With Opening Day right around the corner, it's high time I stopped obsessing about the Hawks (losers of ten of 12, although they were feisty last night against New Jersey and probably would have won without the "protect our stars" officiating) and Thrashers (D-U-N Done after the miserable performance in Tampa on Thursday night) and started thinking about the six months of joy that the Braves are hopefully about to bring us. Actually, if this season is anything like the past several, it will be a mediocre April and May, a torrid streak in the summer, and then an average September as they coast to a divisional title, followed by one crappy week in October. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the upcoming season:
1. An initial caveat: if the past is any guide, then the past will be no guide. For instance, going into last season, how would we have known that the Braves were going to get 134 quality innings from Jorge Sosa, in place of Mike Hampton and John Thomson giving the team little or no help over the course of the season. It was predictable that the corner outfield pairing of Mondesi and Jordan would be a failure, but who would have guessed that the Braves would get good production from three minor leaguers (Johnson, Langerhans, and Francoeur), in addition to Wilson Betemit playing great when Chipper missed 50 games and Brian McCann giving the Braves a great boost in place of the injured Johnny Estrada? Conversely, for the Braves' primary divisional rivals, was it predictable that the Marlins would be so mediocre despite superior talent? For instance, did anyone guess that Juan Pierre and Mike Lowell would be anchors around that team's offensive neck? Or was it predictable that the Mets would get healthy, productive seasons from Pedro Martinez and Cliff Floyd, but that Carlos Beltran would play way below his standard from the past several years or that Braden Looper would turn from good reliever to terrible one? The point is that, despite all the advances in predicting how players are going to perform in a given year using statistical benchmarks, it's all just rough guesswork, even taking aside the obvious point that injuries are hard to predict.
2. Going into last season, I said that the magic number for the team was 55. If the team got 55 starts from John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, the linchpins of the rotation into whom a mid-market team had invested a significant portion of its payroll, then their prospects would be good in the upcoming season. Sure enough, Smoltz and Hudson combined for 62 starts, 33 from Smoltz and 29 from Hudson. The two combined for 28 wins (old world stat) and 101.3 VORP (fancy new world stat). Anyway, the same goes for this year. It's reasonable to expect the farm system to produce players who can replace and improve upon below-average (Jordan and Mondesi) or even average (Estrada) position players. It is not reasonable to expect the farm system to produce starting pitchers in the upper echelon at their position.
3. Also, going into last season, I said that the key to the offense was not getting Mondesi and Jordan to replace their predecessors in right and left field, but rather that the younger players on the team - Andruw, Giles, Furcal, and LaRoche - would have to step into the breach and be offensive stars. Sure enough, lost in all the excitement about the Baby Braves, the offense was carried by Andruw (OK, those 51 homers did get some attention, especially when a number of them were game-winners that make for memorable viewing on SportsCenter...in the few moments that SportsCenter shows actual highlights), Furcal (who matched his excellent 2003 offensive numbers and became a great defensive shortstop, to boot), and Giles (who stayed healthy and gave the Braves an .826 OPS at a defensive position).
LaRoche was the disappointment, as his OBP and SLG both went down and his walk rate dropped (excluding intentional walks). LaRoche's improvement is a must in light of the fact that Bobby Cox has surprised absolutely no one by awarding Brian Jordan the platoon spot with LaRoche by sending down James Jurries and his .457 Grapefruit League average. The result of Cox's decision is that the Braves are going to send a 38-year old completely devoid of power to the post at first base against left-handed pitchers. If the Braves don't get power from LaRoche, then they're going to have the worst first base production in the National League.
2006 looks similar to 2005 in terms of analyzing where the Braves are going to get get production to replace their departed free agent star. While most of the attention is focused on the new shortstop and the closer situation, the important questions are: (1) whether Andruw can stay close to the numbers he put up last year; (2) Giles can get back to his 2003 numbers (he came close last year); and (3) whether LaRoche can have an offensive flowering in his third season. I may now be more machine than man, twisted and evil, but I retain a few shreds of old world baseball thinking and I'm reluctant to give up on LaRoche since he's been a great performer for the Braves in both of their playoff losses to the Astros. The fourth key performer for this year, replacing the dearly departed Raffy, is Jeff Francoeur. This isn't the most controversial thing to say, but the most likely source for the Braves to replace Furcal's runs generated is not from Edgar Renteria, who should be decent, but won't be Furcal and that's OK since he's being paid half as much as Furcal this year. A full season from Francoeur ought to be a real treat for the Braves. His complete lack of plate discipline is a topic that's been beaten into the ground, but being a glass half-full guy, I suspect that he'll eventually start drawing a lot of walks. The reason is that pitchers initially didn't know how to pitch Francoeur and he went wild, stroking doubles and homers at a rapid rate. Then, the pitchers adjusted by throwing him more junk and he didn't adjust with them, so he ended up swinging at a bunch of pitches with which he couldn't do anything. Now, I'm assuming that he's going to make the next adjustment and stop swinging at crap, which will either lead to walks or will force pitchers to start throwing him strikes again. I'm resolute in my belief that he can be a Vlad Guerrero clone: a right fielder with a cannon for an arm and great power despite a disdain for free passes.
4. The closer issue doesn't bother me for a few reasons. First, Chris Reitsma is a good pitcher when he isn't overworked, so he might actually do better in the closer spot as opposed to the set-up man spot, a role that gets more appearances. Second, he can't possibly be worse than Dan Kolb was last year and the Braves survived that trauma, illustrating that closers are fungible. To again illustrate that pre-season wisdom is typically useless when the bullets start flying, who would have projected last year that the Braves would get their saves from their set-up man and then from Kyle Farnsworth, a guy who was a failure throughout his time in Chicago. If Reitsma gets hurt or becomes ineffective in August as a result of overuse, then the Braves can plug in other relievers or trade for whomever is getting saves for a team out of contention. It's a solvable problem, unlike, say, replacing the two aces of the staff.
5. And finally, a word on Leo Mazzone, since he's the other subject who's getting a lot of attention going into the season. I might be naively optimistic again or the victim of recency, but last year, the Braves had one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Dan Kolb went from effective reliever to less popular than William Tecumseh Sherman in a matter of two months. Horacio Ramirez regressed in his third year as a starter. The only highlights of the pitching staff were Smoltz and Hudson, both of whom are good enough pitchers that they don't need help from a pitching coach, and Jorge Sosa. Mazzone had gained the reputation as a guy who was really hard on young pitchers, which is consistent with the fact that he wasn't able to get through to youngsters like Odalis Perez and Jason Marquis, but he was effective with veteran reclamation projects like John Burkett and Jaret Wright. Given the Braves' youth movement, Mazzone wasn't the right guy for the pitching coach spot anymore. He is still a master of getting veterans to pitch better by basing everything on the down and away fastball, but if the Braves miss out on their one reclamation project this year, but get better pitching from Boyer, Davies, Devine, and McBride, then they'll come out ahead. Hopefully, Roger McDowell will be the guy to get those guys pitching well. If not, then the Kolb treatment could come down on him. We're a spoiled bunch.