The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.

MARCH  2007

                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.







2007 Atlanta Braves

By Jerry Keys

You knew the run would have to end sometime.  It was no shock that Atlanta failed to win their division for the 15th consecutive time.  The New York Mets had too many weapons.  But surely the Braves would be in the wild-card chase. 

This possibility appeared to be conceivable in late May.  The Braves had a four game winning streak and swept the Chicago Cubs.  On May 28th Atlanta stood at 27-23.  The Braves lost 20 of the next 23 games and never climbed above .500 the remainder of the year.

Atlanta was stung by their age-old Achilles Heel, bullpen pitching.  Twenty-six pitchers took the mound at least one time for Atlanta last year.  Over the winter, Atlanta's front office took steps to nullify '06's dilemma.

Jerry Keys

With a much deeper bullpen and a potentially "late 90ish" starting rotation, the Braves may surprise a number of baseball pundits now they are "flying below the radar".

A strong starting four can make the workload on the bullpen relatively manageable.  The starters will be John Smoltz (16-9, 211, 3.49), Tim Hudson (13-12, 141, 4.86), Mike Hampton (missed '06), and Chuck James (11-4, 91, 3.78, 18 starts).  And the questions…will Smoltz remain at the same level of intensity (turns 40 in May), will Hudson ever recapture his form he once had in Oakland, will Hampton bounce back after a season on the disabled list, and will James continue success as a starter over a full year? 

Eight different pitchers started at least nine games for Atlanta last year.  The surprise of the staff this year should be Hudson.  If he can start off '07 strong, it would take the focus off of the other pitchers, especially Hampton. Kyle

Davies (3-7, 51, 8.38, 14 games) should take the #5 slot.
Recent acquisitions, Mike Gonzalez (54 games, 2.17, 24 saves) and Rafael Soriano (53 games, 2.25), should solve a great deal of Atlanta's middle relief issues of '06.  Late season '06 addition, veteran closer Bob Wickman (1.04, 18 saves after joining Atlanta), returns to anchor the closer role (and keep warm until Gonzalez is ready).  The remainder of

the middle and late inning stoppers include Macay McBride (71 games, 3.65), Chad Paronto (65 games, 3.18), Tyler Yates (56 games, 3.96), Oscar Villarreal (58 games, 3.61), and Lance Cormier (29 games, 4.89, 9 starts).

If the youngsters aren't overworked early in the year, they should be settled down by summer.  The bullpen has traditionally been Atlanta's weak spot.  With possibly their best pen since '99 and four starters capable of

winning around 16 games each, Atlanta's pitching can once again pitch meaningful games in late September.

Brian McCann (24, 93, .333) will handle the backstop, with Brayan Pena (.268 in 41 at bats) as back-up.  First base is up for grabs after the trade of Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh (trade netted the Braves Gonzalez).  Youngster Scott Thorman (.234 in 128 AB) will battle veteran Craig Wilson (17, 49, .251) for the position; the one who will be back up at 1B will also serve as back up in the outfield.  After Marcus Giles left for San Diego, second base is also up for grabs.  Kelly Johnson (missed '06 season) and Martin Prado (.262 in 42 AB) will battle for the position in spring training. 

The left side of the infield is intact with Edgar Renteria (14, 70, .293) and Chipper Jones (26, 86, .324).  Jones could still reach his once automatic 30 HR/100 RBI mark if he could avoid the disabled list (missed roughly 125 games since '04 due to injuries).  '06 acquisition from Los Angeles, (for Wilson Betemit) Willy Aybar

(.313 in 115 AB's with Atlanta), will back up the left side of the infield.  Veteran Chris Woodward (.216 in 222 AB) will also back up the left side, in addition to 2B and the outfield.

In right field, Jeff Francoeur (29, 103, .260) will attempt to improve on his disappointing sophomore slump.  Andruw Jones (41, 129, .262) will begin his tenth straight year as Atlanta's every-day center fielder.  Left field will mainly be a platoon of Ryan Langerhans (7, 28, .241) and Matt Diaz (7, 32, .327).

The Braves top four pitchers need to collect 64 total wins (average of 16 each) and get about 10 more from the #5 position to compete for a playoff spot.  The bullpen would collect the other 15-20 wins needed for a playoff position.

At the plate in '06, Atlanta did quite well.  But Chipper needs to remain healthy and Francoeur has to raise his average (On Base Percentage).  Atlanta will need a repeat of output from 1B, even though LaRoche is gone.  Whether it is Thorman, Wilson, or a platoon; 25 HR's and 85 RBI's needs to come from here.  With solid output in front of and behind him, Andruw Jones could maximize his offensive capability (see '05 stats).

The Mets still have too much firepower for Atlanta to reclaim the NL East flag.  But the Braves should be serious contenders for the wild card (along with NL East rival Philadelphia Phillies) "if" the starters keep the bullpen from being

burned out by June and the pen bails out the starters in August and September. 

Competition from the Phillies will be consistent.  The two teams match up quite evenly on the mound and at the plate.  It will take 96 wins to capture the NL East (which Atlanta can not do unless everything goes right) but only 89 to win the wild card.  I think Atlanta can win 89 games.

The reason I think they can is their one-run game won/loss record from '06.  Contending teams usually win these.  For years Atlanta was always doing this.  But last year they were 19-33 (79-83 overall).  Had they won exactly half of those games, the Braves would have been 26-26 (86-76, only two games behind wild card Los Angeles).  And had they reversed their won/loss (33-19), they would have finished at 93-69 (only four behind NL best Mets). 

I remember watching Atlanta's last game of '06, October 1.  First time they weren't preparing for the playoffs and getting rosters set since 1990.  How long ago was that?  In the fall of 1990, Celine Dion was unknown in the U.S, gas was under $1 per gallon (I'm serious!), and Home Alone was yet to be released.  Smoltz threw six shutout innings and the Braves won 3-1.  During the final innings of the game Smoltz and Chipper were already talking about '07.  Maybe they know something we don't.

A few milestones will be reached in 2007.  Craig Biggio needs 70 hits to be the 27th person to collect 3000 hits.  He also needs 29 doubles to claim 5th place all-time.  Four players "should" pass the 500 homers plateau (Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Frank Thomas).

Ken Griffey is 37 homers away from 600, Sammy Sosa (if he is offered a roster spot) needs 12 to reach 600.  And Barry Bonds is 22 homers away from claiming the "tainted" home run record.  Barry also needs 70 RBI's to pass 2000.

Ramirez should near 1650 RBI's after '07 and ARod could pass 1500 by that time.  Jim Thome should collect his 2000 strikeout this year and if Sosa returns, he will soon chalk up his 2200th strikeout (2nd all-time, behind only Reggie Jackson).  And on August 23, Julio Franco of the Mets will turn 49.

The pitching milestones are a little fuzzy since Roger Clemens has yet to indicate his '07 status (rumors recently-02/15/07-Clemens is 80% sure he will retire).  I have enjoyed watching him play since junior high but (Clemens) not playing until June for a couple of years to extend a career?  C'mon…you never saw Warren Spahn or Nolan Ryan do that.  If Ryan had started doing that, he'd still be pitching (at 60).  Just for the record, if Clemens returns this year, he stands at 348 wins.  Fifteen wins behind him is Greg Maddux.  Greg stands at 333 and in 10th place all-time.  Except in '05 when he won only 13 games, Maddux has won at least 15 games every year since '88.  He should make it 19 out of 20 years after '07 is completed.

There is no humanly way a pitcher in a 5-man rotation can eclipse Cy Young's 511 wins.  The same goes for Walter Johnson's 417.  But if Maddux can win 41 more games, he will have 374.  Good enough for 3rd place all-time.  I had pondered that with Clemens a few years ago, until he started his June to October season(s).  Tom Glavine is 10 wins away from 300 wins and Randy Johnson 20 wins (if you had asked me in 2000 if either would reach 300, I would have said probably not).

Pedro Martinez is the only active player (1000 IP minimum) with a lifetime ERA under 3.00.  Pedro's 2.81 is tops among active players but doesn't even crack the top 100 all-time.  Maddux should start his 700th game later this year.  And with 61 strikeouts, Johnson will pass Clemens for 2nd place on the all-time strikeout list (again, assuming Roger retires).