Braves enduring rare lost summer
The Braves had it so good for so long that, if you believe in the law of averages and baseball's cyclic and somewhat cosmic nature, their current predicament should come as no surprise. The one-time champion Braves -- boastful winners of 14 straight division titles (if you don't count that strike year in there) -- officially have crapped out. At 52-61, the Braves sit in fourth place in the NL East they won so often it seemed they might never stop winning it. They are busted for this season, the third straight year that they won't be in the playoffs.
What might be surprising: Unless the Braves become very un-Braves like this winter, their long, painful fall is a long way from being over.
The people in charge over on Hank Aaron Drive in Atlanta won't admit to that, of course. If you listen to general manager Frank Wren, the Braves are just an offseason tweak or two away from competing again in 2009. These are the Atlanta Braves, after all. They don't rebuild. They simply restock.
Still, one look at an aging, achy roster shows that the Braves of '09 and immediately beyond are tilting a lot closer to the Atlanta teams of the '70s and '80s -- last-place finishes, Ted Turner taking over as manager for a game, Joe Torre with his training wheels on, empty stadiums, polyester uniforms -- than the Team of the '90s.
"After 14 great years," says Chipper Jones, the defining offensive force of the Braves' title teams, "the baseball gods have not shined on us the last three. Especially this year. Man, they're really pounding on us this year.
"But there's still a belief that we are the Atlanta Braves, we are a very good organization, and that we'll find a way, one way or the other, to get back on top and be competitive and ultimately compete for a World Championship."
In a lot of ways, we should have seen this crash coming. The Braves of the '90s were a team built on an amazing richness of pitching, and when that finally moved away or began to age, the Braves changed. They stayed competitive by tapping a deep minor league system, plugging holes masterfully with trades and relying on a more potent lineup.
But in the past three years, the pitching began to falter and the lineup fell back. The trades were still brilliant on many accounts, but in the end they simply didn't work. And this year, everything imploded in a perfectly hideous storm of injuries and ineptitude. It started with the pitching staff.
John Smoltz, 41, made five starts before a bum shoulder forced him into what may be career-ending surgery. Tom Glavine, 42, has made the first two trips to the disabled list of his 22-year career. Mike Hampton, 35, who hadn't pitched since 2005, wasn't healthy enough to make his first start of the season until July 26. He earned his first win in almost three years on Tuesday against San Francisco. Tim Hudson, the 33-year-old remaining ace of the staff, tore up his elbow and will undergo surgery that will keep him out virtually all of next season. Those were all veteran starters expected to be the heart of the Braves' rotation.
The bullpen fared no better. Reliever Peter Moylan's elbow blew out. Closer Mike Gonzalez is just now coming back after elbow surgery. Another closer, Rafael Soriano, has been up and down with elbow problems. And that's not the whole list.
"For all those years, we had nothing happen," Glavine says. "This year, we can't have much more happen."
The lineup wasn't spared, either. Mark Kotsay, traded for in the offseason to replace longtime centerfielder Andruw Jones, missed more than a month with a chronic bad back. Outfielder Matt Diaz strained his knee and has been out for more than two months. Shortstop Yunel Escobar has missed a couple of weeks with a sore shoulder. There are others.