Suggesting that the Atlanta Braves are a franchise in need of saving is a sacrilege, frankly.
A flat and injury-dappled 2006 notwithstanding, the team has snared more divisional titles (14) than the Mets, Phillies, Marlins and ExpoNationals combined (13) since the formation of the NL East in 1969. (To be fair, three of Atlanta's 14 consecutive titles came when they were stationed, against geographic logic, in the NL West).
|Advice to Braves: Start laying the groundwork for an Andruw Jones trade. (Getty Images)|
Then there's the dicey notion of allowing Internet-enabled pundits (cough! wheeze! ah-choo!) to critique John Schuerholz, one of the sharpest modern-era GMs in any sport. This is just plain wrong, akin to permitting the Cleveland Philharmonic's fourth bassoon to give Springsteen audience-arousal tips or Schuerholz to chide my grammar and deliciously understated use of metaphor.
Nonetheless, as the Braves find themselves about to enter a rare (for them) transitional year, I bow before the Great Schuerholz and humbly offer a sacrifice of busty virgins and these meager Save This Franchise! (c)(r) propositions. I have no doubt that the Braves' eventual course of action will trump anything propounded in these parts, but their current situation lends itself perfectly to this kind of exercise.
Short-term outlook: Not as dire as you've been led to believe. They should score plenty of runs, with above-average offense behind the plate and at shortstop more than offsetting scanty production from second base and possibly left field. Run prevention, however, looks to be a problem. A big problem. A Mike-Hampton's-contract-sized problem. The defense should range from the sublime (Andruw Jones, even though he has slipped a bit in recent years) to the comically absurd (Chipper Jones and his six-inch range of motion at third base).
In other words, they have roughly the same shot as any other NL team.
Assets: When one ponders the Braves, the names that come immediately to mind are John Smoltz and the Jones Boys. Though all three have a bit of tread on their tires, none has entered the varicose veins/dinner-at-4-p.m. stage of his career just yet. One problem: collectively, they account for $36.5 million in 2007 payroll, leaving the team with "only" $40 million or so to lavish on its 22 other players.
They're pretty young. Unlike pretty much every team in baseball, save possibly for the Pirates, the Braves boast serious catching depth in perennial-All-Star-to-be Brian McCann and slugger/typo candidate Jarrod Saltalamacchia. What the Braves lack in high-ceiling arms, they make up for in sheer quantity: Joey Devine, Anthony Lerew and Macay McBride project, at a minimum, as cheap and flexible bullpen mainstays for the next few seasons.
I'd still like to know how the Braves convinced the Mariners to take Horacio Ramirez, his fifth-starter arm and his 11th-starter head in exchange for budding star Rafael Soriano. That is, unless Soriano's shoulder MRI pix look like soup crackers only moments after an unkind encounter with a sledgehammer.
Liabilities: With his forkball of fear and degradation, Bob Wickman emerged from the scrapheap to save quite a few games with reasonable K/BB rates during the 2005 and 2006 campaigns. Now that NL hitters have gotten a gander as his barely-passable stuff, expect this to change, and fast. Soriano has the better arm by a wide margin -– which means, actually, that Wickman is the more appropriate choice to close. The better pitcher really ought to be deployed during the pivotal runners-on, seventh/eighth-inning situations upon which most games hinge, rather than saved for bases-empty duty in the ninth, no?
Suffice it to say that Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton have lost their handicap grudge match against Father Time. Being on the hook for $37 million worth of Hudson over the next three seasons and $29.5 million of Hampton over the next two is like being on a sharp hook, literally.
Finally, like a billionaire restricting his mistresses to a single Bergdorf Goodman outing per week, the Bravos' Time-Warner corporate sugar daddies have reined in the spending. It makes sense to keep payroll stable (at around $75 million-$80 million) in advance of a sale of the franchise, whether to Liberty Media or some meddling tech gazillionaire, but it's a shame that the bean counters have limited Schuerholz's options in what appears to be the final year of the Smoltz/Andruw era.