Due to a complete and total lack of transactions by the Atlanta Braves organization this past week, it was agreed upon by the BravesCenter.Com staff that this column should be used, by me, to hurl insults at those who made fun of me in high school.
OK, OK, so that will have to wait until I get that weekly column in the New York Times, get married to Gwen Stefani, and drive a Porsche on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. (To save the Aston-Martin's brakes, you know how it goes.)
No, this week's TA is relegated merely to the role of a short overview of the wheelings and dealings of John Schuerholz this off-season. This shan't be a detailed analysis of every transaction made so far; if you want that, feel free to refer back to the previous two columns.
Schuerholz entered what promised to be an exciting off-season with a rather sizable margin for error. The Braves were 20 games better in 2002 than their nearest competitors. Using the Pythagorean Formula, the Braves were still 17 games better than the Expos. It's really quite hard to fallback 15 games in a single off-season, as long as those games aren't the result of luck, or as long as they don't come up against the Plexiglas Principle. Neither of these problems applied to the Braves numbers from last year, and I'm not at all convinced that the Braves are 20 games worse than they were in 2002.
That said, the facet of this off-season that most harms the Braves is the incestuous nature of the National League East. Not only did Tom Glavine leave the Braves, he joined a divisional rival. Not only did Kevin Millwood get traded, he got traded to THE divisional rival. That's taking a pound of flesh and giving it to your enemy's dog for dinner.
And of course the Mets and Phillies improved themselves with moves that didn't involve tearing off pieces of the Braves. The Mets' improvements (with Cliff Floyd, Glavine, and Mike Stanton) are somewhat off-set by that gaping hole at third base they were left with when Edgardo Alfonzo left for the Giants. The Phillies, however, suffered no such losses, adding the numbers of David Bell, Jim Thome, and Kevin Millwood on top of their 79 win team from last year, a young team at that.
The biggest blow to the Braves comes to the pitching staff, which saw the loss of sure-fire Hall of Famer in Glavine, possible staff anchor in Millwood in the most lopsided deal this side of the Manhattan Indians selling their land for bobbles, All-Star set-up man Mike Remlinger, nasty young reliever Tim Spoooneybarger, and possessor of the first sub-1.00 ERA in decades, Chris Hammond. Mike Hampton was acquired in a move that smelled of creativity and guts, but also carried with it enormous risks. Damian Moss was traded for Russ Ortiz, a decent if expensive exchange. Paul Byrd, coming off a career year with Kansas City, was signed to a 2-year contract, a puzzling move, though not an awful one. Left-hander Ray King was acquired at the inconsequential price of Wes Helms and John Foster, not just a good move to shore up a lacking pen, but a nice bit of roster management as well.
But while Schuerholz wasn't fiddling while the pitching staff burned, he seemed to seriously stumble, for the first time in his reign, in the middle of his juggling act. The acquisition of Ortiz, if that had been that, coupled with the Maddux arbitration offer, had left the Braves with a solid rotation of young, power arms, and one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Millwood, Ortiz, Hampton, and Jason Marquis could have been the core of another solid Braves rotation for the next decade. However, the Byrd signing overloaded the rotation, and prompted the Millwood deal. And with the non-tendering of Kerry Ligtenberg, the Braves, once again, were left with a decimated bullpen. It's always interesting to see what bullpen pitchers Schuerholz can dig up in the off-season.
I do wish there was more to say about the offense, but regretfully, John has not addressed the sorry state of the offense in any way. There were some bats available this off-season, guys like Floyd, Alfonzo, Ray Durham; Jeremy Giambi and Erubiel Durazo were both available through the trade route, both could have closed the Braves gaping hole at first base, and both found themselves wearing non-Atlanta uniforms. There is some built in improvement potential in the Braves lineup, to be fair. If Bobby Cox plays Mark DeRosa, or especially if he plays the tremendously underrated, under-utilized, and all-around shafted Marcus Giles, the Braves can expect better numbers out of second base. Gary Sheffield had an April and a May to forget, largely the work of a Vicente Padilla fastball to his wrist. He's likely to improve his numbers a bit. All that said, the Braves got surprisingly strong work out of Los Dos Franco's in 2002. Julio was excellent against lefties, and it seems homeristic to expect him to post another season with a .357 OBP at his age. And there's a better chance of me being elected Pope than there is of Matt Franco going .317/.395/.517 on National League pitching again in 2003. I suppose it would be hard for Vinny Castilla to reach even higher levels of Awful next year, but it's not wise to under-estimate The Sucking Vortex of Doom.
To sum all of the above up, John Schuerholz has handled this off-season to date clumsily at best, well-nigh incompetently at worst. The Braves are probably still considered the favorites in 2003 to win the division, but barring a major acquisition of a thumper for the middle of the lineup, the Braves will be in for a dog-fight the entire season in the NL East. With a pitching staff in flux and an offense that on its best day can only be described as mediocre, the Braves are in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990.
Andrew Bare is a student at the University of Florida. He spends most of his time worrying about the Atlanta Braves. He welcomes
your comments at AndrewBare29@hotmail.com.
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