Five Questions: Atlanta Braves

The Braves won their division again in 2005, as they have every season that came to a conclusion since 1991. As has been the case the last few years, they had every excuse not to. Three members of the starting rotation (John Thomson, Mike Hampton, and new acquisition Tim Hudson) were all out at the same time in the middle of the season. Of the three, only Hudson gave them more than half a season, and he wasn’t nearly as effective after his injury. John Smoltz, in his first season as a starter since 1999, was forced to carry the load, throwing 229 2/3 innings. The only other pitcher to stay in the rotation was Horacio Ramirez, and he was below average.

The most valuable pitcher on the staff after Smoltz turned out to be Jorge Sosa, acquired from the Devil Rays for utility infielder Nick Green; Sosa put up a 2.55 ERA and went 13-3 to lead the league in winning percentage. Meanwhile, new closer Dan Kolb completely imploded and was useless for even mopup work by the end of the season. Chris Reitsma was the only pitcher from the bullpen that started the season who was still there in the playoffs; he was NL Reliever of the Month in July but he lost the job by the end of August to trade acquisition Kyle Farnsworth. Farnsworth pitched exceedingly well in the regular season only to blow a five-run lead in the deciding game of the NL Division Series and then decided to take a setup job with the Yankees rather than re-sign with the Braves as their closer.

As for the offense, the attempt to recapture the mid-1990s with Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi on the outfield corners predictably failed, but the Braves were able to patch the holes with rookies Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson, then got a huge spark from callup Jeff Francoeur. Chipper Jones missed 53 games with various leg and foot ailments, though he was the same hitter he always was when he was able to play. Andruw Jones picked up much of the slack, hitting 51 homers to set a club record previously held by some guys named Aaron and Mathews.

Rafael Furcal was awful in the first half but terrific in the second, and Marcus Giles for once managed to not run into anything too solid and gave them 152 games. Catchers Johnny Estrada and Eddie Perez both went down, but 21-year-old Brian McCann was called up from Double-A and almost unnoticed was one of the better catchers in the league in the second half. Perennial prospect Wilson Betemit, only on the roster because he was out of options, filled in around the infield during Chipper’s injuries and Furcal’s bouts of ineffectiveness and hit .305/.359/.435. The Braves won the division by two games (only because they lost the last four by playing them like exhibitions after clinching) only to lose in the first round of the playoffs.

Same old, same old.

Furcal walked to the Dodgers after the season. The Braves replaced him with Edgar Renteria, who’s been an equal of Furcal throughout the course of their careers, but the team traded elite prospect Andy Marte to the Red Sox to get him. Hampton required Tommy John surgery in September and will miss the season, just in time for the Braves to start picking up the full amount on his salary. And one of the remaining links to the beginning of the dynasty, pitching coach Leo Mazzone, took an offer to have the same job with his boyhood friend Sam Perlozzo in Baltimore.

To replace him, the Braves (surprising everyone) hired Roger McDowell from the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. Many people think that this is the year that the Braves will finally lose the division, though you could have written that for at least the last four seasons. The Mets are this year’s chic pick, it being their turn after the Phillies held that spot the last couple of years.

Same old, same old.

1. Who’s the closer?

Nobody knows for sure—Bobby Cox is apparently as in the dark as everyone else. Reitsma is the only reliever with much experience in the role, but he fell out of the job last year. Reitsma has a fatigue problem, pitching poorly without a day of rest (4.87 ERA the day after pitching, 2.44 with a day off), and thus seems unsuited for a relief ace role. He probably needs to be a starter, or, if he can’t hold up there, he should be used in a more creative fashion in the bullpen.

Oscar Villareal was acquired from the Diamondbacks for Johnny Estrada, but he hasn’t pitched well or been healthy in two seasons. The Braves were talking him up as a candidate during the offseason, but that’s died down some. Both Reitsma and Villareal pitched in the WBC (for Canada and Mexico respectively), keeping the Braves from getting a good look at them in Spring Training proper. Blaine Boyer is seen as a future closer in some circles, and he quickly earned Cox’s trust last season only to get hurt and miss the playoffs. His arm is still a question mark.

The favorite, almost by default, is probably Joey Devine. Devine was the Braves’ first round pick out of NC State last season and was rushed through the minors as a patch for last year’s bullpen disaster. However, he allowed grand slams in his first two major league outings, then (placed on the postseason roster due to Boyer’s injury) allowed the series-ending homer to Chris Burke in the epic Game 4 of the Houston series. Devine probably needs some more seasoning in Triple-A if only to get his confidence back.

Lefty Macay McBride is my favorite dark horse for the closer role after striking out 22 men in 14 innings as a rookie; his 5.79 ERA last year was the result of one ugly outing against the Cards and a ridiculous .486 average on balls in play. Cox has a reputation in some quarters for not trusting young pitchers, but he’s been willing to give the glory relief job to some (like Greg McMichael, Kerry Ligtenberg, and John Rocker) in the past. I don’t expect McBride to get the job in spring but wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him earn it over the course of the season.

2. Is Jeff Francoeur for real?

Francoeur’s long-term outlook is still good, but you can’t expect him to hit .300/.336/.549 again. Actually, the league caught up to him by mid-August of last season. Through Aug. 17 Francoeur had 10 homers and was hitting .373. Afterwards, he hit only four homers and his batting average dropped to an even .300. He actually did start drawing a few walks after that (he didn’t earn his first unintentional walk until Aug. 24), but only because some pitchers were apparently testing to see how far outside they could throw the ball before he wouldn’t swing. (Answer: about 2/3 of the way between the plate and the left-handed batter’s box.)

Francoeur is still very raw and perhaps could use some time in Triple-A (he still hasn’t played there), but how can you keep them on the farm once they’ve finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting and gotten their own rooting section? It’s likely that he can still make a contribution by hitting homers and playing defense (eventually they figured out not to run on him) as sort of Tony Armas Plus.

But if he struggles, the Braves have some depth in the outfield with Langerhans and Johnson (both of whom are more finished products if not with Francoeur’s upside) and Matt Diaz, whom they acquired from the Royals for basically nothing. Actually, the most valuable of last year’s rookies this year is likely to be Francoeur’s buddy McCann, who should be the regular catcher and is capable of an OPS of about .800.

3. Is Andruw Jones for real?

The interesting thing about Jones’ breakout season is that he was hitting in bad luck much of the season and wound up with a batting average (.263) slightly below and an on-base percentage (.347) only a little above his career norms. You would think at least that 15-18 more homers would have meant a few more hits (especially since his strikeout rate was way down). J.C. Bradbury’s PrOPS says that Andruw’s line “should” have been more like .298/.376/.610. It’s quite possible that Andruw could hit a fewer homers and have a better all-around season. If he keeps the homers and is a little luckier, he probably will win the MVP, especially if Chipper Jones is healthy all year for Andruw to drive in.

Andruw’s only 29 and has 301 career homers; Bill James gives him a 13% chance at 756, and (surprisingly) an 18% chance at 3,000 hits. He’s been seen most of his career as a disappointment because he’s not Willie Mays, but that’s always a hard standard to reach. He was already a perennial Gold Glove center fielder and one of the better offensive players at the position even before he leapt into MVP territory, and he almost never leaves the lineup, averaging 158 games a season over the past eight years.

4. Is Jorge Sosa for real?

Sosa’s peripherals don’t come close to meeting his 2.55 ERA. He only struck out 85 in 134 innings, while walking 64. He’s not a groundball pitcher and shouldn’t get many double plays. All in all, the performance shouts “fluke,” and he was a little hit-lucky. But there are some interesting situational stats.

270 AB with no one on: .278/.359/.433, 37 K 34 BB 6 HR.
236 AB with runners on: .199/.282/.305, 48 K 30 BB 6 HR
124 AB with runners in scoring position: .194/.309/.306, 31 K 23 BB 1 HR

What it looks like is that Sosa bore down with runners on base, making sure to not give up the extra-base hit while being willing to nibble and walk a man, and that with runners in scoring position he bore down even more and was trying for the strikeout. (If memory serves, he had a number of very long at-bats in key situations before getting outs.) If this is the case, and he really can do this consistently, maybe the improvement isn’t all illusory.

I wouldn’t expect another 2.55 ERA, but one in the 3.00s seems very possible. Another possibility is that he could get into the closer mix if the Braves prefer to get Kyle Davies in the rotation; if he can only pitch at his best for a few batters a game, that would seem a logical way to leverage that.

5. How will the Braves fare without Leo Mazzone?

The hiring of McDowell was a shock, not least because he didn’t seem to excel for the Dodgers, but because Las Vegas is one of the worst places to pitch in the minor leagues so he probably gets something of a break there. Apparently he impressed John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox in the interview room and they decided he was the man. If nothing else, he seems to have come as a relief to many of the Braves’ young pitchers, who felt that Mazzone was too hard on them. The weeks before and early in Spring Training were full of stories of pitchers lauding McDowell seemingly at Mazzone’s expense; whether this was orchestrated by the Braves, by the media, or was a genuine grassroots belief depends upon who you talk to.

Nobody knows how big “The Mazzone Effect” really is, or how much was due to him and how much to Cox or the Braves’ organization. If it is mostly Mazzone, the Braves could be in for a rude awakening. The positive spin is that McDowell replacing Mazzone will work in the same way as replacing a high-pressure manager with a low-pressure and that the pitchers will thrive in a more forgiving environment, and that McDowell will continue Mazzone’s philosophy while bringing in a few good ideas of his own.

Finally, it should be recalled that Cox got better-than-expected results out of his pitchers before he started working with Mazzone. The Blue Jays went from 10th in the AL in ERA to fifth when he took over in 1982 While the Braves didn’t rise out of last in ERA when he took them over the first time in 1978, they were in the best hitter’s park in baseball at the time and did go from 4.85 to 4.08.

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