After being swept by the Philadelphia Phillies to start the season, the Atlanta Braves opened the month of April on a tear. On Sunday, they have the opportunity to avoid losing a series for a fourth consecutive time while gaining some ground on the National League East.
It has been an eventful couple of weeks for the Braves (8-6, 3rd in NL East). Not only did Atlanta go 5-1 during the first week of April, it also locked up one of their most coveted pieces for the foreseeable future by signing Ronald Acuna, Jr. to an unprecedented $100 million contract extension.
The 21-year-old now has the richest contract ever for a player with less than a year of major league service. The Venezuelan turned down a $30 million offer from the club in 2018 before even making a major league plate appearance.
Acuna can earn up to $124 million if the team picks up the last two years of the contract. That choice could also mean the reigning rookie of the year will have a major league home for the next decade.
Liberty Media Group and the Braves’ front office then decided to follow up that deal with yet another surprise signing this week. On Thursday, the organization announced that second baseman Ozzie Albies inked a $35 million extension through 2025. His deal also comes with a club option that can add two years to Albies’ tenure. The 2018 All-Star is batting .321 with a .825 OPS. He also has 6 multi-hit games on the young season.
Both deals potentially give Atlanta amazing value for years to come.
Acuna Gets Going
Despite the comforting news of the Acuna extension, the Braves were still waiting for the outfielder to get things going at the plate. Acuna collected only four hits in 31 at-bats during the team’s first nine games.
A trip to hitter-friendly Coors Field was all that was needed for Acuna to get hot and the Braves to win their third straight series. Not only did the phenom launch a home run in three consecutive games, he has also boosted his batting average to .300 by raking in 11 hits since Monday. With a WAR of 1.3 already on the season, Acuna is off to a torrid pace. According to Baseball Reference, the young star ranks among some of the game’s best over the past few decades.
Acuna is 7-for-12 with a home run and five RBIs so far in the current series with the New York Mets. He has reached base in 12 consecutive games. Something will have to give, as the Braves face off against Mets’ ace Jacob DeGrom on Sunday night. Acuna is 3-for-9 in his career, with three strikeouts and no home runs, against the reigning Cy Young Award winner.
.@ronaldacunajr24 has caught his stride. pic.twitter.com/37FwXTqBEb
— MLB (@MLB) April 14, 2019
Fried Finding His Role
While waiting for star pitcher Mike Foltynewicz to complete his rehab starts at Gwinnet, the Atlanta rotation has been a makeshift of pitchers both seasoned and young. The latter have had the opportunity to take advantage and solidify a roster spot, and potentially, a permanent spot in the rotation.
So far, Max Fried is making a case for getting the starting nod every 5-6 days. With the struggles of Sean Newcomb becoming more prevalent, it is a foregone conclusion that Fried will be a starter for the rest of 2019.
After two relief appearances to start the year, Fried got the opportunity to showcase his ability to endure multiple trips through the batting order by taking the bump against the Chicago Cubs. He followed up that six-inning, one-hit performance with another stellar outing that lasted a full six. Fried earned the series-clinching win against the Rockies on Tuesday.
In all, the 25-year-old has logged 13.2 innings while giving up just six hits and surrendering only one run. The lefty has been able to utilize his hammering curveball and sharp fastball to the tune of nine strikeouts. Fried is 2-0 on the year and, based on a small sample-size, appears to be the Braves’ best weapon on the mound.
Moving and Shaking: Has Touki Found His Role?
Due to the aforementioned pitching concerns, coach Brian Snitker has many options at his disposal to form a starting rotation.
Folty will soon be back, barring any setbacks. The Braves’ ace is due to return after one final rehab start with Gwinnet on Monday.
After being called up just hours prior on Saturday, Touki Toussaint entered in relief for the struggling Newcomb and did not disappoint. The right-hander impressed by going six strong innings and surrendering just one run. Toussaint was simply the difference for Atlanta, as Newcomb and reliever Chad Sobotka combined to allow six runs. The Braves’ 11 runs, combined with Toussaint’s dazzling performance was too much for the Mets.
His breaking ball even brought some to their knees.
Touki made Pete Alonso bend the knee last night. Twice. pic.twitter.com/pY2HJQU1g9
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) April 14, 2019
Even when Folty rejoins the staff, Toussaint has earned a new role thanks to his impressive outing on Saturday night. According to David O’Brien from The Athletic, Brian Snitker has put the starter tab on Toussaint “for now.”
On Sunday, the Braves announced that Newcomb would be optioned to Gwinnett, joining Kyle Wright, who was sent down after a disappointing start on Friday. Both are winless in a combined six games.
Reliever Arodys Vizcaino was also part of the news dump. Atlanta designated him to the 10-day disabled list due to lingering shoulder issues. Dan Winkler and Jacob Webb will join the major league club on Sunday.
Couple of significant roster moves Sunday: #Braves optioned command-challenged Sean Newcomb to Triple-A Gwinnett and put Arodys Vizcaino on 10-day injured list w/ shoulder inflammation, retroactive to April 11. They recalled RHRs Dan Winkler and Jacob Webb from Gwinnett.
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) April 14, 2019
The first week of April was kind to the Braves. Atlanta was able to take advantage of a depleted Miami squad after pouncing on the struggling Cubs.
This week has presented different challenges. After taking two games from Colorado, the Braves came home to a formidable Mets club. While they are unable to win the series, the Braves have the opportunity to even things up with their division foe and could end the night with a share of the NL East lead.
Atlanta currently sits one game behind New York, and a half game behind Philadelphia in the standings. A win would give the Braves a 9-3 record for the month of April. But it won’t be easy.
Julio Teheran (1-1, 6.00 ERA) will be on the bump for Atlanta as they face the ever-relentless DeGrom (2-1, 3.18 ERA) at 7 p.m. on ESPN.