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Hope and Hype in the NL East, Part 1

Mike SteffanosWednesday, February 21, 2007
By Mike Steffanos

Jimmy Rollins is shooting his mouth off again and I'm supposed to get worked up about it. Sorry, I just can't. Maybe it would matter if the Phillies hadn't spent the last six seasons wallowing in mediocrity. They were supposed to be the team to end the Braves streak of division wins, but they could never get out of their own way. When the Phillies prove on the field that they can sustain excellence for more than short stretches I promise I'll make an effort to take their shortstop more seriously.

I've considered writing some previews of the other NL teams heading into the season, but just haven't had the time to do it right. Hopefully I'll get the chance to do those at some point, but in the meantime here is a preliminary look at the NL East.

Atlanta Braves
Atlanta has made last year's bullpen the scapegoat for their poor season, but the truth is that their starters weren't that great, either. They've improved their bullpen over the offseason, and the rotation will benefit from the return of Mike Hampton from Tommy John surgery and the departure of Horacio Ramirez. Both the Braves and the relentless homers who report on the team believe their off-season has made them the class of the NL east. While it's quite possible that this could be true, the Braves have some serious questions in their pitching, too.

Rotation: John Smoltz is amazing, but he'll be 40 in May. Since retuning to the rotation two years ago, Smoltz has averaged 230 innings per year. That's a lot of innings for an older pitcher with concerns about his shoulder. I wouldn't bet against Smoltz having another good year, but if it all finally catches up to him the Braves take a huge hit. The Braves are also counting on a big rebound year from Tim Hudson, but his struggles last year were the culmination of a 3 year decline. He'll turn 32 in July, and is looking a lot like someone Billy Beane got rid of just in time. Mike Hampton is 34 and hasn't pitched since 2005. Moreover, he hasn't reached 200 innings since 2001. Chuck James had a nice rookie season last year, but the league has had a look at him and he'll have to shoulder a bigger load in 2007.

Bullpen: Undoubtedly hugely improved from last year, what was a glaring weakness is now a real strength of this team. Bob Wickman was lights-out after coming over from the Indians, and will begin the year as the Braves closer. He's 38 years old and his best days are about 5 years behind him, but he'll get the job done. The more important additions are lefty Mike Gonzalez and righty Rafael Soriano. Both have closer stuff, but both also have health concerns. Gonzalez had a great year as Pittsburgh's closer last season -- until he was shut down for the year in late August with tendonitis in his throwing elbow. Soriano established himself as an effective setup man last year in Seattle after missing most of 2004 and 2005 and undergoing Tommy John surgery. He also was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Vlad Guerrero in late August that ended his season. If any one of these three pitchers goes down in 2007, the bullpen undergoes a huge downgrade. MLB.com's Braves beat reporter Mark Bowman's assertion that the Braves bullpen "definitely appears to be the best in baseball," is almost laughably premature.

The bottom line is that if things fall their way -- Smoltz holds up, Hudson bounces back, Hampton is able to give them 30 starts and Wickman, Gonzalez and Soriano all have strong years -- the Braves have the balanced pitching that can tip the division their way. Despite having to replace the right side of their infield and concerns about 35-year-old Chipper Jones (only 411 ABs last season and 358 in 2005), the Braves will score runs. If things don't break their way with the pitching, however, they'll struggle to play .500 ball. If they don't at least make the playoffs this year, it will be really hard to make a case for them next season with the likely departure of Andruw Jones and another year of age on some of the key guys who'll remain. Much is made in Braves Nation of the uncertainty surrounding the Mets, but there are some huge question marks in Atlanta, too.

I think the season is all-or-nothing for the Braves in 2007. If everything goes right with the pitching I think they contend for the division title, but if things break against them I could see them being out of the race by June. Braves apologists want to see last year as a one year deviation, but the truth of the matter is that the Braves lost their aura of invincibility last season, and they're not getting it back. The rest of the division has caught up or surpassed them, and no one is rolling over for them anymore.

Tomorrow we'll pick up with the Florida Marlins.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (8)

To paraphrase a semi-great philosopher: "Like Momma used to say, a sportswriter is as a sportswriter does." We Met fans are more prepared than most baseball fans to deal with homerism when it comes to having a "storied franchise" or "dynasty" shoved in our faces. Regarding the NL East, look for this to be a recurring theme at least until our guys run off three or four consecutive division titles, to which I firmly believe current management is committed and our team is capable of.

After all, some of us are old enough to remember the late 80s when the Braves sucked, just before Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz kicked in. 3rd place sounds about right for them this year. The Phillies? Tough team, lots of talent, but the last time they were a hit away from the WS was when? We'll know by the end of April where this is going.

You're right in saying the Braves have basically the same questions as we do: age and injuries at the top, inexperience and inconsistency at the bottom. However, I think our starting rotation has a lot more potential than theirs does. We'll see how it all pans out in the end.

I think their lineup will suffer without Giles and LaRoche. Their replacements, respectively, are Kyle Johnson and Scott Thorman. Who? Larry's in decline, Andruw wants to leave, and a Langerhans/Diaz platoon is probably not gonna do it for them anymore. Not to mention Francoeur, who is solid but needs badly to improve his plate discipline. Right now, the lineup probably looks like this:

C. Jones
A. Jones

Good, but not great. If Chipper can't stay healthy and Francoeur can't get on base, it dips down to a notch above mediocre.

You factor in all those questions, and I'm not sure if the improved 'pen can take away the 18-game margin they need to compensate for coming into this season.

If our rotation pans out even halfway, they have no shot at catching us.

Another thing about the Braves is the extent to which they succeeded, to the extent that they did succeed, on Brian McCann's hitting. They got a huge boost from what is typically a defensive position, which turns the whole lineup up a notch.

I don't have to point out the impact of that to a Mets fan; Mike Piazza made so many things possible for the home team, and for so long. For example, for a few years he made it possible for the Mets to put up a competitive lineup with scandalously little production from the outfield.

While I've always loved the thought of getting run production from the defensive positions of shortstop, second base and catcher, a team should remember that catchers do get hurt; and when you're counting on a slugging catcher, you take a real hit when he goes down. The Mets minimized this with Tank Pratt ready to go and provide decent offense; the Braves' options are Brayan Pena, a non hitter, and on the farm, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a highly hyped prospect who so far has only shone on the Scrabble board.

McCann's production is a huge plus, but if he gets hurt for and stretch of time the Braves will take a big hit.

About Jimmy Rollins' remarks: would you agree that the Phillies have wasted more talent than any other team over the past 8-10 years?

Really. They've had: Leiberthal, Rollins, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Randy Wolf, Burrell, Thome, Abreu, Paul Byrd, Vincente Padilla, Ryan Howard, Billy Wagner, Bret Myers, Placido Polanco, Ryan Madson, Kevin Millwood, Terry Adams, Chase Utley, Jon Lieber; not to mention some pretty good seasons from other guys like Turk Wendell, David Bell, Rheal Cormier, Kenny Lofton and numerous others.

What has it bought them? a bunch of second and third place finishes. And yet most years the Phillies had the edge over the Mets in terms of talent, and should have been fighting it out with the Braves for the prize.

Larry Bowa and Terry Francona are at least part of the reason, I'm thinking. A big old waste, it has been.

I guess I'm saying that Jimmy Rollins and that entire outfit is going to have to show me something before I'll get excited over a few sentences.

The thing about the Braves that makes me refuse to believe in them is that thier supposed big improvement in the bullpen is anchored by 3 injury risks. Bob Wickman, Rafael Soriano, and Mike Gonzalez, have always had problems staying healthy.

Thier rotation is pretty nice but Tim Hudson has to party like its 2003. I will admit that he can bounce back since I think the idea of a strong bullpen will give him more confidence in pitching and not think he has to throw a complete game for the bullpen not to blow it.
Smoltz I have faith in him but still... he's turning 40. Alot of things can happen.

As hard as is it to believe but the Braves scored more runs than the Mets last year but losing Giles and LaRoche I think will affect them, as well as Chipper's lingering problems. Andruw is in his walk year... expect him to go into beast mode.

But still, I dunno, I don't think the Braves are much of a threat despite all that. Thier not as deep as they used to be. I see them finishing in 3rd. I'm not scared of them. I'm really looking forward to those games against Atlanta to see the Mets whoop thier asses.

geezer - I do think there must be some sort of requirement that to cover the Braves you have to be a big-time homer.
Matt - I think their lineup isn't as good as it was a few years ago, but I do think they will score enough runs. If they get health out of their key pitchers they can compete all year, even if our rotation breaks okay. It's a big "if", though. (For us, too)
dd - Good point about McCann. You're right about the talent in Philly. I think pitching has always been the Phillies downfall. Their rotation is the best it's been, but everyone that is picking them is being REALLY OPTIMISTIC about their bullpen. I would say their bullpen actually has more ???? than our rotation.
benny - They might not even finish third if things don't break right with the pitching, but I wouldn't count them out until we see how that plays out. I'd love to see them really tank and finish behind the Nats.

Man, if they finish behind the Nationals I think I will stop hating them and turn my hate towards something more important.
If by 2007, the Braves finish in 4th or 5th, I think I'll start taking applications for hate. Although the Cardinals and Phillies have started the process a little early.

Benny, even if Atlanta finishes last the next ten years, there will always be room to hate Larry Jones. Father Time has finally caught up with Mr. Smirk, and I can't thank the Lord enough for allowing me to live to see it.

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