After missing the playoffs in back-to-back years, the Braves believe they’ve got the pieces in place for a return to glory in 2008, and they’ve got a compelling argument.
But there are also ample reasons to doubt.
The pitching staff is solidified: Last year the Braves could count on solid outings from their top two starters — John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. After that? Pray for rain. Chuck James, who manned the No. 3 spot in the 2007 rotation, won’t even crack the top five in 2008 thanks to the addition of Tom Glavine and Jair Jurrgens and the health of Mike Hampton.
Take away 22-year-old Jair Jurrjens and 32-year-old Tim Hudson, and the average age of the remaining three projected starters on the Braves roster (Mike Hampton, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine) is 39. While Glavine and Smoltz do combine for 510 wins, they also combine for over 7,500 innings pitched, so needless to say, those two aren’t exactly spring chickens. Add in the fact that Mike Hampton, is well, Mike Hampton, and that ‘solidified’ rotation appears pretty fragile.
But the Braves with have Tex for a whole season this year
Mark Teixeira hit 17 home runs with 56 RBIs and a .317 batting average in just 54 games with the Braves last season. Over 162 games that pace translates to 51 home runs and 168 RBIs. Sure, that seems unattainable, but it’s not that far off from his 2005 numbers (44 home runs, 144 RBIs).
Maybe a full year of 'Tex' isn't what is important...
What the Braves need is a full season from the oft-injured Chipper Jones. Whether it’s a bruised foot, a strained hamstring or a hang nail, Jones seems to miss more games year after year. In 2005 and 2006, Jones played in 109 and 110 games, and although he increased those numbers to 134 games in 2006, he’s 34 years old and plays a position where his body takes a beating. If he gets hurt, ‘Tex’ loses his protection in the lineup and the Braves will struggle.
Who cares about 'Tex' and Chipper, what about Yunel Escobar?
From Bobby Cox to Chipper Jones, it seems everybody in the organization can’t praise the new shortstop enough, and it’s easy to see why. In mostly platoon duty last year he hit .326 and has hit over .400 most of the spring. Add in a powerful arm and good range and speed and it’s easy to see why Edgar Renteria was considered expendable.
But then again, what about...
Kelly Johnson. While Escobar has given the Braves a bright spot in the infield, the question remains whether or not Johnson will remain a defensive liability. The converted outfielder made 14 errors in 2007 and had the third-worst fielding percentage among all NL second basemen. Combine that with a young and inexperienced shortstop (Escobar) and the Braves middle infielders could make or break their season.
All that doesn't matter, because the Braves want to send Cox out on top
Speculation that this will be manager Bobby Cox’s last season on the Braves’ bench is gaining ground and few manager in Major League Baseball are more respected by his players than Cox. It’s not hard to imagine the veterans who’ve been with the coach for the bulk of their pro careers (and the youngsters who haven’t won anything yet) stepping it up a notch to make sure the winningest manager in team history goes out on top.
But then again, doesn't Cox remind you of someone?
Everyone hates to admit it, but the resemblence between Bobby Cox and Joe Torre when he was with the Yankees is eerily similar. Cox and Torre both had outstanding careers with their respective teams, and like Torre, it’s time for Cox to go. Occassionally, franchises need to be shaken, not stirred. Cox’s lone World Series title came 13 years ago, and for the past two years the Braves have missed the playoffs. If Cox was in New York, he’d be gone by now.
Speaking of New York, why is everyone talking about the Mets and Phillies and not the Braves?
After missing the playoffs for two consecutive years, the Braves have almost become an afterthought in the division they dominated for more than a decade. The Phillies are the defending division champs and boast the last two NL MVPs. The Mets’ $130 million dollar payroll dwarfs the rest of the division and added Johan Santana — arguably the game’s best pitcher — in the offseason. It’d be easy to forget the Braves in the shuffle, but doing so would be a mistake.
There’s a reason that everyone is talking about the Mets and the Phillies as the teams to beat in the NL East —because they are. In fact, the Mets and Phillies are not only the teams to beat in the East, but they are the teams to beat in the entire National League. The Mets added Johan Santana to go along with a now-healthy Pedro Martinez in the rotation and already have one of the most talented and potent offenses in the game. The Phillies are ready to improve on the playoff run that they had last year, and with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard anchoring their lineup, the Phillies can pile up runs with the best of them.