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Starting Nine: Coronavirus affecting how MLB is covered; how its attended and viewed hang in balance

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Plus, Felix Hernandez and the Braves’ history of reclamation projections, Freddie Freeman’s slugging pace and the next evolution of Ozzie Albies

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MLB: Chicago White Sox at Atlanta Braves
The Braves are set to open the season on the road against the Diamondbacks on March 26. But amid coronavirus concerns, will the MLB season start on time and if so, will spectators be allowed to attend games?
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball, like the rest of sports, has been halted in its tracks by the coronavirus. MLB announced Thursday that it was suspending operations for the next four weeks and Opening Day has been delayed.

The health of everyone involved is paramount and at the end of the day we have to remember this is just a form of entertainment, but whenever we do get baseball again, it will come with it an avalanche of questions for fans. Maybe the biggest among those is whether the league would be willing to lift its archaic and vice grip blackout restrictions to make broadcasts available to everyone if they can’t attend games (think the millions of households of Dodgers fans who haven’t had access for seven years due to its Spectrum deal), a move that would be akin to moving mountains. Regardless of the start date, for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that the impact of the virus is going to affect how the game is potentially viewed, who can attend, and how it’s covered.

Seemingly forgotten in the news cycle as the NBA shut down is the joint statement MLB was part of that announced that clubhouses are closed and interviews are conducted in open spaces with at least six feet separating the parties, and that brings up two concerns from this writer’s perspective.

First, it’s not going to be an issue for the stars. The Freddie Freemans and Ronald Acuña Jrs. of the sport are still going to get the same level of interest, coverage and spotlight. But what about the tertiary players (think Charlie Culberson, Luke Jackson, etc.)? Baseball is the only sport where you can have the kind of moments in a clubhouse where you strike up a conversation, build a relationship and where stories you’d never be privy to before emerge. In this new climate, the sport is going to be missing the breadth and depth of coverage in that way. Last season, it was a casual conversation with Josh Tomlin when he disclosed that he had a tribute on his cleats to former Indians teammate Carlos Carrasco in his fight against leukemia and that Tomlin was one Carrasco’s first calls after his diagnosis. There are countless instances of these kinds of interactions that will be sorely missed going forward.

Then there’s the reality that we don’t know how long this is going to last, and whether — much like in the way airline travel changed forever post-9/11 — this is going to be the new norm after protocols are put in place. It would be a major setback to those whose livelihoods depend on providing exclusive reporting, and those who want to read it, are resigned to press conference-style interviews for their glimpse into a player’s mindset and approach to the game.

When updating Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout, Freeman granted me an hour-plus interview at his locker, something that’s just not going to happen with these new limitations in place, and that’s an amount of time that’s only allowed because a relationship was built over time. It may all stink of sour grapes given the threat this virus represents to segments of our population, but the coverage of baseball, more so than any other sport, is inherently different because of the snails pace of pregame. It lets meaningful conversations happen, and while the hope is this is just a period in time and we’ll eventually return to normalcy with everyone’s health intact, the reality is we just don’t know.

With the soapbox firmly put away, let’s turn our attention back to the Grapefruit League with a trip around the diamond for the Braves, beginning with a certain King is flexing in his bid to revive his career.

1. Felix and the great Braves reclamation projects

Felix Hernandez’s bid to fit himself with a crown with a tomahawk attached (feel free to use that, Braves retail), is going quite nicely. The 33-year-old former Cy Young winner and Mariners staple now has a 1.98 ERA with 14 strikeouts and five walks over 13 2/3 innings with a 1.32 WHIP and .260 average against and he’s gone from a flyer on a minor-league contract to it feeling like he’s almost guaranteed himself a spot in the rotation. These reclamation projects have been par for the course for the Braves: think John Burkett (2000), Aaron Harang and Gavin Floyd (‘14), Bud Norris (‘16), and most recently, Anibal Sanchez (2018). But if King Felix becomes King Felix 2.0 would it be the most surprising of these revivals? Hernandez looked finished in Seattle with a 5.42 ERA in 60 games since the start of 2017, giving up a whopping 19.1 percent HR/FB that’s the second-highest among starters with at least 300 innings in that span. Right-handers, who carried a .373 wOBA and slashed .289/.347/.555 against Hernandez in ‘19 are hitting a mere .185. Location and a deep arsenal are his biggest weapons now, and if this new version of Hernandez becomes a valuable contributor it will continue to be a great story, but let’s not forget we’re also talking about one of the most talented pitchers of his generation. From that end, his finding a way to reinvent himself shouldn’t be stunning, and maybe all he needed was a change of scenery to distance himself from the expectations of his place in Mariners history. While the Braves gave the currently delayed Cole Hamels the biggest single-season deal for a pitcher in franchise history at $18 million, there’s some irony in the veteran presence they wanted in this rotation potentially coming from a guy on a deal of just $1 million.

2. Alex Jackson’s offensive struggles continue

Alex Jackson has made noticeable progress on the defensive side of his game, and deserved the benefit of time considering when that he was drafted in 2014 with the sixth overall pick by the Mariners, they moved him to the outfield before the Braves shuffled him back to catcher in acquiring him via trade in 2016. Jackson’s raw power — graded out at 70 from FanGraphs — was on display last year, when he hit 28 homers in the home run derby known as the International League, but are we getting into sink or swim territory with the overall production with the bat? Jackson, who went hitless in 15 plate appearances in four games at the MLB level in 2019, is hitting .071/.188/.071 in 15 plate appearances this spring with eight strikeouts, a concerning K-rate after he fanned 34.2 percent of the time at Triple-A and has been now lower than 31 percent at any level since 2017. With Shea Langeliers making waves and William Contreras on likely to be at Triple-A in 2020, Jackson may be running out of time to show a complete enough game to be a regular contributor at the MLB level for this organization.

3. Freddie Freeman slugging his way toward HOF company

Since 2011, his first full season in the majors, Freddie Freeman has produced six seasons with OPS+ of 136 or higher, trailing just baseball demigod Mike Trout’s eight in that department. Another year of that level of production, here’s the track the 30-year-old will find himself on: in Braves history, Hank Aaron (11), Eddie Mathews (10) and Chipper Jones (eight) are the only players with more 136 OPS+ seasons before turning 32, and in the expansion era, a seventh such campaign will give Freeman as many at this stage of his career as a 12 others, a list that includes six Hall of Famers (George Brett, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Mike Piazza, Mike Schmidt and Jim Thome).

4. Ozzie may not challenge for 50/50, but 20/20 should be next evolution in career

While Ozzie Albies has let it be known that his Beisbol Hermano, Ronald Acuña Jr., wanted to make a run at the game’s first 50-home run/50-stolen base season, the Braves second baseman may be in position to challenge for a season that — while maybe not quite so gaudy — would be something rarely seen in the National League. Albies has rattled off back-to-back years with 24 home runs, and stolen 14 (2018) and 15 (2019) bags in his first two full seasons, making a 20/20 year well within reason. Sixteen second basemen have done it — with no Brave making the cut — and since 2008, the NL has seen the RedsBrandon Phillips (‘09), PhilliesChase Utley (‘09) and DiamondbacksJean Segura (‘16) hit those plateaus. Albies, who Statcast has at 28.6 ft/s last season, may not have the speed of Phillips — we don’t have the benefit of next-level tracking from the height of his powers, but was at 25.8 ft/s in 2015 — and Segura (27.1 ft/ in 2017, his fastest year on record) — but an uptick of five steals from Albies’ 2019 to reach 20/20 should be seen as the next step in the evolution of the 23-year-old’s career.

5. Does Francisco Lindor’s believed ability put more pressure on Dansby Swanson?

This week on MLB Network Radio, Jon Paul Morosi said he firmly expects the Indians to move Francisco Lindor by the July 31 trade deadline and among the landing spots that he thought made sense for the Indians superstar shortstop included, yes, the Braves. It’s a mouth-watering thought of Lindor and his 23.2 fWAR since 2016, which leads all players at the position, creating a double-play duo with Ozzie Albies and adding 30-plus home runs a year to the lineup with another year of control before he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season. It’s just talk at this point, but it also puts a focus on Dansby Swanson as he enters his fourth full season, having not hit above league average or posting better than 1.9 fWAR in any of them. As mentioned before in this space, we’ve seen spurts of Swanson producing at a high level, we just haven’t seen it for the duration of a season due to injury (see the wrist in 2018 and quad and foot in ‘19). It may not matter if he’s putting up monster numbers and you can get a star to the degree of Lindor, but that Cleveland is believed to be moving him and it’s a spot where the Braves haven’t been able to get consistent production, it’s an underlying storyline worth considering.

6. A Chipper Jones tribute(?) at CoolToday Park

All eyes are on the battle being waged for the third base job between Johan Camargo and Austin Riley and neither is showing signs of relenting. Camargo is slashing .308/.333/.500 with a home run and two doubles over 26 at-bats and Riley is at .333/.379/.630 with a pair of homers and doubles in 29 ABs and, of most interest, Riley has cut down on the strikeouts with five so far and has drawn a pair of walks. So with that position derby pulling everyone’s attention, how about a third base-related distraction? Here’s one courtesy of @Circuscpa on Twitter, who captured what you might refer to what I suppose we’ll refer to as a tribute to Hall of Famer Chipper Jones at CoolToday Park, where the icon’s photo is on the sign for the men’s bathroom. This is taking branding to a whole new level.

7. Happy birthday, Murph

A happy 64th birthday to Braves legend and captain of the All-Good Guy Team, Dale Murphy. Granted, he spent most of his time in center field — including his peak of back-to-back MVPs and five Gold Gloves — but he did play 101 games in left field, so roll with it. As anyone who has encountered Murph knows, everything that’s said about him is true. He was kind enough to grant me a long interview for Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout and sat down with me and co-host Zach Dillard for a segment for Chopcast LIVE. But one thing Muprhy did that seems so unfathomable today was the “Ask Dale Murphy” advice column he did for the then-dubbed Atlanta Journal & Constitution. As 11-year-old Allan Farr of Jonesboro asked him “When I play baseball, almost everyone seems to swear and cuss a lot. Is this true in professional baseball, and if so, how do you handle it?” Replied Murphy: “If there is some language that is objectionable to you, then you should try to avoid it if you can. Leave if it’s something that doesn’t agree with you. That is what I do.” No response seems to sum up Murphy, who would pick up teammates’ dinners if they didn’t drink. So happy birthday to the one and only, Dale Murphy. If you’re in the Atlanta-area, maybe a meal at Murph’s to celebrate? It’s unclear that if you don’t have any alcohol if the man himself will pick up the tab.

8. Revel in the Power of Pache

Cristian Pache’s time in major league camp is over as he was expectedly optioned to Triple-A ahead of Wednesday’s game, but not before he smacked a three-run homer — his second of the spring — in Tuesday’s split-squad matchup with the Orioles. No one has ever questioned the defense of the 21-year-old Dominican, but after waiting two seasons and nearly 700 ABs for Pache to hit his first professional home run, the power has been a growing component of his game. To be fair, he actually homered in an MLB park before he ever hit one in a minor league one, when he connected twice off Sean Newcomb back in 2018 when the Braves played their Future Stars at SunTrust Park. Whether that got the proverbial monkey of his back or not, or it’s the roughly 20 pounds of muscle to his skinny frame these past two years, he’d go on to hit nine in 2018 and 12 in ‘19. If the spring is any indication he’ll build on those figures in 2020, another tool that’s going to make it more difficult to keep him from cracking the MLB roster sooner rather than later.

9. MLB’s video search filter is the rabbit hole you prayed for

MLB.com has added a new search filter to its video library, and it is absolutely going to take over your life. Ronald Acuña Jr., as we know, has hit 15 leadoff home runs, a run that includes his becoming the second player since 1900 to start three straight games by going deep and the first Braves leadoff hitter to do so in both games of a double header since Felipe Alou in 1967. Thanks to this new MLB tool, you can relive them in all their splendor. So if you haven’t dove into this search engine yet, enjoy this run of all of Acuña’s leadoff homers. Also, for all you masochists out there, here’s all 15 times that Tyler Flowers has been hit by a pitch the last two seasons.