1. Jaret Wright's meltdown in the NLDS is truly inexplicable. He allowed 11 homers in 186 innings in the regular season and then five in 9 2/3 postseason innings. Want further evidence that the "clutch player" label is a myth? Why would the Yankees sign a player like that unless they themselves believe that players don't magically get better or worse in the playoffs. The same was true for their signing of Gary Sheffield, who was dreadful in two post-seasons for Atlanta. If post-season baseball somehow reveals a player's character as most brainless media types claim, then why would a franchise that bases its existence on winning in the playoffs sign players like Wright or Sheffield?
2. I didn't realize how good John Thomson was last year. For instance, he gave the Braves a quality start 61% of the time, which was better than that of ERA champ Jake Peavy and was among the top 25 in all of baseball in that category. He was also in the top 25 in DIPS (defense-independent pitching stat). He and Hudson book-ended Randy Johnson in the P/IP stat. He was in the top 25 among qualified pitchers in K/BB ratio. In short, I was never excited to go to the park to see Thomson pitch, but maybe I missed the boat on him. His second-half performance was awesome and second-half performances tend to have a greater effect on the following season than first-half performances. Between Wright blowing up and Thomson being hurt, last year might have actually been a year in which the Braves were unlucky in the playoffs.
3. J.D. Drew was the best hitter on last year's team by a wide margin. For instance, a lineup of nine J.D. Drews would have scored 9.4 runs per game. The next best Braves in that category were Chipper, Estrada, and Andruw, all of whom were around six. So how are the Braves going to replace that production? Mondesi and Jordan might be major league-average outfielders (at best,) but for my money, here are the most likely sources, in order:
a. Marcus Giles - Giles had an MVP-caliber year in 2003 (.921 OPS at a defensive position) and was the Braves' best hitter early in 2004 until Andruw broke his collarbone in Milwaukee and Giles wasn't the same, even when he came back. Marcus turns 27 on May 18 and is coming up on free agency. All of this means that, unless 2003 was a mirage, Giles should be the Braves' best offensive player this year. Is a .950 OPS out of the question? That would do a lot to replace Drew's 1.006 OPS.
b. Andruw Jones - I try not to get suckered in by spring training reports, which make every player in the majors seem as if they are in shape and ready for a career-best year because of a good attitude (as if it's so simple.) But in the back of my mind, the reports of Andruw coming in in good shape and his team-high four homers through the first half of spring have me dreaming. He knew in the off-season that the Braves had lost a good chunk of offensive talent and that he would be relied upon in 2005, rather than simply being a complementary piece. He's also turning 28 this season, which means he's also in his prime. His career-high OPS is .907; he was at .833 last year. Is .925 out of the question?
c. Rafael Furcal - He turns 27 this year and is in a contract year. He's knocked on the door of an .800 OPS before, but has never quite gotten there. He'll make himself a lot of money if he breaks through that glass ceiling this year.
d. Adam LaRoche - That 1.000+ OPS, eight homer August and September are hard to ignore. It's unlikely that LaRoche can sustain those numbers over the course of an entire season, but if he can come close, then he'll go a long way to replacing Drew. He does need to learn how to draw a walk, however.
These four guys - Giles, Jones, Furcal, and LaRoche - are all in the second half of their 20s and should have better seasons in 2005 than they did in 2004. If the Braves are to cover for J.D. Drew's absence, they'll be the ones to do it, rather than the guys on the wrong side of their career paths (Chipper, Mondesi, and Jordan) or a guy who can't be as good this year as he was last year (Estrada).