Predicting the Atlanta Braves could be considered easy - or downright dangerous. If you dare to bet against this organization (as we all know our friend Rob Neyer usually does), you could end up eating your words in July when they build their ten game lead. And if you are too scared to do that, you can just play it safe and say they are going to win again.
But this year's team is different from the past few seasons. Between 2001 and 2004 you were a bit hesitant just to jump on the traditional bandwagon and say the team was going to win. Each of those four Opening Day rosters had major questions; yet this year seems to be a bit different.
Sure, there are question marks on the 2005 roster. But the promise of once again having a dominant pitching rotation makes those questions seem less serious.
General Manager John Schuerholz knew he had to once again make the Braves a pitching team, and so the addition of Tim Hudson and the return of John Smoltz to the starting rotation make them just that. There are no guarantees here, but having those two at the top of the staff certainly does make this team look good on paper.
Health will be the overriding factor in this 2005 season for the Braves. Can Smoltz hold up? Can Horacio Ramirez return to his pre-injury performance from early last season? Can Mike Hampton and John Thomson return from their late season injuries? Can Marcus Giles avoid running into someone? Can Brian Jordan bounce back from two injury-plagued seasons?
Smoltz was simply remarkable in spring training. If he can return to form as one of the best starters in the game, this team is going to be very tough. Having someone of his caliber at the top of your rotation is tremendously important. I think he'll start about 30 games. He might need to take a break for a few starts during the summer, but I see no reason why he can't hold up. Is his arm in great condition? Probably not. But his heart is something you just can't question.
The scary part about this team is that if Smoltz is back on track, having Tim Hudson as your number two starter is downright illegal. There is no reason to believe that Hudson will not continue his run as one of the elite pitchers in the game. This guy is pitching much like Greg Maddux did in his late 20's. Can you imagine what teams will think if they have to face a healthy Smoltz and a productive Hudson in a playoff series?
The bottom 60% of the rotation is probably envied by most teams in the game. The key for Mike Hampton is pitching well in the first half of the season. He's just become a second half pitcher, but he must pitch more consistently to have an all-around year. Hampton is still an effective pitcher, and he could be the best number three starter in the game.
John Thomson had a great first season for Atlanta last year. If he gives the team 14 wins out of the number four spot, that'll be a good sign the Marlins and Phillies will be in the Braves' rearview mirror by September. And just think if Horacio Ramirez returns to his form prior to his injury last season. He was remarkable. He says he's never felt better, and if that's true, he may not be a number five starter for long.
The bullpen does have a few questions. Dan Kolb has big shoes to fill as the closer, but the Braves have total faith in his ability to remain one of the top relievers in the game. The questions revolve around the setup men. Jorge Sosa was acquired last week, and it will be interesting to see how he performs under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone. Chris Reitsma will probably have his workload lessened a bit this year, and that should make him more effective.
Kevin Gryboski is one of the top worries. He must prove that his shoulder is sound and that he can continue being Bobby Cox's ground ball specialist. If not, either Kevin Barry or Buddy Hernandez will be summoned from Richmond with a quick call. Tom Martin was atrocious in the spring, but the Braves are paying him and he'll be around - at least for a while. Hopefully, somehow, he'll be able to return to his 2003 form when he was a very productive lefty specialist for the Dodgers.
For me, the key to the bullpen is Roman Colon. This kid had a nice debut late last season and he continued that production this spring. He's got a 95 mph fastball and an assortment of breaking pitches that even had Barry Bonds confused last season. If he's effective and can become a reliable seventh inning pitcher, the bullpen could fall into place very, very nicely.
As for the lineup, well let's talk about the good before the (potential) bad. Andruw Jones was scary good in March down south in Florida. Is he ready to become the 40-something home run man we all envisioned back in 1996? Maybe. His stride and his swing have never looked better. I think he will have a career season and put up career numbers.
Chipper Jones is determined to prove that last season was a fluke. He is rejuvenated now that he's back at third base, and it's likely his production will increase from his mediocre 2004 numbers. Chipper is still a very dangerous hitter, and don't underestimate him being back in the number three spot in the lineup.
You all know I'm a huge Adam LaRoche fan. I have complete confidence that he's going to only get better for this Atlanta team. He showed toward the end of last season how productive he can be in the lineup. Now, he's just got to stay healthy, stay consistent, and hit the ball to left field. If he does that, he's going to hit near .300 and around 25 homers. Plus, we're going to see more flashes of his ability at first base this season.
Johnny Estrada was banged up a bit in Florida with a bad shoulder, but he continued to show that there is one thing he can definitely do: hit. He was a doubles machine last season, and if he puts up similar numbers, the Braves are going to be thrilled.
Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles fuel the Braves lineup with their presence at the top of the order. Furcal is in his contract season, so you know he's going to want to put up great numbers. We might even see him steal more bases this season, particularly if the Braves offense is going to have to generate runs instead of simply waiting for the home run. Giles just has to stay healthy. We know this kid can play. If he's in the lineup for 150 games, our lineup is going to be very, very dangerous.
Now for the two question marks: Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan. I really am not worried that much about Mondesi. I believe he's going to hit and be fine. He's always hit. That's just what he does. There is no reason to believe he's going to have any off-the-field trouble this season, so as long as he stays healthy, he should be fine.
Jordan is the biggest worry on the team. He's 38-years-old, but it's a football body. He was beaten up for years on the football field. I just see no way that he can play a full season of baseball anymore. I hope I'm wrong, but I just think it would be a miracle if he played in 100 games. His teammates really like him, so if he can stay healthy, it will mean a lot for this team.
Ryan Langerhans had a dreadful spring, but he's going to get his chance now to get significant playing time. He'll probably ease into a strict platoon with Jordan, mainly to try to keep Jordan healthy. Ryan is a fine player. Fundamentally, he's very sound. You're not going to see him do many stupid things out there. He'll have the occasional power, drive in some runs, and play solid in right field. And don't forget that his arm is very, very good. When he's in there with Mondesi and Andruw, that will be three plus arms in the outfield.
If Jordan can't make it, there are options in the minor leagues. The Braves love Billy McCarthy and his right-handed bat. He's only going to season a little more down in AAA. Kelly Johnson is a left-handed bat that could be called upon if needed. And, of course, the big boy, Jeff Francoeur, will be in AA Mississippi. Jeff is just biding his time until he's ready. It could be June or it could be September or maybe not until next April. But he's going to be ready sometime soon and could help this ball club before the season is out.
Another option that can't be ignored, of course, is Andy Marte. If this offense struggles for any reason, and if Marte does well in AAA, he could be called upon. He's a great prospect, and don't be shocked if he does a "Cabrera" this season. Andy is very capable of coming up and helping this lineup.
The possible reinforcements of Marte, Francoeur, McCarthy, and Johnson give you a little ease in your worry for any offensive troubles. Also, you know that a trade will always be an option. Every year the offense has struggled, John Schuerholz has gone out and made a deal. There's no reason to believe he won't do that again if he needs to, but those kids might be the best answer.
Julio Franco will get some starts against lefties, but he'll lead a young bench that will include the much-improved Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr, two players who will help this team win some games this season.
So how will this team do? Well, they won 96 games last season and they are much better now. I think they will win 100 games and win the division. Predicting the postseason is a crapshoot, but there's no reason to think that if we have Smoltz and Hudson pitching well the Braves won't be the team to beat in the playoffs. This team could be very, very good, and after several years of not being the case, pitching is once again the key.
Bill Shanks has a new book out later this month on the Braves called Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy New Year
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