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 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.