Would it be worth it, being a Braves fan? In the playoffs every year without fail, but less to show for it than your own division's Marlins, who have never won the NL East but have twice won the World Series. Caught in a vortex where you can't sell out home playoff games but even when you try to cut payroll and rebuild the Mets, Fish, Phillies, and ExpoNationals gift you with the division anyway. What could the Braves be doing differently? Should they be doing anything differently? Are their serial playoff failures sheer bad luck as most statheads would tell you or is there some element John Schuerholz's otherwise ironclad team construction leaves out year after year? These are questions worth considering. I hope for a few moments at least you will do as I am now doing and pretend you're not just completely sick of the Atlanta Braves. (And speaking as a Rockies fan, of course it would be worth it. We've yet to even make the playoffs in a real season, and the capacity crowds of 1993 and 1995 are a distant memory. Even if it's to get crushed in three games as badly as the South African national team, please give us a playoff berth.)
Last year it might have seemed like the Braves' tendency to win division titles was crossing over into the realm of the mystical, given the number of well-publicized contributions they had from unknown rookies. It's true that the list of Atlanta's offensive leaders from last year has a ton of these names on it -- Jeff Francoeur, Wilson Betemit, Ryan Langerhans, Kelly Johnson, Pete Orr, Brian McCann, plus second-year player Adam LaRoche. How lucky did the Braves get? Well, while it's certainly a bit unusual to get positive contributions from so many youngsters, especially on a contending team, it's not as if Francoeur (21.2 VORP) and Langerhans (13.0) formed the engine that drove the team. That would be the familiar foursome of Chipper Jones (49.0), Rafael Furcal (49.4), Marcus Giles (48.8), and Andruw Jones (60.9). If the 2005 Braves proved anything, it was that a bunch of seasoned, low-ceiling prospects makes for a better option than Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi. But I think we knew that already.
For 2006, Furcal exits and Edgar Renteria takes his place. Renteria was a washout in Boston, but he's been a good player more often than not, Atlanta didn't have any particularly appealing internal options, and the Red Sox will pay enough of his salary going forward that the risk for the Braves isn't apalling. (As opposed to Mike Hampton, still on his Colorado contract but now fully Atlanta's financial problem to the tune of $43 million over the next three years plus another $23 million or so in buyouts and deferred money. I think it's safe to say that Dan O'Dowd still gets Christmas cards from the Hamptons.) LaRoche, Francoeur, and company will be starting from the outset this year but none of them are exactly breakout candidates, as many will be making the switch from platooning to full-time starting. Andruw Jones will probably back down a bit from a career '05 while Chipper Jones in all likelihood will spend some more time on the DL. In short, they will really miss Rafael Furcal. In retrospect it's a little strange that they were so quick to deal Andy Marte for Renteria, as he might have been the only guy high in the system with the chance to become an All-Star cornerstone type. Then again, the Braves almost never trade guys like that, so maybe Schuerholz knows something about Marte that we don't.
In the rotation you have golden oldie John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, John "No P" Thomson, Jorge Sosa, and Horacio Ramirez. No Hampton (TJ surgery) and no Leo Mazzone either. We'll see if guys like Ramirez and Sosa can remember what Mazzone told them last year, or whether they require constant reinforcement in order to maintain their Atlanta-based gains. Hudson didn't turn out to be exactly what the Braves traded the farm for last year, but neither Juan Cruz nor Dan Meyer has done much in Oakland to make Atlanta fans regret the deal. If Smoltz is healthy, he'll be good, but he is pushing 40 and this "Life Begins at 40" trend of pitchers having career years at or past that age (Jamie Moyer, Kenny Rogers, Roger Clemens) is really beginning to creep me out. Unusually for Atlanta, the list of fallback options is rather lean. The young guys who went to the bullpen last year (Macay McBride, Blaine Boyer, Kyle Davies) look like best fits to stay there, and there will be no more longshot reclamation projects from Dr. Mazzone's secret lab. Not as if even Mazzone could do anything special with the likes of Wes Obermueller. You can understand Atlanta's lack of enthusiasm for throwing huge coin at noted flake Kyle Farnsworth, but in the pen nothing much remains in his wake. Chris Reitsma bears the closer's mantle at the moment, but nobody in Braves camp except Reitsma himself seems particularly enthusiastic about it. Lance Cormier and Mike Remlinger provide the requisite veteran bullpen presences.
The Braves were top ten in the big leagues in runs scored last year, and they probably won't be this year, although the drop won't be dramatic. They were this close to being in the top ten in ERA as well, and that won't happen again either. You get the pattern. The Braves look set to decline slightly (again) in 2006, and this time I believe that finally someone else in the NL East, probably the Mets, will rise up enough to pass them. Of course, a whole lot of writers more respected than I have looked very foolish saying variations on the same thing for the last five years. Atlanta still has a world-class manager and a terrific front office. They're legitimate World Series contenders until proven otherwise.