Five Questions: Atlanta Braves

This has to be the year, doesn’t it? The year the Braves‘ incredible string of division titles ends? Well, maybe, but I was pretty sure it was over in 2000…and 2001, and 2002, and definitely in 2003.

Of course, Bobby Cox‘s boys somehow pulled it off each of those seasons. Even if they do win in 2004, these aren’t your older brother’s Braves. John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, and Eddie Perez (back for a second stint) are the only survivors from the 1995 World Series champs. The once-vaunted Atlanta starters have scattered to the four winds (or, in Smoltz’s case, the bullpen).

In 2002, the Braves won 101 games. They finished 10th in the league in runs scored, but first in runs allowed. Last season, they again won 101 games, but in a completely different way – while they led the league in runs scored, they fell to ninth in runs allowed. The ability to “roll with the punches” and adapt has been the defining characteristic of the Schuerholz-Cox dynasty, and they’ll have to be on top of their game to win in what’s shaping up to be a tough NL East this season.

1) How much will the offense decline?

The 2003 Braves had a truly great offense. All three outfielders drove in over 100 runs, second baseman Marcus Giles batted .316, and Javy Lopez had one of the best-hitting seasons for a catcher in baseball history.

The bad news for Braves fans is that the 2004 offense won’t be nearly as good. Lopez and his 117 Runs Created are gone, and with Johnny Estrada and Eddie Perez handling the catching duties, you can expect a dropoff of about 50-60 RC from that position. Ditto for right field, where Gary Sheffield is replaced by J.D. Drew, who’s about as durable as a Kleenex umbrella in a hailstorm. Marcus Giles will probably decline by a few runs from his breakout ’03 season, with the Joneses (Chipper and Andruw) likely holding steady.

All that means an expected dropoff in the vicinity of 100 runs, which would give the Braves 800 runs scored as a team.

2) Is Russ Ortiz a #1 starter?

Well, Ortiz went 21-7 last year; those 21 wins led the National League. Russ also led the Senior Circuit in something else – walks, with 102. Thanks to the Braves’ great offense, he received the fourth-highest run support in the league, 6.49 runs per nine innings. His 16 Win Shares tied Kip Wells for 10th among NL starters, and his 3.81 ERA was 18th in the league, just behind Steve Trachsel.

Russ Ortiz is a very good, very consistent pitcher. He’s won at least 14 games every year since 1999. In that time, he’s averaged a 3.89 ERA and 210 innings per year – no doubt valuable, but definitely not ace material. Expect Ortiz to return to a 15-win level this season.

3) Can John Thomson replace Greg Madduz in the Braves’ rotation?

John Thomson is a hard pitcher to figure. For most of his career, he has been basically league-average. The two big exceptions are 1999, when he got knocked around to the tune of an 8.04 ERA, and 2000, when he had shoulder surgery and missed the whole season.

Lately, Thomson has emerged as an innings-eater who can keep his ERA under five, and that has value. But can he replace Greg Maddux? Actually, I think he can.

While Maddux’s ERA last year was nearly a run better than Thomson’s (3.96 vs. 4.85), their relative performance was almost identical: Maddux had a 105 ERA+ in 218 innings, while Thomson had a 102 ERA+ in 217 innings. All Thomson has to do is hold steady, then, and he’ll see his ERA drop to the low-4.00s just from moving out of the AL and The Ballpark in Arlington, and into the NL and Turner Field. And if Leo Mazzone can work just a little of his “magic” with Thomson, a 16-win, 3.50 ERA season is not out of the question.

One other note… Last year, Thomson and Maddux both earned 11 Win Shares, though Thomson was nearly one full WSAA better than Maddux (0.2 vs. -0.7). What all that means is, while Maddux’s raw 2003 stats look superior to Thomson’s, the two players were basically equals last year.

4) Who’s on first, Giles on second, and I Don’t Know is on third…?

The keystone half of the Atlanta infield is in great shape, with Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal holding down the fort. The corners, however, are an entirely different story.

Last year, the primary Braves first basemen were Julio Franco and Robert Fick. The two combined to bat .282/.352/.445 (with 101 RBI) while playing first base – decent, if unspectacular, production. Fick is gone this year, and Franco is 45 years old. The newest kid on the block is 24-year-old Adam LaRoche, who will compete with Franco for the first base job. In 2003, LaRoche’s major-league equivalent (MLE) stats were .284/.362/.476 with 19 home runs.

Franco is great against left-handed pitchers but struggles against righties, while LaRoche is the other way around. The two will probably start the season in a platoon, and I expect them to be roughly as productive as Franco-Fick were last year. For more on LaRoche at first base, check out this article by Alan Schwarz.

Across the diamond, Mark DeRosa has been given the starting job. DeRosa almost never strikes out (just 42 Ks in 666 career AB), and his defense is solid. He’s not a long-term solution, but he doesn’t have to be – Andy Marte, one of the best prospects in baseball, is on the way.

5) Should John Smoltz return to the starting rotation?

John Smoltz had elbow surgery for the fourth time in his career this offseason, and afterwards indicated that he’d like to return to the starting rotation. His reasons were twofold:

1) Pitching every 5th day (as opposed to every other day) would be less taxing on that elbow, and
2) he would be more valuable to the Braves as a starter than as a reliever.

I honestly don’t know one way or the other about reason one, but #2 seems to make sense. Over the past two years, Smoltz has saved 100 games and posted a 2.30 ERA — great numbers, but his impact has been minimized by almost never going more than one inning per outing. If Smoltz could throw 200+ innings with an ERA in the low-3.00s, I’d say make the switch. There’s a problem with all that, though: Smoltz hasn’t pitched over 200 innings since… wait for it… 1997. Yes, seven years ago. And he hasn’t made more than five starts in a season since 1999.

My gut reaction to the question, “Should Smoltz return to starting” was a confident, “Yes.” Now, I’m leaning the other way. Sure, he might go 200 innings, but what are the odds? He’s a 37-year-old coming off his fourth elbow surgery, and he hasn’t been an effective starter since everybody was worried about the Y2K bug. We don’t even know if his arm could handle 100+ pitches in a single night. I say leave him where he’s at, and if you want more bang for your buck from Smoltzie, don’t just use him in save situations — use your relief ace in tie games. But this is one time where messing with a good thing isn’t such a great idea.

In Closing…

The Braves have been to the postseason every year since 1991, but the run has to end at some point, right? And this is as good a time as any. Last year’s Braves scored 907 runs and allowed 740. The pitching hasn’t really improved, and as I said above, the offense looks to be around 100 runs worse. That would make the Braves an 88-74 ballclub, which is about what I expect from them.

In terms of predictions, yes, I’m predicting the Braves to finish in second place behind Philadelphia. But, the Phillies aren’t that much better than Atlanta, and if this is truly the end, I don’t expect the Braves to go down without a fight.

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