By Mike Steffanos
For every voice that says that this will be the year the Mets finally come through, you find another that thinks the Braves will win it again. There certainly is an element out there that wants to see the Braves -- with some home-grown talent and a reasonable budget -- as the good guys, while viewing the Mets as just trying to buy a winner -- going out of their way to ignore that the budget hasn't gone up for them, either.
In the land of Tomahawk chops and poor bathroom hygiene, they're counting as much on the Mets' history of making bad moves as they are on anything the Braves have done this off-season. When I read something from the Atlanta papers, they almost always talk about Steve Phillips' brutal 2002 pickups -- somewhat ingeniously ignoring the difference in the caliber of players and the quality of this Mets staff compared to that one.
But admit it, Mets fans, what's really annoying is that we know they just might be right. Even once you assemble the correct pieces, things still have to break your way, and that certainly isn't the Mets' recent history. Besides being shackled with poor management that can't stick to a game plan for more than a week, the Mets have been extraordinarily snake-bitten in recent history.
Meanwhile, the Braves have been both exceptionally well-run and quite fortunate in winning 14 straight titles. After beginning this run with 3 straight western division championships, the Braves moved into the NL east in 1994. At the time, the Expos were a talent-rich team that drew fan support. 3/4 of the way through the season, Les Expos had a 6 game lead on the Bravos. Then the strike conveniently happened, not only washing out the rest of the 1994 season, but also effectively killing the Expos. The Mets, Phillies and expansion Marlins were all awful, and the Braves' only real competition in the division was just a shell of the team it had been.
The other teams in the division cooperated with the Braves' run by continuing to be managed poorly for the most part, while the Marlins fluctuated between buying a championship and selling the whole team off. The Mets had promising young pitching with Generation K -- then saw all of them go down to serious injuries.
The Braves at the time were fueled by Ted Turner's money and ego. Many Braves supporters conveniently forget that Greg Maddux was already a great pitcher when they signed him as a free agent. The Cubs couldn't compete with Ted's big bucks. At that time, the Braves had money to spend.
The Braves have been fortunate over the years, especially in avoiding key injuries. They have a great GM in John Schuerholz who has run one of the finest organizations in baseball, and a great manager in Bobby Cox who has the complete confidence of the GM. When they lost Turner's money and ego to corporate ownership, they were somewhat compensated by the fact that no one is standing right over Schuerholz' shoulder trying to tell him what to do.
Meanwhile, the Mets and Phillies cooperated with the Braves by running their teams foolishly. The Marlins chipped in with their penurious ways, while the Expos struggled just to exist. The Braves just couldn't have picked a better division in which to be.
This run of extraordinary good fortune is showing signs of running its course, as everything in life eventually does. The Braves have been suffering key injuries, with 34-year-old Larry Jones nicked up constantly and Mike "School System" Hampton out for the whole year. A key move from last year, the trade for closer Danny Kolb, blew up in Schuerholz' face. Then, after managing to get a hold of Kyle Farnsworth, they watched him slip away to the Yankees -- even though they felt they had made a competitive offer, and usually can count on key players taking less money to stay in Atlanta.
And the team's 2 key players are just plain getting old. Chipper is 34 and his legs are going; while John Smoltz will turn 39 in May and pitches with a right shoulder that is a ticking bomb.
The times are changing. Someone else will step up in the NL east. We, of course, hope it will be the Mets, but even if they flounder again it's only a matter of time. Even though you can still detect the arrogance from the Atlanta faithful, you can see the seeds of doubt springing up just under the surface.
Fox Sports: Still liking those Braves
Dayn Perry still likes the Braves' chances in the NL East. After listing the comings and goings, and the uncertainty in the bullpen, he comes to this conclusion:
On balance, the Braves should be marginally improved on offense and marginally downgraded on the pitching-and-defense side of the ledger. So they're probably once again a 90-win team (or thereabouts) going into 2006. Elsewhere in the division, the Mets are much improved, and they and the 88-win Phillies will certainly mount a challenge. Still, the Braves have patched their holes reasonably well, and their young hitters are poised to make vital contributions. Knowing what we know about recent history, would you bet against them? You shouldn't.
When I wrote my own Braves preview in early January I came to pretty much the same conclusion, although I think they are downgraded more defensively with Edgar Renteria at SS than Perry seems to feel they are. Then again, in my preview I thought Renteria was a prime candidate for one of those Bobby Cox career resurrections, and I wouldn't bet against that. Still, when a middle infielder is over 30 and experiencing a decline that has gone on for more than a season, it certainly is a red flag.
AP: Can we avoid a baseball strike next year?
Josh Dubow cites Donald Fehr, the head of the baseball players' union, that the chances of the union and ownership reaching an agreement when this one runs out looks pretty good:
What I can say is that the overall atmosphere of the sport is such that there are a lot of reasons that people on the outside should be optimistic about our chances of reaching an agreement.
Fehr bases his optimism on the fact that a drug agreement is already in place and baseball ownership is not looking for a salary cap.
CBS SportsLine: No Olympic Baseball
The International Olympic Committee rejected Baseball and softball's bids for reinstatement in the 2012 London Olympics. Big shocker. I'm a blue state liberal, but even I realize dumping baseball and softball was a knee-jerk anti-American move by the IOC, and they weren't going to change their minds. The sad thing is that, on the Olympic level, both sports were more important to other countries.