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Starting Nine: Nightmares of a Freeman-less offense; Markakis is (Braves) HOF-bound

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Plus, those discussions of silencing The Chop and Braves among team with a gripe against MLB in Nashville

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at Detroit Tigers
Austin Riley figures to see time at first base if Freddie Freeman is unavailable once games begin, but the Braves don’t have an option at the position who hit league average against righties in 2019.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

What’s next? Freddie Freeman is ill. Nick Markakis has elected not to play; the same with Felix Hernandez. The realities of trying to get this MLB season off the ground amid a pandemic are settling in, with testing delays affecting multiple teams and the Braves having the unfortunate standing as the first team to have a major star test positive for COVID-19.

The words of Ron Swanson ring true as we set our gaze for the July 23 start of the season with the Yankees and defending champion Nationals: “Blueprints for the future are a fool’s errand.”

Each day comes with it a new wrinkle, a new reason to be skeptical that the 30 teams and 1,800 available players can actually pull this thing off. But in the here and now, running the risk of a fool’s errand, are nine storylines, thoughts and stats for the Braves, set to open the 2020 campaign on July 24 at the Mets.

1. A gauntlet, a marathon ... and then a walk in the park

Drawing the American League East, no matter how this 60-game schedule was going to be set up was bad news for the Braves considering the National League East is the deepest division in baseball. But then you add in that Atlanta will go from July 24-Aug. 13 without a day off as they’re just one of seven teams that plays 20 games in 20 days and the fact is this schedule is like running a marathon with a weighted vest. To make matters worse, during that opening 20-game stretch, the Braves will face just one team, that Las Vegas has with an over-under below 31 wins (the Blue Jays, who could well make a run at .500 with that young, talented roster) and also has to face the Yankees twice on the road in that run. In the Braves’ favor, they will take on the lowly Marlins and Orioles in 10 of their final 20 games but getting to that point is going to be one rocky ride.

2. What happens to this offense if Freeman misses time?

This question looms larger than any other over the franchise right now. One of four players who tested positive — along with Will Smith and Touki Toussaint (both as of the last word, asymptomatic) and Pete Kozma, who, like Freeman, has a fever — Freeman’s wife Chelsea posted that he had body aches, headaches, chills and a high fever. The four-time All-Star first baseman hasn’t been ruled out for Opening Day, and will need to be symptom-free for 72 hours, then complete two negative tests 24-plus hours apart before he can rejoin the team, so there remains the possibility that he won’t’ be cleared to start the season (Take it for what you will, but the Braves didn’t put their highest-paid player on the schedule graphic they released Monday). Manager Brian Snitker said of Freeman’s status “as we go forward, we’re going to use the guys that we’ve got here, obviously, and not worry about something we can’t control right yet.” In lieu of spending 2,201,100 words expounding on what Freeman has meant to this Braves offense in his nine full MLB seasons, it’s obvious that not having him is going be a detriment, and it’s going to be a major drag on the top half of the lineup. Marcell Ozuna would obviously slide up to third in any batting order that’s sans Freeman, with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies at 1-2, but in that scenario, who is their right mind is pitching to Ozuna? Austin Riley, the likely candidate to fill Freeman’s spot at first base, may be improved, Adam Duvall could play there as well, there’s always Yonder Alonso and adding massive, power-hitting lefty Bryce Ball to the taxi squad is intriguing. But no matter who they would go with if Freeman is unavailable, the Braves don’t have an option who hit at league average against righties to play the position and only one player with a wRC+ of 100-plus vs. righties that could aid the order, Tyler Flowers (111 wRC+). That matters considering the Braves, one of nine teams to three NL teams to hit above average against righties last year (103 wRC+ behind Freeman’s 154) play 40 of the 60 games are in-division, where there are just three left-handed starters among the projected rotations (Marlins’ Caleb Smith, Mets’ Steven Matz and Nationals’ Patrick Corbin). If Freeman misses any action once games begin, this Braves offense could be in for some low-scoring affairs vs. righties.

3. Even if he’s played his final Braves game, Markakis is HOF-bound

Braves Hall of Fame, that is. The saber crowd has its gripes with the Nick Markakis resume, especially from a defensive standpoint for a guy that has won three Gold Gloves, and Atlanta never got to see the version of Markakis that had consistent double-digit home run capabilities, but even if he’s played his final game for the franchise after electing not to play in the 2020 season, Markakis has all but guaranteed he’s going to be a member of the club’s HOF. Since Markakis joined the Braves in 2015 on that four-year $44 million deal, he leads the team in hits (808), games played (752), is tied with Freeman for the most doubles (183) and trails only Freeman with 373 RBI. The stats won’t be the defining piece, though, as Markakis has long been lauded for his leadership, especially as Freeman found his own way into that role as those players he came up with — Jason Heyward, Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, etc. — fell off the roster. That role as the heart and soul behind closed doors resonated and add in that career year of 2018 in which Markakis became a first-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner to go with a third Gold Glove, and the die is cast. Markakis, who said of playing next year “well see,” could be done, but as youth makes its rise in Atlanta’s ranks in the outfield, it’s difficult to see him having a place on the roster in 2021, but his place in the organization’s history will be secure.

4. The lineup dominos with no Markakis

When Markakis was still in the plans, the Braves had three left-handed bats on the roster. Now, with him gone and Freeman’s return undetermined, there remains just one available lefty among the pool of players in Atlanta — Ender Inciarte — while there are three in Gwinnett — Ball, Logan Brown and Braden Shewmake — and two switch hitters in the latter pool in Yangervis Solarte and Drew Waters. There’s also the matter of the outfield depth taking a hit, with Markakis’ exit leaving that list of players to Acuña, Duvall, Inciarte and Ozuna. With Snitker saying as of now the Braves aren’t considering add any free agents, extending a non-roster camp invite to Ball would provide a major source of power among those on the outside looking in, but doesn’t aid the outfield situation. Riley figures to see an uptick in usage given his experience in the outfield and at first but expect the calls for the arrivals of Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to only grow louder, and this would appear to be opening for either (more likely the former) to get the call. This could be the situation that makes it a necessity, but rolling out an outfield of Duvall/Ozuna in left, Inciarte in center and Acuña in right with Riley in the mix and Alonso the lefty bat off the bench seems the safer and more expected outcome, especially if Freeman is available sooner rather than later.

5. Give me these two Braves locks in prop bets

Prop bets are out for the shortened season via @SportsBettingAG, and while the Freeman over/unders are enticing (11 1/2 home runs, 37 1/2 RBI and .295 batting average) uncertainty remains, but there are two locks from a pair of young Braves stars: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Max Fried. Acuña’s over/under for steals is at 11 1/2, a number that he surpassed in two months last season (15 in July, 12 in August) and he was right there with 11 in September before he was shut down with four games to go in the 40/40 chase. Fried comes in at 63 1/2 strikeouts, and with a likely 12 starts in this 60-game slate, even averaging five innings, averaging the 9.43 K/9 he had in 2019 should get him around 65 punch-outs.

6. Newcomb’s particular set of skills perfect for what lies ahead

With former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez bowing out after one day of Summer Camp, the list of options for the fifth spot in the rotation behind Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Cole Hamels and Max Fried dwindles. But the usage of pitchers, with the look in Wednesday’s intra-squad scrimmage a guide as Atlanta figures to piggyback arms in the weeks before the rosters go from 30 players to 24, may play into the usage of one of those players vying to claim a spot on that starting staff. Kyle Wright was sensational in the spring, with the right-hander posting a 2.03 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 15 strikeouts to three walks in 13 1/3 innings, with Sean Newcomb posting nearly identical numbers (2.00 ERA, 1.111 WHIP, 11 strikeouts and two walks in nine innings). Newcomb does have those 53 career starts under his belt, but his effectiveness out of the bullpen last season (9.6 SO/9 and 53 1/3 innings over 51 appearances, including a 1.93 ERA and .188 batting average against in September) may make him uniquely suited for the kind of swing roles that will be needed in those first four weeks before the rosters shrink. The lefty has made no secret of his desire to reclaim a rotation spot, and the monster of this pandemic season might be right for Newcomb to continue to get his chances, while also coming out of the bullpen.

7. Depth of bullpen key, but Will Smith’s status looms large

It’s unclear when Will Smith, who like fellow pitcher Touki Toussaint have been asymptomatic since testing positive last week, will be cleared to join the Braves. It’s also worth remembering that either could be pre-symptomatic, meaning we really don’t know when they could be back in the fold. But for now, the Braves have to consider that, like with Freeman, they’ll be down a key cog in Smith — who signed a three-year, $39 million deal in November — and while it’s a different animal than at first given the depth in the bullpen, there may not be a more crucial arm in that relief corp. Smith, an All-Star in 2019 after racking up 13.22 K/9 (12th among all MLB relievers), wasn’t expected to get the brunt of the save opportunities; Mark Melancon was. The new acquisition represents a potential departure from Snitker’s typical approach of his relievers having defined roles, with Smith able to come in when the situation and not the inning number dictates. Think Andrew Miller during the IndiansWorld Series run, not the abysmal version the Cardinals trotted out in 2019. Smith could well be ready to go for Opening Day, and the Braves do have depth to lean on if he isn’t, elevating the value of a healthy Darren O’Day. But in a sprint of a season, any games when a roster isn’t at full strength are magnified, putting the Smith status right there in list of concerns behind Freeman as July 24 draws closer.

8. Silencing The Chop ultimately falls on fans, not Braves

Amid the Redskins and Indians name-change pursuits, the conversation shifting to the Braves was inevitable. While that may not happen in Atlanta, discussions — per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal — of the team’s use of the “Tomahawk Chop” are, both on the heels of what’s happening in D.C. and Cleveland and after criticism from Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsey, a member of the Cherokee Nation, during last season’s NLDS. While the Braves have certainly perpetuated The Chop — and as anyone who has been to a game at SunTrust/Truist Park can attest, they’ve amped it up 10 fold in recent years, of late cutting the lights and letting the phone-waving fans do the rest — and they can take steps to diminish it, but they aren’t the ones who can ultimately silence it. Those who know The Chop’s origins are aware it came from Florida State fans coming to see their former star Deion Sanders at spring training in West Palm, and it migrated north to Atlanta. It was organic, and while the team could conceivably distance itself from it, there’s no controlling tens of thousands of people’s ability to keep doing it in unison. This is in by no means backing or condemning the use of a Native American team name and I’ll leave whether the team can stay the Braves to far smarter people, and the those whose heritage can determine it a tribute or offensive. But it’s just a reality that while the franchise can have conversations on the topic, disassociating from The Chop isn’t change, it’s up to the fans whether it remains part of the fabric of baseball in Atlanta.

9. The underlying roadblock to baseball in Nashville

Dave Dombroski, the architect behind World Series champions with the Marlins and Red Sox, and whose Tigers teams made it to the big stage twice, has joined forces with Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart to help bring MLB to Nashville and their led by John Lohr, a businessman whose resume includes adviser to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and business affairs adviser to Sugar Ray Leonard. It also has a nice ring to it with the proposed Nashville Stars — named after a Negro League team — playing in stadium they want to name after Jackie Robinson. Be it an expansion club or a relocated one, Nashville is an alluring locale, but it’s where the city is situated and the other teams that would fight tooth and nail, the Braves specifically, that makes this seem more pipe dream than blueprint. The Nashville TV market, which ranks 29th in Nielsen DMAs (just behind San Diego), already gets Braves, Cardinals and Reds games, and the proposed Stars would surely see their TV footprint expand across Tennessee parts of Kentucky (Cardinals, Reds and Indians), North Carolina (Braves, Nationals, Orioles and Reds), Alabama (Braves) and Mississippi (Braves, Reds and Cardinals). That’s a lot of teams with a lot of gripes if this MLB-to-Nashville push actually happened, and considerably diminishing Atlanta’s stronghold on households in the Southeast. Those TV dollars, and what it would mean to each of those teams enjoying a would-be Nashville teams’ market may make this too much of an up-hill climb.