When a baseball fan hears mention of the Atlanta Braves, a few things come to mind:
A manager who enjoys being thrown out of games in Bobby Cox, a team that has traditionally had a great starting pitching rotation, and a team that almost always makes the playoffs.
Two of those three statements are true. The one that's false?
The one that says they almost always make the playoffs.
Ok, it's not totally false, because in the 90's, they were a simply amazing team. I'd even call them the NL Team of the '90s (the AL's was the Yankees).
But now that we are almost done with a full decade of the 2000's, the same can no longer be said. The dominant Braves are a thing of the past.
Or are they?
This team has the tools to make the NL Wild Card race very interesting.
We'll see. But the bigger question is, do they truly have the tools to make the playoffs?
Take a look:
Starting pitching has obviously always been a strength of the Braves, maybe not now as much as in the past, but it is still a very strong rotation.
With a combined 3.60 ERA in the rotation, this team's starters get the job done. The surprising aspect about this stat is that they have done this without the services of Tim Hudson, who was lost to an injury in February before spring training games even began.
Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez have torn opposing teams to pieces with 2.91 and 3.02 ERA's, respectively. Having two pitchers in a rotation with dominating stuff like theirs will do nothing but help the Braves' playoff hopes.
Along with his dominating ERA, Javier Vazquez allows very few base runners, with 192 strikeouts. He has averaged 9.82 strikeouts per nine innings. When a pitcher has dominating stuff like his, the only thing hitters can do is tip their cap to him as they walk back to the dugout after striking out.
Jair Jurrjens on the other hand, is more of a contact pitcher and doesn't always go for the strikeout early in the inning. Judging by his ERA, his success has hinged on his ability to get hitters to ground out or fly out.
However, his record of 10-8 does not show his true colors. On any other successful team, a 2.91 ERA would make Jurrjens an 15 game winner by now. Run support has been an issue when he takes the mound.
But that does not mean that the Braves' offense is not productive. A team with Chipper Jones leading it and Brian McCann, Yunel Escobar, Adam LaRoche, and Garret Anderson in the lineup means that this is a team that can light up the scoreboard in a hurry.
Surprisingly, the Braves' record is only 68-61.
The offense cannot be blamed for that because as a team they have a .267 BA, 124 home runs, 589 runs, and 561 RBI's. This is a very good offense. However, it seems that each player's hot streaks and cold streaks happen at the same time as every other player's streaks.
This could mean good things for a team if the hot streaks are long and the cold streaks are short, or it could mean the bad things if the hot streaks are short and the cold streaks seem never ending.
Fortunately for the Braves, they are still in the running for the NL Wild Card and once Tim Hudson comes back to the rotation, Atlanta could make a run at a playoff spot.
I hate to say that this team has no weaknesses at all, but on paper, this team is a very good one.
There is only one explanation for the lack of success on the field (compared to the other playoff contenders) and that is chemistry in the clubhouse.
This team may not have gelled the way other successful teams have, and therefore can't produce the way they would like.
That is the only explanation I can think of.
Braves fans: If you have another explanation for it, please comment.
If the Braves can make the Wild Card race interesting (and I think they will) and somehow beat the Rockies and Giants out in the race, they may have a great chance to push pretty deep into the postseason.
This team definitely has all the weapons of a World Series contender. If they can gel together like the '07 Rockies, there is no telling how far the Braves will go.
While I don't think they would win it all simply because they don't have the experience up and down their lineup, I think they could make it to the World Series and hold their own against a powerful AL team.
But if they don't gel, they will get ousted in the first round to a very well rounded team like the Dodgers.
Before they can even start thinking about that, they have an enormous mountain to climb in the Rockies and the Giants. Once they do that, the sky is the limit for this team.
This team will definitely make the Wild Card race interesting, but they are just simply not good enough to climb over both the Rockies and the Giants.
Even though they have closed the gap to three games (could be two and half if they beat the Phillies tonight), the Rockies have a very easy schedule from this point to the end of the season and the Giants will be doing everything they can to keep the race close.
They will, no doubt, make this a three team race, but they are not strong enough to make the playoffs.
Of course, you never know what could happen, but right now, it looks as though the Rockies will win the Wild Card (if they can rebound from their getting swept this weekend and start winning again) followed closely by the Giants.
One more year of maturation for the young players on the Braves, and they could very well return to prominence in the NL East.
Next Week: Florida Marlins