Whenever I see the word "pitching" I can't help, but think about the Atlanta Braves.
It was their staple for so many seasons during that amazing eleven consecutive division title run. Braves' greats such as Steve Avery, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz anchored one of the best staffs in baseball throughout the 90s.
Atlanta hardly lacked with position players either. Ron Gant, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, David Justice, and Andruw Jones helped continue the Braves successful run.
What exactly was the key to this great string of success for Atlanta?
The answer is quite simple—youth.
The Braves became well known for their top-notch farm system under General Manager John Schuerholz (1991-2007). Players weren't thrust to the major league level with raw talent (which happens many times), but rather that talent was harnessed and developed in the minor league system until the prospect was ready. For some it was a few seasons and others it only took one or two to make it to the Big Show.
What resulted was an influx of highly talented young players who would help Atlanta compete for a pennant year after year. Since these players weren't talented veterans, their contracts were cheap and the Braves could ride arms like that of John Smoltz or Andruw Jones' bat for several seasons at a low cost.
Why was this significant?
The lower paying contracts on young and talented players allowed Atlanta to spend the money on the veteran stars such as Gary Sheffield.
All those greats I mentioned earlier (save Maddux and McGriff) were products of Atlanta's farm system. Maddux and McGriff serve as examples of a freed up budget allowing acquisitions of star players. The core of Atlanta's success has clearly been its younger players.
Entering into the 2008 season the Braves are showing signs of similarity with their 1991 team. Jeff Francouer, Brian McCann, Yunel Escobar, Chuck James, and Kelly Johnson are all rising young stars Atlanta is able to ride cheaply on (with the exception of McCann whose contract was restructured). The addition of star Mark Teixeira was made possible in part due to Atlanta's younger player contracts.
However, little talented youth is to be found anywhere else.
John Smoltz, a fan favorite, is obviously an ageless wonder, but at some point in the near future will have to step down.
Tom Glavine may help younger pitchers with his knowledge, but he does little to help Atlanta win a pennant.
Jo-Jo Reyes and Jair Jurrjens aren't ready to be big league starters and Mark Kotsay is hardly a valuable replacement to Andruw Jones. The Braves are burdened with either too much raw talent or too little youth in their pitching staff and reserves to start the season.
Not to say Atlanta can't turn this tide later in the season. Perhaps Reyes and Jurrjens will be ready in the second half of the year and its not out of the realm of possibility that Josh Anderson, Matt Diaz, Anthony Lerew, and Jeff Ridgeway become regulars in the Braves lineup by season's end.
Still, until these younger players harness their raw talent and have significant time at the major league level, Atlanta will still be in a rebuilding process that extends into this year.
The key for a return to NL glory will be the development of these young stars and the departure of what is becoming dead weight.