps they will suffer from their usual mid-season collapse!

 

The success or failure of the Braves depends, in my view, entirely on whether a clubhouse leader emerges to replace Freeman. October was a wild ride that saw us hit the highest of highs and create a chemistry on the field like never before. However, I don't see who the natural leaders are anymore and that worries me. Nonetheless, I've been worried before and Snitker has worked his magic, so once again I just have to keep the faith.

3rd November 2021 - World Champions!

Posted by theprincipality on November 3, 2021 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (50)

It’s the morning after the night before. I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming and the Atlanta Braves, who did not get their first winning record until 5th August, who lost their star player and talisman to a season-ending injury on 10th July, who were unsure whether to buy or sell at the trade deadline and were given a 0.3% chance of winning the World Series at the start of August are now the champions of Major League Baseball for the first time in 26 years!


 

I’ve been following the Braves for 21 years. I missed the last World Series trip by a year, but caught the tail end of the 14 straight division titles. In the last two decades there has been no doubt of the class and professionalism of the entire organisation. The Braves have been a quality team in the NL East year-in and year-out, but never what you would think of as an elite team. After the dominance of the 1990s, Glavine moved on, age eventually caught up with Maddux, injury changed the role of Smoltz and the team has been living in their shadows ever since – trying to put together the pieces for postseason success, but always coming up against a team with those elite pieces, or with destiny behind them when October rolled round. Excuses, I know. We didn’t win a postseason series from 2001 to 2020. Combined with the failures of the Atlanta Falcons, the city was developing a reputation.


 

It was really last year that things started to change. The regular season was a bit of a lottery, with its 60 game format, but Atlanta went into October with youth and energy, surging past Cincinnati and Miami into the NLCS. The all-conquering Dodgers proved a step too far, but people started to take notice. Atlanta went into 2021 as pre-season favourites in some quarters. I had my doubts at the time. I thought that there was too much pressure on the team to succeed. I felt that adding 38 year old Charlie Morton and journeyman Drew Smyly, whilst letting go of Mark Melancon and Adam Duvall didn’t say to me that the team had taken that step forward. Resigning Marcell Ozuna had been a positive, but doubts lingered about his ability to consistently field his position.


 

The season started badly. A road series in Philadelphia saw us come away 0-3. Yes, it was to be a long season, but to be swept by a division rival on opening weekend had the potential to set the tone for the season. In fact April was a dismal month. We scuffed our way to 12-14 by the end of it. It seemed like everyone was in a slump. Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Ozuna and Albies were all struggling at the same time. If not for Ronald Acuna, it would have been much worse.


 

Things then got worse. Ozuna was arrested on domestic violence charges (and not seen since), Mike Soroka’s rehab went back to square one with another long-term injury, pitching sensation Huascar Ynoa broke his hand punching the dugout and the bullpen was blowing leads on a seemingly nightly basis. Yet the team never gave up and kept grinding out wins. They touched the .500 mark 6 times before the All-Star break, before finally becoming a winning team in August. As a fan it was frustrating because you could see how much talent there was in the lineup, but it just wasn’t clicking.


 

Luckily it wasn’t clicking for anyone else in the NL East. Philadelphia were going through the same up and down season as the Braves and even though the Mets were the early pacesetters, you never felt like they were going to run away with it. I felt we had a chance, if we could just be the first team to put something together. However, then came the day I lost all hope. Two games before the All-Star break, in loanDepot Park in Miami, Acuna was tracking down a routine fly-ball from Jazz Chisholm when suddenly he collapsed in a heap. Chisholm rounded the bases for what was credited as an inside-the-park home run and Acuna’s season was over with a torn ACL. We won that game, but without Acuna, I felt that we didn’t have the energy or the fire-power to even get to October, let alone win.


 

But it all changed in the second half. There was something about Acuna’s injury that galvanised the Braves. Freeman and Austin Riley stepped up big-time with the bat. Riley went from having his place in the team questioned to a legitimate MVP candidate, finishing with a .303 average, 33 home runs and 107 RBI. Freeman went .300 with 31 home runs, 83 RBI and led the NL with 120 runs scored. The entire infield finished with at least 25 home runs. It changed too on the mound. Max Fried rediscovered his form in the second half, leading the league with a 1.74 ERA after the break. The bullpen became more settled in their roles and Charlie Morton turned back the clock with some excellent performances down the stretch.


 

Yet, none of it would have been possible without replacing Acuna. With the trade deadline approaching, it was still uncertain whether the Braves would be buyers or sellers. The front office gambled and it paid off big time. For very little in return Alex Anthopoulos picked up four established outfielders in Joc Pederson from the Cubs, Eddie Rosario from Cleveland, Jorge Soler from the Royals and brought back Adam Duvall from the Marlins. Each one of those players made huge contributions down the stretch and turned the inconsistent Braves into a juggernaut heading into October.


 

The division was sewn up by sweeping the Phillies in Atlanta (a beautiful symmetry I thought), but with just 88 wins, many still didn’t give us a chance of even getting into the second round of the playoffs. We were the underdog every step of the way in the playoffs, but every time I just had a feeling. Underestimate us at your peril! Beating the Brewers in 4 games surprised a lot of people. Going 3-1 up against the Dodgers surprised even more. When we lost game 5 in LA so heavily it felt like the LA press assumed we were going to collapse again, as we had in 2020. So in that sense, winning the next game in Atlanta felt extra sweet. We were going to the World Series.


 

The past week I’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster. First came the euphoria of the first World Series I would experience as a fan, followed by the agony and ecstasy of every at-bat and every pitch through the first five games. It felt like déjà vu all over again when Houston won game 5. There was that sickening feeling of knowing we needed to go to an American League park and win a game. Knowing that if we lost the series from 3-1 we would never hear the end of it, much as the Falcons never want to see Tom Brady again. Knowing that Fried had been beaten in Houston in Game 2 and that if he were to struggle again it would all fall on Ian Anderson, whose home numbers were significantly better than his road numbers.


 

But in the end, this was a team that felt World Series glory was its destiny. Fried stepped up and (despite getting stepped on) turned in 6 scoreless innings. Soler put the Braves 3-0 in the third with a monster home run that cleared the train tracks and went out of the stadium. It just felt different compared to game 5. The Braves had their feet on the Astros’ necks and they weren’t going to let this go. When Swanson homered to make it 5-0 the nerves started to go away and when Freddie added the exclamation point in the 7th with a home run of his own, you knew that there was no way the Braves were going to lose this one. A new chapter in Atlanta sports was written and a team of thoroughly deserving champions will parade the trophy to a city that has been through so much and raise it up with equal joy and happiness that was evident right after the final out at Minute Maid Park.


 

On a personal note, following the Braves all these years has become far more than a passing interest. It has become a big part of my life. Not just with this website, but with trying to get to Atlanta as often as I can to see games in person. I was there the first week SunTrust Park (Truist Park) opened. I was there for the 2019 playoffs v St Louis. The Covid travel ban on Europeans has been agony, but it gives me so much joy to start planning a trip for the 2022 season – and to do it knowing I’ll be watching the World Champions is the cherry on top! It just feels like the culmination of over 20 years of love. I’m still (1500 words in) lost for words. Thank you Braves for an unforgettable season!

8th August 2021 - Banged Up Braves

Posted by theprincipality on August 8, 2021 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (8)

In more than 20 years covering the Braves, it is hard to remember a season quite like the one we find ourselves in now. The sheer number of serious injuries we have had and to still be in contention is quite remarkable and testament to the leadership of the manager, Brian Snitker, and the pragmatic approach to the trade market of the GM, Alex Anthopoulos.

 

 

We started the season lacking a backup catcher. Alex Jackson and William Contreras were deemed to be unready for the Majors and so it proved. So when Travis d’Arnaud suffered a serious hand injury, there was a void of experience in a key position. Contreras did as best a job he could, but rather than continue to let him struggle on a daily basis, it was deemed better for him to play in the Minor Leagues and grow in confidence ready for the future. Behind the plate since that point it has been almost a case of catcher-by-committee, with a revolving door of candidates. Alex Jackson spent time in Triple-A before being traded to the Marlins. Jeff Mathis and Kevan Smith came in, before Mathis was let go in favour of Jonathan Lucroy. When Lucroy did not work out, Steven Vogt was brought in to platoon with Smith and form a serviceable catching unit. Now d’Arnaud is almost ready to return, a sigh of relief can be heard as the Braves have scraped by in this regard and are still in contention.

 

 

Of far bigger concern though has been the outfield. Opening Day saw the Braves start Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuna Jr and Christian Pache. Each one suffered serious injury. Even if he regains his fitness, Ozuna remains a doubt given a pending domestic abuse charge against him. Acuna was on the verge of starting the All-Star game when his season-ending injury hit. I found it ironic that the injury happened innocuously in Miami, where the Marlins had been actively trying to injure him for the last couple of years. Acuna was a massive loss to a team that hadn’t been above .500 all season and presented management with a dilemma: Give up on the season and prepare for 2022, or trade some prospects for outfield replacements and try to make a run at the division.

 

 

This is where Alex Anthopoulos deserves a lot of credit. He was able to completely revamp the outfield, bringing in Jorge Soler from Kansas City, Adam Duvall back from Miami, Joc Pederson from Chicago and Eddie Rosario from Cleveland. In the couple of weeks that have followed, Atlanta has gone over .500 for the first time this year and at time of writing has cut what was once a six game deficit out of first place to just two. Whilst missing Acuna, the new outfield has reinvigorated the team, giving them the boost they sorely needed to make a push for a fourth straight NL East title.

 

 

What has also been evident is the strength of the starting pitching in the farm system. Again, through serious injury, the team has had to juggle the rotation around, giving starts to rookies and inexperienced pitchers, trying to back up the veterans. Mike Soroka remains out for the year, but 11 starters have been used by the Braves this season: Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, Drew Smyly, Kyle Muller, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Tucker Davidson, Huascar Ynoa and Jesse Chavez. Faced with that much adversity, you would again be forgiven for thinking the team would give up, but there have been some pleasant surprises, especially from Ynoa, Davidson, Muller and Toussaint. The Braves now find themselves in the position of actually having to decide who their rotation will be, instead of it being forced on them, as Ynoa returns from his long layoff.

 

 

Elsewhere, making up for the loss of power suffered when Acuna went down have been Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson. Riley is having the best season of his young career, batting .296 with 23 home runs, whilst Swanson has picked up his average from around the Mendoza line to a respectable .254 and a recent power surge has seen him post 20 home runs for the first time in his career – with 50 games still to play. These two have provided ample support for All-Stars, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, giving the Braves the only positive run differential in the division.

 

 

Despite the injuries, you look at all the positive stories from the Braves camp this year and you have to wonder how they are not ten games ahead in the division, and this largely down to a leaky bullpen, that accounts for 22 of the team’s 55 losses to date. It has been quite a different story to 2020 when the Braves had the best bullpen in baseball. It was a shame that this was not maintained in the offseason, allowing Mark Melancon to go to San Diego (and be lights-out over there) and not re-signing Shane Greene until deep into the new season. Hopefully the deadline addition of Richard Rodriguez from the Pirates will help to plug the holes.

 

 

It all leaves me feeling confident of a final push to glory during the last 50 games, but also worried that without Acuna we may fall short, either in the regular season or the playoffs. After the disappointment of coming so close in 2020, 2021 was supposed to be our year. It does feel however that the weight of expectation that perhaps loomed over the team in the early portion of the season has now been lifted and they are playing with more freedom. What will be, will be. Enjoy the ride!

9th May 2021 - Stuck in Neutral

Posted by theprincipality on May 9, 2021 at 3:30 PM Comments comments (21)

I would normally have written a blog by now, being six weeks into the season. Though I have been feeling rather uninspired of late and the motivation to sit down and write something just hasn’t been there. Partly I have been waiting for the Braves to kick into gear, which is something else that just hasn’t happened either. It has been a very lacklustre start to the campaign. We have never been better than .500 and have looked both collectively and individually woeful. But as bad as we have been, we find ourselves just a game and half back and in third place, such have been the universally poor starts across the NL East. It feels like the first team to really put a run together will take the division by the scruff of the neck and leave the competition in its wake. That team can be the Braves, but a lot has to change pretty quickly.

 

 

Following last year’s deep postseason run, we were tipped by many to win it all this year. Acuna and Albies had another year of development under their belts, Soroka was due to return and partner Fried, Anderson and Charlie Morton in a pretty formidable rotation. Freeman is the reigning MVP and Ozuna returns after a career-best year. So why hasn’t it happened yet? I think there are a few possible reasons.

 

 

Perhaps, the high expectations brought with them a sense of complacency. The Braves are three-time consecutive division champions and perhaps there was a bit of a sense of focusing on October, before doing the hard yards of a 162-game season. It’s possible too that the team was a little overrated. The starting pitching in 2020 (Fried aside) was awful at times and the bullpen carried us through the short season. The playoffs included a couple of fortunate wins against the Reds, whilst the Dodgers were clearly the superior team in the NLCS.

 

 

It could also just be that there are too many players in slumps at the same time. Freeman, Albies, Ozuna and Swanson are all suffering a desperate run of form, with Freeman barely threatening the Mendoza line. If all these guys rediscover the form that they had in 2020, wins should start to come more regularly. Acuna can’t do it all on his own and we can’t keep relying on Sandoval and Adrianza to bail us out in late innings.

 

 

The other side of it has been a terrible run of injuries. Mike Soroka has suffered a setback so it’s as if he is just starting spring training now. Travis d’Arnaud is out for pretty much the rest of the year with a torn thumb ligament. Chris Martin has spent most of the first six weeks sidelined, whilst Max Fried and Ender Inciarte picked up injuries running the bases. Ronald Acuna has been very fortunate on a couple of occasions not to pick up serious injury, which just highlights the need for his teammates to turn a corner.

 

 

Changing the subject, a few weeks back Atlanta was stripped of the All-Star game for this year. This was nothing to do with the Braves, but instead MLB taking a stand against voting restrictions introduced by the Governor of Georgia, allegedly with the purpose of limiting the black vote in the state. The game was moved to Colorado, a state with a Democratic governor, as other states with Republican Governors such as Texas, Florida and Alabama attempt to introduce similar legislation. I have mixed feelings about this. First, I don’t like baseball being used as a political bargaining tool. If MLB does not like the legislation, it should condemn it without punishing one of its own member teams. Atlanta has spent significant amounts of time and money organising and planning the event and were in no way involved in passing the legislation. Indeed the Braves being stripped of the game will ironically mean that some members of the black community will lose their jobs as a result. From what I have seen, the Atlanta Braves have always been very active in the community and supported local people from all walks of life. It feels we are being punished simply for the fact we play in Georgia.

 

 

On the other hand, MLB has stopped the game from becoming a focal point for potential unrest. It was rumoured that those against the legislation would protest outside the event. This could lead to counter-protests, as has often been the case across America in the last 12 months and that kind of negative attention would distract what is supposed to be a celebration of the best of baseball and, perhaps more importantly the lives of Phil Niekro and Hank Aaron, who both tragically died within a short time of each other earlier in the year. With Covid still hanging around though, and the restriction on attendances and freedoms in sport that seem likely to continue for some time yet, having the game taken away this year may not be the worst thing if we can get it back in the near future with a full house and no restrictions.

3rd November 2020 - Reflections

Posted by theprincipality on November 3, 2020 at 3:20 PM Comments comments (230)

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 (29)

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 (10)

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 (2)

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 (5)

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.


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