Braves endure rare lost summer (cont.)
And then there is Chipper who, at 36, still best defines this lineup and this team. Even as he flirted with a .400 batting average through mid-June, Jones fought off injuries to his quadriceps and his hamstring. He's started 85 games, three of them as a designated hitter, which means he's missed more than three weeks with his assorted aches and pains. It's not unusual anymore. The third baseman hasn't appeared in more than 137 games since 2003, the last year he played left field exclusively.
The Braves' problems crested late in July when, on the same day, the team put Jones and Hudson on the DL and officially hoisted first baseman Mark Teixeira onto the trading block. That marked the first time in almost two decades that the Braves had become sellers at the trade deadline. "We just have too many players hurt right now to compete," said Wren, in his first year as the team's GM after serving as a lieutenant to John Schuerholz for the previous eight years.
Now, after swapping Teixeira to the Angels for first baseman Casey Kotchman and a minor league pitcher, the reeling Braves are on track to win 75 or 76 games. They haven't plumbed those depths in a full season since 1990, the year before they began that storied streak of 14 straight division titles.
And after this year? Neither Smoltz not Glavine is signed for '09 as retirement beckons both future Hall of Famers. Hudson will miss most, if not all, of the season. Hampton is a free agent and not likely to be re-signed.
The Braves have huge holes in the outfield, exacerbated by Kotsay's impending free agency and the regression of right fielder Jeff Francoeur (.230, .289 on-base, nine home runs). No outfield in either league has hit fewer home runs. Only the Nationals have a lower combined on-base and slugging percentage.
None of it fazes Wren. At least not publicly. "We think we'll be right back next year, competing," he says. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."
For reasons to believe, Wren points to the return of a hopefully healthy Jones, the addition of Kotchman (who admittedly won't replace Teixeira's output, but should be relatively close) and the presence of All-Star catcher Brian McCann. The team's steadiest starting pitcher, Jair Jurrjens, is only 22. Right-hander Jorge Campillo, 6-4 with a 2.92 ERA in 15 starts, is under team control for several more years. Wren even envisions a bounceback season from Francoeur, who was so confused at one point this year that the Braves sent him briefly to the minors.
"I'm sure this is an aberration with him," Wren says. "We've got a real good nucleus."
The Braves also have some huge holes. They will badly need a front-line starting pitcher and more power in the lineup, preferably from a rebuilt outfield. The team will first look within, though the help there seems a bit far away. Baseball Prospectus ranked Atlanta's farm system eighth before the season, up from 14th in 2007. But that ranking included Jurrjens, now on the team, and four very young outfielders; Brandon Jones, Jordan Schafer, Gorkys Hernandez and Jason Heyward. Brandon Jones has played in 16 games in the majors this year. The other three are still in the low minors and probably will be of no help to the big-league team in '08.
The team's top pitching prospects, according to BP, are all very young, too, and very low in the ranks. Thomas Hanson is the furthest along. The 21-year-old righty is 10-4 with a 2.72 ERA in 21 games in Class A and Class AA.
The path out of this mess seems clear enough. The Braves will have to do what they do best, trading some of those prospects to get talent for their big-league club. (That's how they acquired Jurrjens, Teixeira and Kotsay in the past couple of years, and Smoltz way back in 1987.)
The Braves also will have to do something that they almost never do. They'll have to get aggressive on the free-agent front.
The Braves should have the money to do it. With Smoltz, Glavine and Hampton off the payroll in '09, the Braves will have $37 million worth of '08 salary to dole out (though Hampton, who is being paid $15 million for '08, is due a $6 million buyout in '09). Still, the best pitchers (Ben Sheets, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are three names that have been kicked around the clubhouse) and hitters (Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu and Manny Ramirez) all will come at an extreme cost.
It's a cost that the Braves will have to pay, though, if they're to break what threatens to become another long cycle of losing. It's money that the Braves will have to fork over to fuel that belief that they still can win a World Series.
"I think once you lose that belief, as an organization, that's when you revert back to the '80s Braves and not the mentality of the '90s Braves," Jones says. "And I refuse to have that mentality."