By Matt Canamucio, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (96-66) - First Place (NL East); lost to Houston in NLDS
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Tim Hudson, OF - Brian Jordan, RP - Dan Kolb, OF - Raul Mondesi, RP - Gabe White.
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Antonio Alfonseca, SP - Paul Byrd, RP - Jose Capellan, RP - Juan Cruz, INF - Mark DeRosa, OF - J.D. Drew, INF - Mike Hessman, OF - Eli Marrero, RP - Dan Meyer, SP - Russ Ortiz, OF - Charles Thomas, SP - Jaret Wright
PROJECTED LINEUP: Rafael Furcal (SS), Marcus Giles (2B), Chipper Jones (3B), Andruw Jones (CF), Adam LaRoche (1B), Raul Mondesi (RF), Johnny Estrada (C), Brian Jordan (LF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Tim Hudson (RHP), John Smoltz (RHP), John Thomson (RHP), Mike Hampton (LHP), Horacio Ramirez (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Dan Kolb (RHP)
MANAGER: Bobby Cox
It was business as usual for the Atlanta Braves in 2004, as they won their 13th consecutive division title. However, the trend of postseason failure also continued as they were eliminated in five games by the Houston Astros in the Division Series -- the third straight Game 5 loss they have suffered in that round. The World Series win in 1995 remains the only piece of true glory the Braves have to show for their divisional domination, and it has been nearly 10 years since that six-game win over the Cleveland Indians.
The most remarkable aspect of Atlanta's dominant run is that manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone have been able to keep the ship going with an ever-changing cast of characters. Things will be no different in '05, as there will be new faces and new roles in the Braves' clubhouse.
The dominant starting pitching of the 1990s is what will be the legacy of the Braves' run, and the current staff received a boost when the team acquired 29- year-old righthander Tim Hudson from the Oakland A's. Adding to the new look to the rotation will be the re-transformation of John Smoltz, who has left his closer's role to become a starter again at the age of 37.
The move by Smoltz was made possible in December when Atlanta traded for closer Dan Kolb, who saved 39 games for Milwaukee last season.
At the plate, the Braves have added outfielders Brian Jordan, who is in his second tour with the team, and Raul Mondesi to flank centerfielder Andruw Jones. The addition of Jordan in left means that former National League MVP Chipper Jones enters a season as the starting third baseman for the first time since 2001. Jones moved in from the outfield last June and stayed at third for the rest of the campaign.
The Braves weren't the favorites in the NL East last season, but wound up winning the division by 10 games over second-place Philadelphia. The competition, however, should be stiffer this season, as both the Mets and Marlins have bolstered their rosters. Of course, their pedigree as a team alone gives the Braves the edge going in, but a playoff berth alone won't cut it, just as it hasn't been enough for quite some time.
It has been 10 years since the Braves won the World Series, and six years since they appeared in one. The folks in Atlanta, who have been spoiled compared to those loyal to other MLB teams, have grown tired of waiting for that second title.
Chipper Jones battled through various injuries last year, limiting him to a career-low 137 games. The 1999 NL MVP hit just .248 overall -- his first time below .300 since '97 -- with 30 home runs and 96 RBI. The switch-hitter especially struggled from the left side, recording a paltry .238 mark. Despite a career-low 372 at-bats, Chipper struck out 96 times, which was the second- highest total of his career. The good thing is that his best month of the season came after the switch to third, as he hit .337 with 11 homers and 19 RBI in August.
Rafael Furcal, who served three weeks in prison this offseason for his second DUI incident, has found a power stroke the past two seasons, hitting 15 and 14 homers, respectively, after clubbing only 16 in his first three years. The 26- year-old provided just what the team needed at the leadoff spot, the ability to get on base. He led the Braves with 43 multi-hit games in '04, and his .409 on-base percentage in August was crucial as the team pulled away in the standings. Furcal's range at short is very solid, but throwing problems helped lead him to commit 24 errors last season.
Second baseman Marcus Giles enjoyed another stellar season despite missing 52 games following a collision with Andruw Jones in mid-May. Giles suffered a fractured right clavicle in the incident, but still hit .311 with eight homers and 48 RBI in 102 games. Back at full strength, Giles hopes to return to the form that saw him smack 21 homers and 49 doubles in 2003. Giles' ability to post those extra-base hits could have a ripple effect down the lineup and make the team's offensive motor run at full speed.
Twenty-five-year-old Adam LaRoche is expected to be given every chance to thrive at first base after a a solid rookie campaign that saw him hit .278 with 13 homers and 45 RBI in 110 games. The former pitching prospect spent much of the year splitting time with the ageless Julio Franco, who is back at the age of 46 to play the same platoon role. LaRoche isn't expected to be a dominant power hitter when all is said and done, but he has drawn comparisons to former Cub/Diamondback Mark Grace. Grace was a career .303 hitter and consistently hit homers in the teens, so that wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Johnny Estrada was acquired from Philadelphia in the Kevin Millwood deal before the '03 season, and at the time it was looked upon as a bad move. But the trade has paid dividends in Atlanta, while Millwood's two-year tenure in Philly was filled mostly with disappointment. The switch-hitter, who was being counted on to replace Javy Lopez behind the dish, played in 134 games last season, hitting .314 with nine homers and 76 RBI. Estrada also led the Braves with 36 doubles, and was tied for second on the team with a .378 on-base percentage. Estrada also surprised with decent defensive play behind the plate, committing just nine errors.
Mondesi has bounced around of late, as the Braves are his seventh team in four seasons. The former Rookie of the Year has become somewhat of a mystery in recent years, as his contract was terminated by both Pittsburgh and Anaheim because of off-field issues in '04. Mondesi's ability to contribute will be crucial, as he is filling the hole in right vacated by J.D. Drew, who fled to Los Angeles via free agency after a career year in which he led Atlanta in homers and was second in RBI. In 34 games split between the Pirates and Angels last season, Mondesi hit .241 with three homers and 15 RBI.
Andruw Jones returns to patrol center, after falling one homer short of reaching the 30 mark for the fifth straight season. His average was also down (16 points to .261) and strikeouts up (22 K's to a career-high 147), but the 27-year-old usually improves after a down year. Of course, the most valuable thing Jones might provide is his prowess in the outfield, where he won his seventh straight Gold Glove.
Jordan, who is now 38 years old, was tabbed to take the job in left field, despite missing significant time due to knee injuries the past two seasons. He has played only 127 games combined between the last two campaigns, and hit a meager .222 with five homers and 22 RBI last year with Texas. Jordan is in his second tour with the Braves, as he was with the club from 1999-2001 before being shipped to the Dodgers in the Gary Sheffield deal.
Ryan Langerhans is a player to keep an eye on, especially in left where he could be sharing time with the aging Jordan. Langerhans, who hit .267 in 26 games last season, is out of options, so he should be every chance to stay with the big club.
Hudson failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since his rookie year because of a strained abdominal muscle that sidelined him for over a month during the summer. The Braves hope for those 200 innings -- and then some -- as well as an improvement on his 12-6 mark and 3.53 ERA. Hudson doesn't overwhelm batters with a blazing fastball, as he makes his way with a devastating splitter that leads to plenty of ground balls for his infield. It will be interesting to see how he fares against NL hitters after switching leagues.
Also intriguing will be Smoltz's return to the rotation after three full seasons as the closer. We will get to see right away, as the last remnant of the dominant 1990s staff takes the hill on opening day. At 37, it remains to be seen how those extra innings of work every five days will wear on his right arm. For the record, in Smoltz's last full season as a starter, 1999, he went 11-8 with a 3.19 ERA in 29 starts (186.1 innings).
The Braves continue to wait for lefty Mike Hampton to pay dividends for an entire season. Last year the 32-year-old couldn't buy a victory during the first half, but a 12-2 mark in his final 16 starts salvaged the campaign. Overall, he finished 13-9 with a 4.28 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 172.1 innings. Hampton, whose career took a downward turn once he headed to Colorado in 2001, hasn't re-gained the form he enjoyed during his career with the Astros and Mets, but at this point the Braves don't need him to be an ace.
John Thomson began his MLB career pitching for the Rockies at Coors Field, but since leaving Denver has developed into a decent hurler. Last season the 31- year-old righthander went 14-8 with a 3.72 ERA in 198.1 innings. Thomson just missed his second straight 200-inning campaign, and posted his third consecutive 30-start year. He might not garner the headlines, but Thomson goes out every start and gives a solid, usually productive effort.
Twenty-five-year-old lefty Horacio Ramirez came out of the gate strong last season, but tendinitis in his throwing shoulder forced him to miss four months of action. He did come back late in the year, working a relief appearance on September 26. Ramirez finished the season with a 2-4 record and 2.39 ERA in 60.1 innings of work, and held opponents to a stingy .226 batting average.
Kolb suffered through shoulder problems for three straight years before being healthy for the last two. He put everything together in '04 and broke Bob Wickman's Brewers record for saves, landing himself a spot in the All-Star Game as well. Kolb features a sinking fastball that can reach the mid-90s, and barring a return of his shoulder issues, he should be one of the top closers in the NL again. However, don't look for him to overpower batters like a Billy Wagner, as he just isn't that type of pitcher. In 57.1 innings of work he struck out only 21 batters last season.
Chris Reitsma should handle the set-up duties from the right side after a solid 2004 season after being acquired from the Reds. He appeared in a club- record 84 games out of the 'pen, and was tied for second in the National League with 31 holds. Reitsma did end his season on a sour note, allowing four runs in the seventh inning in Game 5 of the NLDS against Houston.
Aging lefties Tom Martin and Gabe White will also be at Cox's disposal, and also look for hard-nosed righty Kevin Gryboski to make an impact.
With LaRoche likely taking a larger role at first base, Franco's presence will be even more crucial coming off the bench. That shouldn't be a problem for the ageless one, who led the team with 15 pinch hits and 15 PH RBI last season. Franco finished last season hitting .309 with six homers and 57 RBI in 125 games.
The Braves will have a tougher time winning their 14th straight division crown, and there are plenty of questions that have to be answered. Can Smoltz revert back to his solid starting days? Can Raul Mondesi keep his head on straight? Is Brian Jordan too old? That's a lot of uncertainty, but you have to give Cox, Mazzone and GM John Schuerholz the benefit of the doubt. Even if they are out-gunned for the NL East, the Braves should be able to at least get in the postseason as a Wild Card.