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So, we’re not going to underestimate the Atlanta Braves again?

We’re not going to assume that this is the year they finally release their stranglehold on their division?

We’re not going to write them off until some other team actually beats them?

Good. Let’s proceed.

Even if the Braves have just one title to show for their five appearances in the World Series, they have had a truly historic run. Bobby Cox returned to the Braves dugout in June 1990; in October, John Schuerholz took over Cox’s previous post as GM. In the 14 seasons since then, the Braves have won 13 division titles. They were in second place when the strike hit in 1994, and while posterity has conceded that year's provisional title to the ill-fated Montreal Expos, we'll never really know. The Braves were just 6 games back when the strike hit. Exactly one year to the day earlier, they had been 9 games back of the Giants. You can ask anyone in San Francisco how that one ended.

Still, last year, it really did look like it was finally going to end. After losing Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood from the rotation the previous year, in 2004 Greg Maddux made his exit as well, signing with the Cubs. Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez, who had combined for 81 HR, 241 RBI, and a .329 BAvg in 2003, were both now in the American League East. Glavine himself beat the Braves on Opening Day to get the season off to a discouraging start, and the Braves puttered along at about a .500 clip for the first two months.

They were spinning their wheels, and showing up on the nightly highlights for all the wrong reasons. On May 2, the Braves committed seven errors, four by 3B Mark DeRosa, in a loss to the Rockies. On May 16, Ben Sheets struck out 18 Braves in a single game. Two days later, Randy Johnson pitched his perfect game, against the Braves. By the 13th of June they were sitting at 30-32.

On 15 June, Bobby Cox took 3B Mark DeRosa - hitting .223 with 3 HR - out of the starting lineup, and replaced him with Chipper Jones. A bad hamstring had sent Jones to the DL in late April; he had re-injured it in early June and was unable to play the outfield. The Braves beat Kansas City 3-2 that night, with Jones at 3B and Eli Marrerro playing in LF.

Nevertheless, the team was still struggling; they lost 6 of their next 7 games after the lineup switch. By the 27th of June, their record stood at 34-39. They were in fourth place, 4.5 games behind the world champion Marlins. Charles Thomas, now playing in LF, was hitting .200; Chipper Jones, for years and years one of the best hitters in the National League, was at .215 with 10 HR. New right fielder JD Drew was hitting .291 with 14 HR, but had yet to make his annual visit to the DL. They had lost each of five previous series, to Detroit, the White Sox, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Florida; each time two games to one. They were playing the rubber match of a three game set with Baltimore. Trailing 7-1 after 7 innings, they seemed certain to make it six series losses in a row.

And at that moment - something happened. Someone hit a switch. The planets moved into a different alignment. Who can explain? The Braves struck for seven runs in the 8th inning to win the game, the series, and... the division.

Did they simply remember who they were? We are the Atlanta Braves, this division belongs to us, and it's not like anyone else has seized power. Time to go out and take it back.

We can now see that the comeback against the Orioles was the second game of a remarkable ten week stretch during which the Braves would play .750 baseball. From June 26 through September 6, the Braves went 48-16. After scoring 4.3 runs per game through the first 72 games, their offense averaged 5.8 runs per game; meanwhile they cut their runs allowed from 4.5 per game to 3.5 per game.

Did they get typical Braves pitching, without Glavine and Maddux? Pretty much, yeah. Here’s what happened last July:

Russ Ortiz 1.67 5 0 0 0 6 6 43.0 32 8 8 1 19 27 .211
Jaret Wright1.42 4 0 0 0 6 6 38.0 25 6 6 2 10 32 .187
Mike Hampton 2.62 5 0 0 0 5 5 34.1 28 10 10 1 8 20 .226
John Smoltz0.46 0 0 10 11 16 0 19.2 10 1 1 1 4 22 .149

That’ll give you a chance to win. JD Drew, who had been carrying the offense anyway, got really hot:

97 19 34 4 1 6 16 14 0 19 4 0 .351 .432 .598 1.030

And in August, Drew started to get some help:

John Estrada 74 7 25 3 0 2 10 10 3 16 0 0 .338 .432 .459 .891
Rafael Furcal 123 20 42 6 1 2 14 14 0 9 12 1 .341 .409 .455 .864
Chipper Jones101 19 34 2 0 11 29 11 1 19 1 0 .337 .404 .683 1.087

By September 6 the Braves had a 13.5 game cushion on the Phillies with less than a month remaining on the schedule. After losing five straight series prior to getting hot in late June, they did not lose a series until dropping the last three of a four game set with the Phillies. By then it was September 9, and the Phillies still trailed the Braves by 10.5 games. The Braves then won 15 of their next 22 before ending the season much as they had begun it - losing the finale to an old friend, this time Greg Maddux.

As for the playoffs - never mind. Maybe Schuerholz and Cox’s stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs, either.


The 2003 Braves scored 907 runs, enough to lead the NL. The 2004 team had to do without the big bats of Sheffield and Lopez, and get by with Chipper Jones having the worst season of his career. They were down more than 100 runs as a result. Still, their total of 803 runs scored was fifth best in the league and behind only Philadelphia in the division. JD Drew led the offense with the best year of his career. However, Drew signed with Los Angeles over the winter. Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero, who ended up seeing most of the action in LF, were both traded. With Chipper Jones back in the infield, the 2005 Braves have vacancies at both corner outfield spots.

The Braves also made up for their offensive shortfall by cutting their runs allowed by 72. After ranking just ninth in the NL in pitching in 2003, the 2004 staff posted the best ERA in the majors. Although there was no true ace, they ran out four solid starters and a fine bullpen. However, two of the four starters and two of the five main relievers will not be back. Jaret Wright (15-8, 3.28) signed with the Yankees; Russ Ortiz (15-9 4.13) with Arizona. Juan Cruz (2.75 ERA in 50 games) was traded to Oakland; Antonio Alfonseca (2.57 ERA in 79 games) signed with Florida. The Braves responded by trading for one legitimate ace, landing Tim Hudson from Oakland. They also believe they had another one all along, tucked away in their bullpen.

So how do they look this year?


Tim Hudson is an outstanding pitcher, a natural staff leader. There are some nagging concerns with Hudson: his K rates have been dropping these last few years; last year they were down to 4.9 per 9 IP; he also missed a fair bit of time with a variety of minor injuries, mostly assorted muscle strains and pulls. He gave up more than a hit per inning for the first time in his career last year. That's the bad news: the good news is Hudson is a 29 year old two-time All Star, a former 20 game winner, and a man with a lifetime record of 92-39.

The other big addition to the rotation is the return of John Smoltz. He has not started a game since June 2001, but has been campaigning to return to the rotation for a couple of years now. He believes that starting 33 games and pitching 200 innings will be less of a strain on his tender elbow than relieving 65 times and working 65 innings. The Braves doctors agree, and Cox and Mazzone will doubtless do their best to protect him. We already know how good he is.

John Thomson got off to a good start in his first year in Atlanta, and then struggled for two months. But as the Braves got hot, Thomson slowly got better and better. He was their best pitcher in September (4-0, 1.36); the 14 wins were a career high and his ERA was below 4.00 for the first time in his career.

Mike Hampton is only now beginning to resemble the pitcher he was before he went to Denver. He struck out just 4.5 per 9 IP last year, which is cutting things extremely fine. But from July 1 through the end of the season, Hampton was 11-1, 3.06; which is a little more like the Mike Hampton we saw in Houston and New York.

Horacio Ramirez is pencilled in as the fifth starter. Last year he was 2-4 2.39 before going down with a sore shoulder in May. Ramirez is a finesse pitcher who walks people (30 in just 60.1 IP last year.) He’s only 25, and he’s hard to hit; he needs to stay healthy and find a strikeout pitch.

With Smoltz in the rotation, Dan Kolb is the new closer. Kolb struck out just 21 men in 57.1 IP for Milwaukee last year; it was the lowest K rate anyone has seen from a good pitcher since the prime of Dan Quisenberry. However, Kolb struck out 39 in 41 IP the year before, with an ERA of 1.96. In other words, he saved 39 games and went to the All-Star game in an off year.

The other arms in the bullpen will include holdovers Kevin Gryboski and Chris Reitsma for sure, and whoever else Leo Mazzone sprinkles his magic dust on this year. Candidates include Gabe White, Jorge Vazquez, Ricky Bottalico, Travis Smith, Ramon Colon, and Tom Martin.


Catcher - Johnny Estrada inherited Javy Lopez's job last year. Estrada was coming off what looked like a career year at age 27 in 2003, hitting .328. Estrada did that for Richmond in the International League, and he did it in his second full year of playing AAA ball. There didn’t seem to be any reason to expect him to do exactly the same thing in the National League. But he did. He was the only Brave in the All-Star game. Go figure.

First Base - The Braves bring back one of the most special platoons in baseball. They had a big rookie from Orange County, Adam LaRoche, swinging left-handed; and from the other side, from the Dominican Republic, the one and only Julio Franco. Last year, the two of them combined for 19 HR and 102 RBI. LaRoche as a rookie hit .278 with 13 HR in 324 AB and its certainly reasonable to expect him to build on that. It should be noted that Julio Franco, in his mid-40s, has raised his batting average by better than 10 points in each of the last three years. So he’ll probably hit about .320 this year. He is definitely a better hitter than... well, Shea Hillenbrand for starters.

Second Base - Marcus Giles is just a good ballplayer, a little 2B with power, draws a walk, and plays good defense. Kind of a right handed Joe Morgan at a lower level. He really has to stop running into bigger people - he missed two months last year crashing into Andruw Jones. The year before, a collision with Mark Prior knocked him out of the lineup. Giles' power numbers were down after the broken collarbone - look for them to come back this year.

Shortstop - Rafael Furcal has been noticed for a few of the wrong things - he wasn’t as young as everyone thought. He got to spend some quality time this off-season as a guest of the state. Furcal's game on the field is pretty good and still growing. He has been increasing his power and reducing his strikeouts at the same time, which is a neat trick. He takes a walk. He has more pop than you expect. He is a terrific base stealer. He covers all kinds of ground in the infield, and has a great arm although he gets a little over-ambitious with it sometimes.

Third Base - Chipper Jones does not like playing left field, and who can blame him? It’s where he tore up his knee and lost an entire season, it’s where he hurt himself last year. Jones is back at 3B now, but he’s not really a good infielder. Furthermore, the Braves have a) an old football player in LF, and b) Andy Marte. John Sickels thinks Marte, a third baseman, is the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues. Marte hasn’t played a game above Double-A yet, so we shall probably see Chipper play at least one more year at 3B. Nothing is wrong with Jones' bat, last year notwithstanding. Jones has been one of the best and one of the most consistent hitters in all of baseball. Prior to last season, he had six consecutive years hitting .300 with at least 26 HR, 100 RBI, and 90 BB. Last year, despite the hamstring injury, problems with his wrists, and the position switch, he still hit 30 HR, drove in 96 and walked 96 times.

Right Field - Raul Mondesi? OK, Raul Mondesi. Jim Fregosi, who managed Mondesi in Toronto and works for the Braves these days, recommended him to Schuerholz. Mondesi has something to prove, and while he never did become the star he was supposed to be, he can still be an effective player. Mondesi turns 34 in March, and last year was a lost season, but he's one year removed from a year when he hit .272 with 24 HR. Mondesi can be an enormous pain in the butt, but Bobby Cox can cope, if anyone can. Cox remains the only man to ever get anything useful out of John Rocker.

Centre Field - Andruw Jones, at the age of 19, hit home runs in his first two World Series at bats. Try following that act. It almost made the rest of his career seem disappointing somehow. Get over it, people. No, he’s not Willie Mays. Neither are the other 29 centre fielders in the game. When people argue who is the best defensive centre fielder in the game, Jones is at the centre of the discussion. As a hitter... well, he has 250 career homers and he’s 27 years old. What exactly do you want from a guy? His 29 HR and 91 RBI last year were his lowest totals since 1999, but he's obviously nowhere near the decline phase of his career.

Left Field - Brian Jordan is a 37 year old former football player with bad knees. He played just 61 games last year, and 66 the year before. He was healthy last September, and showed that he can still punish a left hander. Ryan Langerhans, already an excellent defensive player, took a big step forward with the bat last year, hitting .298 with 20 HR for Richmond. Langerhans, who is 25 and out of options, will make the team. He is expected to compete with Jordan for the LF job. At one time there was thought being given to moving Andy Marte to the outfield; the Braves have now decided against that.

The Bench - Eddie Perez will be Estrada’s caddy; Nick Green filled in nicely when Giles was out, and may also see some action in the OF or at 3B. Wilson Betemit is on hand. The bench is very much a work in progress at this point. The Braves have some very exciting young players, and we're assuming that they're not going to stick with the club this year. But one has a feeling that they're keeping their options open.


Oh, there are a lot of ways this could finally end. The Phillies have been expected to knock off the Braves ever since they signed Jim Thome. Now they’re finally out from under Larry Bowa’s temper. They already have the best offense in the division, so if Charlie Manuel can do anything with the pitching (and they’ve added Jon Lieber to the rotation)... hey, this could be the year. Or maybe it will the Florida Marlins, world champions in 1997 and 2003. Carlos Delgado is a perfect fit for that lineup, with the RH power of Cabrera and Lowell. Replacing Carl Pavano with Al Leiter is an upgrade, in my opinion. If Beckett and Burnett can finally stay healthy for a whole year, the Marlins may have the best rotation in the division. That is, unless the Mets do. Pedro Martinez is still Pedro Martinez, and the NL hasn’t seen his stuff for some time. Tom Glavine pitched great last year, although his W-L didn't reflect it. Zambrano, Benson, and Trachsel is a pretty decent back end of the rotation, David Wright is the real thing, and they have added an outfielder as well, guy named Beltran.

And meanwhile, the Braves are running Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi out there every day, and they’re just... mediocre. John Smoltz’s elbow starts barking at him in early June. Tim Hudson pulls something and misses a month. Marcus Giles gets hurt, again. Johnny Estrada remembers he was a .235 lifetime hitter before last season. Chipper Jones, at 33, continues to decline. Julio Franco finally begins to play like someone older than Barfield, Bell, and Moseby... It could all happen.

Naah. In mid-May, Brian Jordan’s knees give out. Chipper Jones reluctantly moves back to LF. Andy Marte comes up, wins the rookie of the year award. Unless Ryan Langerhans wins it instead. John Smoltz, handled with care, makes 29 starts and goes 16-6. Tim Hudson wins 19. Danny Kolb starts striking hitters out again, gets his ERA below 2.00 and saves 40 games... same old, same old, same old..

They’re the Atlanta Braves. You need a silver bullet. You need a stake through the heart. You need to see someone beat them before you can expect them to get beat.

PREDICTION: 94-68, First place
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Mick Doherty - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 09:57 AM EST (#104347) #
Well, in lieu of a roundup, I guess a Braves preview is as appropriate a place for this as any could be; former Braves ace Rick Mahler passed yesterday, of a heart attack. It's never a good feeling to lose a player you remember watching when you were in college. CBS Sportsline refers to Mahler as ace for dismal '80s Braves teams, so that was truly a different era.
Mike Green - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 10:11 AM EST (#104349) #
The NL East features four good, but not great, teams. It wouldn't shock me if the three best teams in the whole league emerge from the East, and one is left on the outside.

My best guess is that all four teams will end up between 84 and 91 wins, with the unbalanced schedule punishing them to the extent of a couple of wins each.

A word on Andy Marte. Everyone loves him (John Sickels for instance has him as a Grade A). I agree, but a note of caution is appropriate. When he was promoted to double A, he hit .269 and struck out 105 times in 107 games. He's got power and he will take a walk, but still that doesn't translate so well to the Show. For comparison, Adam Dunn hit .343 and .329 in double A and triple A with significantly fewer strikeouts. Dunn was ready. Marte probably could use the better part of a season in triple A to work on his strike zone control.

Nice preview, Magpie.
Jordan - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 12:09 PM EST (#104385) #
I was watching a game sometime in the 1980s, a meaningless match between two not-very-good teams, the Braves and Expos. I think it was around the 6th inning, and Rick Mahler was pitching to Mike Fitzgerald. But the game was tied 4-4, the bases were loaded, there were two outs and the count was full.

As Mahler got set to pitch, I realized that I was actually excited -- leaning in towards the screen, heart pounding -- even though the teams meant little to me and the eventual outcome of the game even less. And I realized at that moment what a powerful hold baseball had on me, and on all its fans -- that this classic confrontation of pitcher versus batter, nowhere to put him, no more chances for the hitting team, either score or leave the field, one pitch to decide it all -- this could generate excitement in even as pedestrian a game as this, with such ordinary ballplayers facing each other down. That was the heart of the game right there, to be repeated again and again countless times in countless places, and it felt great to recognize that and enjoy that moment.

Fitzgerald fouled the pitch off. The next pitch he tapped to Rafael Ramirez at shortstop, who tossed to the second baseman for the force, and the teams ran off the field -- only to come out and do it all over again the next inning.

That's my one memory of Rick Mahler, and for that memory alone, this is sad news for me.
Jordan - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 12:10 PM EST (#104386) #
And lest I overlook it -- terrific preview.
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