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2006 National League Preview: Atlanta Braves

Mike SteffanosThursday, February 9, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

2005: 90-72 (1st)

Note: This preview, along with ones on the Astros and Padres, was originally written for the Mets Daily web site which is no longer in operation. I worked pretty hard on them, so I'm posting them here for Mets fans who might want a heads-up on the teams when we play them this season.

It seems to be almost a cliché looking forward to a new season, asking whether this will be the year that the Braves' streak of 14 straight division titles will come to an end. As in previous years, they have entered this off-season with serious questions that need to be addressed by General Manager John Schuerholz.

Starting pitching has long been the strength of the Braves. While this year is no exception, there are some worries for Braves fans. After undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in September, pitcher Mike Hampton will miss the entire 2006 season. John Smoltz, the ace of the staff, will be 39 in May. His troublesome right shoulder was subjected to the strain of over 230 innings in 2005. Tim Hudson has spent some time on the disabled list in both of the last two seasons, and John Thomson missed 3 months in 2005 with an injury to his pitching hand.

If there are some nagging concerns about the starting pitching, the relief corps provides one gigantic headache to the Atlanta faithful. Kyle Farnsworth, who came to the Braves midway through 2005 and provided them with a solid closer for the rest of the season, has departed to the Bronx. Last year's failed experiment, Danny Kolb, was shipped back to Milwaukee. This leaves the Braves with mediocre Chris Reitsma, a ton of question marks, and a major to-do unchecked off of Schuerholz' list.

Of course, no listing of the Braves pitching concerns would be complete without mentioning the departure of Pitching Coach Leo Mazzone to the Orioles. When all is said and done, this may well prove to be a tougher loss to Atlanta's hopes than Rafael Furcal or Farnsworth. It remains to be seen whether former Met Roger McDowell can work the magic with the Braves staff that Mazzone always conjured up.

The Braves have some real concerns on the offensive side as well. The loss of shortstop and leadoff hitter Furcal to the Dodgers was a huge blow, softened somewhat by rescuing former All-Star and Gold Glove winner Edgar Renteria from Boston. It's likely that 2B Marcus Giles will slide up to leadoff, with Renteria batting second in manager Bobby Cox' retooled lineup.

Third Baseman Larry "Chipper" Jones has been a mainstay of the lineup for 11 years, but after nine consecutive seasons of averaging 571 ABs, Jones has managed only 472 and 358 in consecutive campaigns, slowed by leg injuries. With Chipper turning 34 in April, there has to be some worry in the Braves' hierarchy that he is approaching the downside of his career.

Atlanta got a lot of mileage out of a quartet of "Baby Braves" last season, and will be depending on them again in 2006. Outfielders Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson, along with catcher Brian McCann, all came up to the big club last season and provided a much needed shot in the arm. Whether they can maintain this production in 2006 is a big question mark. With any young player, there is always a danger that the league might catch up to them in their sophomore season.

So with all the problems that Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz are facing, it would seem safe to say that there is no chance of the Braves repeating as Eastern Division champs in 2006, right? Well, not exactly...

If Smoltz and Hudson can stay healthy all season the Braves will again possess one of the finest one-two starting pitching punches in the National League. Bobby Cox can expect reasonable quality out of John Thomson and Horacio Ramirez' starts, too.

The Jones boys will lead a productive offense. Andruw Jones has become one of the best power hitters in the game, and Chipper Jones, if not quite what he was in his prime, should have plenty left. Jeff Francoeur is one of the most intriguing and promising young players in the league. First baseman Adam LaRoche is an improving power source from the left side of the plate. The lineup, in particular positions 1-6, looks very solid.

And, of course, the Braves will have 2005's Manager of the year working his magic, taking the young talent that he is given and instilling them with confidence and sound baseball instincts. Meanwhile, GM Schuerholz will get the most out of his limited budget, turning over rocks to find players. A reasonable bullpen will materialize out of nothingness. Somehow, the Braves will find a way to win around 90 games.

Will it be enough to win a 15th straight division title? In a year that the Marlins are a non-factor, the Phillies are diminished, and the Washington franchise is still an orphan waiting for a real owner, it will be the Mets that provide the ultimate answer to this question. If the Flushing nine plays to their potential, the streak will end. If they slip up just a little, we will be looking back at the end of the 2006 season, wondering just how the heck Atlanta did it again.


IN: RP Lance Cormier (acquired from Diamondbacks), C Todd Pratt (one year, $850K), SS Edgar Renteria (acquired from Red Sox), RP Oscar Villarreal (acquired from Diamondbacks).

OUT: RP Adam Bernero (Royals - minor league contract), C Johnny Estrada (traded to Diamondbacks), RP Kyle Farnsworth (Yankees - three years, $17M), 1B Julio Franco (Mets - two years, $2.2M), SS Rafael Furcal (Dodgers - three years, $39M), 3B Andy Marte (traded to Red Sox)


Position Players

1B: Adam LaRoche provides the Braves with a solid fielding first baseman who hits for power (20 HR, 78 RBI in 451 AB). He can be a streaky at the plate, but, at only 26 years old, improvement can be expected. With a .206 career average against left-handed pitching, it would seem essential that the Braves acquire a right-handed first baseman to replace the departed Julio Franco in a platoon with LaRoche. (Grade B-)

2B: With the departure of Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles is the odds-on favorite to step into the leadoff role with the Braves in 2006. Although lacking blazing speed, Giles has scored over 100 runs 2 of the last 3 years, batting .291 last year with a .365 OBP. He has good power for a small man, with 45 Doubles and 15 HR last season. Defensively, he is a more than adequate second baseman that doesn't make mistakes. (Grade B+)

SS: Edgar Renteria replaces the departed Furcal at shortstop, acquired from Boston in yet another John Schuerholz coup. A former Gold Glover, Renteria struggled both offensively (.276, 8 HR, 70 RBI), on the bases (9 SB) and defensively (30 Errors) last season. Some say this was due to never adjusting to the mania that is Red Sox nation, but Renteria's 2004 season with the Cardinals was also sub-par for him. Still, at only 30, he would seem an ideal candidate to be a patented Bobby Cox renovation project. (Grade B-)

3B: Chipper Jones, despite missing over 50 games last year, still attained very Chipper-esque numbers with a .296 BA, 21 HR, 72 RBI in only 358 AB. At 34 next year, and coming off back-to-back injury plagued seasons, there is some concern in the land of the tomahawk chop over Chipper's future. A switch hitter, he's much more efficient from the left side of the plate. Leg injuries have hampered him somewhat in the field, but he is still a better-than-average third sacker. (Grade A-)

LF: With the departure of Brian Jordan, youngsters Ryan Langerhans (25) and Kelly Johnson (23) will be candidates to man LF for the Braves in 2006. Both are left-handed batters. Ryan Langerhans' power numbers leave a little to be desired for a corner outfielder, with .267 BA, 8 HR ,42 RBI, .426 SLG in 326 AB. Johnson's numbers weren't great, either, with .241 BA, 9 HR 40 RBI, .397 SLG in 290 AB. There have been rumors of a trade involving Langerhans with the Indians, it would figure that one of the two would be moved and a right-handed bat would be paired with the other. (Grade C-)

CF: Andruw Jones had a breakout year in 2005, leading the Braves in HR (51) and RBI (128). He was a legitimate MVP candidate as he carried the Braves all season, despite all their injuries. He is still one of the finest fielding centerfielders in the game, although increased physical size has cut down his amazing range somewhat. His .263 BA attest to the fact that he is still a somewhat streaky hitter and that teams pitched around him a lot. With Chipper slowed by injuries over the past 2 seasons, Andruw has stepped up to be the key player in Atlanta. (Grade A)

RF: 21-year-old Jeff Francoeur looks to be poised to become one of the premier payers in baseball over the next few seasons. He can do it all, hitting for average (.300) and power (14 HR, 45 RBI, .549 SLG in 257 AB), plus playing a very good defensive right field. He possesses a cannon in his right arm that led to 13 OF assists in only 65 starts. If there is a fly in the ointment for Francoeur, it is his lack of patience at the plate that led to 58 Ks and only 11 BB in his initial big league campaign. Still, he represents to Braves fans what David Wright does to Mets fans -- the face of a bright future for years to come. (Grade B+)

C: Brian McCann is another promising 21-year-old. The left-handed hitting catcher showed enough in 59 games for the Braves this season (.278 AVG, 5 HR 23 RBI) that John Schuerholz felt comfortable trading Johnny Estrada to Arizona for a pair of relievers. Defensively, McCann was only able to throw out 5 of 27 attempted base stealers for a dismal 18.5% rate. Veteran Todd Pratt was signed this winter to back the youngster up and provide some experience at the position. At 38, he is literally old enough to be McCann's father. (Grade C)


Starters: Veterans John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, John Thomson, and Horacio Ramirez will anchor the rotation, with youngsters Jorge Sosa and Kyle Davies probably fighting it out for the fifth spot. Smoltz is an amazing competitor, but at 39 years old in May and coming off of a season in which he pitched 230.2 innings, one has to wonder if he can repeat last year's 14-7, 3.06 ERA campaign. Hudson is only 30, but is coming off a second straight season where injuries held him under 200 innings. Still, it would be surprising if he didn't at least match the 14-9, 3.52 ERA he managed in 2005. 32-year-old John Thomson is also an injury question mark, coming off a season where he managed only 17 starts and 4-6 record with a 4.47 ERA. Lefty Horacio Ramirez is a solid, if unspectacular, fourth starter (11-9 4.63 ERA), but he gave the Braves 200 innings that they badly needed last season. Kyle Davies (22) got off to a great start last year but faded later on, finishing 7-6 with a 4.93 ERA in both starting and relief roles. Sosa (29) was 13-3 with 2.55 ERA in 44 games (20 starts). (Grade B+)

Relief: With Kyle Farnsworth gone to the Yankees, Chris Reitsma is the most likely candidate for closing games currently on the roster. This would be a mistake. Closing for a significant piece of last season after Danny Kolb imploded, Reitsma saved 15 games but blew 9 others. John Foster is a lefty with good stuff who battles his control. In 62 appearances last season, he had a 4.15 ERA in 34.2 IP, with 27 H, 32K and 19 BB. Between Davies and Sosa, whoever doesn't get the fifth starter spot will likely be the long man. Lance Cormier and Oscar Villarreal were the two relief pitchers obtained from Arizona in the Johnny Estrada deal. Cormier has struggled in 2 seasons in Arizona. Last year he had a 5.11 ERA in 79.1 IP, with 86 H, 63 K and 43 BB. After setting a NL rookie record in 2003 with 86 appearances, Villarreal has struggled with injury and control, only pitching in 32 innings combined in 2004 and 2005. John Schuerholz will need to get more bullpen help, including a legitimate closer, or the Braves are in serious trouble. (Grade D-)

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