Spring Training brings hope to every team and every fan, no matter what the situation. Whether you follow a team that is striving to get back to the playoffs after missing it for the first time in fifteen years, or just a team trying to get to .500, at this point in the year you're always optimistic.
Sure, the Atlanta Braves have questions this spring, but I thought the other day about the questions surrounding this team twenty years ago. It was quite different back then, obviously, and many of you may not have even been born yet. But I thought I'd write an article about Braves' Spring Training 1987 – and not 2007.
My how times have changed.
West Palm Beach
It's year two of the Bobby Cox – Chuck Tanner era for the Atlanta Braves, and the dynamic duo is hoping for a much better season in 1987. The first year included a bit of hope early on in the season, only to see the team settle back and become ‘those same ole Braves,' finishing last in the National League West with a 72-89 record.
The Braves were in third place as late as early July last season and were only a game and a half out of first place on Independence Day. But they then lost ten of eleven games to fall all the way to fifth place, which is where they seem more comfortable for some strange reason. Instead of a parade down Peachtree Street, Chuck Tanner could only manage another last place finish.
So now this team will try to improve on another lackluster season, but there seem to be more questions than answers. Bob Horner is still a free agent and seems more interested in going to Japan than returning to the Braves. Doyle Alexander is also a free agent, and while he does show interest in coming back, it can't happen until May. And Bruce Sutter continues to have issues with his shoulder. The Braves have no clue if their closer will be ready for Opening Day.
It's hard to imagine the Braves' lineup without Bob Horner. He's been a cornerstone with Dale Murphy since 1978, and the two formed perhaps the best young duo in the National League. But there just doesn't seem to be much interest by the Braves or Horner to give in on the negotiations, and there's a decent chance his career in Atlanta is over.
Tanner says the Braves will now play more A-B-C baseball instead of waiting around for the three-run home run. He's counting on two new acquisitions to jumpstart the lineup.
The Braves got Dion James from Milwaukee in January, finally giving up on Brad Komminsk. James hit .282 in Vancouver last season with 30 stolen bases, and the Braves hope he can provide some offense at the top of the order. Omar Moreno just did not have any gas left in his tank, and he was released last October.
James will be followed in the lineup by second baseman Damaso Garcia, acquired just a few weeks ago from the Blue Jays for starter Craig McMurtry. Garcia was Bobby Cox's second baseman in Toronto, and the Braves are counting that the two-time All-Star can bounce back after a sub par 1986 season. Garcia stole 159 bases between 1982-1985, but he had only nine last year. Garcia replaces fan favorite Glenn Hubbard, who can't get his batting average out of the .230 range.
With their veteran first baseman gone the Braves will now turn to 26-year-old Gerald Perry, who has waited patiently for his turn. Perry started the 1985 season as the team's first baseman, but a slow start prompted the Braves to move Horner from third to first and Perry back to the minor leagues. So Perry spent much of last year in Richmond and hit .326 with 10 home runs and 75 RBI. He played mostly in the outfield in Triple-A, but Perry will now return to his natural position at first base.
Perry will not provide the power that Horner had, which could put more pressure on perennial All-Star Dale Murphy in the middle of the lineup. Murphy had a disappointing 1986 season, hitting only 265 with 29 home runs and 83 RBI, his worst totals this decade. Murphy may now move to right field with the acquisition of James, and the Braves hope that'll help preserve his body a bit.
Ken Griffey will be 37 years old this April, and just knowing that he's got a kid that might get drafted this June tells you he's getting older. Griffey did well after coming over for Claudell Washington last June, but it's unclear how long he can be a productive player. Griffey can still hit, but he did show his age a bit at the end of last season.
Ozzie Virgil was disappointing in his first season in Atlanta, hitting only .223 with 15 home runs and 48 RBI. The Braves expected more, and with Horner gone they're going to have to have Virgil take a larger role in the lineup.
Ken Oberkfell is back at third base after hitting .270 last season. Oberkfell gives the team no power at a position usually reserved for a big bat. He's a steady player, and the Braves hope he'll help generate offense with some solid production.
Tanner must make a decision on shortstop, where he's got Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas. Both players are limited to shortstop, and even though Thomas showed flashes in his rookie season he still hit only .251.
The bench looks good again, with Ted Simmons, Gary Roenicke, and Bruce Benedict giving the team veteran options. It's just a shame Simmons and Roenicke are no longer in their prime.
The Braves are still waiting for Drew Denson to break out. The former first round-pick struggled in Durham last season, and now the Braves are moving him to the outfield. Farm Director Hank Aaron still has confidence in Denson, but the Braves need to see some positive results soon.
Atlanta's pitching is, as always, a huge question mark. Alexander can't come back until May, and all signs point to him returning. So the top three in the Braves' rotation will be Rick Mahler, Zane Smith, and David Palmer. That trio won't confuse anyone with Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling, but all three will be counted on to once again give the Braves at least 200 innings apiece.
The Braves resisted trading Smith, even turning down a chance at bringing Brett Butler back from Cleveland. The lefty must improve on his 8-16 record and start showing some of the promise that made him a top prospect.
Atlanta traded Terry Harper to Detroit for two arms that could make a difference. Righty Randy O'Neal could be the fourth starter. He started 11 games for the Tigers last season. Chuck Cary is more of a reliever, but the Braves may see if he can start this spring.
Charlie Puleo is the favorite as the fifth starter. The veteran got a handful of starts late last season in Atlanta. Jim Acker was mainly a starter after coming over from Toronto for Joe Johnson, but with Sutter a question mark he might be needed more in the bullpen.
Sutter's absence will be huge, and there's no guarantee he'll pitch this season. So Acker and lefty Paul Assenmacher could become major players in the bullpen. Gene Garber saved 24 games last season with Sutter out, but the 39-year-old veteran needs to be a middle reliever. Jeff Dedmon could get a shot as the closer. He had a 2.98 ERA in 57 games last season.
There are several new young pitchers opening some eyes here in camp. Lefty Tom Glavine, who played hockey in Massachusetts and was even drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, will head back to Triple-A Richmond. And the Braves are excited about Pete Smith, who was acquired in the Steve Bedrosian trade with Ozzie Virgil in December of 1985.
Perhaps Glavine and Smith can give the Braves some hope for the future pitching staff.
For the last nine years the Braves have been built around Dale Murphy and Bob Horner. With Horner now gone, this is a very different team. No matter how optimistic Chuck Tanner may be, the fact is there are too many questions for this club to expect significant improvement. Unlike last year, the Braves will be lucky to even sniff the .500 mark this season.
Well the Braves were pretty bad in 1987, finishing 69-92 and in fifth place in the National League West. Bobby Cox, then the team's General Manager, put a full rebuilding plan in place once he knew the mix was just not going to work. It would be three more long years before Cox's plan would show anything positive.
That was twenty years ago. It was a different team, a different era. But if you know the players in this article you know that the big difference is the talent. The Braves have an abundance of talent right now. In fact, it's not even close. When you have talent, you have a chance. The 1987 Braves didn't have it, but this year's Braves do.
This organization has been through a lot in the last twenty years, and even with the questions facing this year's team, knowing how bad the Braves were back then make you know it could always be a lot worse.
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 email@example.com.