There’s nothing quite like Opening Day. Yeah, we’ve had baseball going on for a month now, but today it all counts. It’s a day we look forward to and mark on our calendars as the start of six months of pure joy. As fans and followers of the Atlanta Braves, these next six months are usually joyful. Okay, October’s not always fun, but the journey of at least getting there is one we always enjoy taking.
In previewing this year’s Atlanta Braves, it’s easy to cop out and say, ‘Hey until someone knocks them off…” Any reporter or pundit has probably learned his lesson by now. No matter how many acquisitions the Mets or Phillies or Nationals or Marlins have made, they still have to go through Atlanta. And after fourteen years, it’s not an easy door to crack open.
The one thing that is clear to me is that this year’s Braves’ team has tremendous talent. Yes, questions remain, but when you have talent, the answers to those questions are not very scary. Imagine what it would be like if this team didn’t have the options it has. There may be a lot more to worry about.
But when your Triple-A team’s bullpen is almost as good as an expansion team’s relief group, you know there’s talent. When you’ve moved your third starter to the bullpen, you know there’s talent. And when the minor league remain packed with depth, you know there’s talent.
The pitching staff looks strong, even with questions in the bullpen. The rotation is led by two aces, Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, both top-of-the-rotation starters. Hudson has been given more responsibility this year, not only as the starter today against the Dodgers, but as the man who will lead this pitching staff into the post-Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux era. Even John Smoltz believes Hudson is ready to take over the top spot in the rotation.
Smoltz is Smoltz. As long as he’s healthy, there’s not much to worry about. We know if he’s healthy, he’s going to be one of the top five starters in the game. He’s that good. The healthy is an issue, and probably will be for the remainder of his career. But right now he’s ready to go, and that can only mean good things for this rotation.
The third starter will be Horacio Ramirez. Okay, the argument could be made that Ramirez has no business as this team’s number three. But he’s in this position, as the only lefty, to break the rotation up a bit. Ramirez’s potential success depends on his ability to stay aggressive on the mound. The Braves want him to use his four-seam fastball more, meaning we should hopefully see more swings and misses from opposing hitters. Nearly everyone is split on Ramirez. They see the talent, but want to see the consistency. If he can stay aggressive, perhaps that aggressiveness will be there.
Perhaps the hardest player to get a read on is Jorge Sosa. He saved the Braves last year after being thrust into the rotation in June. But now, the question is whether or not he is really that good as a starter. There is no doubt Sosa has the stuff, but can be repeat his solid season from 2005? Bottom line with Sosa: Is he really as good as he showed last year? If he is, the Braves are going to have one heck of a fourth starter.
And then there’s Kyle Davies. Faced with starting the season in Richmond, Davies took advantage of Sosa’s absence at the WBC and went out and won himself a job with a terrific spring. He’s a number five right now, but here’s a 22-year-old kid that is very capable of being a middle-to-top-of-the-rotation starter. Now that he’s cemented himself in the Atlanta rotation, he might not leave for the next ten years. This kid is a big game pitcher waiting to happen, and he showed that with his back up against the wall this spring.
Let’s start with the bullpen by talking about its newest member. John Thomson will evidently begin the season in the pen, after coming down with either elbow trouble or ‘I don’t want to be traded-itus’ late in the spring. His exact role is uncertain. Will he be the long man in the bullpen, or will Cox ease him in as a setup man for Chris Reitsma? If he stays in the bullpen, it’s hard to imagine a pitcher making $4.75 million not being your closer. So expect something to happen with Thomson in April. He’ll either prove he’s healthy and be traded, or prove he’s healthy and go back into the Atlanta rotation. You have to wonder if a guy with concerns about his elbow will be able to pitch in seventy games as a reliever, which makes you know this bullpen appointment is probably temporary.
Gone are Kyle Farnsworth and Dan Kolb, and despite efforts to acquire Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman this winter, Chris Reitsma is Atlanta’s closer. It was definitely a concern when he tweaked his hamstring the last week of camp, but Reitsma’s ready to go and anxious for his chance at being the closer. Count John Smoltz as believing that now that Reitsma has the role, and it is all his, he will do well. Stuff-wise, Reitsma has got what you need in a reliever: a fastball that can be in the mid-90s and a changeup that is an outstanding breaking ball. But consistency is the question. Can Reitsma be a dependable and consistent closer? Only time will tell, but with he’s certainly going to get his chance.
Due to injuries and the WBC, it’s been difficult to see this group of seven pitchers together in spring training. Reitsma and right-hander Oscar Villarreal were gone for the WBC, and right-hander Blaine Boyer just started pitching in games a little more than a week ago. So it’s tough to say now who will be Reitsma’s main set-up man. Villarreal might get the first shot. Acquired from Arizona in the Johnny Estrada trade, Villarreal is healthy again after missing most of the past two years with a series of injuries. He’s got closer stuff, and if Reitsma were to falter, Villarreal might be the first option.
Boyer still has a lot to prove. Everyone is thrilled he’s healthy enough to be on the Opening Day roster, but you have to wonder if he’s 100% and how long his arm can hold up. The Braves must be careful to not overwork Boyer until there’s a clear picture that his arm can withstand the regular work. If he stays healthy, the Braves are going to have a very good pitcher, and there is no one more proud to wear that Atlanta uniform than Blaine Boyer.
No one was more consistent in spring training than the other half of the duo acquired for Estrada, Lance Cormier. The right-hander just got people out, and along the way showed Cox that he has the second best curveball on the team behind Smoltz. Cormier seems to be the perfect seventh inning reliever, which means if he stays healthy, he could pitch in 70-80 games this season.
The two lefties on the Opening Day roster are Mike Remlinger and Chuck James. Remlinger deserves a lot of credit. He was horrible in his first three outings of the spring, and most people were calling for him to go home. But he then had six solid performances to show Cox he still had a little gas left in the tank. Remlinger hit 91 mph on his fastball, and his breaking ball was better than it had been since he left Atlanta a few years ago. Who knows how much Remlinger has left, but for now, he brings the veteran leadership to a very young bullpen that Cox desires.
James could be here for two weeks or for the entire season. If Macay McBride gets back healthy in a few weeks, as expected, James could be sent to AAA Richmond. He has options left, which gives the Braves options. But you can’t deny that James was effective this spring, even if most of his appearances were in starts. Can he make the transition to the bullpen? Cox thinks so, and if he does, it will be an interesting decision once McBride returns.
McBride’s return is important, since he proved last year he can get lefties out. The reports on his forearm strain have been positive, and it’s possible he could be back on the roster by the time the Braves open their home schedule next Monday.
The depth behind the Atlanta pitching staff, in both Richmond and Mississippi, is staggering. The Richmond rotation has four starters with major league experience, including one of Atlanta’s 2002 starters, Damian Moss. Travis Smith and Wes Obermueller both have big league time in a starting role and in the bullpen, but the one to keep your eye on is Anthony Lerew.
Lerew came to camp with an outside shot at winning the closer’s job, as proclaimed by Cox himself. But a sub-par spring killed his chances of making the roster now. The Braves still believe Lerew has the stuff to be a fantastic reliever - or a starter. But with an excess in the rotation already, and questions in the bullpen, the Braves placed Lerew in the pen during March. Now that’s he’s back in AAA, he’ll return to the rotation to get more innings. If Lerew is effective, he might just force the Braves to make a decision on him. This guy’s got electric stuff, and teams that talk trade with the Braves are going to want him. Will the Braves resist?
Joey Devine deserved a better fate than being sent down to AAA, but a numbers crunched made it necessary. There was significant debate all throughout the organization at the beginning of camp on whether or not Devine needed more seasoning, and the numbers made the decision easy. Forget any worries that Devine will not be able to accept this, even though he had an outstanding spring. His makeup is tremendous, and he knows he’s very close to being a very important part of this bullpen. Expect him to go to Richmond and simply prepare to join the Atlanta bullpen later this season.
Kevin Barry, Chad Paronto, Ken Ray, Brad Baker, and Franklin Nunez are five pitchers that could do well and be called upon if needed in Atlanta. But the one name to keep in mind more than any is Peter Moylan. Signed off Australia’s WBC team, Moylan wowed Cox with his mid-90s fastball and nasty assortment of breaking pitches from his sidearm angle. He gave up a few runs in his big league appearances, but was perfect in minor league camp. If Moylan does well, the Braves may think that he could be productive simply because he hasn’t been seen very much. Remember, the guy was in pharmaceutical sales six months ago. Now, he’s knocking on the door of the big leagues.
On to the position players, and we start at catcher, where Brian McCann has inherited the starter’s role from Johnny Estrada, even though he practically did that when he got here last June. McCann had a great rookie campaign, showing his offensive potential and his defensive talent. If you compare him to Estrada, there’s really no comparison. McCann will have more power, a better average, and most importantly, far superior defense. The pitchers all want McCann to catch them, as he provides a solid target and calls a great game. His relationship with the pitchers should not go overlooked. Offensively, he’s going to hit low in the order, probably seventh, but that will only mean the bottom of the order is going to be much, much better.
The Braves could not have signed a better veteran backup for McCann than Todd Pratt. He’s simply perfect. First of all, he’s always been a reserve, so there’s no reason for McCann to look over his shoulder. McCann is the starter, and Pratt is the reserve - no question. And for a catcher that will go ever fifth game, Pratt should be fine. He’ll bat eighth when he’s in the lineup, and he’ll be good for the pitchers behind the plate. But the veteran leadership he’ll supply McCann will be worth his entire salary.
As we move to the infield, we start at the area of most concern. We all know that Adam LaRoche must be more consistent this season. Cox says he’s going to give him more regular playing time, including more at bats against lefties. This is the season Adam must prove he is, in fact, an everyday player. With Scott Thorman behind him and the chance that a certain catcher with a long name could be moved to first, it’s important that LaRoche take advantage of his opportunity. I’ve always had confidence in LaRoche, and this year is no different. LaRoche has got power, but he’s got to maintain a decent average over the course of the full season. We’ve got to see if he can be an everyday player, and if he’s consistent, LaRoche might occupy first base for a long time.
Marcus Giles is a question, but it’s more of a curiosity than a question. Can he be an effective leadoff man? Well, let’s not make the mistake of expecting him to be another Rafael Furcal. He’s just not going to steal as many bases or be the threat that Furcal was on the bases. But Giles does get on base, and if that’s the true role of a leadoff man, then the Braves should be in good shape. The one thing Giles will bring to the top of the order is his tremendous energy, and that could lead to a very productive offense.
Another thing we can’t do is expect Edgar Renteria to be another Furcal. He’s just a different type of player. The more I watched Renteria in March, the more I liked him. It’s obvious he’s more comfortable in the National League, and he seems like the perfect fit for this club. He has fit in perfectly so far. In many ways the businessman’s approach to this club remains intact, even with a couple of juvenile delinquents. Renteria helps keep that professional atmosphere in check. He’s just going to go out and do his job and go about his business, and you won’t hear a peep for him. Expect Renteria to have a fantastic season. We might not forget about Furcal, but you might be surprised as to how little we miss him this season with Renteria around.
Can Chipper Jones stay healthy? Well that’s the question everyone wants to know after he’s missed significant time the last two seasons. He played in 109 games last season and 137 the season before - after averaging 157 games played in the previous eight seasons. Okay, so the Braves have continued to win with Jones out of the lineup a lot, but he’s still very critical to this team’s success. Jones will turn 34 in a few weeks, and he’s now a major leader on this team. For this team to be successful, he’s go to stay healthy, since we know that if he’s healthy, Jones will produce.
The three reserve infielders are Brian Jordan, Pete Orr, and Wilson Betemit. Jordan won the backup job over James Jurries by proving to Cox he can still be productive. If LaRoche does not prove to be consistent or even productive against lefties, then Jordan could get even more playing time. And he does give the Braves a fifth option for the outfield.
Orr is the perfect utility man. He can play second, third, and short, along with the outfield in a pinch, and behind the plate in an emergency. Orr also has the ability to come off the bench late in a game as a pinch- runner or as a pinch-hitter.
And Betemit? Well he just shined throughout spring training, making some wonder if he’s ready for an everyday job. The problem, as you know, is that there’s nowhere for Betemit to play regularly right now. But if Jones or Renteria get hurt, this team will have an excellent player to step right in and be productive. That’s a luxury that helps teams get to the playoffs. Expect Betemit to get at least 200 at bats, as Cox likes to keep his players fresh.
The outfield is headlined by Andruw Jones, who proved last year he is now an elite player in this game. We should not expect Jones to hit fifty home runs again. It’s just unrealistic to put that much pressure on someone. Instead, let’s hope for Jones to be more consistent at the plate. If he can do that, the home runs are going to come. I suspect 40 home runs may be more realistic to expect. Either way, Jones will remain a huge threat in this lineup, and that’s just as important as any one stat he can produce.
So is Jeff Francoeur going to fall into the sophomore jinx? How many times do you think we will read or hear that question this year? Francoeur is going to be fine. Don’t waste your time worrying about this guy. Yes, he’s going to be inconsistent at times and show his age, but over the course of the full season, Francoeur is going to help this team win a lot of games. Defensively, he’s fantastic. The question, of course, is how much he’s going to produce at the plate. Someone once wrote that this kid is the next Dale Murphy, and that probably includes some of the same frustration Murphy supplied Braves’ fans for years. But overall, Jeff Francoeur is going to be a player we can all be proud of for wearing the tomahawk across his chest.
Right now, Ryan Langerhans is the starting left fielder, with right-handed hitting Matt Diaz looming behind him. It will be interesting to see how much of a chance Cox will give Langerhans to play everyday, since Diaz was extremely impressive in spring training. But Langerhans showed glimpses last season that he’s ready to play everyday, and there’s no doubting the fact that when he joins Francoeur and Jones in the outfield, it is perhaps the top defensive trio in the game. If Langerhans can be productive from the number eight spot in the order, he might be there for 500 at bats.
But Diaz is tremendous insurance to compliment Langerhans. How in the world could the Kansas City Royals let this guy go? He just hit all spring to win his job with the Braves. Who knows how this left field situation will shake out, but the Braves definitely have talent in this duo of Langerhans and Diaz.
Kelly Johnson has a bum elbow and there is no idea as of now as to how long he’ll be out. When he’s healthy, though, he’ll have to go to Richmond, unless something happens to Langerhans and/or Diaz. Johnson is still a player the Braves have a lot of faith in, but right now, there’s simply just no room for him. It doesn’t mean there won’t be room in June or even next season, but right now Johnson is in Braves’ purgatory.
The depth this organization has in the minor leagues is tremendous. From Scott Thorman at first base, to Martin Prado and Yunel Escobar at second base, to Tony Pena and Escobar at short, Escobar and Wes Timmons at third, and a host of outfielders, this club has plenty of reinforcements if needed. And then there’s Salty. For now, Jarrod Saltalamacchia will start the season in AA Mississippi as the starting catcher. But if this team needs a big bat later in the season, the tall switch-hitting Salty Dog might get the call.
While the talent on this club is plentiful, there is no doubt in my mind that at some point this season this club is going to make a huge trade. Will it be for another top starter? Or a closer? Or another big bat? I’m not sure. But with the depth in this organization and the money available under the budget, there’s just too much in place for a trade not to happen. The flexibility John Schuerholz will have to improve this club is not something he’s had the last few years, and that means there’s a good chance the roster we’ll have going into October will be even better than the one we have starting the season today.
And yes, I do think we’ll be playing in October. Are there questions? Certainly. But talent always wins out in the end, and there’s no doubt we have talent. It’s going to perhaps be the best race we’ve ever had in our division, but the Braves should slip by the New York Mets. Let’s say 94 wins for the 2006 Atlanta Braves and another chance at that coveted second World Series title.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.