For some reason, even though it’s October 1st, it seems like April 1st. Usually on April 1st we are sitting around speculating about who is going to make the Atlanta Braves’ Opening Day roster. Who will win the last bullpen spots? Who will be the fourth outfielder? But yet it’s October 1st and we’re sitting here asking who will win the last bullpen spots and wondering who will be the fourth outfielder in the playoffs.
I guess it’s good to have this many options available, and there’s nothing wrong with yet another Internet discussion thread. But the makeup of the Braves’ roster could be very important.
Let’s first look at the pitching staff. For the last several years, Bobby Cox has gone with an eleven-man pitching staff for the first round of the playoffs. It’s been so long since we’ve been in the second round I can’t remember what he’s done in the NLCS, so we’ll just focus on what he might do in Round One. If he does go eleven pitchers, we can narrow it down somewhat. Eleven pitchers would also allow him to go with five outfielders, giving him another bat off the bench.
But first let’s speculate on what Cox might do with the rotation. Ok, he could go with three starters or four starters. Since John Smoltz is a question mark, you have to wonder how Cox could go with only three starters. If he went with three, Smoltz would start Game One and have to come back on three days rest for Game Four (as long as they play Houston and start on Wednesday). But if he uses four starters, then Smoltz would get his normal rest and pitch the deciding Game Five in Atlanta if needed, and that’s something that Smoltz would crave to do.
Tim Hudson would probably go in Game Two, followed by the road warrior, Jorge Sosa, in the first game away from Atlanta. John Thomson looks like he might be the fourth starter, if Cox decides to use one. Thomson didn’t get out of the first inning last year in Game Four in Houston, but he might get another chance this year.
More than likely Cox will use four starters. Why change what you for six months when you get to the postseason? Let your starters get the rest. If the Braves are down 2-1 going into Game Four on the road, it will be tempting to use Smoltz on short rest. And chances are in that situation Smoltz would beg to save the day. So don’t be surprised if Cox simply decides how many starters he will use one we see how we do in the first three games. If we’re up 2-1, then it would be foolish not to use Thomson, saving Smoltz for a Game Five if needed.
But if Smoltz is still a worry next Monday, Cox might decide to use Tim Hudson in Game One, especially if he thinks Smoltz might not be able to come back as quickly as he might be needed. Hudson was acquired to be a big game pitcher, so we shouldn’t be worried if he is used in that role.
Now to the bullpen. It’s funny, isn’t it, how that word makes your skin crawl like when you think of the word cavity or beets or Dodgers. If we know one thing, we know that Kyle Farnsworth is the closer. Can we have confidence that he will do the job? Why not? He’s done it for the last two months. Farnsworth is not the problem; it’s getting to Farnsworth that worries us worse than that new bird flu that might kill us all.
Which Chris Reitsma will we see? The one that was dominating in July? Or the one that resembled Albie Lopez in August? Reitsma could be the key, if we don’t have to worry about Farnsworth. A productive Reitsma would be a relief, since we know the first time he enters a game we’re all going to hold our breath.
Farnsworth and Reitsma will be joined by two lefties, John Foster and Macay McBride, who has been death on lefties since being called up. A third lefty, Horacio Ramirez, will move from the rotation to the bullpen, and will probably be used only if a starter comes out early. So that’s four starters and five relievers so far.
So that leaves two spots left. Blaine Boyer is still a question mark, and that just makes you cry. Boyer has been tremendous since being called up, but now he’s an unknown. If he can prove this weekend that he is ok, not necessarily 100% healthy, but just ok, then Cox will probably put him on the roster.
Kyle Davies deserves to be in the bullpen. If we’re taking our best eleven pitchers, he’s certainly one of them. So Davies and Boyer could be it, but the two worries are whether or not Boyer will be ready and whether or not Cox will prefer a veteran over the rookie Davies, who is more comfortable in a starting role.
Hopefully Cox has been reminded that Mr. Davies is a big-game pitcher. He won three deciding games for the Rome Braves two years ago, and last year he pitched AAA Richmond into the postseason. So it will be sinful if Cox picks Jim Brower or God forbid Dan Kolb over Davies. And if Boyer cannot go in the first round, then Brower and Kolb will almost certainly be candidates to replace him.
But hold on, don’t forget about Joey Devine. When the Braves brought him up in mid-August, the thought was he might pitch well enough to work his way onto the playoff roster. They had that much confidence in his ability. Of course, the hip injury caused him to miss a month, which jeopardized the plan. But he bounced back on Tuesday and then again Friday and proved he is now healthy, as evidenced by the 96 mph fastball that has returned.
Devine is tempting for two more reasons. First, his funky motion is killer on right-handed batters. They just can’t hit him. Secondly, none of his potential opponents have ever seen him pitch. That would have to worry many opposing managers. And here’s one more reason Devine might be selected for the postseason roster: the kid is good. He’s got great stuff.
If Cox selects Dan Kolb, he might find an empty stadium Wednesday and Thursday. Fans might just protest. Kolb has no business anywhere near the clubhouse next week. Thank him for his (bad) service, and send him to Illinois, where we’re sure he’ll save 20 games for the Cubs or Pirates or Twins next season. And call me an anti-Brower as well. Cox uses him too much, which tells you he likes him. But I’d much prefer Davies or Boyer or Devine over Brower.
I hope and pray Boyer can go, but I’m real skeptical. I’m just not sure he’ll be able to prove to Cox he can be effective. So let’s hope Davies and Devine would fill the last two spots in the bullpen.
Should the Braves have three catchers on the roster? No. Ok, Brayan Pena is a singles machine, but he can’t catch a cold butt naked in Alaska, much less a John Smoltz fastball. His defense is horrific. If we have an emergency, I’d trust Pete Orr behind the plate before Pena.
So if Cox uses eleven pitchers, this means we’ll have fourteen position players. We only want two catchers, Johnny Estrada and Brian McCann. So that leaves twelve spots for the infielders and outfielders. The infield has had the same seven players most of the season, so we’ll assume Adam LaRoche, Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, Chipper Jones, Julio Franco, Wilson Betemit, and Pete Orr will be the seven infielders. So of course this leads us to the outfield.
We know who the three starters will be: Andruw Jones, Jeff Francoeur, and the red-hot Ryan Langerhans. Three players will battle for the two spots if we do have five outfielders: Kelly Johnson, Brian Jordan, and Todd Hollandsworth.
Call me crazy, but I think that even though Kelly Johnson has been in the witness protection program for the last six weeks, he should be on the roster. If he’s brought off the bench, he’s patient enough to get on base. And if he’s in the game in left, he’s got good speed and a good arm. Plus, he saved this team when Raul Mondesi was sent to the retirement home. Kelly deserves to be on the postseason roster.
Then there are the veterans, which are more important to Cox in a postseason than Halliburton is to Dick Cheney’s plan to rebuild New Orleans. Ugh. Brian Jordan, who would be better off covering wide receivers in the NFL, or Todd Hollandsworth(less), whose batting average with the Braves (.125) makes Raul Mondesi look like Tony Gwynn. They acquired Hollandworth to be a lefty bat off the bench in the playoffs, so chances are they’ll keep him. But will they select Jordan over Johnson? They shouldn’t. Ok, Jordan got a couple of hits this week, and yes he’s good in the clubhouse. But this is not a charity case. This is picking the best 25 men to help the Braves win, and I don’t think he fits that bill.
So who knows what will happen. There are some difficult decisions to make, and the health of a few (Smoltz and Boyer) could drastically impact what the roster looks like. But hopefully, no matter who is selected, the 25 men that will comprise the Braves’ roster will push this team further than it has been in the last four years.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.