All right, now that that's out of the way...
Seriously, I've been agonizing over this for days now. You know, every season I want to pick against these guys...much in the same way I thought there was no way the Yankees could win out in the playoffs such as 1996, 1999, and of course 2000. And everytime I do pick against them I wind up with egg on my face...and rotten egg at that. You know the old saying: "They're the champs until somebody beats them." Combine that with the fact that the Braves seem to live on borrowed time every season, getting by with kids fresh out of Richmond, with the best closer they've had in the past 15 seasons a converted starter, who's back to starting. And there's also the case of that very same converted starter playing more mind games with my head, proclaiming that the Mets are the favorites to win the division on paper.
And I swore I wouldn't fall victim to John Smoltz's evil Jedi mind tricks, as Smoltz tries to be a modern day Whitey Herzog...waving the white flag in March. I swore at that moment, that I was going to automatically pick the Braves to win the east and fall in the first round of the playoffs like they always do.
But darn it, I'm breaking my promise to myself. And I'm going to regret it.
Make no mistake about it, the Braves are a damn fine team (ugh!) And they are the champs until somebody beats them (double ugh!) Smoltz along with Tim Hudson are the best 1-2 punch in the division. Edgar Renteria is primed for a huge bounce back season in his return to the National League, and the rest of the lineup which includes Andruw Jones, Brian McCann, Ryan Langerhans, Jeff Francoeur, Adam Laroche, Brian Giles, and yes that guy who plays third base and names his kid "Shea", make up a pretty good lineup.
But there are two vital questions that the Braves must answer this season:
- Who is the Braves leadoff hitter?
- How large will the departure of Leo Mazzone loom?
Rafael Furcal was the prototypical leadoff hitter for many years in Atlanta. And in 2005, he was easily their leader in stolen bases with 46. Second? Marcus Giles with 16. Renteria had 9 for the Red Sox last season, but with Papi and Manny batting behind him, there was never a real reason for Renteria to take off...so his total will move up a bit. But Renteria will most likely bat second, with perhaps Giles and his career .366 OBP to lead off. That's not to say it isn't going to work, the Yankees lineup has been successful for years with their cyborg of a shortstop leading off instead of his more natural two spot. But the Braves aren't going to have the wealth of steroid us...er, natural big boppers in the middle of their order as the Yankees do. The Jones boys may very well be good enough though.
In terms of Mazzone, pitchers like Tim Hudson were fine without Mazzone before, and will be again. But what of a pitcher like Jorge Sosa? Sure, a pitcher from Tampa Bay is bound to get better not only leaving Tampa, but leaving the A.L. East. But from 4-7, 5.53 in 2004 to 13-3, 2.55 in 2005 has a little more to it than merely discovering Wheaties. And what of a bullpen that will not only start the season on the disabled list, but is also extremely young? Closer Chris Reitsma isn't even widely assumed to end the season in that role. Blaine Boyer, Lance Cormier, Joey Devine, Macay McBride are inexperienced to the point that the Braves are currently looking into wheeling John Thomson to get bullpen help. If Thomson, another pitcher who has had his greatest statistical success under Mazzone, is the chip to get help in the bullpen, there is a problem.
So this may be the year that the Atlanta magical fun ride comes to an end, much in the way that the New England Patriots struggled after the loss of coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. It will still be an uphill battle for anybody to overtake this team, but I've decided that I couldn't let that John Smoltz Kool-Aid sit idly by on the table without someone taking a sip...damn you, John Smoltz. Prediction: Second place/Wild Card.
Tomorrow: Guess who!