Can’t run from the law
Rafael Furcal played in the playoffs under strict orders from a judge. Furcal was arrested in September on a DUI charge, while he was on probation for a similar situation in 2000. A judge ruled that Furcal could continue playing but had to return directly to his home or hotel after games. Furcal was also ordered to serve a 21-day jail term after the playoffs.
Good fit, good hit Tim Hudson did not want to be traded from Oakland, but if he had to go anywhere, he was pleased to join the team he grew up rooting for. Hudson grew up near the Georgia-Alabama state line, and he went to college at Auburn in the Braves’ ’90s heyday. He said he was looking forward to hitting in the NL — he batted .396 with 18 homers and 95 RBIs at Auburn in 1997.
As usual, baseball scheduled the early division series games at Turner Field for midweek afternoons. And, as usual, the Braves’ fans stayed away. There were more than 10,000 empty seats at the first two games of the NLDS against Houston, despite a promotion in which fans buying two tickets to Game 1 got two free tickets for Game 2.
Julio Franco became the oldest position player in postseason history last year in the division series. Franco was 46 at the time, and only one player in postseason play has ever been older: Philadelphia A’s reliever Jack Quinn, who appeared in the 1930 World Series at age 47.
Greg Maddux no longer pitches for the Braves, but his brother, Mike, helped turn around the career of the Braves’ new closer. Danny Kolb had an undistinguished career for Texas, but with Milwaukee, pitching coach Mike Maddux taught Kolb to have confidence in his fastball. Kolb credited Maddux with “a huge part” of his success, which led to his trade to Atlanta.
Holy cow, holy cow
The Braves will have two Carays in their broadcast booth this season. Chip Caray, grandson of the late, great voice of the Cubs, Harry Caray, moves to the TBS booth this year after six seasons covering the Cubs. Chip’s father and Harry’s son, Skip, is also on the Braves’ broadcast team.
Shea Hey Mets fans love to jeer Chipper Jones by chanting his given first name, Larry. But Jones has no hard feelings. Last August, he and his wife, Sharon, named their son Shea. “I love playing there,” said Jones, who has a .308 career average at Shea.
There will come a time when the Braves are toppled, and with an increasingly thinning lineup, this could be the year. But until a division rival proves otherwise, only the Braves know how to win over the long haul. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone gets the most out of his staff every year, taking the burden off the hitters.
The Braves are always resourceful, and after losing Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright to free agency in December, within days they brought John Smoltz back to the rotation and traded for Tim Hudson. Smoltz has longed to return to the rotation for years, and he has not started consistently since 1999, the year before Tommy John elbow surgery wiped out a year and a half and turned him into a closer. Smoltz now has his wish, but it is worth noting that he has not thrown 200 innings in eight years. The notoriously streaky Mike Hampton started 1–7 last year before turning his season around. Hampton’s intense competitiveness makes him stubborn and prolongs his ruts. He has settled into a 13- to 15-win pitcher, and he should never be expected to duplicate his 22–4 season in 1999. John Thomson is a capable fourth starter, another pitcher who thrived under Mazzone. Thomson left his playoff start after one-third of an inning with a side muscle injury, but he should be fine for spring training. Horacio Ramirez made eight-of-nine quality starts to open last season, but shoulder trouble limited him to one game after May 25. He is 14–8, 2.60 in 38 career starts, and if healthy is a deceptive lefthander who makes the Braves five-deep in their rotation.
Danny Kolb turned from a journeyman to an All-Star with Milwaukee, but he has a big job to fill as Smoltz’s replacement. He does not strike people out, rare for a closer, but has been effective for two years. He had a 2.55 ERA with 60 saves during his two-year run with the Brewers. Kevin Gryboski and Chris Reitsma are durable and dependable. Tom Martin is a solid lefthander but did not pitch more than two innings in any game for Braves. Veteran Gabe White, who spent time on the Yankees and Reds in each of the past two seasons, will provide another left-handed arm out of the pen.
Second baseman Marcus Giles broke his collarbone last May after a collision with Andruw Jones, and he missed two months. He could not duplicate his production from 2003, when he had 72 extra-base hits and a .526 slugging percentage, phenomenal for his position. But Giles did run more, and he continues to be solid in the field. His double-play partner, Rafael Furcal, enters his free agent season hoping to make people forget his two DUI arrests in the past five years. Furcal’s career has not taken off as it seemed destined to in his 2000 Rookie of the Year campaign. His stolen base totals and on-base percentage that season remain his career bests. Still, with Furcal’s speed and strong arm, he can beat teams in several ways and remains a valuable player.
Third baseman Chipper Jones had the lowest average of his career last year and snapped his streak of eight seasons in a row with 100 RBIs. A strained hamstring bothered him the whole first half, during which he batted just .214 and spent time on the disabled list. Jones will be 33 in April and should have plenty of good years left, given his history of consistency before last season. Adam LaRoche was batting just .242 when he separated his shoulder last May. He missed a month, held his own in July and took off over the last two months, solidifying his spot in the lineup. Slick in the field, LaRoche could be a Gold Glove winner someday.
After letting J.D. Drew leave as a free agent and trading Charles Thomas to Oakland, it seemed as if the Braves would simply ask Andruw Jones to cover the entire outfield. Jones might be up for it; veteran managers and coaches say they have never seen a more talented center fielder than the seven-time Gold Glove winner. Jones is never hurt, and he puts up roughly the same numbers every year, though he set a new career high in strikeouts last season. But the Braves filled the corner outfield spots — they hope — by signing the talented but troubled Raul Mondesi, and former Brave Brian Jordan, to one-year deals. Mondesi hit at least 24 home runs every year from 1995-2003, but he was plagued by off-the-field problems a year ago and played in just 34 games with Pittsburgh and Anaheim. If either Mondesi or Jordan does not work out, Ryan Langerhans is out of options and should get a chance. The Braves may turn to talented prospect Jeff Francoeur, who could arrive quicker than expected in the Braves’ lineup.
Two years ago, the Braves had to settle for Johnny Estrada when they traded Kevin Millwood to the Phillies. Now, Estrada is an All-Star and Millwood is gone from the Phils. Estrada is a .300 hitter with doubles power who handles the pitching staff well and thrives away from Turner Field. Eddie Perez has carved out a 10-year career as a dependable backup.
Julio Franco will be 47 years old in August and is the oldest player in the majors. Manager Bobby Cox uses him brilliantly, and Franco held up well last year, hitting .349 after the All-Star break. He was the second-leading pinch-hitter in the National League and made 71 starts at first base. In four seasons in Atlanta, Franco has a .296 average. Langerhans fields well and hustles but does not have the power to be a everyday corner outfielder. Former top prospect Wilson Betemit may actually get another opportunity to contribute. Nick Green filled in for Giles at second base and held his own; he clobbered lefties for a .354 average.
John Schuerholz is the longest-tenured GM in baseball and Cox is the longest-tenured manager. Ownership is increasingly budget-conscious, forcing the Braves to lose veteran talent every year. But the farm system still produces, and Schuerholz is savvy and creative at finding ways to stay competitive. Cox runs a professional clubhouse, though bored Braves fans wouldn’t mind more fire from the players when October rolls around.
The Braves are going on a decade without a World Series title and have not won the pennant since 1999. Their postseason flops make them easy to dismiss, but their regular-season dominance is staggering and proof that Schuerholz and Cox know how to build a team that will win over the grueling season. Still, this is the year the Braves’ reign could end. The Marlins are just two years removed from a World Series title, and both the Phils and Mets have rosters loaded with talent. Come October, Turner Field will have far more than 10,000 empty seats.