By Mike Steffanos
Late this past winter, the task fell to me write a preview of the Atlanta Braves for another web site. I took the job seriously, so I put aside my own personal antipathy towards the club and wrote the most honest preview that I could. Although I honestly felt the Mets would finish ahead of the Braves as the played to their potential, I saw the Braves as a high-80 win wildcard team:
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.
In my appraisal of the Braves bullpen I had the following cautionary note and low grade:
John Schuerholz will need to get more bullpen help, including a legitimate closer, or the Braves are in serious trouble. (Grade D-)
I assumed that the Braves would at least pick up a mediocre closer like Danys Baez and a reasonable setup man or two. I was shocked when Atlanta stayed pat with what they had, with national writers like FOX's Dayne Perry passing along the confident assurances of Cox and Schuerholz that everything would be fine. Perry and most of the big-time baseball writers bought into it. I, on the other hand, thought they were all smoking crack together. I'm the first to admit that I'm not always right in life, but I think I came out on the right side of this one.
After the Braves came into Shea in April and took 2 of 3 from the Mets, several of their players were crowing about the old voodoo being back. I wrote the following in response to all of negativity floating around, including my own:
But when I try to work up a deep despair over the thought of the Mets ever turning the tables on Atlanta, I just keep coming back to this one simple fact -- this Braves team isn't that good. Nothing they did the past couple of days overwhelmed me. Therefore, although I'm sorry to rain on this self-pity parade, I'm just not signing on.
Looking at them, I honestly don't feel they have what it takes to succeed over the long haul. It's one thing for this Braves team to get up for the Mets and take a pair of well-pitched games, it's another to win games all year when you can't play the us against the world card.
...Look, I know that the Braves are feeling smug right now about winning this series, but I want to see what they do against everyone else.
The Braves bullpen was already showing itself to be clearly terrible, and sure enough, they went on a losing streak as soon as they left New York. Then the Mets started taking series from the Braves, one after another, even at Turner field. The Braves were losing a lot of games, and some big cracks were showing up in their armor. That's when stories started popping up, asking what was wrong with the Braves. On a team that had as many blown saves as converted ones, this wasn't a hard question. I made the following points back at the end of June:
For all of those "what's wrong with the Braves" stories I've been reading, I haven't found one that has what is to me the common sense answer to this question. Simple arrogance, on the part of GM John Schuerholz and the entire organization, has led to their downfall. They started buying into the media hype that they could put any combination of clowns on the field and win the NL east, because they've done it for so long and everyone in the media completely bought into it. I thought that the Mets would finish ahead of the Braves this year as long as they played up to their potential, but I felt sure Atlanta would acquire someone like Danys Baez to bolster their shockingly weak bullpen. When they didn't, I thought the Braves were terribly vulnerable. Since they've blown just about as many saves as they've amassed, that seems to have played out as I expected.
The Braves liked to point out that they've never had a strong bullpen, but they've always been able to depend on two things -- the cooperation of the other teams in the division who abetted Atlanta's run by their own mismanagement, and the fact that for years the Braves had a rotation that fielded three hall of famers and Steve Avery, who a very good pitcher in his own right. To equate Jorge Sosa, John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez and even the inconsistent Tim Hudson with those guys was just blind foolishness. It's a simple truth that the weaker your rotation is, the more you need your bullpen.
This horrible bullpen was there for all to see heading into the season -- Bobby Cox, Schuerholz and all the wise pundits who picked the Braves to finish first anyway. Like Schuerholz, they just assumed it would all work out. If you are familiar with the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes, I think there is an interesting parallel here -- any child could see the Braves were naked in the bullpen, but Cox, Schuerholz and the pundits saw a beautiful suit of clothes there. Arrogance.
Then the Braves hit their one real hot streak all year, right before and after the All-Star break. Their bandwagon was practically rocking from all of the media floozies jumping back on. Instead of talking wildcard, the Braves were cockily crowing about sweeping the Mets in Turner Field at the end of July and climbing back into the division race despite trailing by double digits. Some in the media were making dire predictions of starting pitching fueling a Mets collapse. Well, the Mets collapsed their way to a series sweep, and Atlanta had to eat their words. So did some sportswriters.
Again we are starting to hear the "what happened to the Braves" stuff, and are reading about their injuries and their misfortunes. This is a team who, while good and well-run, put together a streak that had every bit as much to do with their own terrific run of good luck, the strike-induced collapse of a terrific Montreal club in the early years and the mismanagement of their competition for much too long. John Schuerholz, who has been one of the best GMs of all time, did a terrible job this season, and some of their problems go back much further (see Mike Hampton's contract).
Someday someone somewhere will write an honest story about how Atlanta's own arrogance brought them to their knees in 2006. It probably won't be one of the sorry crew who wrote predictions based on expectation of Atlanta magically repairing problems that were plain for anyone to see. Your expressed opinion of "I can't pick against Atlanta no matter what" has been exposed for the intellectual laziness that it truly was. If it's any consolation, I believe your over-willingness to swallow what Schuerholz and company were putting out ranks up there in history with anything Linda Lovelace ever accomplished in that field.
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