Braves are still the best in the East

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks believes that while the Mets and Phillies have made the majority of the moves in the National League East this winter, the Braves remain the cream of the crop.

So the Mets have gotten Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner. Who cares? Last year it was Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez. And the Phillies? Sure, they've gotten Tom Gordon and Aaron Rowand. But wasn't it Jon Leiber last year that was supposed to scare the Braves?

Look, those are all impressive acquisitions. But year after year the other teams chasing the Braves have mounted solid challenges in December, only to come up short every September. It doesn't mean we shouldn't take those teams seriously or that we should blatantly call the National League East over yet. But the changes the Braves' top rivals have made have done nothing to make you think the string of division titles is over.

So Brad Baker, Todd Pratt, Matt Diaz, Oscar Villarreal, Lance Cormier, Wes Obermueller, and Edgar Renteria may not scare anyone either. But there are so many things that make you know the 90-win Braves of 2005 are going to be better, no matter what their opponents have done to improve themselves.

First off, all the rookies that were on the team last season should be better just because of the experience they had in 2005. These kids are better because of the pennant race they were in, and then the playoff series with Houston. They were thrown into the fire and performed well, so anything they face this season will be nothing new.

It's easy to compare the Braves 2006 roster on paper to the group that finished in Houston in October, but the better way to see how the team is better is to compare it to last year's Opening Day roster. How much better are the Braves in right field, where the team now has Jeff Francoeur compared to Raul Mondesi? And how about left field? Isn't the team better off now with the Ryan Langerhans / Kelly Johnson situation compared to Brian Jordan?

And talk about addition by subtraction. The trade of Johnny Estrada simply clears the path for Brian McCann to officially take over as the Braves' starting catcher. We all knew he was the starter anyway, but Estrada's trade means the former starter will not be looking over the shoulder of the new starter. If Estrada had stayed around, it would have just been uncomfortable. But now, the Brian McCann era can start full force. We saw what he did in a half a season; now just imagine what the 22-year-old McCann will do over the course of the full season.

We could argue all day about shortstop, but the fact is we've got a veteran to replace Rafael Furcal at the very important spot. Edgar Renteria does need to bounce back to his 2003-type season, but there's no reason to believe he can't do just that. Like him or not, there's little reason to question that he's a solid veteran that should not be a drop off at all from Furcal.

Then there's the injury situation. When you think that 60% of our rotation missed at least five weeks at the same time, it's amazing that we won the division last year. Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton, and John Thomson each missed significant time, so we've got to hope the starting rotation stays healthy.

And yeah, there are questions, but there's also depth. The easiest way to answer questions about your team is to have depth. We may not know exactly who is going to be in the bullpen or who is going to round out the rotation or who is going to start in left, but we do know there are options. And as long as you have options, those questions will be answered one way or another.

But before you give the division to the Mets or Phillies, regardless of what you think about the Braves, look over those two teams' rosters. The Mets did get a great closer in Billy Wagner, but have you seen the list of relievers they've got to try to use to get to Wagner? Heath Bell, Aaron Heilman, Juan Padilla, and Royce King don't exactly remind you of Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, and Darren Holmes - three pitchers that were terrific at getting the Braves to John Smoltz a few years ago. And don't you like Jorge Sosa and Horacio Ramirez over Victor Zambrano and Steve Trachsel?

And yeah, the Phillies have a decent bullpen, with Gordon as the new closer, but isn't their rotation a little thin after Leiber, Brett Myers, and Cory Lidle? I mean, do Gavin Floyd, Robinson Tejada, Eude Brito, and Ricardo Rodriguez really scare anyone at the bottom of that rotation?

Again, the Mets and Phillies are solid, but I just can't see where they've surpassed the Braves this winter. I realize it's frustrating to see those teams spend money, while the Braves have seen several free agents they wanted go to other teams. And believe me, the question of what the Braves are going to do with their remaining money is the most frequent one received in my email box. And I think there's a real easy answer.

There are no glaring holes on the Braves right now. Okay, you might want a ‘real' closer, like the Mets got with Wagner. And you might want a ‘real' offensive force, like the Mets got with Delgado. But with Blaine Boyer and Joey Devine, two young pitchers around who the Braves feel can eventually close, isn't it better to see if Chris Reitsma can be effective enough long enough to get to those young two arms? Last year, after moving John Smoltz to the bullpen, there were even more questions. But do you really want to acquire a ‘real' closer just for the heck of it? Or isn't the presence of Boyer and Devine enough to make you be a little patient?

And isn't it better to go to spring training to see what Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson can do in left field? Sure, it would be nice to have another big bat in the lineup. But remember, McCann and Jeff Francoeur are both going to be in the lineup from Day One, which should help. And didn't Langerhans and Johnson do enough to get your interest as to what they might do with regular playing time?

But the most important point in answering the money question is this: if the Braves do go into the season under budget, doesn't that give John Schuerholz the flexibility to improve the team with a significant player if necessary? The last few years, the corporate structure running the Braves has not cared about any major midseason acquisition. But if Schuerholz is four or five million under budget, he could swing a huge deal to get an impact player to help push us over the top.

Now wouldn't that be money well spent compared to blowing it just to keep up with the Mets' and Phillies' headlines?

There's no reason to believe John Schuerholz is finished with his re-tooling of this club. But there is also no reason to panic either. The flexibility of having depth and money makes it easier to see what we have first, and then if we need to, make a trade. And that's a luxury that neither the Phillies nor Mets can boast about. And remember, the summer is when you win division titles, and this flexibility just might allow John Schuerholz to ensure another flag will hang over Turner Field next season.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at

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