Thursday, March 27, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Atlanta Braves

A look back: The Braves have now missed the playoffs two years running, causing shock to fans in Atlanta, who had forgotten that baseball season does not start in September. But while Atlanta has improved and is far ahead of the Nationals and Marlins, the Braves might have become the NL East's Toronto Blue Jays, a good to very good team that is stuck behind two better ones.

Positives on the field: Atlanta has some good pieces in its rotation. John Smoltz is still dependable when healthy, and there are no questions about Tim Hudson's quality either. If the Braves' rotation stays healthy, it's certain to be a strength. The bullpen is also solid, and will become more solid when Mike Gonzalez gets healthy.

On the hitting side, the corners of Chipper Jones and Mark Teixiera are both strong offensive pieces, and Jeff Francouer has developed nicely in right field. There are plenty of reasons for the Braves to be optimistic.

Negatives off the field: Atlanta pulled its AAA franchise out of Richmond for Gwinnett, effective 2009. I understand why they left, but Gwinnett? Sure, it's just a bus ride for rehab, but why would Atlanta baseball fans come see the AAA team when they don't see the parent club?

Negatives on the field: Boy, is the Atlanta rotation ancient. At 33, Hudson is going to be the second-youngest on the rotation if Mike Hampton makes it. On most teams, Hudson would be the old man. Instead, Atlanta counts on 40-year old Smoltz and 42-year old Tom Glavine. If they're still going strong and still healthy, it's not a problem. But these pitchers could easily break down, and would take Atlanta's season with them.

Plus, Atlanta doesn't have strength in the outfield other than Francouer. Mark Kotsay and Matt Diaz aren't going to provide enough offense. Chipper is an injury risk, and if he gets hurt and/or Teixiera struggles, the Braves won't score.

Outlook: The more I think about this team, the more I see a National League version of my Blue Jays. Deep rotation, potential to score, stuck behind more talented teams, several question marks. As you'd expect a National League version of an American League team to be, expect the Braves to be 5-10 games worse than the Jays. And just as 90 wins probably won't get Toronto anywhere, 85 won't cut it for the Braves.

Projected finish: 3rd in NL East. Season opener is March 30 against Washington at Nationals Park. Braves home opener is March 31 against Pittsburgh at Turner Field.

Spring base: Cracker Jack Stadium, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The team plays its games in central Florida and on both coasts of the state.

Fan of the team?: Check out Talking Chop, the Braves fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip comes towards the end as it heads to New York's borough of Queens and visits the Mets.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Clay Walker.

No comments: