The Winning Machine

Once upon a time I came to the conclusion that the Atlanta Braves had to, at some point, stop winning. I finally saw the error of my ways during the second half of last season, when Atlanta rebounded from a 32-38 start—that put them 6.5 games behind the Marlins in the National League East—to eventually win the division comfortably with a 96-66 record. It was their 10th straight NL East championship and, if you ignore the strike-shortened 1994 season (when Atlanta sat six games behind Montreal when the strike hit), their 13th straight division title overall.

I have been incorrectly predicting Atlanta’s demise for years, but instead of stubbornly continuing to do so until I inevitably get it “right” sometime around 2050 or so, I decided to hop on the bandwagon this season and enjoy the ride. As I said when making my preseason predictions back in April, “I’m actually picking the Braves to win the NL East for once.” Sure enough, despite my presence on their bandwagon the Braves have continued to dominate the division, getting off to a relatively slow start before emerging from the rest of the pack with a 70-54 record and 3.5-game lead.

As is usually the case, the Braves have continued to win despite major changes to their roster during the offseason. Gone from last season’s 96-win team are J.D. Drew and Charles Thomas, who combined to hit an even .300 with a .408 on-base percentage and a .531 slugging percentage flanking Andruw Jones in the outfield. Gone are Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, and Paul Byrd, who combined to go 38-24 with a 3.78 ERA in 505.1 innings while making 52% of the team’s starts. And gone are Juan Cruz and Antonio Alfonseca, who combined to go 12-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 145.2 innings out of the bullpen.

In addition to the offseason losses, many of the key contributors from last year’s team who stuck around for this year have had their 2005 seasons ruined by injuries. Mike Hampton, John Thomson, Johnny Estrada, and Chipper Jones have all missed significant time with injuries this year. And as if all that weren’t enough, the Braves also moved their 44-save closer, John Smoltz, back to the starting rotation.

Yet with all those changes and injuries, the Atlanta winning machine keeps on rolling. The formula should be a familiar one by now. General manager John Schuerholz makes a couple excellent trades, pitching coach Leo Mazzone works his magic on a few pitchers who are resurrected from the scrap heap, the seemingly neverending supply of young talent from the farm system provides some new life for the roster, and manager Bobby Cox mixes it all together as only he can.

Tim Hudson, who came over from Oakland in exchange for three guys who have had zero value this season (Cruz, Thomas, and pitching prospect Dan Meyer), has gone 9-7 with a 3.45 ERA in 21 starts. Jorge Sosa, who was plucked from the Devil Rays for utility infielder Nick Green, has gone 7-2 with a 2.66 ERA in 91.1 innings split between the rotation and the bullpen after coming to Mazzone and the Braves with a career ERA of 5.17.

Hudson’s performance was expected, as he went 92-39 with a 3.30 ERA in six years with the A’s, but Sosa’s emergence has come out of nowhere. Or at least it would have for anyone not fully aware of Mazzone’s amazing ability to turn nothing into something over the years. I became a believer in the “Mazzone Effect” long ago, and back in April wrote the following:

While watching the Braves last night, I started wondering which pitcher(s) would be Leo Mazzone’s successful reclamation project this year. As far as I can tell, the main candidates at the moment are Adam Bernero and Jorge Sosa. … Mazzone will have to step up his efforts with Bernero and Sosa … ut considering the success he has had turning rags into riches during his amazing run with the Braves, I wouldn’t put anything past him.

It has been an off-year for Mazzone, because he was “only” able to take Sosa and Adam Bernero, and their career ERAs of 5.82 and 5.17, and turn them into one valuable pitcher (although Bernero pitched effectively early on before imploding). I’d say that he may have lost a step, but Mazzone has also coaxed 47 innings of 3.64 ERA pitching out of John Foster and Jim Brower.

Now, the work Mazzone has done to once again patch the holes on the pitching staff is impressive, as always, but it pales in comparison to the outstanding performances the Braves have received from their prospects this season. Atlanta began the year with veterans Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan in the outfield corners, and when they proved to be as washed up as everyone suspected, the Braves ditched them and called down to the minors for Kelly Johnson and THT’s #27 prospect, Jeff Francoeur.

Johnson got off to a rough start, starting his career 2-for-34 (.059), but the Braves stuck with him and he has since righted the ship by hitting .273 to bring his season totals to a respectable .244/.333/.408. Meanwhile, Francoeur needed no such adjustment to big-league pitching, homering in his first game and putting up a ridiculous .379/.394/.734 line with 10 homers, 12 doubles, 30 RBIs, 27 runs scored, and an amazing nine outfield assists through his first 33 major-league games. But wait, it doesn’t stop there.

While the 21-year-old Francoeur has taken the NL by storm, Brian McCannTHT’s #41 prospect and another 21-year-old making the jump from Double-A—has hit .292/.365/.434 in 37 games subbing for an injured Estrada. Twenty-five-year-old Wilson Betemit, who looked like a bust as a prospect coming into the season, has hit .295/.354/.449 in 97 games while filling in for Jones at third base. The pitching staff has also gotten a major boost from the farm system, as THT’s #37 prospect, Kyle Davies, stepped into the starting rotation when injuries hit and went 6-3 with a 4.56 ERA in 73 innings.

During the past five offseasons, the Braves have lost Drew, Ortiz, Wright, Byrd, Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Kevin Millwood, among other others. Not only have they withstood that to once again sit atop the NL East with five weeks left to play, they have a new core of young players that will likely put them in position to continue their amazing run for the rest of this decade. And with THT’s #4 prospect, Andy Marte, Joey Devine, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Chuck James, Jake Stevens, Macay McBride, and Anthony Lerew in the next wave, it may never end.

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