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Baseball’s Beautifully Broken Story

Baseball’s past is frequently fantasized and categorized as a game of purity, as the American Dream symbolized in pomp and sport. I believe with all my heart, that the game of baseball reflects in majestic detail and intricacy the state of the human experience. Yet, I find that perhaps we have misconstrued the ideals of what the ‘purity’ of baseball is, and because of our misunderstanding are missing the full gamut of the game and perhaps ourselves.

When baseball was young and raw, the game ‘purely’ personified uncivilized brutality. Much like the taming of the wild west, early baseball was filled with ruffians and roughnecks, immortal giants that would just as soon fight you as pitch to you. Players often played drunk, received little-to-no pay, cheated to win, and were as apt to stab the umpire as to argue with him. True to its time, the early days of baseball personified an age of the American experience that was simultaneously uncouth and rough around the edges. Yet under this ruffian veneer, it was forging the future of law and governance. It was an age when the umpires weren’t infallible, yet the finality of their call was an integral part of the game’s pageantry. A time when the divide between the game and fan was never narrower. Fans were likely to engage in fisticuffs with a hated (or beloved) player after the game, and managers ran the risk of having to sneak out of town with an unruly home crowd hot on his heels. That was Baseball. That was America. An era when government only went so far on it’s own before people fought back. A time when many would implement their own justice, and govern themselves by a pervasive unwritten code of manhood that had been shaped by the hard fists of survival and harsh experience. An era where new technologies like trains and automobiles raced side by side with the stylized archetypes of our past such as horse drawn buggies and ass-pulled plows.

Many today, myself included, love the idea and picture of  ‘purity’ of the game from previous eras. However, I think what we are often saying is that we miss that form of America, that context of society. We miss forging a path based off of an inner code and simultaneously exploring the boundaries of our identity at the edges of the extremes. It’s easy for a person to find themselves reflected in the game, idolizing the “purity” in that past-time that so closely mirrors our own progress as a country. We long to be wild at heart, to still find success, a place of our own, and sometimes even leave a legacy. We neglect to recall the pain & the suffering, the unbalanced injustice of life itself & the broken & torn places that hard lives on the edge are often disposed to leave behind them.

Baseball isn’t a static game. It isn’t pure. It never has been. As time turns, it is not the constant reminder of all that is good that James Earl Jones opined in Field of Dreams. Instead, baseball has changed with every evolution of society; an ardent drama of spectacular emotion and impassioned disbelief that reflects a story of good and bad that ripples around it. Baseball is the satire, the tragedy, the comedy, the shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave outlining life itself in broad strokes and deep shadows on the canvas of the field. No, baseball has changed quite a bit, but it’s ability to reflect the world around it has only been refined. Baseball is a reflective surface taking on the image of any who dare walk past its face. At times we glance in the mirror, surprised by the dramatic details, at once familiar and esoteric. But the youth, the timelessness of the game ultimately shines through.

In the 50’s and 60’s, one might say baseball evolved. A more organized game with little patience for the original wild bunch. Baseball became a stage for the pen of the playwrights. America was a reeling nation searching for a way to fill the holes left by the most deadly war the world had ever seen. The actors set the stage for the taming of new lands and the breaching of new frontiers. These were different frontiers than the past; racial integration, free love, and the birth of the celebrity voice as television overtook radio, marked radical unexplored territories with new unwritten rules. For the first time, people all over the states could see their heroes, and while the groundswell of the background orchestra reached a crescendo, the audience held its collective breath as the play on the stage of the ballfield echoed throughout the country with the resounding impact of a Harmon Killebrew home run. Tension, anger, drama and, ultimately, unity echoed across the stages of carefully manicured grass as dark skinned players first set foot on the most hallowed grounds of worship across the United States. Yet, the play wasn’t the ballgame. Instead the drama that was so punctuated by Jackie Robinson, was merely the detailed and honest reflection of a nation struggling to find a new identity. The game reflected the blemishes on the face of America that, without its mirror, might have gone unnoticed.

The 70’s and 80’s reflected a new face in the mirror. If they were to be heroes, if the actors in this great reflection were to lead, then they should be paid for leading, not just for winning. Free Agency, unionization and fighting against the corporate stronghold of major league baseball reflected in vivid detail the fight of the common man to stand up to corrupt politicians, price-gouging oil companies and the rise of a modern suburban society. The bastions of tradition that immortalized the glamorization of the lifetime worker model of society began to crack and crumble. America was reaching back to an era of roughnecks and wayward souls, not to replicate the story, but instead to embody the attitude. This was the era of “nasty” ballplayers and definitive badasses. Men like Dave Parker, Pete Rose, Oscar Gamble, Dave Winfield, Dock Ellis and many more challenged the traditions of baseball as they had been handed to them. These guys fought at the drop of a hat. They didn’t care if the fight was on the field, off the field, in their own dugout, or at the bar after the game. They were rugged individualists. Much like the American spirit of the time. “Up yours Moscow”, “piss-off Gaddafi”, “we’re just that much better than you world.” America was a nation recovering from the confusing end to a strange war, international fear and uncertainty leading to raucous nationalism, with color television vividly amplifying the reality of every individual hero and the game they played. Dave Parker firing up a heater on the bench with his thick beard and a Pirates hat, still feels like the perfect capture of the American spirit of individualism and even piracy that rebelled and excelled all at the same time.

The 90’s and 2000’s would further polish the mirror to its most brilliant sheen, but now instead of being a bad mutha-shut yo mouth … players were nice guys. They were heroes. Superheroes to be exact. They did superhuman things. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco. These guys were the best. And they did whatever it took to stay the best. Was it just some pervasive PED culture in baseball? No, it was once again a polished personification of the surrounding culture. A divine tragedy that saw the gods fall to their own power. The cocaine epidemic raced through cities. People finding ways to live life in superhuman ways of their own. New technologies raced to advance culture in ways never before seen. Brokenness and pain massaged the airwaves with the rise of grunge and alt rock that offered escape through drugs, sex and fighting for the right to party. The internet would set the world on fire and dramatically change lives at a speed never before seen. Constant advancements drove companies and people to the edge, pushing them to be the best, to get more out of themselves, to evolve the standards of what was possible. Baseball pay rose with the standards and players were rewarded for their superhuman efforts in unprecedented ways. Heroes weren’t just heroes by nature anymore, heroes were superstars, kings, they were paid like royalty to play a game. They became gods for hire. A pantheon of mercenaries of the diamond. People in the everyday world struck it huge in the tech bubble, living far beyond what their character and production could healthily sustain. When these new “gods of baseball” came crashing down from their lofty heights, like Icarus flying too close to the sun, they quickly discovered the hard reality of insatiable gravity and an unforgiving ground. Their burial no longer set on pyres of the fallen warrior, but instead disregarded to the trash heaps of cheaters and liars. Their legacy marred and forgotten. The very playwrights who built their cults now condemned their existence.

Today, a new stage is set. The lights are on and a new cast of characters saunter onto the stage. The mirror stands before us in the dim light of a dusky evening. In this scene we find an entirely new drama. This one, Macbeth, played by not only general managers and players, but by fans themselves. For the first time, fans now have access to the ‘prophecies’ of data about players and how they will perform. Fans, players, managers, front offices believing that by cleaning the mirror or polishing its surface they will smooth away the blemishes that it reflects. They fall in love with stopping the prophecies (or fulfilling them), constantly fighting to perfect their own team, their own identity, their own tribe.

The truth is, that’s the state of far too many lives. Wives and husbands are never good enough, parents are never wise enough, jobs are never fulfilling enough, the nation begins to fall in love with the prophecy/data of the ‘other’. If only they could fix the mirror somehow, the reflection of their fears, inadequacies and lusts would be perfected. They fail to realize that a crown procured through vile trickery is no crown at all, but a circlet of thorns. An obsession with perfection production drives the national narrative. “Out damned spot!” becomes their cry, as they polish the mirror incessantly, trying & failing to remove a stain that is on their own soul. Who cares if players strike out, as long as they hit dingers. It doesn’t matter if he hits .220 if he smashes 45 home runs. Strikeouts, for the first time in history, set a pace to tally higher than hits in the league. The heart of the game has been sacrificed on the altar of productivity. Results are all that matter. King Data reigns supreme.

Now “the Braves way” is defamed, detested by fans that no longer remember it. Winning is the only thing that matters now. Making the reflection perfect, not honest is the purpose that drives us. The only stories we know are the numbers and the prophetic predictions of player projections. If a player doesn’t live up to hitting 30 home runs and being the best defender in the league then he is washed out, and should be traded or discarded as quickly as possible. Fans detail any move they don’t like in the harshest of terms. “Racists”, “cheap”, “spiteful to fans and players”, “they really don’t care about fans at all”… just a few of the hyperbolic insinuations of fans. Because the team doesn’t think like me, or make me happy, or do what I want them to do then they are the worst of mankind. They are everything to be hated and despised. They have no value unless it is the definition of value that aligns with my own. A world of data driven emotionalism & prophetic fervor frenzies the mob and the individual alike. “Trade for this one”, “call up that one,” “this team is racist,” “that team is trash,” “this player I don’t like and have never met is a terrible human being.”

Baseball teams are never good enough, we are obsessed with making them better. Hyper-heroicizing every actionable move, not just the person. Heroes have become numbers, because people can’t be trusted. The mirror has betrayed us, reflecting the unflattering truth.

Again, baseball is merely casting its reflection of society.

There was a time that community, culture and tribe meant something. Your neighbor was a person you knew, not just another empty house with a car parked in the driveway. We collapse into the prophecies of our lives, reading the punditry and prophecies of twitterpated political and social dreamers. Obsession grows. How to have the perfect life, wife, marriage, kids, job, yard, house. Obsessions driven by tribalized and data-driven emotion. Our heroes have become non existent numbers, ideals, and false prophecies that we prefer to run blindly towards rather than building on what is real and tangible in our hands. Then our heroes fail us because they aren’t real. They are simulations of a simulation of a simulation, totally dissociated with reality.

Aristotle argued that the ghost of the simulacra is dangerous, because it gains life without roots in reality. If we don’t realize that what we are handling isn’t real then we can’t even know where the simulation stops and reality begins. It’s in a ghost-like state that we find far too many fans, and friends. Obsessed with constantly making a better version of the team, life, family. A better non-existent version of the original, because of the fallacious mentality that numbers and the simulation can somehow fully embody the original. Sometimes a baseball team doesn’t need to fall in love with maximum productivity. You can have maximum productivity and still lose. You can have subpar productivity and still win.

If baseball becomes only about productivity, think of what could be lost. The Culberson walk-off would be a thing of the past. The story of unlikely heroes fades to a lost pillar of the game, reminiscent of some cheap dime-store novelty. The story that is the heartbeat of the game itself becomes threatened. If productivity is the only thing, how long before we give up from lack of it. In our own lives, how long before we wall ourselves off from neighbors that might hurt us or cause us grief as we share in the pains of their lives? How long before we fail to have conversations with our wives and kids, and simply live in the same house as roommates and not family? The American story, the human story matters far more than the American success. It’s the story that created the success, not the success that created the story. The Braves and teams all around the league are a reflection of the story being played out in the hearts and lives of the fans that watch them.

So take a moment and breathe on your mirror. Remind yourself that it’s a reflection. Watch the play on the grand stage. Fall in love with the moment and not the future, the team and not the productive possibilities, the piece you do have and not the pieces you don’t. The greatest stories ever told are not of the perfect hero winning the day, but instead it is the underdog, the worst to first, the Sid Bream rounding third, the Mark Lemke World Series Assassin, the unexpected greatness that we find in the world, and in ourselves. It’s the story of the marriage that almost broke, but didn’t because love was stronger. The family that was almost broken by drugs or alcohol, but instead put each other first and fought back from the brink. It’s the job that you almost quit or went bankrupt in, that you now have stabilized. Sometimes it is the story of when those things don’t work. When the marriage breaks and yet you live on. When the kid doesn’t get off drugs, yet you fight on. When the business goes bankrupt, yet still you survive. Those are the stories that last. Real Cubs fans (not the cheap ones who jumped on the bandwagon from Buckhead), waited 108 years to get a World Series. That is a hell of a story.

At the end of the day, the human story isn’t about success and production. It is a story about a journey. A journey that goes on in spite of. In spite of falls, in spite of disaster, in spite of hurt, in spite of pain, in spite of failure. Who knows what tomorrow’s play will bring, maybe it will be a purer game, but not because it goes back to the roots of baseball, but because we go back to the roots of life, love, and community and the things that matter even when we don’t win. This great game that I love, baseball, is pure because it never fails to reflect my heart. It shows me the good and the bad. It reflects the deepest worn places in my face and the sadness that might dance in my eyes. Friends, the goal is not to change or perfect the image in the mirror, but to smile and enjoy the reality that made that face, me, to begin with, and on occasion to take a look at myself and fix my hair, wash my face, and use the mirror to celebrate what I already am.

 

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Make hay while the sun shines.

The Braves should sign Mike Foltynewicz to a long term contract.

Mike Foltynewicz.

If you’re a Braves fan, the name alone probably brings an opinion to your mind. Bust. Future. Superstar. Wild. Emotional. Overrated. Underrated.

The 26-year old pitcher the Atlanta Braves acquired from the Houston Astros in 2015 for Evan Gattis and James Hoyt is entering a crucial year for his career. In his past 2 years at the Major League level, Folty has been the epitome of unpredictable. His splits vary from month to month, sometimes lefties have dominated him, sometimes he’s owned them. Then suddenly right hand hitters come out of nowhere to be back on top of his stuff. In one month, he goes from being one of the best pitchers in baseball and nearly completing a no-hitter, to forgetting how to throw baseballs the very next month.

Ridiculed as being “too emotional,” Foltynewicz, is a fiery 6’4” 220 lb. righty that brings the heat. He often sits in the upper 90’s well into the sixth or seventh inning, when he lasts that long. His numbers follow his performance pretty accurately, sporadic to say the least. Since joining the Major League rotation, he has seen a dramatic increase in his Homerun/Flyball rate, he’s been caught accidently tipping pitches, and at times he seems to forget how to pitch in certain counts.  

All of that being said, I still think the Braves should sign him to a minimum of a 5 year, $37 million dollar deal.

Wait. What?

Well my papa used to tell me, “Boy, you make hay while the sun shines.”

For those of you who have never baled any hay in the south, you cut it when you don’t expect rain… often even if  it’s not completely ripe and 100% ready to be cut. Because perfect hay is worthless if you can’t get it up off the ground without it getting wet. If it rains on hay, you have to ted it all back out (using a machine to re-scatter it), wait on it to dry in the sun, rake it again, and then bale it. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate and you can lose the whole crop because of too much rain.

Baseball contracts for mid-market teams are like baling hay. You make hay while the sun shines. Meaning, if you’re a mid-market team, like the Atlanta Braves, who really can’t compete with the ‘big boys’ on huge salaries and contracts, then you have to find a way to gamble on the hay while the weather is nice. Right now, the weather on Mike Foltynewicz is really nice.

The Braves currently have Folty under team control for 4 more years. This is his first year entering arbitration and he is going to get either $2.2 or $2.3 million. This sounds pretty cheap, but when you look at how arbitration figures scale it gets a bit more complicated. $2.2 million for one year certainly isn’t a bad deal, but when you realize someone like Arodys Vizcaino received roughly $850,000 for his first year you realize that $2.2 million for a first year arbitration guy is not cheap.

Arbitration scaling is a bit wonky to say the least, but basically each year it scales up based on performance, league comparisons, and which year of arbitration you are in. Josh Donaldson just received $23M for his final year of arbitration from the Blue Jays. You can see, simply having team control doesn’t automatically mean a cheap contract.  

But why should the Braves sign Folty to a 5-year deal? Julio Teheran may have the answer.

Julio Teheran is what mid-market teams dream of. It’s not that he’s the best pitcher ever; I would even argue he’s probably not a #1 starter on most teams – more of a 2 or 3 sort of guy. But if there is one thing Frank Wren did right for the Atlanta Braves, it was signing Julio Teheran to a 6-year, $32.4 million dollar deal back in 2014. That contract is a gold mine (regardless of his divisive 2017 numbers).

Much like Ender Inciarte’s deal, that John Coppolella negotiated, buying out a young player’s arbitration and giving them a serious deal with your team can be brilliant. Especially for mid-market teams. When Frank Wren locked up Julio Teheran long-term, he had completed just one year of pitching for the Atlanta Braves. One year. While his year entering arbitration had been a bit more consistent than Folty’s was, it’s also important to remember that he had a serious baseball staff behind him that made the playoffs. He was backed by arguably the best modern day defensive shortstop in Andrelton Simmons, had Justin Upton and Evan Gattis smashing homeruns, and Craig Kimbrel closing it down.

If you put Folty in front of the same kind of staff that Julio had in 2013, I think you’d see quite an uptick in his numbers. Not to mention the fact that at times last year, Mike was the closest thing to a number 1 starter the Atlanta Braves had, and often got matched up that way. Mike is a big guy that has never had serious injury concerns. He did have a fluke blood clot steal some weight and time from his first season, but as far as the arm is concerned he’s had no real issues. He’s built big, and he threw 150+ innings last year and probably could have thrown more had his control been a bit better and had Manager Brian Snitker been a bit slower with the hook. He’s a power pitcher who is going to eat innings, a lot of them.

As a mid-market team, the Atlanta Braves have to make gambles to increase the value of their assets. Julio Teheran will be paid $8 million to pitch for the Braves in 2018.  On the open market, even if evaluated as a #2 or #3 starter, it is quite easy to imagine him getting $15M+ per year (probably higher). That is a lot of value in a long-term contract that the Braves can either happily sit on and be content to pay someone much under what they are worth, or they can trade and reap quite a bountiful harvest in prospects and other players based on his value. Either way, for the Atlanta Braves, Julio Teheran is a gold mine.

This is why the Braves should lock up Mike Foltynewicz, yesterday. And there is reason to speculate this may be just what they’re doing.  When the Braves and Folty filed for arbitration literally $100K apart, many Braves fans rolled their eyes. However, this feels fishy. It feels like both parties may have simply said “just file a number while we get a bigger deal worked out.”

If the Braves paid Folty a front-loaded deal, meaning the more expensive years were on the front side of the contract, I think the Braves could create another Julio-type gold mine. Five years for $37 Million is roughly $7.4M a year. This sounds expensive compared to the $2.3M he could make this year, but if you balance it all out and Foltynewicz hits as a true #2 or #3 innings eater, you have struck gold. On top of this, if the Braves front-load the contract so they pay him the most now, while they have some payroll flexibility, it allows them to absorb the cost and manage the risk of the contract in years to come. 

If you look at the state of contracts in MLB in the last 5 years, you will see what I mean. In 2012, the average MLB salary was $3.21Million; in 2017, $4.47 Million. Those numbers don’t sound too far apart, but when you look at it through another lens that is an increase across the board of nearly 72% (stats from Statista). That is insane. Next offseason, arguably the best class of free agents to ever hit the open market will do so, and there is little doubt that average salary numbers are going to continue to skyrocket. If I told you that I could sign a player for about 25% over his current value for the next 5 years that sounds silly, but if I then explained that across the board salaries were going to go up 75% so that at a minimum you were looking at a 50% savings by the end of the contract, I think you would sign up in a heartbeat and that’s the basis of my argument.

Of course the fear is, what if Foltynewicz is a bust? The Atlanta Braves paid R.A. Dickey $7.5M last year at age 42 to pitch for them and be mediocre at best. They paid Bartolo Colon $12M at 43 years old to be complete trash for them. I would much rather see a guy like Folty working through bumps with a chance to build value while eating innings, than guys from a nursing home trying to pad their retirement fund with zero chance of them creating future value.  

The other thing about Folty is this – his stuff is still really good.  He is not a very cerebral pitcher. He’s not going to out-think too many guys, he’s not Greg Maddux and he’s not going to set you up in the first because he’s got a plan of attack for you in the seventh. But his fastball is legit. Let’s say he bombs out as a starter. A guy that can throw 98 in the 8th on his 106th pitch can easily touch 100 if you move him to the bullpen to throw 20 pitches. Not to mention a bullpen role would allow him to narrow his pitches to a smaller mix, and only face hitters one time. (Mike’s stats currently seriously suffer his second and third time through the lineup).  

If Folty busts out and is forced into the pen, the contract still isn’t trash (especially if you front load it). If he develops into a top-tier reliever, you might still have a golden contract; if a mid-level reliever, he might be slightly overpaid, but at the rate of inflation in Major League contracts, even that is doubtful. If he is a total bust, then sure the contract stings, but at the end of the day it’s $37M over 5 years. This isn’t the biggest financial hit this team would have taken by a longshot (see Melvin Upton, Dan Uggla, Matt Kemp, etc).

For mid-market teams, you have to take gambles to make up the gap in money. The Braves have made some really smart financial gambles over the years, like Teheran, Freeman, and Inciarte. I think Mike Foltynewicz should be another one. He’s not perfectly ripened, he’s still a little green in places standing in the field, and there is a risk he won’t be quite as good as the hay down the street, but sometimes you have to mow the hay and bale it while it isn’t raining before it’s perfectly mature. I don’t know if Foltynewicz should be in the Braves rotation 3 years from now, or even in their bullpen, or even on the team, but what I do know is that if you make hay while the sun shines you’re more likely to feed the cows come winter. And if the Braves sign Folty to a long-term deal, they’re more likely to enjoy the value that contract creates than to regret the minimal risk associated with it.

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Scratching the Yel-itch!

At this point, everyone in Braves country is hearing rumors of the Braves going after Marlins outfielder, Christian Yelich, and perhaps even their catcher, J.T. Realmuto.  While I think Realmuto and Yelich are both terrific players, I’m left with an itch that’s begging to be scratched. Call it a “Yel-itch”.

I’ve always been a big fan of Christian Yelich, and I’ve frequently thought that he has been criminally underrated. His defense is solid, his offense is on the rise, he’s shown flashes of the potential to be a 5-tool player. I even think the future could be brighter for Yelich. He is likely to increase his home run rate, his production, and, away from the prairies of Marlin’s park, improve his defense.

And yet, I’m opposed to the Braves trading for him.

Why?

Good question. There is this interesting operating philosophy in baseball that simply acquiring great players will, in turn, make a great team. Certainly, there is a measure of truth to that idea. However, I also think there has to be more to your philosophy than simply collecting great players.

We could look back through history and find, time and again, where teams that were comprised of “great” players simply didn’t win. Revisionist history would tell us that it was because some of those players perhaps were not as “great” as we originally thought, but perhaps there is more to it than that. Perhaps, the team they were on and the role they were asked to play made them less great.

Unless your team is the Cleveland Browns, I don’t believe in bad luck or sacred goat curses. However, I do believe that team chemistry is important. And by team chemistry I don’t mean clubhouse personalities and how people get along (although there is some truth to that as well).  What I mean is that a team has to be comprised of players that fit a big picture purpose for the baseball team.

For me, it was the downfall of Fredi Gonzalez as a baseball coach. Fredi seemed convinced that he could massage and manipulate lineups that put players in different positions on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis, to maximize match-ups and play to the current ‘momentum’ of the team. But baseball is a job at the end of the day, and a player needs a clear picture of the job that he’s been hired to perform.

‘I mean why don’t he just hit baseballs and play gud defense, ain’t that what every gud baseball player does’

It’s true that hitting baseballs and playing defense is the core of the game, but those terms are broad and often misleading. The truth is – it’s more complex than that. Much more complex.

Do you want your leadoff man to get on base? Is that his primary role? If so, he needs to take more pitches, be more selective, work more counts, and shorten his swing and aim for more singles. Or maybe you want a leadoff man with a higher WRC+ who has more pop and power? Unless his name is Mike Trout, you pretty much need to understand he’s going to get on base a bit less, going to strike out more, and swing away at more first pitches.

Philosophically, do you want your best hitter hitting second? He’ll get about 60 more at-bats a year if you do. Or maybe you’re a traditionalist that likes him batting 3rd, do you want him to aim for power? Swing away? Do you need to protect him in the lineup? Oh, and if so, what do you protect him with? Power? Is that still the answer in today’s strikeout heavy world of power hitters?

At the end of the day, I think the Braves have some philosophical holes to fill. Is Ender your leadoff hitter or Ozzie? What are you looking for from your #2 hole hitter? Is Acuna going to bat 2nd? And if so, how long before you get him there? So far, the Braves have always used Freddie to bat 3rd, so where is Yelich? Is he really a 4th hole hitter?

Yelich has traditionally hit 3rd for Miami, yet last year he only hit .282 with 18 home runs. I mean that certainly isn’t bad, but let’s compare that to Freeman who batted .307 and hit 28 home runs (oh, and missed 6 weeks). Is a .282/18HR guy really what you want protecting Freeman?  (Protection matters.) Do we really need another 15-20 HR guy with good defense or would we be better served with a 30+ HR guy that might lack a little defensively, or not have the greatest OBP (ie. Martinez, Duvall, etc). 

Perhaps Yelich will make up for it on defense?

Well, just as on the offensive side of things and creating a lineup, you have a defensive philosophy as well. Yelich is a terrific defender, right? Well, that’s what people keep telling me, yet in 2017, he saw a significant decline in his defense, finishing the year with -6 DRS. I’ll be the first to stand up and scream that defense runs saved isn’t the best stat ever, but it is an indicator for sure.

Yelich’s potential value is primarily built upon the idea that he will continue to get better. And he certainly may, but the biggest part of the puzzle is always cost/value. To acquire Yelich is going to be an expensive overpay. I’m the kind of guy that’s sometimes guilty of over-valuing prospects, but I’m actually ok with overpaying for pieces I think fit the right holes in the philosophy and have future value in line with what you’re giving up. Any trade is risky. Yelich is young and on a mostly cost-friendly contract. There are reasons to think he will soar to his potential value. But many Braves fans (and now Cubs fans) are familiar with 26-year-olds with great stats and superstar potential don’t always pan out … sometimes they suddenly can’t remember how to hit baseballs and their entire 5 tool concept suddenly becomes 2 tools. Yes, I’m looking at you, Jason Heyward.

If we were talking about Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, even my personally-hated Bryce Harper, I think there is very little room to doubt the future ascent of their rise to franchise anchoring status. At one point, I thought Yelich was headed there. But while I think he was once undervalued, the perception of him may now have gone in the other direction, and his perceived value may actually be higher than reality. It’s not that he has significantly declined, or regressed. In fact, he may continue right on up, yet even at his best, I wonder if he is truly a top-tier player worth the cost that he inevitably will demand. His K% is league average, his DRS is slightly above average, his 18 HRs is a little above average, his slugging .463 is a little above average. I think Yelich is better than average, but is he really a superstar? And even if he is a superstar, is he the superstar the Braves need to empty their coffers for?

Is it really worth giving up four prospects from your top 15, and perhaps seven from your top 25, some of which project to be a good bit better than just above average? (I’ll be the first to admit prospects bust frequently, but from the richest farm in baseball that’s not chump change.) It’s easy to want splashy moves for names we like. It’s much harder to stay the course, stick to your philosophy, and find the answers to the holes you have on the team you are already fielding. When I look at the Braves I don’t see the hole begging for Yelich. I see a team missing power, missing defense, and missing quite a few other roles (3B, pitching, etc) that Yelich simply cannot fill.  Would he be another great player on the Braves team? Absolutely. Would it make the Braves a much better team? I’m not so certain.

The answer to Yelich’s value to the Braves is an itch I’m not sure I want to scratch.

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I Don’t Know’s on Third

The famous Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First” unforgettably amuses the audience as Abbott befuddles his pal Costello with the confusing names of the players on his baseball team. In the skit, the third baseman is “I Don’t Know”.  The Braves feel like they’re right in the middle of that skit when it comes to the identity of their 2018 third baseman and “I Don’t Know” is on third for Atlanta.

Most of us know the usual characters and options that are sitting there available, so I’ll not waste your time by giving a detailed analysis of each player that could be a 2018 third base option for the Atlanta Braves, but I will skim them.

Todd Frazier

Frazier batted .213 last season.  Yep, .213. He did crush 27 home runs, though. He had a terrible BABIP. But even projections for this next year have it only jumping up about 20 points. He’s a plus defender at 3rd. The end.

Josh Harrison

He’s a name not heavily talked about, but the Pirates have made it known that he’s available. While I think Harrison is one of the best utility players in the game, his third base defense is average at best, and his batting has traditionally suffered when he plays the hot corner. Not only is he owed $10.25MM in 2018, but his asking price could be hefty. While I think Harrison wouldn’t be an atrocious stopgap, ultimately he costs too much.

Martin Prado

With the Marlins turning into the Flea Market of baseball, it feels like Prado is probably available. Prado’s name will always be loved in Braves Country, but at this point I believe getting Prado would be a bit like grabbing the Matt Kemp of infielders. While he’s not quite as overpaid as Kemp was, he’s still getting $28M + for two more years. That’s not great for a guy coming back from some serious knee issues. Besides, his defense was only slightly above league average for the last few years before he was injured.

Nick Castellanos

Yeah he’s my darling pick. Anyone that follows me knows that I love the idea of Castellanos at the hot corner and seeing what he can do.

He hit 26 bombs last year. The knock on Nick is his defense. It’s not good. In fact, last year it was so bad the Tigers moved him to the outfield. I personally believe Ron Washington is a miracle worker and if he can make Freddie Freeman into an incredible third baseman, he can fix anyone. But even if Castellanos doesn’t stick at 3B, he could certainly move to left field and add quite a bit of pop to the lineup. With the Tigers in a rebuild it feels like you could get him without having to give up too much, but you can’t be sure.

Johan Camargo

Last but not least, Camargo. Some have complained about his splits, but when you dig a little deeper he actually doesn’t have any problems against lefties or righties. He did struggle against relief pitchers, many of which had a single very dominant pitch.

However, he batted .305 against RH starters and .296 against LH starters. He also crushed the ball when he hit it. His average exit velocity was 88.12 mph. For comparison, Freddie Freeman’s average exit velocity in 2017 was 89.68 mph.  Undoubtedly, Camargo hasn’t shown the pop and home run power that you traditionally expect from a third baseman. But I also think it might still be in hiding in there. In the winter league, Camargo is slugging .511. That’s only 1 home run, but a triple and 5 doubles in only 54 at bats.

I mentioned Josh Harrison earlier as an option for third, but the truth is the Braves already have their Josh Harrison and his name is Johan Camargo.  Unless the Braves want to try a double fix with a move for Castellanos, with Camargo backing him up as a utility man with lots of playing time or taking over at third if Castellanos can’t play defense, I prefer they stay put with Camargo.

Frazier may have more pop, but his batting average is atrocious and he doesn’t seem destined to make any giant leaps. (Hitting baseballs matters.) I know Atlanta could use a bit more pop in their lineup, but slugging may be the better measure of just what Camargo can add than simply his home run totals, and Camargo out-slugged Frazier last season by more than 24 points despite only hitting 4 home runs.

Somehow, over the course of this offseason, it feels as if fans have forgotten how solid Johan Camargo was this year. Prognosticators have chalked it up to a high BABIP or pitchers not figuring him out. Skeptics have questioned his power while ignoring his slugging. He’s not the sexy big money name of Machado (oh by the way the Braves would be insane to pay for one year of Machado). He’s not the traditional third baseman that Todd Frazier is, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a place on this team and it doesn’t mean that place couldn’t be third base. He currently fits a bit more of a utility profile, but I think limiting him to a utility role is short sighted and judgmental.

I’ll be honest Johan Camargo is an “I Don’t Know” for me. I don’t know what he will hit, I don’t know what his power will be, I don’t know how his defense will end up, and I don’t know that he’s the permanent answer for the Atlanta Braves.

At the end of the day, this team is young. Very young, and very fast. I like the idea of creating a culture of young guys discovering exactly who they are. Challenging the assumptions about who they are and who they are not. Not being limited to trying to fit some mold that the previous guy has always played to answer the Who’s on First, What’s on Second and I Don’t Know is on third. If I’m making the decisions, I Don’t Know is playing third for me, but I do know who he is. He’s Johan Camargo. 

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An American Martyr

Martyr: a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle : ie. John Coppolella.

In a world where being politically correct is worshipped, where Clay Travis is considered the anti-christ, and where the heel turn is the best character in all of wrestling, John Coppolella stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Randy Orton and Chris Jericho combined could not pull off half the heel-turn that Coppy has. Some fans were outraged at this “scumbag”. How could Coppy be such a “traitor”? Well let me tell you something. John Coppolella goes down in my book as not just one of the greatest rebuild General Managers of all time, he’s also an American hero. A true blue American martyr.

The man merely wanted to pay some latino players what they were actually worth to make his team the best. The man wanted Drew Waters to have a car, so he offered him a car. The man wanted the Braves to have the best farm system in America, and by God they did. The man wanted to take a team with half the budget of MLB’s darlings and make them competitive. Stick it to the man, John.

The other GMs hated him because he took his job too seriously. Screw them. Media guys didn’t like him because he held grudges and didn’t leak stuff. Screw them, too. The system always hates the innovators that play by a different set of rules. John Brown, Joan of Arc, Socrates, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Nathan Hale. All martyred because they refused to quietly go with the system as it was. And now, John Coppolella.

In a country where the very idea of a free market has governed our principles, our strategies, and ultimately our success for 300 years, John Coppolella is the latest in a long line of casualties. He’s a casualty in a system of corporate greed that simulates fairness by creating fake rules to regulate what needs no significant regulation.

Let’s be real, if Kevin Maitan signed on an open market he would have received $15+ million, and if he were to become a bust then said team would learn their lesson and not pay so much next time. If Drew Waters signed on an open market he’d get a couple of cars and about $10+ million. Let’s not let MLB’s corporate PR machine twist what happened here.

A $40 BILLION organization that has made it’s bread and butter on the backs of athletes (95% of which have been underpaid for the last 140 years) just banned a guy from it’s game for life because he outsmarted a broken system for a measly $15 million. This is the equivalent of Bernie Madoff’s child stealing a candy bar and his father disowning him while stealing billions from investors.

Did he break the rules? Heck yes he did. Do I care? NOT ONE BIT. Because rules that actually make one iota of sense don’t need to be broken. And since when did we as Americans decide that doing everything by the book was the ‘right way’? Was it illegal to dump a ship full of tea into the Boston Harbor? You’re dang right it was. Was it illegal to write our own constitution and tell King George where he could stick his rules? You bet your Don’t Tread On Me flag it was. Was it illegal for Rosa Parks to sit down on a bus? Sure was. This country is built on the idea that sometimes the heel gets it when no one else does.

While John Coppolella is in no way a civil rights icon, or a founding father, he is a martyr for the American way. Let me say it loud and clear. MLB and Rob Manfred are a bunch of hypocritical turdwaffles. They are perfectly fine with letting a player abuse his wife, to only return to playing baseball in a few weeks once the news coverage dies down.

They had no problem making PED users the face of the entire game for a whole decade, yet now condemn them and refuse to let them into the Hall of Fame. They don’t mind owners stealing millions from taxpayers to build a new stadium every 15 years while the stadium they have is still perfectly fine. But GOD FORBID one guy figures out how to beat their sanctimonious little system to get five extra prospects and pay those prospects what they should have been being paid to begin with.

This punishment reeks of the hypocrisy that has become synonymous with not only Major League Baseball, but America as a whole. We glorify politically correct images and people who pretend to play inside the made up rules because someone else said this is “the way to play”, while crucifying anyone who doesn’t fit perfectly into our little box. Regardless of how you feel about Trump this is why he’s had success. He says F the pc-rules. (Have I mentioned that sometimes rulebreakers are total idiots?) Al Franken will get to stay a senator in spite of groping a girl, Roy Moore may get elected in spite of being a 20-grade A-hole, and Rob Manfred will get to let off his buddy John Hart while looking like a hero for coming down hard on John Coppolella.

I’m not buying this BS. Was John Coppolella a total jerk? Perhaps. Did he break all kinds of rules? Sure. Did he cheat? Yep. Did he steal prospects? Yes. (RIP Dave Stewart.) Do I feel bad about it? Heck no.

Rob Manfred can take a sanctimonious walk down to Boston Harbor and throw himself in. Then he can take a few hours to dry and think about his made up rules and his self righteous BS while the rest of MLB continues to break them any way that they possibly can.

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What makes a great general manager?

There’s been a lot of talk this week about Alex Anthapololololololoussssssss (or however you spell his name). I’ll clear the air early and say I like the hire, but that’s not the point of my musings.

Since the Anthopoulos hiring was announced, the old hot take machines of Twitter have started grinding away at trade scenarios, free agent targets, yada yada yada.

I enjoy a nice unreasonable session of guessing about things that I have no control over as much as the next person. But at the end of the day I think sometimes us fans get a bit wrapped up in the glitz and glamour of movement of any kind (especially after this long period of stagnation). And because of this, we tend to see any movement as progress.

However, let’s take a moment and look at what defines a great GM.  I believe most general managers tend to be defined by three main things:

  1. Did they cause a scandal?

Seriously, this might feel a bit raw considering the circumstances. But I’m not simply cherry-picking here.

Most GM’s that are remembered for bad reasons are committed to memory because they enabled disaster to occur on their watch. Whether said disasters be character problems, rule breaking, or downright cheating. What’s interesting is the fan-base usually doesn’t care much that he engaged in said cheating. What they usually care about is whether or not he got caught.

In this sense, Anthopoulos is pristine. Clean as a whistle. He’s never been caught, yet has cherry picked some of the best talent available through drafts and on the international market.

I could sit here and pretend to spin the idea that this guy is a saint and is the one really good guy in baseball who just wins without bending any of the rules, but let’s not be naive here. Let’s not pretend that he (more than likely) hasn’t done all of the same things other GMs around baseball have done and are doing. On the bright side, he has been smart enough to not get caught. And, let’s be clear… possession of evidence is nine tenths of the law.

Anthopoulos is obviously fantastic at covering his tracks, and without a doubt the Braves need a lot of tracks covered.

  1. Bad free agent deals.

The clamouring for big free agent signings has never been louder.  “Get Donaldson” “Trade for Archer” “What about Happ!”

No matter where you turn someone is yelling that the brand new GM should try and clear the bad taste out of Braves’ fans’ mouths by making a big splash. However, when I mention Frank Wren’s name, I am certain that most of you instantly think of BJ Upton, Dan Uggla, and of course THE MARK TEXEIRA TRAIIIIDDDDDD!

The pressure to make a big move is huge right now, but I believe it’s the wrong move.

John Schuerholz was the master of Free Agent moves. But he almost never made those moves out of desperation or pressure. In fact signing Maddux is one of the few GIANT free agent deals he made.

I’m sure some of you are screaming, “Ken! Hang on. He made a bunch of free agent deals!” But when you really get down to it, Schuerholz didn’t go after the big splashy free agent guy.

Sure, the Braves might have moved at the trade deadline and picked up a key piece during some of their biggest runs. And, I’m sure over his extended tenure you can find a bad deal or two, but there are not a lot of them that really make you shake your head.

More often than not the splashy Free Agent deal is too late. It’s rare to make that huge splash and it not bite you in the butt.

  1. Finding the diamonds in the rough.

Justin Turner, Josh Donaldson, Rich Hill, Adrian Beltre… These are guys who seemed liked average players at one point in their careers, some even scrap heap bound (Hi. This is Josh. Congrats on making it this far in the article. I was actually tasked with editing this thing and I have no idea what “scrap heap bound” means. Ken’s a redneck.) but at a certain point something clicked and all four figured it out.  

Anthopoulos made the genius move of grabbing Donaldson when he was just starting to chip off some rough edges and he watched him blossom into a superstar. But the key wasn’t in acquiring Donaldson once he was great, it was in finding him before he became great.

Maybe it’s all luck, but some GM’s have a knack for finding that “guy”. Daniel Murphy’s insane turnaround, Jake Arrieta’s ascension from a 5th starter to a Cy Young winner.

It’s the stories of the guys who weren’t supposed to be stars that define amazing teams, and more importantly – amazing general managers. It’s the guys you draft in the late rounds who no one gave much of a chance. It’s not missing on your early draft picks. It’s the stuff that most people take for granted. Because of Alex’ history of finding the gems it gives me great hope that he’s the right guy for the Braves.

So sure, take a moment and enjoy the thrill of TRAAAAIIIIDDDD takes. Let your mind run wild with the possibilities, but then realize at the end of the day that at least 95% of those ideas are probably terrible trade ideas and it’s the guys you keep, the diamonds in the rough, and the free agents you don’t sign that make a huge impact and define your legacy as a GM.

Some Food for thought: As much as we want to be twitter GM’s and armchair geniuses, how are we at managing our own lives? Are we always trying to buy the next great thing, or find the little things that make a big difference in our lives? Are we searching for a way to make a big splash and change the flavor of our lives from the sour taste we might have left for others in the past? Are we consistently developing the relationships with those still in the rough? Looking for value in places that maybe other people have given up?  Maybe if we nail those things in our own life we might get a little better perspective on how to judge a general manager for our favorite baseball team.

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The Pinewood Derby of Braves Spring Training

Growing up I was in Boy Scouts and every year we had the pinewood derby. We would craft cars out of wood, stick some wheels on them, and let gravity roll them down a ramped track. The one that ran down the hill the fastest would win.  It’s a little silly because a lot of it was luck, but hey it was fun to watch! This year the Braves spring training is a bit of a pinewood derby for who gets to ride the pine of the Braves bench for this season. Seven names enter and whichever ones roll down the ramp of spring training the fastest (and maybe gets the luckiest) may win the spot.

For the Braves, most of the starting lineup is pretty solid. After that, things get more interesting. There is a real chance the Braves go with an 8 man bullpen making things even tighter for those wonderful spots riding the pine until that high leverage moment (or pitching change). Here’s a glance at who has a chance and why you should and shouldn’t write them off.

The pool is better this year than last year, but it’s still mostly AAAA guys (but aren’t most bench players). These are guys who are currently probably a tad better than AAA players, but not likely to nail down a consistent major league role. There are really only two kinds of players for the Braves bench; prospects that may still have some room to grow, and AAAA veterans that are very much specific role players. The Braves may yet sign an outside name, but assuming they go in house the options are …

The Prospects…

Micah Johnson. Johnson, acquired this winter from the Dodgers, is one of a few names that haven’t reached their ceiling. He’s been on the prospect list for several years but has failed to really live up to expectations at the major league level. I would consider him a not so poor man’s Mallex Smith. When acquired from the Dodgers he was listed as a second baseman, but it looks like the Braves intend to use him as a speedy outfield option. In the minor leagues, this guy looked like he was going to be a leadoff phenom. He has +++++++ speed (I seriously can’t get enough pluses there), and in the minors, he made lots of contact. His major league career has shown the bat seriously lag, whether that is just some jitters in the lights or a sign of something more significant is still yet to be determined. The Braves are banking on the former. He’s looked really good this spring, and maybe he’s getting the bat lined up to do some big things. At the very least he will be a terrific stash at AAA in the event of an outfield injury. I think his ceiling is that of someone along the lines of Ender Inciarte, and a floor of a speedy utility man that can be used in late game situations for a slap hit or a stolen base. With a team already built around speed, I think he starts at AAA despite being ready for the big leagues.

Johan Camargo. Camargo has looked like a different player in the last year. At one time thought to be a legit prospect, some of the shine wore off as the Braves have added depth to their farm. But he showed up last year in different shape. He went from a bit of a boy to a grown man… and his stats tell the same story. Early on with his change in body type, we saw the bat really lag as he tried to figure out how to put the newfound build and muscle to use, but he seems to have turned the corner and has truly raised his value in the last 10 months. This spring he’s looked like a very solid bench option. While he’s always been thought of as a decent fielder, it’s his bat that has looked much improved this spring. His contact rate is still a little inconsistent as he finds a balance between contact and power, but this kid has the ability to be a very strong utility piece for the Braves. No, he won’t be supplanting Dansby, but he could be a terrific piece for resting Swanson or Phillips and could even cover a game or two at third if needed. He certainly has the arm. He also has raised enough value that he could be a very decent piece of trade bait for Coppy to use at some point this season. My guess, he has a legit shot at making the bench. If not he’ll start at shortstop at AAA and probably see time in Atlanta at some point this year.

Rio Ruiz. We’ve heard about Rio for a few years now and at one point it was hoped he might be the future at 3B. While it looks like the ship of him taking that job by himself may have sailed, he certainly looks like a very legitimate platoon option. His left hand hitting numbers look pretty atrocious, but he is still young and has had limited consistent opportunities against LHP in the last year. With more reps, he might see those numbers rise a bit, but don’t expect too much. That being said he is in the best shape he’s ever been in (a consistent theme with much of the Braves organization this spring). There is still room before reaching his ceiling so he could still make some jumps. My guess is that he makes the team out of Spring Training and at the first sign of any slump from Adonis Garcia (or injury as Garcia came up a bit gimpy in today’s spring training game) Ruiz will certainly get playing time at third. He has some pop in his bat, and I think if he ever became a regular 3B he would be a 10-15 HR guy at his peak. That’s not bad for a bench bat (it’s not bad for a starter). Besides, if you can play 3B there is a decent chance you can play 1st so he makes sense as a (VERY) temporary backup for Freeman if there were an injury.

The Known Quantities…

Emilio Bonifacio. Bonifacio has undoubtedly left a bad taste in some Braves fans mouth as his mediocre play in the last few years has left many wondering why he ever got a role in the first place. This year he has shown up at camp reportedly down about 8 lbs, and looking “rejuvenated”. It’s shown up so far in his play as his defense has looked stellar. He’s also batting nearly .300 and has an HR and 3 RBI (as of me writing this) in 17 plate appearances. Look, I don’t expect Boni to be a .300 hitter, but he does have legit speed. You know exactly what you are going to get, and he is a very solid AAAA guy. Is he going to excite you? No, at least not often. But he has a 4.9 war over his career (that’s not bad at all… not good, but certainly not bad). And he offers someone that can play any outfield position, as well as pinch run late in games. I know you guys hate this, but it really wouldn’t shock me to see him get the early call for the Braves bench. Not that he’s necessarily the best long-term option, but because he is the most predictable option. Camargo, Johnson, and Ruiz all wouldn’t be hurt by a little more time at AAA for developing, while Bonifacio really isn’t going to learn much more at a lower level. He is what he is, and that is a solid plug for a hole. He’s not going to add much to the team, but he’s also not going to take anything away.

Matt Tuiasasopo. This guy should get the bench role just for the awesomeness that Braves twitter can create with his name. Signed to be an AAA guy, someone forgot to inform him and he has shown up to Spring Training like he expected to make the team. I love him. His defense is terrible. But who cares, the guy has a big swing and some big pop. He doesn’t have any ceiling left, but I don’t know that it matters. I see this guy as a very poor man’s Ryan Klesko (think Ryan when he was a bench bat). He’s going to come up, swing out of his shoes, and possibly stick it over the fence. He can also play 1B, 3B, and the corner outfield positions, not bad for the Braves where we don’t have a lot of depth. If Tuiasa-BigBo could hit around .245 and hit 7 HR that would be a terrific bench piece to add. With a Braves team built mostly about speed, he doesn’t have it. But what he does have is what a lot of the team doesn’t, big pop. I like him because he’s different and fills a role the Braves really haven’t had in awhile. Of course, if he hits only .200 then he’s a waste of a spot and that is certainly a possibility. I’m a fan, but I get it if you aren’t. (To be fair he’s probably the least likely to make the team of anyone listed).

Chase D’Arnaud. Chase is Chase. Being married probably hurts his fan-base. He can sing. As to playing baseball… eh… he’s ok. He brings ‘chemistry’ to the team, if you believe in that stuff. He’s fun to watch cause he has fun playing the game. But I don’t think he adds a lot to this team. He has a real shot at getting the bench role because he was fair last year. I really hope he doesn’t. It’s nothing personal. Seems like a great guy, just doesn’t bring much to this team. All you Chase lovers feel free to @ me with why he should make it, but I just can’t make a legitimate case (and I tried).

Jace Peterson. If anyone has a locked position I’m guessing it’s Jace. He can play almost any position, he’s streaky as heck but can really swing it when he’s locked in. He also seems to get on base when you need him to. I think there might still be a little bit of ceiling left, I’m not sure, but he feels like a poor man’s Sean Rodriguez (and the Braves paid a good bit for Rodriguez). Jace works his butt off (not that that always matters) and I do think he brings some good things to a bench role. I think if he makes the team he plays a lot (at least 4 games a week). He’s not a huge defensive drop in left field from Kemp or Markakis (#goldglovers). With Jace you seem to love him or hate him, I fall more on the love side and hope he makes the team, but the bench seats are tight and I could see him missing out. That being said if anyone had the best odds of making the team I would put them on him.

If I’m the Braves in this season, I’m using the bench to develop players. Let those young guys roll and hope they’ve got a little flow down the track and I’m pulling from the prospects pile as much as possible. However, with the new stadium the front office also is wanting to win more games, so you might see them go with a more predictable bench. Of course, injuries will ultimately determine a lot about the bench, but these are the options you have. It truly is a race down the track to see who rides the pine. No matter who the front office picks I think it’s a better bench than last year and I think it’s one that can make a little noise from time to time.

All of that being said, I hope we sign at least one bench bat from outside the organization.

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