March 30, 2005

Braves hope history repeats itself

The Atlanta Braves are counting on offseason acquisition Tim Hudson to lead the team to their 14th consecutive division title, and beyond.

The Braves are the reason why the riddle of winning baseball will never be solved through numbers and essays, and through study and debate.

With Atlanta, you get a brand of baseball closer to folklore than fact, keeping that old flame called suspension of disbelief alive. Like Mother Goose, they have "characters," like Leo Mazzone, the wise old shaman, and Julio Franco, the man who doesn't age.

Without teams like Atlanta, there may soon come a time when I can plug my brain into a laptop and a season will auto-simulate as fast as Gavin Floyd's 2013 DIP can compute.

As the Braves win their 14th consecutive division title this year, we'll all be wondering, again, how they did it; how they managed to lose their best hitter and pitcher for the second-straight season and still with the NL East by double digits.

There have been rumors for years that with attendance declining - despite a sterling product on the field and the best efforts of the GM John Shuerholz, the best in the biz - something had to give, and it had to give big. After a $12 million loss in gate receipts, the team slashed payroll by $15 million last year, and seemed ready to slash more.

When the season ended, I wrote a piece previewing their annual yard sale. J.D. Drew, their best hitter, was a free agent, as were Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright, the team's co-leaders in wins with 15 each.

While stopping short of saying they couldn't possibly repeat if they lost all three – and that's exactly what happened - I established it would be a cold day in hell before I picked anyone but Atlanta.

Before I get to Hudson, Smoltz and how they solved it without breaking the bank, here's a look back on 2003, the year Atlanta was the best bridesmaid in baseball.

In all my years of watching the Phillies finish second or lower, I've never seen a team manhandle a division as the Braves did two years ago, doing it, this time, with their bats. It was Atlanta's answer to doubts they couldn’t win without pitchers Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood. Yes, winning titles after losing bodies is nothing new to

Their 5.6 runs-per-game was best in the National League that year. The formula was simple: When a runner got on, the next man moved him along. They put on a clinic for hitting with men in scoring position, almost rubbing it in the Phillies faces.

Javy Lopez, not a spectacular hitter for his career, proved as efficient with home runs as Babe Ruth in 2003, smashing 43 after hitting just 17 and 11 in his previous two injury-filled seasons. Adding to the battery was Gary Sheffield and his modest 39 home runs. Not that they needed anything more, it was also the year Marcus Giles decided it was time to become one of the NL's premier second basemen, hitting 21 of his own. And Vinny Castilla added ten homers from the previous season to hit 22 round-trippers.

With a supporting cast that also featured Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and Rafael Furcal, it was, in hindsight, the best NL offense of the 21st Century before '04 St. Louis earned the title last year.

How, then, was it possible for the Braves to win 96 games last year after losing so much – Lopez and Sheffield, their best bats – and Greg Maddux, the face of Braves pitching dominance for over a decade?

While they didn't repeat the heavyweight offensive performance from the year before, they were still very good, scoring almost 5 runs a game for 5th best in the NL. However, their pitching was better. Led by a resurgent Jaret Wright who went 15-8, along with 15-game winner Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Paul Byrd, they allowed fewer runs a game, just over 4, finishing 3rd in the NL in that category. I'm sure manager Bobby Cox would also admit the Braves stepped in a fair-sized pile of luck, especially with Ortiz.

But above all that, the thing I admired most about last year's team was their ability to fill holes. Somehow, they always seem to uncover this incredible depth that allows them never to lose step when a starter goes down. Nick Green filled in admirably at second base when Marcus Giles broke his collarbone. And outfielder Charles Thomas, never considered a prospect with major-league staying power, gave the team just the lift they needed as they turned on the mid-summer afterburners.

In addition, they also managed to, once again, get better miles out of average-to-above-average talent, including third baseman Mark DeRosa, first baseman Adam LaRoche, and probably the entire starting rotation.

The 2004 Braves will also be remembered for Johnny Estrada, who rose to the head of the class among the division's catchers, and the season J.D. Drew stayed healthy long enough to finally come of age. Nearly every new addition seems to thrive in Atlanta.

This season will be Atlanta's return to what got them there – pitching.

I called Shuerholz's deal for Tim Hudson the most important offseason acquisition by an NL East team. At the time, most argued he'd be gone in a year, if not before, but a month later, the Braves locked him up to a long-term contract giving the team their first true ace since Maddux.

Known as an innings eater, Hudson is already a Braves type of guy and would have been a perfect addition for the Phillies. I wouldn't put Hudson in the top ten in the league, but he's among the best in quality starts, his groudball to flyball ratio was 2 to 1 and he's an excellent defender.

I also believed strongly that moving John Smoltz from closer back to the starting rotation was an excellent decision. In hindsight, when ranking the offseason moves, I should have put this one higher. It has the potential to have the biggest impact for the Braves this season.

So far this spring, Smoltz has been excellent, having not allowed a run in 14 innings, along with 8 strikeouts.

In an era when Roger Clemens can change leagues and win the Cy Young at age 41, I expect Smoltz, 37, to do the same, returning to the spot he belongs. I'm picking Smoltz to win the NL Cy Young.

John Smoltz

1. Rafael Furcal, SS*
2. Marcus Giles, 2B
3. Chipper Jones, 3B
4. Andrew Jones, CF
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
6. Raul Mondesi, RF*
7. Johnny Estrada, C
8. Brian Jordan, LF*

1. John Smolz, RHP
2. Tim Hudson, RHP
3. John Thompson, RHP
4. Mike Hampton, LHP
5. Horacio Ramirez, LHP

Bullpen: Danny Kolb, closer, Chris Reitsma, Tom Martin, Gabe White, Kevin Gryboski

Bench: Julio Franco, Wilson Betemit, Nick Green

* I’d like to pay special attention to Furcal. In a year when defense is the next big thing, this will also be the year defense will get serious consideration when voting for MVP, especially now that Barry Bonds will not win it.

The domino effect will bring "second-tier" shortstops, meaning good shortstops not named Nomar, Jeter, Renteria and Tejeda, into the forefront. That means Furcal, Jimmy Rollins and others.

I believe strongly one of these two will earn some votes for MVP. Furcal is a great table setter at the top of the lineup with improving power. Though Jimmy Rollins bested Furcal in a number of categories, including win shares, Furcal comes through in the clutch more than J-Roll, and is just a step ahead of him at this point. They are, after all, still just 27 and 26 respectively, yet it seems like they’ve been playing for decades.

This "rivalry," if you want to call it that, will be one of the great stories this year.

*The second asterisk is to point out bets are already being taken at Braves blogs on the date minor league sensation Andy Marte gets the callup to replace either Jordon or Mondesi.

Baseball Prospectus called Marte the best prospect in baseball and a future superstar, and Martin Smith, our traveling correspondent, was impressed when he hit two homers in a spring training game he attended.

Conclusion: I see two Cy Young candidates in Hudson and Smoltz. I see MVP candidates in Furcal and Andruw Jones, who’s working at hitting to all fields this spring.

I see a 14th consecutive division title, basing the pick partially on stats, but mostly on history.


At 4:56 PM, Blogger el123chico said...

i think laroche needs to get hurt so julio can be an everyday player again.

oh, and i hate the freakin braves.

At 5:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anytime Julio gets mentioned in a positive way, it has to be a good, good article Jason


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