Braves head to Phily, but division is wrapped up

Hampton may help a wounded bullpen

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks says the Braves have the division wrapped up, but there are still some questions with nineteen games remaining.

It's over. Forget about any division race. The Braves have that wrapped up. The lead is seven games over the Florida Marlins, with nineteen to play.

It's over. The Braves are going to win the National League East - again.

Even if the Braves went 9-10 in their final nineteen games (which they won't), the Marlins would have to go 17-2 to win the division. Yes, I know, we play the Marlins six more times before the end of the season and the Phillies seven more times. But's it's not going to matter cause it's over.

But that doesn't mean there are not things to work out before the playoffs start October 4th. This weekend in Washington proved that there are still things to be resolved before we start the second season.

Yes, the bullpen is in a mess. Friday was Bobby Cox's fault. He should have never brought Dan Kolb into a close ballgame. It was a mistake. You just can't trust Kolb at all anymore. I hoped he'd be able to be a dependable setup man for us in the playoffs, but with what's happened to him recently, there's no way that can even happen.

But then Sunday just showed there are other problems besides Kolb. Blaine Boyer walked two people, just like Kyle Davies had done on Friday. Then John Foster, who has struggled lately, allowed a couple of runs to score. But then the most disappointing person in the bullpen not named Kolb, Chris Reitsma, struggled once again.

I thought sure that once Kyle Farnsworth settled into his role as the closer, Reitsma would in turn settle into his role as the main setup man, just like he started the season. But instead, Reitsma has struggled. And now you have to worry about someone that you didn't think would be a concern.

So over the next few weeks, as the Braves wrap up another division title, they'll have to get this bullpen figured out. It might not be so easy, but there are a few wildcards.

To decide on the bullpen, the Braves must also decide on their playoff rotation. If you asked them right now, they'd certainly say it's too early to talk about. But don't be fooled; they are talking about it and trying to decide which way to go.

It looks like, at least as of midnight Sunday, they have decided to place Mike Hampton in the bullpen, after toying with the idea of moving him back into the starting rotation. This decision was probably helped by the Saturday performance of Jorge Sosa, who pitched eight shutout innings against the Nationals. Sosa's great pitching has got to have the Braves thinking about making him their third starter in the playoffs, behind John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.

As of now, that seems like an easy decision. Sosa has been outstanding. He doesn't have any playoff experience, but neither will have the team. So many times teams win in the playoffs because of hot players, and not many pitchers are hotter than Jorge Sosa right now.

Who knows whether Hampton will be productive in the bullpen. He's definitely not used to that role. But when healthy, and it looks like that as of now he is once again, Hampton is an excellent pitcher. He was on his way to a Cy Young-caliber season before his injuries started in May. If Hampton can be effective in relief, the Braves will have a much improved bullpen.

But if Sosa is the consensus number three starter, then the next decision will have to be about the number four starter in the playoffs. Bobby Cox usually goes with four starters in the playoffs, so he'll have to decide between 11-game winner Horacio Ramirez or John Thomson, who is just now starting to look like his old self after missing most of the season.

With Hampton now in the bullpen, it does mean there is a need for a lefty to remain in the rotation. Ramirez has been more consistent in the second half of the season, and he might get the nod. Plus, with Hampton being an extra lefty in the bullpen, we might almost have too many lefties in the pen if Ramirez were sent out there.

So that might mean that John Thomson, a pretty damn good pitcher, could go to the bullpen. If Thomson and Hampton are out there, that's two pretty good arms to call on if needed.

We know Farnsworth will be the closer, and even though he's struggled Reitsma will still be the main setup man (unless Hampton could conveniently take over the role). Then you have to assume John Foster and Blaine Boyer have spots locked up. So with Thomson and Hampton, that's ten pitchers, leaving one more opening.

The candidates are Kolb, Jim Brower, Macay McBride, and Kyle Davies. You wonder if Cox would want the veteran Brower in the spot, but he's got to go with Davies. McBride wouldn't be needed since Hampton and Foster already give the team two lefties. And Davies is a big-game pitcher, despite just turning 22 years old last Friday.

Kyle has done this before. He won three deciding games for the Rome Braves two years ago, and last season he got the Richmond Braves into the playoffs with a stellar performance. Davies is not a reliever, but he's still got the stuff you'd like to see out there for a reliever. And again, the big thing is he's a winner.

Despite the shaky performances recently, the Braves bullpen has a chance to be very good in the playoffs. Just write Hampton and Thomson's name down next to the "normal" relievers, and you're bound to feel good.

Other than that, all we need to do is wait for three weeks. The offense is clicking pretty well, and a big difference in this year's lineup and other seasons is Andruw Jones. He's been a monster this season, and again, hot players can carry teams in the postseason, and both Andruw and Chipper Jones have been red hot.

Have you been able to tell when watching the games that our lineup is so much more dangerous just with Andruw's presence? Even when we're at the bottom of the lineup, you can almost feel Andruw lurking behind in a few at bats. He's got that same presence that Gary Sheffield had for us, and the same fear Chipper Jones puts into the Mets' pitchers. Andruw has become a major threat in the lineup.

So with Rafael Furcal now productive, Marcus Giles being Marcus Giles, and the Jones' boys the hottest combination in all of baseball, the top of the lineup seems ok.

So that means it's the bottom four spots we've got to be concerned about.

Let's hope the knock on Adam LaRoche's noggin will get him hitting again. I still have tremendous confidence in Rochy, and even though he's been in a slump, he could easily get hot and lead this team in the postseason. Don't give up on him. Yes, I know he's not done well the last two months, but this kid can hit. And he, like so many of these kids, has the ability to thrive in a pressure situation, just like he did in Houston last October.

Then we've got three other positions: catcher, left field, and right field. Ok, so let's just come out and say it: Brian McCann MUST be our starting catcher. Johnny Estrada is a lame duck, and the team is just better when McCann is behind the plate.

Ryan Langerhans has taken over for one of his best friends, Kelly Johnson, in left. Langy has come up with some big hits, some big catches, and some outstanding work on the basepaths.

And then there's the big boy, Mr. Francoeur. Wow, he's not hitting .350 anymore. He's human! Well, don't worry. It's getting to that time of the year when this kid thrives. The stage is being prepared, and he'll be the main attraction. There is no athlete I've ever met that's more ready to star in the postseason than Francoeur, so count me as one that won't worry about him one bit.

So there are still questions, but there's also a tremendous amount of talent, and that's the most important thing. Talent, especially talent that is hot, wins in the postseason. And for some reason I think this group of talented players has as good a chance as any we've had in the last ten years to win a World Series. Don't get me wrong, a lot of things have to happen. But with a little bit of luck (and a first round opponant not from the state of Texas), this team might just get back to that ultimate stage in baseball.

Bill Shanks has a new book out on baseball scouting and player development called Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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