The Braves had the good fortune to play in a weak NL East this season. Thus, despite a rash of serious early injuries -- to LF Chipper Jones, RF J.D. Drew, 2B Marcus Giles, OF Dewayne Wise, 1B Julio Franco -- the Braves were able to get by with minor league call-ups until the regulars healed.
Indeed, the surprise of the season turned out to be how well the emergency replacements performed, particularly INF Nick Green, who belted several game-winning hits and played stellar defense at second base in Giles's absence, and OF Charles Thomas, whose speed transformed the team in left field. And more important, Thomas' emergence allowed Chipper Jones to return to play third base, a move necessitated by his ability to run all out on an injured hamstring.
The Braves were thrilled -- and surprised -- to discover how good RF J.D. Drew can be when his legs are healthy, which they were this year for the first time in many years. They would love to have him back next season. But with Scott Boras as his agent, that might not happen. Schuerholz would not be held hostage by Boras' high salary demands in any case, but especially not after the emergence of Thomas. OF Eli Marrero is already signed for next season, and the Braves like Wise, too.
As usual, it is pitching that will command the most attention, the most money and the most wheeling and dealing.
When Astros 1B Jeff Bagwell was asked about Houston's history of losing to the Braves in previous division series, he replied, "That tends to happen when you have (Greg) Maddux, (Tom) Glavine and (John) Smoltz."
Well, the Braves don't have them anymore. Smoltz, the only one still with the team, is now the closer.
As long as the Braves have a pitchers' manager in Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone to salvage hurlers' careers, Schuerholz can shop for arms almost anywhere.
RHP John Thomson and LHP Mike Hampton are under contract for next season, and with an entire offseason to rest and strengthen his left shoulder, LHP Horacio Ramirez is expected to resume his place in the rotation. Of course, when he felt that twinge of tendinitis before Memorial Day, he was expected to miss only one start.
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