The Braves’ summer camp hasn’t been a blast

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves pitcher Mike Foltynewicz talks about what he wanted to accomplish in exhibition game against Marlins before the start of the 2020 season.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

According to BetOnline, the odds of the Braves winning the 2020 World Series, as of Feb. 5, were 14-1. The same Braves – the same, though slightly different – are given odds of 20-1 today. That’s not awful, but it does represent slippage. Five-plus months ago, the Braves’ odds lagged only those of the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros. Today the Braves are in a three-way tie for sixth with the Reds and A’s.

They’re still assessed the highest over/under win total in the National League East. (The Nationals are likewise at 33 ½.) Among National League clubs, only the Dodgers (37 ½) are given a higher number. We must also note that four of the five NL East clubs are given an over/under of 30 ½ or better. Over a 162-game schedule, there’s lots of wiggle room. Over a 60-game season, there’s 63 percent less.

None of this speculation will matter when the MLB season finally opens, which in/of itself marks a major achievement. Everyone will play – or try to play – through September, and then 10 teams will qualify for October. (Assuming there is a baseball October, but let’s leave my gloom-and-dooming for another day.) Like all teams, the Braves are concluding a three-week summer camp. Theirs, it must be said, hasn’t gone so well.

Freddie Freeman tested positive and has just now returned. Will Smith tested positive and hasn’t returned. Cole Hamels pronounced himself healthy on the first day of camp; he has yet to throw a pitch to a hitter. Felix Hernandez opted out. Nick Markakis opted out. Yasiel Puig opted in; then he tested positive and was gone without ever arriving. Cristian Pache tweaked his ankle. Mike Foltynewicz yielded three home runs in an exhibition inning against the mighty Marlins on Tuesday.

If you’re looking for a smiley face to hang on Camp Truist, it’s that the Braves reported no COVID-19 cases beyond the initial four – Freeman, Smith, Touki Toussaint and Pete Kozma. (That’s unless you count Puig, which you probably shouldn’t.) That’s a sign that MLB’s testing apparently is working, though we underscore the obvious: The Braves haven’t traveled yet. Their first five games will be in New York and Florida.

Mostly the Braves have been playing themselves, never the greatest measure. The biggest change from July 3 to now has been the loss of rotational depth – King Felix in exile, Hamels still in flux. That means the starting five almost surely will consist of Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, Foltynewicz and Kyle Wright. All are talented, yes, all having been somebody’s Round 1 draftee. The latter three, however, spent time in the minors as late as last summer; the top of the rotation features two pitchers coming off their heaviest professional workloads.

That’s why Hamels/Fernandez were brought here – to offer cover in case one of the younger guys goes sour. (Don’t say it can’t happen. It happened with Foltynewicz, a 2018 All-Star, last year.) This quintet is something John Coppolella envisioned when he assembled it, the since-jettisoned general manager having drafted Soroka and Wright and traded for the other three. It’s possible the Coppy Five will become the best rotation in the business. Still, with so many young guys, you’re never sure, and you’re even less certain when a season is set to last only two months.

Alex Anthopoulos, now the Braves’ GM, made a tiny move Tuesday that hearkened to the Coppolella days. Anthopoulos signed Jhoulys Chacin, a 32-year-old who has worked for nine different teams. One of them, albeit briefly, was the Braves. He made five starts at the beginning of the 2016 season, whereupon Coppolella did what he always intended to do: He flipped him for a younger pitcher. That was Adam McCreery, who’s 6-foot-9. He has made one big-league appearance. As a Brave, he worked an inning Aug. 8, 2018. He yielded four hits and two runs. He was shipped to the Dodgers that winter.

In 2016, Chacin was a place-holder as the Braves awaited the flowering of their lovingly acquired young arms. In 2020, he’s cheap insurance in case one of those not-as-young pitchers can’t hold up his end. He’s also an arm that could allow the Braves to tag-team early starts, as all teams will surely seek to do coming off what amounted to a mini-camp.

Let’s be clear: On talent, the Braves can stand with anybody. Trouble is, nobody knows how talents – of any age – will respond to a season like no other. With six months to work through, it’s possible to muddle around and still make the playoffs. The pandemic has turned what’s normally a marathon into a 5K. You can’t fall way behind, especially when 40 of your 60 games will be played against divisional opponents.

This is why having Freeman coming off so few at-bats since March could matter. It’s why not having Hamels or Smith available for Game 1 undercuts some of what Anthopoulos sought to do over the winter. It’s why the absence of Markakis, and Puig, reduces the stockpile of available bats over two months with the universal DH.

By no means do the Braves look terrible. They just don’t look quite as robust as we thought they might. That said, it’s 60 games. Nobody has seen this sort of season before, meaning nobody knows anything. Least of all me.

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