They had brought back the best left-hander in Atlanta history. They hoped an expensive lefty would return after two-plus seasons on the shelf. They believed the rotation would be better. They hoped the older players would hold up. They thought the lineup, from one to eight, was as strong as ever. And they believed the first baseman being in the lineup for the full season would make a difference.
It wasn't just the team. It wasn't just the fans. It wasn't just reporters who covered the team. There were numerous national writers, like Peter Gammons and Ken Rosenthal, who also believed the Braves would be one of the elite teams in the National League.
But things changed. Quickly.
I remember back in March when a member of the Braves pitching staff pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Everybody in here is hurting. Everybody.'
Those words haunt me now. At the time I thought it was just spring training-itus, where pitchers are sore a bit as they get into camp. But it was more than that. The Braves just had a lot of pitchers in pain, and this season the pain just didn't go away.
A rotation that was envisioned in March fell apart one month at a time. The Braves thought it would include John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton, and Jair Jurrjens. And as the season ended Sunday, the fact that Hampton and Jurrjens were the only two left standing, and that the rotation included Jorge Campillo, James Parr, and Charlie Morton said as much as anything about the nightmare that became the 2008 season.
Instead of Smoltz and Hudson leading the team in games started, it was Jurrjens and Campillo. The Braves lost the top three members of the rotation. Smoltz's shoulder failed him in late April. Glavine's elbow hurt too much in June, and despite a comeback in August surgery was the final result. And Hudson, who had emerged as the ace, could not avoid the dreaded three words that every pitcher tries to not think about: Tommy John surgery.
No team can survive losing the top three members of its rotation. Now a debate about how much the Braves should have counted on a 42-year-old and a 41-year-old could be a healthy one, but you can't blame them for feeling good about their top three entering the season.
Hudson had never had any arm trouble. Glavine had never been on the disabled list before. And Smoltz, well you had to ride him for as long as that arm would hold up. We all knew it could go at any time, but you just had to count on him until you couldn't anymore. And it just finally went out.
So the Braves had to scramble. They had to turn to Campillo, who was effective as a 30-year-old rookie, but not very dominant. They had to turn back to Jo Jo Reyes, who just could never gain the confidence of his manager with too many subpar starts. And then once the season was deemed over, they had to simply look to the future to try and figure out who will be around next season.
The bullpen was equally damaged with injuries. Coming out of spring training Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan were the top two relievers, but in the end it was a much different story.
We all should have been alarmed by Soriano missing time in March, despite the Braves trying to tell us it was nothing. Then he didn't make it past the first week of the regular season with his elbow, and after nursing it for most of the year finally had surgery in September.
When Soriano first went down Moylan was given the chance to close. But Moylan's elbow started barking in the second week of April. Moylan had Tommy John surgery in May and would miss the rest of the season. The top two relievers pitched in a combined 21 games for the Braves all year.
The loss of the top two forced the bullpen to reorganize and it also caused several pitchers to pitch more than any human being should be asked to pitch. Will Ohman had to pitch in 83 games and wore down in August and September (6.62 ERA). Blaine Boyer pitched in 76 games and was horrible after the All Star Break (11.17 ERA).
In the end, the Braves had to rely on retread pitchers like Julian Tavarez, Vladimir Nunez, and Jorge Julio, who all actually performed pretty well. But it was the fact the Braves had to scramble for arms due to the injuries to Soriano and Moylan that was the problem.
As for the offense, you can look right toward right field to start looking at what didn't go right. Jeff Francoeur had a horrible season, hitting only .240 with 11 home runs and 71 RBI in 595 at bats. Francoeur was okay in April (.277 batting average), despite not showing much power. But in May and June he fell apart, hitting only .222. His power was pretty much gone, and a demotion to Double-A turned into more of an issue than a solution.
Francoeur balked at Frank Wren's call to send him down. He said some things in the media that didn't go over well with the fans. And then, when he was brought back up three days later, the team looked silly for making the call in the first place.
Francoeur wouldn't rally until September, when he would hit .282 that month to finish at .240 for the season. But the lack of power still puzzles the Braves and Francoeur, and now that the season is over he'll sit back and try to figure out exactly what went wrong.
Most wonder if Francoeur has simply been exposed for what he is: an undisciplined hitter that could only get by on athleticism for so long. But others wonder if his offseason workout program last winter, when he added twenty pounds of bulk, worked more against him than helping him.
Francoeur's lack of power was symbolic of the entire team's trouble hitting home runs. After Mark Teixeira was traded in late July, the team had no true power hitter. The team leaders in home runs after the All Star Break were Greg Norton and Brian McCann – with five. Chipper Jones, Kelly Johnson, and Yunel Escobar all hit only four home runs after the break. And Francoeur – had only two.
Teixeira's replacement, Casey Kotchman, had only two home runs after he joined the Braves. His average increased in September to finish at .236 with Atlanta, but he was a fraction of the power hitter Teixeira was for the lineup.
The injury to Mark Kotsay in May severely disturbed the lineup as well. Kotsay had really gotten going at the plate, but in his absence the Braves had to turn to Gregor Blanco, who got on base, but his lack of instincts cost the team in too many occasions.
Blanco then had to take over for Matt Diaz, who was also hurt with a knee problem. Diaz didn't come back until the last day of the season, and in his absence left field because a revolving door, with Blanco, Brandon Jones, Greg Norton, Omar Infante, Martin Prado, and Josh Anderson taking turns.
With Francoeur struggling, and Kotsay and Diaz out, the production from the outfield was practically pathetic for most of the season. The Braves arguably had the least productive outfield in the big leagues, which obviously caused the entire lineup to have problems.
But the lineup also had other inconsistent hitters, particularly second baseman Kelly Johnson. He finished the season at .285 with 12 home runs and 69 RBI, but from June 1st through the end of August Johnson hit only .238 with 3 home runs and 24 RBI in 269 at bats.
Johnson rebounded by hitting .402 in September, including a 22-game hitting streak. But the Braves desperately need him to be more consistent next season.
Chipper Jones played in only 127 games, missing 35. He won the batting title, and for the most part after the Braves threw in the towel his absence wasn't that big of a deal. But Jones still needs to be in the lineup more consistently next season. He's averaged only 123 games played in the last five seasons – after averaging 157 games per season in his first full years in the big leagues.
It was pretty much one thing after another this season. The Braves finished 72-90, their worst season in 18 years. A season that started with so much promise and expectation ended with the players and coaches grateful for the end. When something like this happens, the best thing is for it to just get over and start again next spring. And hopefully, a year from now, the list of things that have gone wrong will be much shorter and much less serious.
Bill Shanks hosts The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.