In 1991 two Cinderella teams, who had gone from last place the previous year to first, met in the World Series. It was a Cinderella story out of nowhere just like a former greenskeeper becoming the Masters champion. Thank you, Bill Murray. The winner, however, had just won their second world championship in five years. They would not finish any closer than six games out of first (in '92 and '01) again until they won their division title this year. They were and are the Minnesota Twins.
The other team would win the World Series in 1995 and has yet to fail to qualify for the playoffs since their Cinderella season. They are of course the Atlanta Braves. This year was one of their best with 101 wins in only 160 official decisions. They have eclipsed 100 wins five times (1993, '97, '98, '99, and now 2002) and were on a pace to do so in the abbreviated '95 season. Their highest win total during the streak is 106 in 1998 though at one point this season it seemed they would easily surpass that total. They have had the best record in the NL in eight of the seasons in the streak including this one.
But it appeared that their streak was nearing an end as they completed the 2001 season. After eking out only 88 wins last year and being dogged by an overachieving Phillies team until the final week of the season, they entered 2002 with seemingly more question marks than in any other season since 1991. Baseball Weekly in its season preview pointed to their rebuilt bullpen as the team's major weakness. Kevin Millwood and Andruw Jones were listed among their major worries. Only three of the five BW analysts picked Atlanta to win its division in 2002 (though one picked them to win the World Series).
In the off-season, the Braves had added Gary Sheffield's bat and a number of fungible role players had transmogrified, but this was basically the same team as 2001's version, just a year older and deeper in debt. Chipper Jones switched from third base to left, thereby potentially weakening two positions. Who was going to be the second baseman? Keith Lockhart, Mark DeRosa, Marcus Giles, or maybe Jesse Garcia? Quilvio Veras was no longer in the mix at least. Surprisingly, for a team built on pitching, there were question marks in the rotation for the first time in recent memory with Smoltz' defection to the bullpen, Kevin Millwood's ineffectiveness, the loss of John Burkett to the Red Sox, and only unproven Jason Marquis and Damian Moss to fill out the starting corps. Second-year closer John Smoltz was re-signed to the tune of $30 million over three years-that's a tune with a good beat and you can dance to it-and the supporting reliever caste was rebuilt.
The problems from 2001 still had not been resolved: There seemingly wasn't a player on the major league roster to play first of third base. B.J. Surhoff and former Mexican-Leaguer Julio Franco were to platoon, sort of, at first. This was put on hold as Surhoff got playing time in rightfield while Gary Sheffield was nursing a sore wrist in mid-April. Surhoff slid into a wall on April 27 chasing down a triple destroying his knee (but did have the wherewithal to hit the cutoff man) and has been out since. Jones' switch to left created a hole at third base. Vinny Castilla was signed after seemingly righting his career with Houston in the last three-quarters of 2001but Castilla still had an OPS under .600 for the Devil Rays in each of two partial seasons. There still was no clearcut starter at second. (Imagine if this team had not made the Ryan Klesko and Bret Boone for Reggie Sanders, Wally Joyner, and Veras trade.)
Remarkably the Braves have had a healthy lead for most of the season and finished the season 19 games ahead of second-place Montreal. The division standings are a testament to their dominance in 2002. They sit alone atop the NL East while only 7.5 games separated the second through fifth team (and they were within a just a few games of each other until the last week of the season). Atlanta was 47-28 against the rest of the division. The other four teams were slightly below .500 (37-39 to 34-41) against the rest of the NL East. Clearly the Braves are the class of an otherwise evenly matched, mediocre division.
Does this dominance bode well for the Braves' playoff hopes this year? Tim Kirkjian thinks that it does. Most fans are more skeptical given this team's past postseason failures. Kirkjian points to the Braves' bullpen as "the best bullpen in the National League, the best bullpen they've ever had" and to the dominance of closer John Smoltz in particular as major improvements over the underachieving teams of the past. Kevin Millwood's turnaround and the development of youngsters Damian Moss and Jason Marquis have solidified the rotation, says Tim. He offers that Gary Sheffield's bat has made up for the deficiencies at first and third base. He reminds us that Rafael Furcal's speed was dearly missing in the playoff run last year. These are all valid points to some extent, but are they enough to rid the Braves of their recent playoff demons.
To determine that we need to figure out what went wrong in the past and determine if those root causes still exist on the current team.