So I'm sitting there late Sunday afternoon watching television when the phone rang. It was a good friend calling to check on the latest UGA recruiting scoop. And then he proposed that I do a little research to give him some answers on a very important question.
Just how are the Braves going to be better in 2006?
It's a fair question, one that is asked by many at this point in the calendar year. The smell of spring, particularly with these warm temperatures in the south, is in the air, so we all know that baseball is just around the corner.
Of course, being the positive one that I am, I started spouting off answers to my friend. But he had to go, so he preferred a more detailed response later. Hey, I'm a writer, so this gave me an excuse to write an article.
Some may wonder, with Rafael Furcal gone and no established closer brought in, how in the world the Braves will do it yet again. The Mets weren't playing this winter; they mean business. They went out and got Billy Wagner and Carlos Delgado and once again want to knock the Braves off their perch.
But you shouldn’t be surprised that I do believe the Braves are going to be better in 2006, and here are the reasons:
10. The Opening Day roster in 2006 will be better than the Opening Day roster in 2005.
Okay, so I know many of you don’t think we should compare Opening Day rosters when examining how much better a team might be. But, particularly with the turnover that the Braves had last year, I think it’s very relevant to compare how we were built at the start of the 2005 season compared to what we’re looking at in 2006. Just less than half of the 25 players (12) that started the 2005 season for Atlanta are no longer with the organization. That’s massive change, but the most important thing is that the players who are in place for 2006 are drastically better than the ones that started last season in Atlanta.
Aren’t you glad Jeff Francoeur has replaced Raul Mondesi? How about Brian McCann and Todd Pratt taking over for Johnny Estrada and Eddie Perez? And don’t you like the promise of Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson much more than having Brian Jordan start in left field? How about the bullpen? Okay, so there are still questions. But I’ll take all the candidates we have right now over the foursome of Tom Martin, Adam Bernero, Kevin Gryboski, and Roman Colon. Those were the bottom four members of our bullpen starting out last season.
9. The Depth in the starting rotation.
The Braves’ starting rotation is stacked and packed, even with Mike Hampton out for the season. We’re still not certain if Jorge Sosa is going to remain in the rotation or head back to the bullpen. Even if he goes, we have Kyle Davies ready to step in as the number five-starter. Plus, with Anthony Lerew and Chuck James almost ready, there are two top prospects on hand in Richmond if needed. No team in baseball has the depth the Braves have in their rotation.
8. No Dan Kolb.
Talk about addition by subtraction. Just having Kolb in Milwaukee makes the Atlanta bullpen better. The Braves won 90 games last season, so just imagine how many games they might have won if Kolb had not blown seven saves and lost eight games. I think they would have won at least five more games, making them a 95-win team. The logic was solid to acquire Kolb to be Smoltz’s closer replacement, but it just didn’t work. So now, just having him gone, makes the Braves better.
7. John Smoltz’s confidence as a starter.
Look, for as long as Smoltz continues to pitch, there are always going to be questions about how long his arm will hold up. We know that with his history, he’s a huge concern. But I believe that since Smoltz did pitch 229.2 innings last year, he did remove one doubt. He showed that he can, once again, be a starter, and that confidence going forward has got to help this team. They’ve got to know that as long as he’s healthy, Smoltz is going to not only be an ace, but also be a feared starter throughout the National League.
6. Brian McCann taking over as the starting catcher.
Why this is being overlooked is beyond me. This is no knock on Johnny Estrada, who really did a fine job of bridging the gap between Javy Lopez and the newest young catcher to play in Atlanta for the next decade. Brian McCann is just going to be a better catcher. He’s going to hit better, for average and power, and his defensive skills are far superior. McCann is going to become of the best catchers in the league. He showed us glimpses last season, but having him on the roster for all of 2006 will make this team better. Having a catcher that the pitchers love throwing to can make a tremendous difference on the team, and they love, ‘Heap.’
5. Roger McDowell.
No this is not a Leo Mazzone-bash, but simply a realization that a new voice for the Atlanta pitchers will be refreshing. A new era of Braves’ pitching is on the horizon. It’s time for Tim Hudson, Kyle Davies, Horacio Ramirez, Blaine Boyer, Joey Devine, and Macay McBride. The days of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz are almost completely over. Therefore, having a completely new voice to come in and give a fresh perspective is going to help this team. McDowell walked into his interview with Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz and impressed them so much the Braves called off the search for a new pitching coach, so he must have said something right. Let’s hope he’s equally effective with the pitchers.
4. Marcus Giles as our leadoff man.
Okay, so we’re not totally sure Giles is going to replace Rafael Furcal as the leadoff man, but it looks like that’s the direction the Braves are going to go. Giles has always been more consistent than Furcal, and he’s always gotten on base more than Furcal. Giles has a .366 career OBP (yes even us traditionalists look at stats), while Furcal’s career mark is .348. Now is that much of a difference? Maybe a stathead could tell me it’s not. But while it’s obvious Furcal has more speed than Giles, I think Marcus’ ability to get on base will help ease the concern that our offense will suffer with Furcal gone. It will be an adjustment, and we have to hope Giles doesn’t change who he is as a hitter. Plus, expect Giles to be able to steal between 20-25 bases, five to ten more than last year when he swiped 16. But the heck with steals, just get on base Marcus! If he does, our offense might just be better than ever.
3. Jeff Francoeur
Well, what can we say? He’s only scratched the surface of what he’s going to show us over the next ten to fifteen years. Jeff Francoeur is a winner, and having him on the team for the entire season is going to make this club better. He just makes his team better, and now that’s going to happen for 162 games rather than only 70.
2. The financial flexibility the team has that might result in adding significant players.
Right now, the Braves are approximately $8 million under their projected budget of $80 million dollars. How long has it been since the team had this much flexibility? Well you’d probably have to go back to the pre-Time Warner era, back when Ted Turner owned the team outright to get an accurate answer. Yes, there are questions in the bullpen, and yes, the team might need another strong bat. But with some extra money to spend, John Schuerholz will be the most dangerous GM in baseball. If this team has any need, he’s going to be able to fill it this spring or during the season. That’s a luxury he hasn’t had in many seasons, which makes him doubly dangerous this year. And remember, when you have this much money to play with, you can acquire a $12-$15 million dollar player at midseason and slide him under the budget for the rest of the year, since he'll only cost you half of his salary.
1. All the young kids from last season now have experience.
Last year at this time, Francoeur, McCann, Boyer, McBride, and Davies were preparing for Double-A, thinking more toward the latter part of this season or even 2007 for making their big league debuts. Kelly Johnson was prepping for Triple-A Richmond, and Joey Devine was getting ready for his last year of college baseball. But these seven kids all made significant contributions to the Braves, and without them, it’s arguable whether or not the team would have won its fourteenth straight division title. But look what they went through, and what they accomplished. These kids are only going to get better because of what they went through last season. They’ve gotten the butterflies out, and know that they belong. That confidence is only going to make them better, which will, in turn, help the entire team be better. Last season, the Braves were a team full of rookies, and even though they are still extremely young as a group, they now have experience to build on. All last season, you heard people say, “These kids are only going to be better because of what they’re going through now.” That’s completely accurate. This is a very talented group of players, and they are the future of the Atlanta Braves. Now that they are no longer prospects, their contributions are only going to make this team better for the entire 2006 season.
Are there questions? Are there positions that will need great competition in spring training? Do the Braves need to stay healthy? Certainly. But there are also a lot of issues that have to make you feel good about the upcoming season.
Pitchers and catchers report in eighteen days!
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.