Nah. Not the Braves. Their time has surely passed. After
all, they're heading into 2008 with two 40 year old starting pitchers.
When was the last time a team won a championship with two such elderly
folks in the rotation?
It was 2007?
Not quite as long ago as I was expecting. Maybe we still have to take this outfit seriously.
As usual, the big news in Atlanta this off-season was about who was leaving town. Last off-season they traded first baseman Adam LaRoche, coming off a 32 homer season, to Pittsburgh for a relief pitcher. This winter, shortstop Edgar Renteria was traded to Detroit for Gorkys Hernandez and Jair Jurrjens, neither of whom are exactly household names. They also watched as centre fielder Andruw Jones, still just 30 years old, took his 10 Gold Gloves and his 368 career homers to Los Angeles, where he'll be reunited with former Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal, who left Atlanta after the 2005 season. Watching free agents leave town has become an annual ritual in Atlanta - besides Jones and Furcal, the past five years have seen the departures of second baseman Marcus Giles, outfielders J.D. Drew and Gary Sheffield, and pitchers Jaret Wright (15-8, 2.21 as a Brave), Russ Ortiz (you laugh? he went 36-16 in his two years with the Braves), Paul Byrd, and - oh yes - Greg Maddux.
Still, what may have been the most significant departure came in the front office. John Schuerholz, the Atlanta GM since October 1990, has moved aside after seventeen seasons. Schuerholz becomes team president, while Frank Wren takes over as the GM. Wren has an utterly impossible act to follow. Seriously - one losing record in seventeen years? Fourteen first place finishes?
Schuerholz was also the GM for the 1985 Kansas City Royals, and here's your trivia question, Bauxites: Identify the last man before Schuerholz who was the GM for two different World Series winning franchises. Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, and Pat Gillick all won multiple titles with the same team - not too many people in recent history have turned the same trick for two different teams.
Anyway, the off-season news in Atlanta is depressing. But they're used to that by now, and they may have one or two assets remaining. On the field, where they actually play the games.
The Braves finished third in the NL East in 2007 - their 84-78 mark left them five games behind the first place Phillies. Pythagoras, for one, thinks the Braves may have been a better team than the W-L record indicates. In fact, Pythagoras thinks they should have gone 89-73 and edged out the Phillies for the division title. They certainly should have beaten out the Mets, who actually scored fewer runs than the Braves and allowed more. The Braves underachieved their expected record by five games; in 2006, they underachieved by six games (they went 79-83 despite scoring 849 runs and allowing 805.) It's very unlikely that this will happen again. You can roll the dice and see snake eyes once, and it's not a big deal. Twice, and you're surprised - hey! Snakes eyes! Twice! But three times in a row? Just not supposed to happen, and in the last hundred years, only four teams have performed five games below their expected Pythagorean record in three consecutive seasons. The last two years are the only occasions in his 27 seasons as a major league manager that a Bobby Cox team has fallen five games short of their expected record. It is not going to happen again.
The Braves, as you surely know, are one of baseball's offensive powerhouses. They scored 810 runs last season, third highest total in the National League. And unlike the two teams that outscored them, the Braves didn't get to play 81 games in those notorious hitter's havens known as Citizens Bank Park and Coors Field. Au contraire, mon ami - Turner Field has established itself as one of the better pitcher's parks in the game today. In 2007, the Braves scored 4.65 runs per game at home and 5.35 runs per game on the road. They had the fifth best offense in the majors away from their own park. Look at it this way - they scored many more runs in their road games than the reigning World Champs, despite the fact that none of their pitchers can swing the bat quite as well as David Ortiz. They seem able to make up for it elsewhere.
There's every reason to expect them to keep scoring runs. Their off-season losses shouldn't change that at all. Andruw Jones has been a productive player in the past, and may well be again. But he was not an effective hitter in 2007. He hit 26 HR and drove in 94 runs, but his rate stats were .222/.313/.413. His replacement, Mark Kotsay, is at best a league average hitter - but Jones was a below average hitter last season. And while Edgar Renteria had a wonderful season for the Braves last season - .332/.390/.470 - the reason the Braves traded him away wasn't because they didn't like him. It was to clear the decks for Yunel Escobar, who's seven years younger, millions of dollars cheaper, much more mobile in the field, and put up a pretty nifty .326/.385/.451 line himself in 94 games (319 at bats) last season. They really haven't lost much at all, and there are several spots in the lineup where it's quite reasonable to expect the 2008 squad to be better.
Behind the plate, for example. Brian McCann was troubled all season long by injuries to his thumb and ankles. He stayed in the lineup anyway - only Russell Martin of the Dodgers caught more innings than McCann last year - but his offensive numbers took a beating. Now, having a 23 year old catcher who hits 18 HR and drives in 92 runs isn't the worst thing in the world. But one year ago, McCann was coming off a season when he hit .333 and slugged .572. (McCann, Mauer, Martin - do we have some exciting young catchers in the game today or what?). Catchers will get hurt, and very often don't develop as hitters - but McCann doesn't need to develop. He's already been there. He doesn't even need to get all the way back to where he was. His probable backup will be the returning prodigal, Javy Lopez. After being released by the Rockies in training camp, Lopez sat out 2007, but decided that he didn't want to give it up all just yet. To the surprise of everyone around the Braves, Lopez spent the off-season working on defensive drills, in a long overdue attempt to improve what was always the weakest part of the game.
After the 2006 season, the Braves traded away their first baseman last and plugged in Scott Thorman, the pride of Cambridge, to fill the spot. It didn't work. Thorman hit just .216, and at the trading deadline the Braves made a fairly significanr upgrade. They made the winning bid in the Mark Teixeira auction. It cost them catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, universally regarded as an outstanding prospect - but a team that already has a 23 year old star catcher can cash that kind of chip from time to time. Now some of us wondered - hey, I wondered - how this would work. Teixeira would be switching from one of the better hitter's parks in the game to one of the better pitcher's parks. Early returns suggest that it didn't much bother him. He played 54 games - exactly one third of a season - for the Braves. He hit 17 HRs. He drove in 56. Multiply that by three. Teixeira's .317/.404/.615 almost makes him the most dangerous switch hitter in the Braves infield.
Almost, because the fellow at the other corner still swings a pretty good bat himself. Chipper Jones will be 36 next month. He's never been all that good with the glove, and at his age, he's not going to get any better. Teixeira's presence on the team makes it impossible to move to him first base (of course, Teixeira is a free agent next winter.) Jones has been plagued by bunions in his feet, and a variety of aches and strains and pulls. After eight straight seasons of playing at least 153 games, he's missed 158 games over the last four seasons. Last year he was able to haul himself onto the field for 134 games, which was at least better than the seasons preceding. But at least the injury that knocked him out of the batting order last May wasn't a case of an aging player breaking down. It was the result of a weird collision on the base paths with Pirates third baseman Jose Bautista. Jones hurt his thumb and both wrists, missed a few games, came back and tried to play, sat out and tried a cortisone shot, went on the DL for a few weeks, and finally played the last three months of the season with a sore thumb and pain in both wrists. He scuffled and struggled his way to a .337/.425/.604 season. He did manage to score 108 runs and drive in 102. He hit 29 homers - 10 homers in the 35 games before he was hurt, 19 in the 99 games he played the rest of the way. OK, the man can still hit a little. And, for whatever it's worth, he's not going to have a .222 hitter batting behind him this year. In fact, has there been a more frightening pair of switch-hitters back to back in the same lineup? Ever? Anyway, just by having Teixeira all year long gives the Braves every reason to expect improved production from their corner infielders in 2008.
Jones' injury prompted Atlanta to summon Yunel Escobar from AAA Richmond, where he was hitting .333/.379/.456. Apparently no one told young Escobar that the National League is one of those major leagues, because he put up almost identical numbers for the Braves. He filled in for Jones at third base when he arrived. He then supplanted Pete Orr as the fifth infielder when Jones returned, as Bobby Cox looked for ways to get his bat into the lineup. That opportunity came when Reneteria sprained his ankle on August 2. Escobar took immediate advantage - you might say, on behalf of the group and meself, that he passed the audition. Playing everyday at short, he hit .352 for the month of August, showing superior range in the field, and generally impressing the hell out of his manager and teammates. The only question the Braves have regarding him this year is whether they should bat him at the bottom the order, thus easing the pressure on the young player in his first full season in the majors, or to put him in one of the two spots at the top right from the start.
One of the abiding characteristics of the Braves during the Schuerholz-Cox era is supreme confidence in their own judgement. This only works if your judgement is pretty sound in the first place. But decisions have a much better chance of working out if you commit yourself to them. When leadoff hitter and second baseman Marcus Giles moved along to San Diego a year ago, the Braves decided that the best man to replace him, at second base and at the top of the order, was an outfielder. Who had never played second base before in his life. Who had missed the entire 2006 season after Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. Who promptly went 6-40 to begin the 2007 season. But the Braves believed they'd made the right call, they stuck with Kelly Johnson, and they were rewarded. He hit .287 the rest of the way, after his rough start - he also drew 79 walks to finish with a .375 OBP. He knocked out 52 extra base hits, including 16 homers, and scored 91 runs. Cox moved him away from the top of the order when the team offense went south last June, and he may or may not return to the leadoff role this year. His glove work fell off towards the end of last season, and at this point he can not be regarded as a good second baseman. But the Braves believe he will improve here - they note that 2007 was his first year at the position, they cite Johnson's work ethic and athleticism, and, especially, the fact that Glenn Hubbard is still on the Braves staff to tutor him.
The Braves bench was a problem last season. Chris Woodward and Craig Wilson were expected to be the main men, but neither could crack the Mendoza Line. It was gruesome to behold. Pitcher Tim Hudson drove in as many runs (7) as all the Braves pinch hitters combined after the All Star Break. This year's main infield backup will probably be Omar Infante - while he's primarly a middle infielder, with Chipper's injury history in recent years, he's likely to be needed to play some third base at some point. Now he'll probably begin the season on the disabled list - he suffered a broken hand in winter ball, and the cast doesn't come off until near the end of this month. The Braves aren't worried - they're so pleased with the development of shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge, that if Infante is unavailable, they'll happily plug in Lillibridge at the start of the year. Scott Thorman should still have a job - he'll back up at first base, provide a lefty bat off the bench, and generally attempt to re-establish himself as a candidate for a regular job should Teixeira leave as a free agent next winter.
In right field will be Georgia boy Jeff Francoeur. Now if you want to see an example of the impact of the reassessment largely begun by Bill James more than 20 years ago of what makes an effective baseball player, this might be a pretty good place to start. Don't you think that if this was 1973, Francoeur would be regarded as a budding superstar, if he wasn't regarded as one already? A 21 year old local boy who steps into the majors and hits .300 while socking 14 HR and 45 RBI in less than half a season? All the while throwing out any base runner who dares to challenge his arm? Instead, we seem to hear as much about his flaws, which are real and sizeable, as his gifts - mainly, his struggle to learn the strike zone and develop some plate discipline. The player himself is keenly aware of it, and has in fact been making some very real progress in improving those parts of his game. He drew 42 walks last season, which was comfortably more than his previous career total, and got his OnBase up to .338. The homers dropped to 19, but he did chip in with 40 doubles, drove in another 100 runs, and got his average back up to .293. He added his first Gold Glove, tied for the major league lead with 19 BaseRunner Kills, and had more putouts in right field than Vernon Wells had in centre field.
For the moment, the task of replacing Andruw Jones falls to Mark Kotsay, who is coming off the worst season of his career. It began with surgery in March to repair a herniated disk that had been getting worse and worse over the previous two years. He suffered the original injury in 2003 while still with San Diego. And after a healthy and productive year for Oakland in 2004, the problem came back in July 2005, and then again in August 2006. He returned to the Oakland lineup last June, played well for a few weeks - and then the back spasms started again. They shut him down for the season in August.. Kotsay says last year's problem is not related to his previous issues, and he's feeling better now than he's felt in years. Which is what everybody says in the spring, right? Before signing Kotsay, the Braves were leaning toward Josh Anderson (or possibly even Jordan Schaefer) in centre field. The Braves picked up Anderson from the Astros in exchange for reliever Oscar Villarreal. He is a 25 year LH hitter with great speed and no power at all. In AAA last year, he hit .273 with 40 SB and got his first taste of the show as a September callup with the Astros. He took full advantage, hitting .358 in 21 games. Because Anderson can actually play CF, he is very likely to make the roster as a fourth outfielder.
Which could leave Brandon Jones out to dry The Braves will likely have a platoon arrangement in left field. Matt Diaz has spent the last two seasons in Atlanta generally beating the crap out of LH pitching - .327 in 2006, .338 last year. Diaz doesn't really have a big platoon split - while he has more pop against southpaws, he still a he's a .310 lifetime hitter against right-handers. However, he is even less likely to walk to first than Francoeur and his power is fairly ordinary. The Braves have shown little inclination to give him the whole job, and were expecting to planning to platoon him this summer with Brandon Jones (having jettisoned Willie Harris, who served as Diaz' lefty hitting in 2007.) Jones split 2007 between AA Mississipi and AAA Richmond - altogether he hit .295 with 19 HR and 100 RBI.
Obviously, the signing of Kotsay complicates things. Kotsay's injury history mandates that a fourth outfielder who can cover CF needs to be around. Anderson can do that - the Braves see Jones as a corner outfielder and one imagines they're not wild about carrying a 24 year old prospect as a fifth outfielder. They think Omar Infante, once he returns, can serve as an emergency outfielder, if they ever need a fifth guy. The Braves do have lots of exciting outfield prospects. Gorkys Hernandez, obtained in the Renteria deal, turned 20 last September. In his first full professional season, he hit .292, stole 54 bases and was named MVP of the Class A Midwest League, much to the dismay of Travis Snider's admirers. Hernandez is probably at least two years away from the majors, but Jordan Schaefer played well for Myrtle Beach, tore apart the South Atlantic League, and kept turning heads in the Arizona Fall League. He's only 21, and has yet to play above A ball, but could arrive later this year. Before acquiring Kotsay, the Braves were seriously considering having Schaefer jump from A ball to the starting lineup.
So - the Braves will score runs. Can they stop the other team from doing likewise? They did have the third best ERA in the National League last year, which is a pretty good place to start. But there are some qualifiers that need to be acknowledged immediately. The Braves gave up quite a few runs that ended up being unearned. They actually allowed more runs than the Giants, the Dodgers, and the Marlins - all of whom finished with ERAs higher than Atlanta's. There is also the Turner Field factor - the park protects pitchers. Away from home, the Braves staff looks a little better than league average, but not much. The Braves went into last season deeply concerned about the state of their bullpen, and most of last season;s moves were made to address their shortcomings in that area. This year's concerns are centred more on the rotation.
Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.33) led last year's staff in starts, innings, and wins, bouncing back smartly from the first real off-year of his fine career. The key to his success last season was his ability to keep the ball in the park. After getting tagged for 25 HR in 218.3 IP in 2006 (and 20 HR in 192 IP in 2005) , Hudson cut that number all the way down to 10 last season, in 224 IP. Which seems a little too good to be true. Hudson is still only 32 years old, but he quite obviously is not quite the pitcher he was in Oakland. He's still pretty good, of course. It's just that it seems so odd that he should be giving up more hits per inning in the NL than he did the AL.
After eighteen years, this is John Schuerholz' organization, and will continue to be for some time to comet. But amazingly enough, the Braves are still reaping the benefits of a pair of moves made more than 20 years ago by the two men who preceded Schuerholz in the GM's chair. Bobby Cox spent five years as the Atlanta GM between his stints as field manager in Toronto and Atlanta. On 12 August 1987, Cox traded veteran RH Doyle Alexander to Detroit for some 20 year old with a 4-10, 5.68 mark in AA. Alexander helped the Tigers win in 1987, but there's a chance they would have enjoyed it if local boy John Smoltz had been on their team these past twenty years. Smoltz was Atlanta's best pitcher last season (14-8, 3.11), and since returning to the rotation after his five year break (on the DL and in the bullpen), Smoltz has put together three very fine years (44-24, 3.22). At age 40, he can still throw his fastball and slider by major league hitters (3rd in the league in strikeouts each of the last two years). But he's decided to dedicate this spring to improving his off-speed stuff. To that end, he is not pitching in exhibition games - he's only working simulated games and throwing on the side. He doesn't want to get distracted by a real game situation from doing the work he needs to do to improve his game. Bobby Cox is happily taking advantage of the extra innings available to sort through his many candidates for the final two rotation jobs.
Smoltz, of course, is going to to be the subject of a fascinating Hall of Fame when he finally stops pitching. The obvious comparison is the now enshrined Dennis Eckersley. While Eckersley had some very fine years as a starter (and just as many that were pretty ordinary), Smoltz has obviously been a better starting pitcher. And while Eckersley was a sensational closer, Smoltz was pretty good himself. He never posted had an ERA of 0.61, but 1.12 is nothing to sneeze at. Eckersley never saved 55 games in a season. So there's an argument. But there's no Hall of Fame argument over the next guy. That's been settled for quite some time. Tom Glavine was completely overqualified for the Hall even before he went past the 300 win mark last summer. It was Bobby Cox' predecessor as Braves GM, John Mullen, who selected Glavine in the second round of the 1984 June amateur draft. After his five year exile in Queens (he went 61-56, 3.95 as a Met), Glavine has come back to Atlanta for a last lap around the track. It should work out well for all concerned. I don't think there's any doubt that Glavine ran out of gas towards the end of last season (0-2, 14.81 in his final three starts), and at age 41 he wasn't the guy who should have led the Mets staff in starts and innings pitched. He's no longer what he once was - and in case anyone's forgotten, what he once was is one of the very greatest LH pitchers in the history of the game - but it's not required here. They need a third starter who can eat up about 200 innings, and be a little better than league average. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt that Glavine can provide that. The Braves would surely like to have that other guy back again, the one who won 20 games five times for them, but that's neither what they expect nor what they need from him.
The final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs. Last year's third starter was Chuck James, and he wasn't all that bad at all (11-10, 4.24 in 30 starts). It seemed a bit of a step backward after his strong work as a rookie in 2006 (11-4, 3.78). More troubling is the fact that an MRI after the season revealed a small tear in his rotator cuff. James spent the winter rehabbing the injury, and says he's feeling fine and strong (that's what they all say!) . He seems to be a little behind the other pitchers this spring (he hasn't appeared in a game yet.)
Mike Hampton has missed more than two full seasons with elbow problems, and suffered a serious hamstring that kept him from working on his recovery this winter. He's in camp, and throwing well so far, and he's going to collect $15 million dollars whatever happens. The Braves will certainly give him a chance to earn it. Actually counting on him to complete the comeback seems a foolish notion. But he was an awfully good pitcher once upon a time, and there may be something left.
And anyway - it's not like there's a shortage of contenders in the event that Hampton or James or both don't measure up. Jair Jurrjens, just turned 22, is the other player obtained from Detroit in the Renteria deal, and while it's not reasonable to expect this acquisition of a Tigers prospect to work out as well as that one twenty years earlier. Jurrjens started last year at AA Erie - by midsummer, he was simply blowing the league away. The Tigers called him up, and he went 3-1, 4.70 in 7 major league starts. LH Jo-Jo Reyes has a live arm, and he's got a chance to win a spot providing that he's finally figured out where home plate is located. Buddy Carlyle is almost a forgotten man, but he filled a rotation spot for six weeks in mid-season last year, and went 6-1, 3.21 while he was doing it. Also in the mix is sinker-baller Jeff Bennett, tried as a starter for the first time in his career last year. He pitched very well AAA Richmond last season, made a favourable impression in a pair of September starts in Atlanta, and continued to pitch well in winter ball. He's out of options, and could make the team as a reliever.
It wouldn't be a Bobby Cox team without some confusion in the bullpen. After more than a quarter century, the man with the most saves for a Bobby Cox managed team is John Smoltz, who spent three years closing games for Cox. Mark Wohlers is the only other man to save 100 games for Cox. He won division championships with Juan Berenguer, Alejandro Pena, Mike Stanton, Kerry Ligtenberg, and John Rocker serving as his bullpen ace (besides Smoltz and Wohlers.) Since Smoltz returned to the rotation in 2005, he's tried Danny Kolb, Chris Reitsma, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jorge Sosa. By this point, the Braves were acutely aware that they had serious issues in the pen and put a lot of effort into addressing the problem last winter. They had already traded for closer Bob Wickman in mid-season 2006; after the season they sent starter Horacio Ramirez to Seattle for Rafael Soriano and first baseman Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh for MIke Gonzalez.
The results were mixed. Wickman wore out his welcome with his manager and his teammates - he simply didn't want to pitch unless there was a save in it for him. The Braves got fed up with his act, and designated him for assignment in August. The other two guys worked out better - sort of. With Wickman, Soriano inherited the closer's job. In 2007, he was 3-3, 3.00 with 9 saves, which looks a bit ordinary - but in 72 IP, he struck out 70 while allowing just 47 hits. Gonzalez pitched great (2-0, 1.59, 2 SV), and then went down for the year with an elbow injury in May. He had Tommy John surgery, and the Braves aren't counting on him until May or June of this season. To give them a LH arm in the meantime, they dealt with the Cubs to add Will Ohman to the mix. Ohman is probably still dancing a jig at being liberated from Wrigley Field - the park was just killing him (career ERA of 6.63 at Wrigley, 2.32 everywhere else).
This year, the task of getting the ball from the starter to Soriano will be handled by Peter Moylan and Manny Acosta. Moylan was one of the remarkable stories of 2007 - he had been out of organized baseball since 1997. He came to America in 2006 as a bit of a lark, to see if he could win a spot on Australia's team for 2006 World Baseball Classic. He showed up with with a 95 mph sidearm fastball, which will make them sit up and pay attention. He ended up not going home to his job as a pharmaceutical assistant Down Under, spending his summer instead in scenic Richmond Virginia. He won the final spot in the Braves bullpen last spring, and posted a 1.80 ERA over 80 games. Which also makes the people sit up and pay attention. As for Acosta, he came up from Richmond last August and was very impressive over the final six weeks (1-1, 2.28 with 22 Ks in 23 IP), although his relationship with the strike zone is a wee bit tenuous..
A number of arms are available to round out the pen - Carlyle and Bennett, assuming they don't win a spot in the rotation (seems a reasonable assumption at this point.) Blaine Boyer appears to have recovered from the injuries that have held him back the last two seasons - he had a nice season as a rookie in 2005 (4-2, 3.11). Tyler Yates appeared in 75 games for the Braves last season, but he's going to have trouble making this year's squad.
What to expect?
I think this race is between the Mets and the Braves. I think the Phillies were and are the third best team in the division; I know I picked them to win this thing last year, but I think they backed into the title when the Braves record didn't match their actual performance and the Mets took their spectacular pratfall. Both the Mets and the Braves have made significant upgrades. I don't think the Phillies have . Whereas the Braves have definitely upgraded their rotation by adding Tom Glavine; and the Mets have upgraded their rotation even more significantly by replacing Tom Glavine (they got some fella named Santana, I think his name is.)
Johan ought to be enough to give the Mets the edge - he's Johan Bloody Santana, the best pitcher in the world - but I tell you, the Braves will be right there. Pythagoras will smile on them after two years of smiting them upside the head. With Teixeira on board for the entire season, the offense, already impressive enough, will be even better in 2008. The pitching should be improved as well. Last year's bunch played well enough to win 89 games, even if they only won 84. They're going to be a little bit better, and they'll probably be quite a bit luckier.
93-69, NL wild card