Pundits have perennially predicted the end of the Braves' dynasty for about the last five years now. Needless to say when the inevitable finally arrived - probably early August for most baseball hacks - a lot of told-you-so back-slapping obituaries were duly written with little note of the rather large doses of humble pie that Bobby Cox and his team had continuously shoved down said journalists' throats in recent campaigns. But like it or not the Braves startling run of success has come to a shuddering, sharp and, for Braves' fans, painful halt. Everyone knew that this day would come sometime and given the flakiness of the team over the last couple of seasons (2003 was probably the last really strong Atlanta team) we guessed it would be sooner rather than later. But I suspect that many were hoping the team would go down in magnanimous defeat fighting toe to toe for another division title rather than posting an emaciated 79-83 losing record on the season and sneaking past those pesky Nationals for a glorious 3rd place finish.
Before we go on let's eulogize for a few seconds about just how dominant the Braves have been since 1991. Excluding the strike curtailed 1994 season (and including 1994 is like calling the World Series Champion after a solitary game) the Choppers have won an unprecedented 14 consecutive divisions, 5 NLCS and a World Series - not bad going for a mid-market southern team! With a rotation of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine in the 90s perhaps there should have been a few more rings? Maybe, but to paraphrase Billy Beane the Series is a complete crapshoot and it would seem that the Braves just ain't too hot in the Casino. Ladies and Gentlemen, please salute perhaps the greatest dynasty in American sporting history: The 91-05 Atlanta Braves!
OK, now we have that chest-thumping out of the way let's dissect what really happened in 2006.
During spring training hopes were high at camp Brave for division title number 15. The kids who had single-handedly won the division for the Braves in 2005 were all back with an extra year of experience under their belts. With Giles, Renteria, the Jones boys, McCann and Frenchy forming the top of the order hopes were high that Braves would score generously. The only question was pitching. The starting pitching looked adequate with Smoltz, Hudson and Thomson forming the front trio, and Davies, James, Ramirez and Lerew all seemingly options for the last couple of spots in the rotation. The real spring training question mark concerned the bullpen. The 2005 version of the pen will never go down as one of the greatest of all time, quite the opposite in fact, but at least with Farnsworth there was a recognized closer, sort of. With Farnsworth lost to free agency, Chris Reitsma took up the mantle (read poisoned chalice) of Closer but was summarily booted out of the position by early May for what can only be described as incompetence.
The first game summed up the problems facing the Braves as they eeked out a wild 11-10 win against the Dodgers. Actually in the first week of the season selected scorelines from Braves' game read as follows: 11-10, 9-8, 14-6, 6-12. After the first couple of series they had the most runs scored and runs allowed in all of baseball.
Bad defense doesn't necessarily cancel out good offense and by the first week in May the Braves were in a nasty 12-18 hole and already a bushel of games behind the Mets, who many were pegging as division champions already. However, a fortuitous schedule (Washington, Florida, Arizona, Chicago and San Diego) resulted in the Braves going 15-5 over their next 20 games for a 27-23 record and seemingly on course to challenge the Amazin' Mets.
Then came June.
By July 1st after a quite horrendous sequence of results the Braves found themselves tottering on the brink with a shocking 34-47 losing record - the season was effectively over.
In the second half the Braves didn't play too badly going 44-36 (mainly because Adam LaRoche started batting like Mickey Mantle rather than Neifi Perez), which if replicated in the first half could have yielded a World Series given what we have subsequently seen in October!! Although the paucity of NL talent meant that the Braves were always in apparent touching distance of the wild card, the reality was that there were always four or five teams in front of them and it would have been a monumental task to leap frog them all. And just like that the Braves' season and dynasty were over.
Let's take a quick look at some winners and losers from the season.
LaRoche was perhaps the biggest surprise for the Braves in 2006. He mashed a career high 32 round-trippers and posted a highly respectable OPS of .915. The astonishing thing was that this was largely a second half performance. In July and August LaRoche notched an OPS north of 1.000 and had 19 homers since the break. The only question now is whether he is able to repeat this performance in 2007. If so he'll become one of the premier first baseman in the majors.
When healthy, Chipper is still one of the best offensive infielders in the NL. Despite only playing 110 games he still spanked 26 dingers, had an AVG of .324 and OPS of 1.004. Chipper's influence extended beyond his bat. With him in the team the Braves tended to win. When he came back from a stint on the DL in July his hitting prowess saw the Braves (temporarily) lurch back into Wild Card contention. Although there are still question marks with the glove Chipper remains the heart beat of the Braves clubhouse. If the team is to challenge in 2007 Chipper will need to remain healthy.
Andruw Jones largely carried the Braves to the 2005 division with a whopping 51 home runs. In 2006 he still played well hitting 41 homers and on many other esoteric sabermetric measures (wOBA, EqA, OPS - take your pick) he matched his 2005 campaign. 2007 will be his last year before free agency and some valuations methods place his contract in the $20M range, which although lofty isn't as outrageous as it may seem on a comparative basis (think Torii Hunter of the Twins). If the Braves can't keep him beyond free agency then a trade is an option though Andruw would have to waive his 10-5 clause. Many fans hope that he can be locked up by the franchise for at least the next four years.
McCann isn't the most elegant player in the game: He runs slightly knock-kneed, is slower than gum stuck to the sidewalk and isn't exactly going to be winning the ladies hearts with his good looks, but my goodness can he play baseball. He followed up a strong rookie year with one of the best all time catcher seasons, which almost saw him carry off the NL batting title. His line was .333/.388/.572 with 24 home runs. Whether the Braves should risk a talent like McCann at the catcher position is a debate still to be had, especially with the depth of talent at the Braves have in their farm system at catcher. McCann is, hopefully, the future of the franchise.
Other winners: John Smoltz, Edgar Renteria, Bob Wickman, Chuck James
I probably don't need to regale the history of how Jeffrey burst on to the scene with a slew of homers and a high AVG last year. This was at the expense of plate discipline, which was atrocious as evidence by the fact that he walked less than 5% of the time (including intentional walks). Despite a spring training promise to work on this Francoeur still continued to hack away at anything remotely near the plate. Not surprisingly pitchers choose to throw him balls and he mostly went down swinging. His line of .260/.293/.449 demonstrates that he does have power if he connects. If he can learn to walk Francoeur can become a superstar of the game, but until he does he might as well be benched. Booby Cox also needs to learn how and when to use him - in 2006 he was the only Brave to play all 162 games.
Giles has been a solid middle infielder for some time now and with Furcal departing to the Dodgers he was given the opportunity to lead-off the Braves. He batted .262/.341/.387 for an OPS of .739. Although he picked up in the second half, primarily when he was switched from lead-off back to second in the order for a short while, his overall performance was still disappointing. Hitting 40 points higher would have allowed Giles to get away with a lack of power, but a batting average of .262 means you have to make more than contact to have success.
The bullpen - especially in the 1st half
Terrible, terrible, terrible. Any one of four or five hurlers could have made the losers list - I am just too lazy to write about them all. Take your pick from Reitsma, Cormier, Villereal, Moylen, Sosa, Baez, Barry and Sheil. If there is one thing that the Braves need to fix next year it is the pen. Although Bob Wickman added some stability to the closer role he is old and his peripherals point to regression. To wit the Braves lost the most one run games in the majors, had a fistful of blown saves and a host of other bullpen blowouts. Enough said.
Other losers: Everyone else (and Tim Hudson, twice)
So, can the Braves bounce back in 2007? The batting line-up remains strong and should produce, so it comes down to a question of pitching. The rotation looks fine on paper with Smoltz, Hudson and Hampton the core of the rotation and James, Davies and Ramirez battling for the last couple of slots. A lot depends on whether Hudson can bounce back to be an effective #2 starter and whether the back end of rotation can hold it together. If Schuerholz can sprinkle a bit of magic dust on the pen then who knows what may happen. The odds are, however, that the Mets will continue to spend effectively and the Braves will be left trailing. Unless new ownership (if it ever happens) loosens the purse strings, which is unlikely, count on another early exit in 2007. Perhaps it is time to think the unthinkable and put in place a full rebuilding project. At least it will help manage expectations. Go Braves. Go figure.