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None But the Braves
2004-07-20 12:57
by Mike Carminati

The brave man is the elder son of creation who has stepped buoyantly into his inheritance, while the coward, who is the younger, waiteth patiently for his decease.

—Henry David "Clyde" Thoreau

O, that’s a brave man! he writes brave verses, speaks
brave words, swears brave oaths, and breaks them bravely.
—William "Author" Shakespeare

It had to be the Braves, didn't it? I wouldn't have minded the Mets or even the Marlins that much. But the Phils have been knocked from the top spot in the NL East by the f'ing Braves. The Atlanta Braves of the obnoxious, foam-axe be-chopping fans, who don't even show up for the playoffs. Those Braves.

And what really chafes this year is that the Braves are, by a wide margin, the worst team on paper of the four "contenders" in the East, baseball's version of the AFC Central—the Expos are I guess the Bengals (Exposed instead of Bungles?).

The Braves were once one of the best franchises in baseball but in the last couple of years they have dismantled their dynasty while continuing to win with lesser talent. It started in 2003 when they allowed two-fifths of their rotation, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood, to leave town and all that got in return was a soon-to-be 27-year-old, non-prospect catcher who had done absolutely nothing in 300+ major-league at-bats. They picked up Mike Hampton, whose contract the Rockies were willing to eat (except $5.5M) as long as he didn't pitch for them any longer, and the just-better-than-average Russ Ortiz. They picked up 17-game-winning ex-Brave Paul Byrd for half of Glavine's contract, yet still a bit of amigo money. They signed marginal talents like Robert Fick, Roberto Hernandez, and Shane Reynolds. They handed the second base job to two weak-hitting bench players, Mark DeRosa and Marcus Giles, and basically let them thumb-wrestle for the job, not really caring who won. They retained the likes of Methuselahan Vinny Castilla and Julio Franco at the corners.

And everyone (including me) predicted that the Braves reign was over. So what did they end up doing? Of course, they won the division by ten games and had the best record (101-61) in the league.

Javy Lopez was healthy and had a career year. Giles blossomed into one of the best second basemen in baseball. Shortstop Rafael Furcal lost his "weak-hitting" tag and both hit for power and got on base, two things he hadn't done in his three previous major-league seasons. Castilla and Franco turned back the clock. Mike Hampton cut over two runs from his ERA. Ortiz won 21 games. Even though Byrd missed the entire season, rookie Horacio Ramirez and vet Shane Reynolds combined to go 23-13, inexplicably. However, they again lost in the first round of the playoffs.

That seemed to be the straw to break the camel's back at the time. The franchise was sure to lose perennial staff ace Greg Maddux and their best two hitters in 2003 Gary Sheffield and Javier Lopez as well as starting third baseman Vinny Castilla to free agency.

They handed the third base job to the loser of the second base sweepstakes, DeRosa—why not? The marginal talent that they received in the Millwood trade, Estrada, was installed behind the plate. They traded their number one pitching prospect (Adam Wainright) and perennial prospect Jason Marquis to the Cardinals to get two players that Tony LaRussa didn't even want: the continually injured and underachieving J.D. Drew and former LaRussa plaything Eli Marrero (Jose Oquendo for a new generation). Drew was handed the right-field job and Marrero was supposed to fill in wherever necessary. Rookie Adam LaRoche was handed the first-base job to share with the 300-year-old Franco.

They again over-hauled the rotation, re-signing perennially hurt and under-achieving Jaret Wright and perennially poor John Thomson. This was apparently in an effort to acquire as many pitchers as possible from the 2002 Rockies, who had a staff ERA of 5.20. The rest of the staff was populated with castoffs from the Cubs (Antonio Alfonseca and Juan Cruz) and the Reds (Chris Reitsma).

On top of that the Braves have lost Chipper Jones, Marcus Giles, Adam LaRoche, Horacio Ramirez , and Byrd (again) to injuries for a significant amount of time. Chipper Jones is having his worst season in his eleven-year career.

However, Estrada was probably the best catcher in the NL in the first half. Drew may have been the second best right-fielder in the NL in the first half. Marrero is channeling John Mabry's 2002 season. No-name fill-ins have contributed especuially Charles Thomas who was a fill-in for a fill-in (Dewayne Wise). Jwret Wright looks like the prospect that he once was with the Indians. Byrd has returned to pitch well. The vets in the bullpen have contributed. And now Mike Hampton has won three straight after going 2-8 to start the season.

Should this team win the division? No way. Can they? Apparently so. If the Braves come close to a postseason berth, Bobby Cox should be manager of the year. If they win the division, he should be canonized. What he has been able to do with this team the last two years while sustaining such a high attrition rate is beyond reason.

It should remind the rest of the division (read the Phils) what can be done by a great manager. The Phils are prepared to sustain the damage done be a poor one. I have to wonder how many games the Phils would be up on the Braves and the rest of the division if Cox and Bowa had switched jobs. But that's just fantasy, like the belief that the Phils front office knows what it takes to build a winner.

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