Tuesday, January 27, 2009

As spring training looms, Braves look like a middle-of-the-pack team
by Paul Kaplan
Georgia Online News Service

Here we are again, just weeks from the start of baseball's spring training, and sports fans in Georgia need the Braves to rescue them from another winter of mediocrity.

The Falcons are long gone by now, once again. Even in a transcendent season like the one just concluded, with a vibrant new quarterback and a rookie coach who seems to get it, the Falcons defense was exposed in the playoffs as a step too slow, a little too old and not quite tough enough.

The University of Georgia football team again failed to live up to its billing, and Georgia Tech was embarrassed in a bowl game by an unranked opponent with five losses. And neither school has the talent, either on the court or on the sidelines, to play top-tier basketball.

The Thrashers remain an irrelevant franchise in ice hockey, where even the best teams are irrelevant to many folks.

The Hawks show some promise, but without a big man to play center, the team will be exposed in the NBA playoffs, when the game grinds down to half-court play, and the big men rule. Al Horford would make a fine young power forward, but he is playing out of position at center.

So bring on the Braves, please. Let them wrap us in the warm cocoon of their sporting competence.

They will, right?


Well, maybe. But, as currently constructed, the Braves in '09 will have serious issues, and possibly insurmountable ones.

After a weak 2008, the Braves went into the off-season with three huge holes to fill, and several smaller ones.

Now, after months of off-season wheeling and dealing by the front office, the Braves head to spring training with at least two of the same gaping holes. And an argument can be made that the third big hole still exists, too.

The gaps that were exposed last season were starting pitching, especially a staff ace; a power-hitting outfielder to bat cleanup; and a true leadoff hitter who gets on base and alters the game with his speed.

So far there is still no outfielder to bat fourth, and no new leadoff man.

The one area where the Braves made progress was with starting pitching, signing veterans Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez, and a touted righty from Japan, Kenshin Kawakami.

All three are said to be inning-eaters – guys who'll pitch upwards of 200 innings a year, which keeps the bullpen fresh as the long season slogs through summer.

All three are in their 30s, however, and Lowe, the Braves' $60 million man, is being billed as the ace. But being the best pitcher on a team, as Lowe is expected to be in '09, does not make you an ace – a pitcher who can compete against, and beat, the best pitchers on the other teams.

Lowe is a crafty veteran and a gamer, but he will be 36 years old this summer and is not a power pitcher who is likely to carry a team for three games in a seven-game playoff series after a brutal six-month regular season.

Lowe, in other words, is not John Smoltz.

You'll hear no whining from here about Smoltz bolting to the Boston Red Sox after the Braves failed to guarantee as much money to the 41-year-old righty, who was injured for most of last season.

First of all, Smoltz's departure after 20 seasons in Atlanta was not mainly about money. Smoltz, who is deeply devout, already has more money than God. He left Atlanta, a city and a team he loves, because the Red Sox give him a chance to win the World Series and the Braves don't. End of story.

All the huffing and puffing by fans and bloggers and Chipper Jones over the heresy of not re-signing Smoltz is ridiculous. The Red Sox have plenty of pitching (and money), and they would be perfectly happy for Smoltz to return from his injuries by midseason and assume the role of a fifth starter. The Braves can't afford that. They were wise to take that money and spend it on a potentially solid, and much younger, starter.

Jones, the Braves' team leader who hits third in the lineup, should be much more concerned about the absence of a No. 4 hitter to bat behind him this season. Last year, when Mark Teixeira's big stick was hitting cleanup for the Braves, teams could not pitch around Jones at No. 3, and he had his best season in years, winning the National League batting title.

Teixeira is now a Yankee with a $180 million contract. Jones, meanwhile, will be 37 years old in the first month of the season, and he'll feel every bit his age, and more, if the Braves don't add enough lumber to protect him.

Brian McCann, the team's terrific young catcher, has some power, but catchers get terribly beaten up over the long season and that would take some stability away from the crucial No. 4 slot, which is a run-producing machine on successful teams. McCann sits every fifth game to give his knees and back a break, and, like many catchers, he slows down in the last third of the season. And McCann, bless his heart, is slow when he's healthy. So the team is better off with him hitting lower in the order – 5, 6 or 7.

Jeff Francoeur, the team's outstanding defensive right fielder, has some pop in his bat, but he had a terrible year at the plate last season. He could not lay off bad pitches – especially high fastballs – and he seemed overmatched when he batted with runners in scoring position. If Francoeur has another year like last season, the Braves are dead in '09.

Even if Francoeur improves, the team badly needs an effective leadoff hitter. They almost signed Rafael Furcal, an exciting leadoff man who left the Braves three years ago to sign with the Dodgers as a free agent. But Furcal's agent stiffed the Braves by using their offer to squeeze more money out of the Dodgers.

Center fielder Gregor Blanco showed some flashes as a rookie leadoff man last year, and the club will see if prized minor leaguer Jordan Schafer is ready for the bigs. But Blanco struck out 99 times in 430 at–bats last season, and Schafer was suspended for 50 games for a steroid violation, so the kindest thing you can say is that the crucial leadoff job is unsettled.

So here we are again, with spring training so close you can almost smell the sweet stench of oil on leather mitts. There is nothing better in sports than the home team playing great baseball, and that is what the fans in Georgia came to expect during the Braves' historic 14-year run of division championships.

That ended a couple of years back, however, and the Braves now have the look of a middle-of-the-pack team. But who knows, maybe our eyes are deceiving us.


Paul Kaplan has been an award-winning writer and editor at newspapers in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.   [full bio]

Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. In today's schedule of articles from the Georgia Online News Service, we have an incisive look at the state's budget crisis by Tom Opdyke. Local officials use terms such as "devastating" to describe the $2 billion in proposed cuts. On an equally dismal front - prospects for the Braves in 2009 - veteran columnist Paul Kaplan explains why the best we can expect is "middle of the pack." And GONSO's Publisher Jon Sinton pens a column commenting that for good reporting on the nation's crumbling infrastructure, forget Big Media. You'll find that reporting - news that's critical for all of us - only in publications such as Popular Mechanics (and, of course, GONSO).


John Sugg
Executive Editor
Georgia Online News Service

Today's GONSO

County officials across state see 'most challenging year' grappling with budgets

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Lamar Paris is surrounded by exquisite scenery in the Georgia mountains, but the distance doesn't insulate him from what happens at the state Capitol.
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As spring training looms, Braves look like a middle-of-the-pack team

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Here we are again, just weeks from the start of baseball's spring training, and sports fans in Georgia need the Braves to rescue them from another winter of mediocrity.
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