What's been going on with the Braves since they last faced the Phillies?

What's been going on with the Braves since they last faced the Phillies?

When lefty Max Fried delivers the first pitch Friday night in Atlanta, 2½ months will have passed since the Phillies and Braves last met. The Phillies swept the Braves at home March 28-31, outscoring them 23-11 during the best week the Phils' offense has had all year.

It didn't take long for the Braves to recover from that opening series. After beginning 0-3, they won seven of the next eight. The first week of May, the Braves went to Dodger Stadium and were swept, just like the Phillies would be a few weeks later. Atlanta fell to 18-20 on that West Coast trip but has gone 21-9 since.

As a result, the Braves have sole possession of first place for the first time all season entering this weekend’s important three-game set. 

The Phillies and Braves have had markedly different schedules to this point. The Phils have played 14 games already against the Nationals and Mets. The Braves have played just six. Half of Atlanta's 18 divisional games so far this season have come against the Marlins and the Braves have beaten them down, going 8-1.

Almost half of a season has played out since that first Phillies-Braves series. Let's run through the key developments with Atlanta since then:

Acuna already elite

Asked earlier this season about teammate Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman said Acuna has a chance to be as good as Mike Trout. Lofty praise, but it's hard to argue with what Acuna has already accomplished.

After hitting .293/.366/.552 with 26 home runs as a 20-year-old rookie last season, Acuna is hitting .283/.365/.491 with 15 homers this season. He's on pace for 36 home runs and 22 steals and is the most dangerous leadoff man in the NL right now.

The Phillies have not yet felt the full impact of Acuna. He's played 16 games against them and never homered, hitting just .259 with a .688 OPS. 

The Phils are dabbling with the idea of using an opener in one of the games this weekend, but it's more challenging against the Braves than it was against a team as left-handed as the Dodgers. The top of the Braves' order goes Acuna (righty), Dansby Swanson (righty), Freeman (lefty), Josh Donaldson (righty), Nick Markakis (lefty).

Braves' evolving rotation

The Phillies opened the season with a starting pitching edge on the Braves, who had Mike Foltynewicz and a bunch of question marks. 

But the Braves' rotation has actually been better to this point. The rotation ERAs are both between 4.30 and 4.40 but Atlanta has a better WHIP, an opponents' batting average nine points lower and 22 fewer home runs allowed.

Surprisingly, the Braves' ace has been 21-year-old Mike Soroka, who is 7-1 with a 1.92 ERA in 70⅓ innings. Julio Teheran, who has alternated good and bad seasons the last six years, has had a good one so far, posting a 3.03 ERA in 14 starts. And Fried has been very impressive at times with swing-and-miss stuff. The Phillies will face him Friday night.

Foltynewicz has been the worst of the bunch, with a 6.02 ERA. He's too talented to falter much longer. And then there's the newly-signed Dallas Keuchel, who should be ready in a few weeks.

Braves' bullpen

Nobody has really seized the closer's role in Atlanta. Former closer Arodys Vizcaino suffered a season-ending injury and was traded along with Jesse Biddle to Seattle for Anthony Swarzak, who has really helped the Braves as a setup man.

Lefty A.J. Minter got the first crack at saves but struggled and was sent to the minors before being recalled this week.

Lately, save opportunities have gone to right-hander Luke Jackson, who has a 3.27 ERA with nine saves and 49 strikeouts in 33 innings but has also blown five saves.

Atlanta's late-inning formula includes Jackson, Swarzak and likely Minter.

Freddie being Freddie

Is there a more consistent hitter in the NL than Freeman? He's hitting .309/.401/.588, which you can pretty much pencil him in for at season's end. The guy does not have the peaks and valleys of most power hitters, instead hitting .300 seemingly every week with a few extra-base hits.

When the Phillies faced the Braves the first week of the season, they shifted against Freeman every time with the bases empty and he beat the shift more than once. He's just too good with the bat to defend like teams defend Carlos Santana or Bryce Harper. 

After that series, Gabe Kapler said the Phillies had some things to rethink with Freeman. We'll see this weekend what that means.

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J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

More than once last summer, J.T. Realmuto expressed his affection for Philadelphia and said he’d one day be up for signing a long-term contract extension with the Phillies.

The specter of his upcoming salary arbitration hearing hasn’t changed his outlook.

“Not at all,” he said before the 116th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association banquet Monday night. “Anybody who knows about the arbitration process knows it’s business. It’s not necessarily me against the Phillies right now. There’s definitely not going to be any hard feelings there. So I feel like we’re at the same place we were two or three months ago as far as with the contract extension.”

Before the two sides go to work on a long-term contract extension, Realmuto is likely to play the 2020 season on a one-year contract. Barring an unlikely settlement, Realmuto will have his 2020 salary decided by an arbitration panel next month. He is seeking $12.4 million. The Phillies’ arbitration offer is $10 million. The arbitration panel will hear arguments from both sides then pick one number or the other.

Realmuto knows the game. He went to arbitration with the Miami Marlins two years ago and lost.

“I have a good understanding of the process,” he said. “I know it’s not the Phillies trying to slight me. It’s more the system. There are no hard feelings there.”

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is coming off a season in which he solidified himself as baseball’s best catcher while making $5.9 million. He was an All-Star. He was the catcher on the inaugural All-MLB team and he won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in the National League. He led all big-league catchers in hits, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits while swatting a career-high 25 homers. He threw out 37 runners trying to steal, the most in the majors.

Realmuto’s 2019 season put him in a good position to win his arbitration case.

But he made it clear that this is about more than just himself.

"It’s not me against the Phillies,” he said. “It’s the system that we’re trying to fight right now.  I’m trying to go out and set a precedent for future catchers in the game and I feel like I had a season worthy of doing that so I’m going to fight for that.

"This is not because the Phillies didn’t give us a chance to come to an agreement. We’re fighting for a cause, fighting for the rest of the catchers. Historically, catchers have not been treated well in the arbitration process and we feel like this is an opportunity to advance that for the catchers. Just being able to fight for those guys is something I take pride in. I believe in fighting for future generations and I’m excited to do it."

Once Realmuto’s 2020 salary is established in mid-February, the Phillies are expected to initiate talks on an extension that would begin at the start of the 2021 season. Those talks should commence during spring training. A contract extension is expected to cover up to five seasons with an average annual value of over $20 million.

Realmuto, who was honored as the PSWA’s Athlete of the Year for 2019, was joined by new Phillies manager Joe Girardi at the banquet.

“I’m really excited to play for him,” Realmuto said. “I feel like he’s got a lot of feel. He knows exactly what he wants to do as a manager and has a lot of confidence and he’ll be able to instill that confidence in us.”

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Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez broke into the majors with the Houston Astros in 2015. His manager was A.J. Hinch. Jeff Luhnow was the general manager.

You know where this is going.

“I never saw anything,” Velasquez said Monday. “A lot of people have asked me, but I wasn’t there when it happened.

“It was shocking to hear about. And a little bit disappointing.”

The Astros were found to have used an illicit sign stealing scheme during their 2017 World Series championship season. Major League Baseball last week suspended Hinch and Luhnow for the 2020 season and Houston ownership followed up by firing both men. The explosive issue also cost Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran their jobs as managers of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, respectively. Cora was the Astros’ bench coach, and a mastermind of the scheme, in 2017, and Beltran was a player on the team.

Velasquez pitched in just 19 games for the Astros in 2015. He was traded to the Phillies in December of that year.

Pitchers and catchers have always been cognizant of changing their signs and varying their sequences in running through signs, especially when there is a runner on second base, to combat sign stealing. Velasquez predicted that pitchers and catchers will be even more diligent in light of the Astros' scandal.

“Now, we have to be more observant of what we’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be part of the discussion [in spring training.] You have to learn to protect yourself.”

Velasquez is spending the week in Philadelphia helping the team with some promotional work. (He even plans to throw a couple of bullpen sessions in the cages at Citizens Bank Park.) On Monday, Velasquez and teammate Roman Quinn joined former Phillies Milt Thompson and Mickey Morandini at a youth instructional clinic at the Ryan Howard Training Center in South Philadelphia. Forty-five young players affiliated with the Phillies/MLB Urban Youth Academy and RBI program showed up a cold January day to get a head start on the season and some tips from the Phillies players past and present.

Quinn missed significant time last season with a torn groin muscle, the latest in a series of injuries that has robbed the exciting outfielder of playing time in his career. He has made changes to his offseason conditioning program and believes he can stay healthy in 2020 and make a run at the Phillies’ starting centerfield job. As it stands right now, he will battle Adam Haseley for the job in camp.

“I trust my abilities and I know if I’m healthy then it’s hard to keep me out of the lineup,” Quinn said.

Like Quinn, Velasquez will be in a spring-training battle.

The top four spots in the Phillies’ rotation are set with Aaron Nola, Zach Wheeler, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta. Velasquez will compete with Nick Pivetta for the fifth spot in the rotation. The loser of the competition will not necessarily be out of a job as the Phillies need bullpen help and one of the two could end up there.

Velasquez knows where he wants to be.

“I can play any role, but I want to start,” the 27-year-old right-hander said. “I want to be in the rotation. I want to be in that playoff run and I want to be that guy for that game.

“I know I have a job to earn. That’s my main focus. Battling.”

Velasquez, as Phillies fans know by now, is blessed with a tremendous arm. However, he has struggled to put his talents together and arrive at that place known as consistency. He runs high pitch counts and fails to get through the middle of games. He averaged just 4 2/3 innings in his 23 starts last season.

Velasquez knows it’s time for him to pitch deeper into games and he says, “I want that bad.” He has already established a telephone/text/video relationship with new pitching coach Bryan Price in hopes of picking up some keys to doing that.

“We’re in communication,” Velasquez said. “I’ve spoken to him a number of times and sent him videos of some of my bullpens.”

Velasquez avoided salary arbitration and will make $3.6 million this season. As his price tag goes up, so do expectations and the impatience of team officials. He might not be around at this time next season if he doesn’t produce in 2020.

“I’m very optimistic this is the year it clicks,” Velasquez said. “I know I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I feel like I’m starting to figure a lot of things out. A lot of people tend to figure things out after two or three years in the major leagues and I think this is that time for me to put all the pieces together.

“My time is due. It’s really come down to that point where I need to plug in all the pieces.”

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