The Atlanta Braves, winners of ten straight NL East Pennants and the 1995 World Champions, have looked down right putrid these past couple of years. However, with a new GM, some new faces, a few familiar ones, and the same Hall of Fame manager, this could be the year the Braves return to the top of the heap in the NL East. Will this year be the year? The Atlanta Braves, in their 32nd season in Atlanta, seemed to have it all in the 1990s. They had one of the elite rotations in the majors with Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz at the top and some key surprises at the bottom. They had David Justice, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones, and, later, Andruw Jones, to make their offense pretty close to scary. They had a solid closer in Mark Wohlers, and a really good bullpen that featured guys like Pedro Borbon, Brad Clontz, Greg McMichael, Mike Stanton, Steve Bedrosian, and John Rocker, just to name a few. In the 200s, they drew names like Antonio Alfonseca, Andres Galarraga, Raul Mondesi, Russ Ortiz, Andy Ashby, Mike Hampton, and others to the mix. The Braves seemed to be coasting, and it didn’t seem as though their run of consecutive pennants would ever end. Many people basically took a Sharpie and wrote the Braves in at the top of the heap in the NL East. Then came the downfall.
The Braves couldn’t do anything right. Everyone kept getting hurt. John Smoltz injured his elbow and required surgery. Their prospects weren’t playing up to bill, with the exceptions of Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles. Their bullpen melted down. Mike Hampton, their big name pickup, got hurt. Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux left, as did Ryan Klesko, Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, and Javy Lopez. Then, Andruw Jones quit hitting the ball. It all seemed pretty bleak, and I was expecting to see Bobby Cox have a stroke at some point. It was as though the spirit of the 1980s returned to haunt the boys of Atlanta, and the fans had a front row seat for the implosion. Yet, 2008 has rolled around, and the Braves have done some work. John Schuerholz is the new president of the organization, his assistant Frank Wren is at the helm, and the Braves have shaken off some dead weight. Maybe they can make this the year for the rebirth.
For starters, Andruw Jones is gone. It was a shame to lose his glove, but a relief to see him pack up his bats and take them away from Turner Field. He is playing for an old Brave, Joe Torre, and can relatively hide in the crowd with the cast of characters the Dodgers have now. The Braves replaced him with Mark Kotsay, formerly of the Florida Marlins and Oakland A’s, who has come in and rebounded nicely after a rough start. Mark Teixeira is back and should be a great help once he knocks off the funk of the rough start he has had. Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann returned, stronger, leaner, and ready to bust heads. And that they have done. Francoeur and McCann are hitting the cover off of the ball and, in my mind, have truly arrived. Edgar Renteria headed off for “greener” pastures in Detroit, but has only found a team in disarray and a manager on the hot seat. His replacement, Yunel Escobar, has a stronger arm, better range, and a hot bat. Kelly Johnson is also back, coming back from an early injury to hit a grand slam to propel the Braves over the Mets. Kelly is a key member of this club, as his glove and bat are both clicking to make his transition to second base complete. There are, of course, some new additions.
Tom Glavine is back. After completing his odyssey in Mets’ blue and orange, he returned to the Braves and looks to be in fine form. Smoltz is still continuing to amaze despite being 40-plus, Tim Hudson is spectacular complementing Smoltz and Glavine, and the bullpen in 100% improved. The only problem in my mind is yet another injury for Mike Hampton. While the injury to Rafael Soriano is definitely a worry, it pales in comparison to yet another season of Mike Hampton being injured. Yet, this may be an opportunity for someone like Chuck James, Jo-Jo Reyes, or Jeff Bennett to step up and make something of it. Jair Jurrgen has also proven he is a good addition, and the Braves are making good use of him.
The injury to Rafael Soriano is definitely a concern, but there are at least two guys that could fill his spot. Manny Acosta, the young righty with the lightning quick arm, could fill that spot and not miss a beat. He has a live fastball and nasty breaking stuff, and seems to have a presence on the mound despite his age. Chris Resop is another that could fill the spot, though he has been a bit shaky as of late. Though the Braves have a couple of injuries, they seem poised and ready to at least make a run at it.
They are solid at the corners, well-outfitted in the middle infield, well-stocked in the outfield, and have a bullpen that can make a difference. Theodore Roosevelt eloquently put it like this: “There is a time for talk, and there is a time to stop speaking and act.” Now is the time to act, and the Braves have a unique opportunity. Can this be the year the Braves summit the Mets and Phillies to regain the crown? The potential is there; all that is left is action.