ESPN.com put out a list of the starting lineups for every team in baseball if the season started right now, and I noticed something about the Braves. Look at this list:
C Brian McCann
1B Adam LaRoche
2B Marcus Giles
SS Edgar Renteria
3B Chipper Jones
LF Ryan Langerhans/Kelly Johnson
CF Andruw Jones
RF Jeff Francoeur
SP1 John Smoltz
SP2 Tim Hudson
SP3 Mike Hampton
SP4 John Thomson
SP5 Horacio Ramirez
CL Chris Reitsma
Of the eight starting position players, you have four guys who were rookies last year. They all had pretty good years, but that many sophomores in one lineup has to be making someone nervous. The other four are Giles, Renteria, Jones, and Jones. Giles is solid, and you know exactly what you can expect from him at the plate and in the field. Renteria is a bit of a wild-card, having been pretty great in St. Louis and pretty lousy last year in Boston. Chipper is a potential Hall of Famer, but he is also almost 34 years old and coming off a couple seasons that were shortened due to injury. Andruw Jones is coming off a career year, but his power numbers were SOOO much higher than normal last year that you have to be skeptical about his ability to come even close to them in 2006.
So basically, the starting eight for the Braves could realistically be mediocre or stellar, or anywhere in between. But what should really worry them is the pitching staff. Let’s start that discussion with something very obvious: Roger McDowell is no Leo Mazzone. I have nothing but respect for McDowell, and I have a great fondness for him from his years in L.A., but facts are facts. In years past, it might not have been as big a deal, if the Braves’ rotation had Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine all in their primes. But who do they have?
John Smoltz: He is undeniably great, but he is also undeniably 39-in-May with a history of arm problems. I like Smoltz, and I hope he has a couple more great seasons as a starter so that he can solidify his Hall of Fame credentials, but let’s face it: there’s reason for at least slight concern.
Tim Hudson: He is superb, but I always have concerned about little guys who throw hard. I said it last year when the A’s traded Hudson, and I’ll say it again: I expect Hudson’s body to break down sooner rather than later. We’ve seen it start to happen with Pedro Martinez, we’ve seen signs of it with Billy Wagner, and we will see it with Tim Hudson. He is another guy I like quite a bit, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this season be the third in a row in which his starts and innings dip below 30 and 200, respectively.
Mike Hampton: He has proven in the past that he CAN be great. But does anyone actually think that age 33 is when he going to magically rediscover his greatness? I think Hampton’s best days are behind him, and the best the Braves can hope for is that his worst days (remember those two years in Colorado?) are also behind him.
John Thomson: He has had one good season in his career, and that is only if I loosen my standards for “good season” to mean “winning record and an ERA under 4.00.” And in that one good season, he averaged about six innings a start, which is not good news for a team with bullpen problems. And this is where the loss of Mazzone really comes in, considering that Thomson’s only decent season came in his first year under Mazzone’s tutelage.
Horacio Ramirez: This guy has only been around for three years, but he has a horrible strikeout-to-walk ratio, which does not bode well for his future. He went 11-9 last season, but he also had a 4.63 ERA and opposing hitters batted .282 against him with a .783 OPS. Not much promise here, I’m afraid.
And finally, the closer…
Chris Reitsma: He has 29 career saves and a 4.38 career ERA. He is not a power pitcher (335 strikeouts in 557 career innings), and he doesn’t get an inordinate number of hitters out (.279 career average against him). The only thing I see about this guy that makes him a closer is that he isn’t good enough to start, but even that generally lends itself to middle relief.
Bobby Cox is a great manager, but 2006 will be the year when we see just how much of it had to do with Leo Mazzone. If the Braves win the NL East again this year with this lineup, I will officially join the Bobby Cox fan club. But I think the Braves’ miracle streak is about to end.