2. What went right in 2006?

Well the Braves didn't make the playoffs, but there were some bright spots in 2006. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks continues the 35-part series on the top issues facing the Braves this winter.

In a season where the Braves finished four games under .500 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1990, you wouldn't think there would be much positive to talk about at all. But despite the team's troubles, there were enough individual performances to keep the overall tone for this organization very positive.

When you think about the Braves' players that had solid seasons, no one should come to mind before catcher Brian McCann. The 22-year-old had a remarkable season. If not for a two-week stint on the disabled list after the violent collision in Arizona back in mid-May, McCann would have finished third in the National League with a .333 batting average. He hit in the .340s for most of the season, and considering the ankle injury that continued to bother him for the rest of the season, it's quite amazing that he did not have a significant drop off in production.

In fact, after his first All-Star appearance in July, McCann was even more spectacular. He hit .324 with 18 home runs and 64 RBI after the All Star Break. The 64 RBI were the fourth most by a catcher after the All Star Break since 1975, and it was the third most in the NL this season after the break. McCann established himself as a legit power hitter, and at only 22 brings excitement in thinking of what's to come in the future.

McCann was the most productive offensive catcher in the National League, and even at 22 he could be called the best overall player at his position in his league. But now the debates can begin on who is the best in the game: McCann or Twins' 23-year-old receiver Joe Mauer.

But McCann's defense was also solid. He's not going to be happy with his percentage of throwing runners out (20-89, .22%), but he blocked balls very well, and most importantly truly became a quarterback behind the plate. He was in charge of his pitchers, and for a young guy to have that take-charge attitude, it can only help the staff going forward. McCann is going to be a star for many years to come, but his first full season was truly a joy to watch for all Braves' fans.

Stat heads are going to tell you that Jeff Francoeur did not have a very good year, but anyone not happy with the 22-year-old's first full season needs to get their head checked. Francoeur finished with a .260 batting average, 29 home runs, and 103 RBI. Okay, so he walked only 23 times and his on base percentage was .293. But for a kid this age to be this productive - that's pretty impressive.

Francoeur hit better at home (.292) than he did on the road (.248). His averages in the first half (.260) and second half (.259) were almost the same. But to appease his critics, we can point out that Francoeur almost doubled his walk total after the All-Star Break. He had 8 walks in the first half of the season and 15 after the break.

Defensively, as we saw on Sunday, Francoeur is outstanding. He's going to have a lapse here and there, as most young players have. But his range is excellent and he's relentless in catching everything possible.

We saw only a glimpse of what is to come from this young man, who in time will be the face of the franchise. The Braves have had some great duos over the years: Dale Murphy and Bob Horner in the 1980s and David Justice and Ron Gant in the 1990s. But the current pair of McCann and Francoeur may surpass everything both of those combinations accomplished in a Braves' uniform. They are off to a great start at a very young age, so we've only scratched the surface of what we're going to be able to enjoy for the next decade.

The emergence of Adam LaRoche has to be one of the pleasant surprises of 2006. LaRoche was a platoon player all the way up until mid-June, when Brian Jordan got hurt. But with the right-handed hitting James Jurries struggling in Triple-A, the Braves brought up the lefty hitting Scott Thorman. That almost forced Braves' Manager Bobby Cox to play LaRoche everyday, even against left-handed pitchers.

After the All-Star Break, LaRoche was outstanding. He ended the first half with a .251 batting average, 13 home runs, and 42 runs batted in. He was on his way to another mediocre season. But with more consistent playing time, LaRoche blossomed. He hit .323 after the break with 19 home runs and 48 RBI in 229 at bats. Against lefties after the break, LaRoche hit .250 with 6 home runs and 18 runs batted in. While the .250 average is not great, it at least showed Cox that LaRoche could hold his own against southpaws.

That's all LaRoche ever wanted - a chance to be in the lineup consistently, regardless of a righty or lefty being on the mound. The consistent playing time made him a more consistent player. His offensive numbers, combined with his solid defensive skills, give the Braves a top-notch player at first base. Now that he's proven he can hit left-handers, expect LaRoche's numbers to remain at the top of the league for his position.

Andruw Jones' ability to follow up his career season in 2005 with productive numbers was a bright spot. Jones hit 51 home runs last season, so fans were hoping he'd come close. But no one will complain with the 41 home runs and 129 runs batted in, one more than last season. Jones' average was one point lower this year than last year, so his production was very similar overall. His second straight solid season, however, further establishes him as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game of baseball. His presence in the Braves' lineup is extremely important. Every team wants a threat like Andruw Jones, and after hitting 92 home runs the last two years, he's one of the biggest threats in the National League.

While Edgar Renteria showed he is not Rafael Furcal, the veteran shortstop was a solid replacement for the longtime Braves' infielder. Renteria was an All-Star, with a fantastic first half (.318, 9 HR, 35 RBI). But he struggled a bit the rest of the way, hitting only .264 after the break and .243 after July 31st. Renteria had a typical Renteria season, and his veteran stability is refreshing with younger players becoming the main core of this team.

Matt Diaz entered the 2006 season with 119 career at bats in the major leagues, but he had a reputation as a strong hitter against left-handed pitchers throughout his minor league career. He quickly hooked into a platoon with left-handed hitting Ryan Langerhans, but with his production he wound up with more at bats against right-handed pitchers than southpaws. He was even more productive against right-handers, hitting .358 in 151 at bats, and .295 in 146 at bats against lefties. He finished at .327 overall with 7 homeruns and 32 RBI. No one knew quite what to expect from Diaz, and now that he's showed us all he can hit, the Braves have to make an important decision on how much regular playing time he gets in 2007.

The Braves' offense was not the main problem in 2006. Sure, the team speed, with Rafael Furcal now in Los Angeles, was poor. The Braves were last in the National League (and next to last in the game) in stolen bases with only 52. But the other offensive categories have the Braves right up at the top of the league rankings. They were first in home runs (222), first in slugging percentage (.455), second in RBI (818), second in runs (849), second in OPS (.791), second in extra base hits (560), and third in batting average (.270).

But the pitching? Yeah, that was the problem. The Braves' pitching staff was 11th in the league in ERA (4.60). That's the worst mark since 1987, when a far inferior group of twirlers combined for a 4.63 mark.

However, with all the problems the pitching staff had this season, there are things to look as positives. First and foremost, John Smoltz is establishing himself as a Hall of Fame pitcher - if there had been any doubt before. He's seven wins away from 200, and with his 154 career saves, he's almost a sure bet to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day.

Despite wanting to give the job to Tim Hudson, John Smoltz remained the Braves ace. Like everyone, the month of June was tough for him (0-3, 4.04), and there were three starts in three starts in late August / early September (16 earned runs in 13 innings) where he did not pitch well. But the overall season stats were outstanding, and we must add the telling stat that of Smoltz's ten no-decisions, six were blown saves by the Braves' bullpen. He was clearly robbed of a potential 20-win season by the ineffectiveness of the relief corps.

Smoltz is one of six pitchers that tied for the National League lead with 16 wins. He finished third in strikeouts with 211 (five behind the leader, Aaron Harang) and fourth in innings pitched with 232 (8.2 behind the leader). He's got an outside shot at the Cy Young Award, but he's certain to finish in the top five.

Two winters ago the Braves Nation wondered if Smoltz could once again be a dominant starter, and after two years, that answer is a resounding ‘yes.' Smoltz ended the season with 18 scoreless innings, so the whispers that he was wearing down as the season progressed were silenced. He's still one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, and until he shows us otherwise, we have to expect him to continue at this high level.

The injuries to the Atlanta starters opened the door for lefty Chuck James, who showed that his minor league dominance was no fluke. James had a career 2.04 ERA in 66 minor league games, along with 417 strikeouts and only 103 walks in 343.2 innings - without a doubt the most dominating numbers of any minor league pitcher in Braves' history.

James made the Atlanta roster as a reliever, and then strained his right hamstring the first week of May and missed a month. But when he came back, James came back as a starter. His first start in Tampa Bay was a clear indication of things to come, as he allowed only one unearned run on two hits in eight innings, with four walks, and eight strikeouts. James was in the rotation to stay.

His final numbers in his 18 starts: 11-4 - 3.93 ERA - 95 hits in 107.2 innings - 42 walks - 85 strikeouts. Take away his worst start, on July 30th when he gave up seven runs in only one inning against the Mets, and James had a 11-3 record with a 3.38 ERA in his other 17 starts. After that horrible game, James was 7-2 the rest of the way in 12 starts with a 3.15 ERA.

The Braves now know that the soon-to-be 25-year-old James is going to be apart of the rotation for a while. He impressed Bobby Cox with the late season battles with veterans Jamie Moyer and Roger Clemens, and there's no doubt that the diminutive southpaw is tough as nails. It's just obvious, with his minor league career and his rookie season in the big leagues, that Chuckie James is a winner - which is exactly what the Braves need looking ahead to a post-John Smoltz era in a few years.

In a peculiar way, the instability in the Braves' rotation led to the discovery of Oscar Villarreal, acquired last winter from Arizona in the Johnny Estrada trade. He had been a sore-armed and injury-plagued reliever when he came to the Braves, but by the end of the season "The Big O" had established himself as the Braves' top long reliever.

He started the season as one of the many that tried to setup Chris Reitsma, and he had an outstanding first month (4-0, 2.45 ERA in 12 games). But it wasn't until a game in late June in Tampa Bay that Villarreal found his niche - as a long reliever. He relieved John Smoltz in that game, as the Braves' ace left early with a strained groin. Villarreal pitched 4.1 scoreless innings in that game, and the Braves found his role for the rest of the season.

With the huge number of injuries to the rotation, even Villarreal had to step in and start four games. He did well, posting a 3.50 ERA in 18 innings. But his best work came when he pitched in two or more innings in relief. In those fifteen times he pitched under those circumstances, starting with that June 23rd game in Tampa Bay, Villarreal was 1-0 with a 2.23 ERA, 30 hits allowed in 36.1 innings, 11 runs, 9 earned runs, only 7 walks, and 23 strikeouts. And after he returned to the bullpen September 11th, Villarreal did not give up an earned run in his last seven games.

Villarreal is still young; he turns 25 in November. And with Roger McDowell helping Villarreal with a new pitch they call the "split-change," there is hope that we've only seen the start of Villarreal's effectiveness. He certainly convinced Bobby Cox, who already has Villarreal penciled in as apart of the bullpen next season. Hopefully, if the rotation is stronger next year, the use for a long reliever will not be quite important as it was in 2006, but either way the Braves believe they have found a useful arm to help bridge the gap between the rotation and Bob Wickman.

Another guy you can use a little more ink with in setting up next year's bullpen is Macay McBride. The lefty missed the first month with his forearm strain, and when he came back he struggled a bit with his control. Before the All Star Break, McBride had a 4.39 ERA and 20 walks in 26.2 innings pitched.

But working with Roger McDowell, who had seen McBride as the Sally League's Pitcher of the Year in 2002 when McBride was with Macon and McDowell was a pitching coach in Columbus, got the lefty on track. McDowell got McBride to finish his delivery more, striding closer to the plate. The tweak in his mechanics helped cure McBride's control trouble, as he walked only 12 batters after the All Star Break in 30 innings. But more importantly, McBride became a strikeout pitcher again.

McBride had 379 strikeouts in 425.1 innings between 2002 and 2004 in the minor leagues, but he had only 15 in his 26.2 innings before the break. But after working with McDowell, McBride started challenging hitters more and struck out 31 in 30 innings. And lefty batters hit only .179 against McBride the entire season.

McBride turns 24 later this month, so the Braves have a young reliever for many years to come. Another reliever with a solid chance at being in the pen next year is Tyler Yates, who was signed back in April as a minor league free agent. The right-hander had battled arm trouble the last few years, but the Braves' scouts saw potential. He was called up in late May as the team searched for bullpen answers.

It was obvious that Yates has terrific stuff, highlighted by a fastball that reaches 96 mph. His breaking stuff was inconsistent, but he still impressed Bobby Cox enough to be mentioned frequently as an option for next season. Yates struggled with his control at times, walking 31 in 50 innings of work, but he showed promise with a solid September: 2.70 ERA in 15 games, only 5 walks in 13.1 innings, and 12 strikeouts.

And the man Villarreal, McBride, and Yates will set up next season, Bob Wickman, was perhaps the best thing that happened in 2006. Before he arrived, the Braves blew 20 of 40 save opportunities. But the veteran right-hander, acquired July 20th for minor league catcher Max Ramirez, stabilized the bullpen and saved all but one of his 19 chances as the team's closer.

Dan Kolb, Kyle Farnsworth, Chris Reitsma, Jorge Sosa, and even Ken Ray had been tried as closers for the Braves, as they searched to replace the almost-perfect John Smoltz. But in Wickman, there is no mystery. He is a legit, veteran closer the team should be able to count on for the 2007 season. He may not be perfect next season, but the bullpen should simply be better with the knowledge that there is a proven closer in the role, instead of the musical chairs the team played with the position for a season and a half.

So while the Braves missed the playoffs and finished four games under .500, there were plenty of bright spots in 2006. Hopefully, these players will lead the team back to the postseason next season.

Wednesday's question: 3. What's happening with the sale of the Braves?

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. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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