Some real cutting edge analysis from John Donovan of SI.com about the NL East. In a related note, Donovan expects that the baseballs used by MLB this year will be round, dispelling the rumors that Bud Selig wants oblong balls to compete with the NFL. A few thoughts on the issues raised in the article:
1. I'm sure I'm not alone if thinking excessively optimistically about the Braves (at least as far as the regular season is concerned,) but I caught myself this morning scoffing at the Mets' line-up as being full of injury risks (Pedro headlines the rotation, Cliff Floyd is going to be protecting Carlos Delgado in the line-up, Billy Wagner is closing and due for another huge elbow injury,) while dismissing in my head the fact that the Braves' rotation is headlined by John Smoltz, whose elbow was purple by the end of last season, Tim Hudson, who pencils in a one-month oblique muscle vacation the way I pencil in a one-week European vacation every November to coincide with Michigan and Georgia's bye-weeks, and John Thomson, who was out for most of 2005.
2. The article mentioned the Braves' bullpen questions, as every article will this spring, but I'm optimistic for two reasons. First, this is the area in which Roger McDowell is supposed to have the greatest impact. As much as we all adored Leo, he was responsible (at least in part) for last year's wretched 'pen. If we want to give him credit for Jorge Sosa, then doesn't he deserve some blame for Dan Kolb? Second, Donovan mentions the Nats' excellent 'pen, but who the hell had heard of Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski, or Luis Ayala last February? Relievers are inherently unreliable because their small sample size of innings can lead to some very skewed results. (There are limited exceptions to this, like Mariano Rivera or Billy Wagner. The Mets weren't insane to pay through the nose for Wagner. Paying a lot for a proven commodity isn't a bad idea [although a four-year deal for a closer who's going to turn 35 this July and whose body doesn't seem as if it will be able to continue to create the kind of torque that is required for a 99-mph fastball is questionable.]) Spending a lot of money on Todd Jones or Dannys Baez would have been a big mistake. Anyway, to get back to the Braves, if one understands that relievers are unreliable, then the solution is not to bring in a bunch of big-names who had a good ERA last year, but instead to bring in a whole bunch of guys and then see who's pitching well in March. If finding good relievers is random like Russian roulette, then the objective is to take as many shots as possible. (I ultimately realized that the same principle applies to dating. If it's hard to find a good-looking, clever, non-crazy woman who actually likes me, then the objective should be to meet as many women as possible. That and change your hairdo. Anyway, that's Michael on women. We'll be back on Blind Date after this commercial break.)
3. Related to the Russian roulette point: the health of starting pitchers is a similar crapshoot, which is why I'm happy that the Braves have six starters ready for Spring Training. With Smoltz, Hudson, and Thomson all health risks, having Horacio Ramirez, Jorge Sosa, and Kyle Davies around will be important. And if there are two injuries? Then I guess we say "hi" to Chuck James.
4. The "who's going to lead-off?" question doesn't bother me at all. There is a well-defined idea as to what a lead-off hitter should be: small, fast, and preferably with little power. But most of that's irrelevant. What a lead-off hitter needs to do is simply get on base and the Braves have players who can do that, even if they won't be able to steal 40+ bases like Furcal. The Braves slumped last year when Furcal was playing terribly and they played very well when he caught fire, but it wasn't his speed that was critical. It was simply the fact that Giles, Chipper, and Andruw came up to the plate with Furcal on base instead of Furcal in the dugout after another weak ground-out.