The rocky road is going to get better

April is always rocky for the Atlanta Braves, and this season in no exception. Bill Shanks says don't panic, it's just another rocky April.

The month of April is always so much fun. If you're team gets off to a great start, you're dreaming of October. If your team struggles early on, you're in the panic mode. If a player gets off to a solid start, you might think he's going to have a breakout season, while if a player struggles, you might wonder if he's ready or if he belongs at all.

But we must remember that the season is a not a sprint, but a long race. Teams and players that are hot now might look completely the opposite in a month.

So the Atlanta Braves are not off to a great start. Are you surprised? I mean, really, did you think this team, which had a fifth of its roster gone for three weeks of spring training, would kick out of the gate like a Kentucky derby favorite? Well I sure didn't. I knew we were going to have a rocky April.

And when I mean rocky, I mean we were destined to have a mediocre month. Now you guys know I'm more likely to be positive about things, and I'm not the fatalist that many of you are. But the first fifteen games have been rocky, like a Sunday drive on a washboard dirt road in the country. The Braves have been up and they've been down.

We've seen the starting rotation look pathetic (like the first ten games), and we've seen a couple of performances (Smoltz and Davies' complete games) that were absolutely a pleasure to watch. We've seen the bullpen look much better than expected, and we've seen the bullpen blow a few games. We've seen the offense look tremendous, and we've seen the offense look a bit lethargic.

In other words, it's been a rocky fifteen games.

But again, what should we have expected? Did you really expect this team to be 10-5 after the first fifteen games? I expected the Braves to be right around .500, which they are. With so many young players and new faces, wasn't it going to take a while anyway before this roster clicked? Plus, this team has lost its number three starter, starting third baseman, starting shortstop, and maybe now its starting second baseman to injuries.

I'm personally happy that the biggest disappointment through the first fifteen games has been the rotation, since that's really the last of my long-term concerns. Okay, Tim Hudson has worried me a bit. But I'm not concerned at all about John Smoltz and Kyle Davies. I think both of them will win at least fifteen games this season. And John Thomson, well, he's going to be the middle-of-rotation starter that we know him to be.

It will be interesting when Horacio Ramirez returns from his hamstring injury. With Jorge Sosa struggling in his three starts, Ramirez will probably supplant Sosa in the rotation. Sosa came to camp in late February out of shape, then left to play in the WBC, and is still not in top physical condition. With Thomson now doing well in the rotation, it's unlikely he'll be returned to the bullpen. And with Sosa's experience in the pen, it just makes it easier for him to go back there.

There is no doubt that Ramirez must show he can be more productive than the poor three innings he pitched in Los Angeles. When he does return, he's got to be a consistent middle-of-the-rotation starter. Maybe he'll take notice of Thomson, who seems to fill that role perfectly. It's almost unfair to expect anything more from Thomson; he is what he is. And we need to expect Ramirez to develop into the same type of pitcher.

But he could be crucial. Okay, so maybe Davies has shown he's good enough to be our number three, which could mean Ramirez would have to be a four or five in our rotation. Either way, he's just got to be consistent.

As for Hudson, it is weird at how much he's struggled. He's very crucial to the success of this team, and the right-hander has got to bounce back and be a productive starter.

The big worry thus far with the bullpen has got to be whether or not a few of those guys will lose their arms by mid-May. Oscar Villarreal, Lance Cormier, and even Ken Ray are on pace to pitch in eighty games. That's why the Braves signed Carlos Almanzar back in February and Ricardo Rodriguez this week. They've got to have backups in Triple-A in case these guys do go down with arm trouble.

Chris Reitsma has saved four and blown one game. Yeah, that's not bad, but fans expect perfection from their closers. Reitsma has shown, however, that he can be effective in that role. Don't expect him to be perfect, cause you know he won't be. But if he can save forty games for this team, that bullpen just might shake out to be an effective group.

What do we need to say about the offense? Not much. It's been fun to watch. There's no reason to believe this is not going to be an effective offense. It's very important to get Chipper Jones and Edgar Renteria back, and if this team stays healthy, it could put up a lot of runs.

I still say the wildcard for this team will be the available funds General Manager John Schuerholz has to play with. We don't know for certain, but it's believed the Braves are about $7 million or so under budget. Now that doesn't mean it's a guarantee that money will be spent, especially with the sale of the team up in the air. But the potential for Schuerholz to add one or two significant players is exciting.

The last few years it's taken a few months for the Braves to click, and it might happen again this year. But there's just too much talent for this club not to be in the thick of things. Talent remains the overriding factor that has always had the Braves in the pennant race, and despite the rocky start, we've clearly seen that this team does have a heck of a lot of talent.

So while it might be a bit rocky, hang on for the ride. This is going to be a fun summer.


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. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.


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