I used to spend my Octobers watching the Atlanta Braves play in the playoffs.
I used to be six inches away from the television with every John Smoltz pitch, every Chipper Jones long ball and every Bobby Cox nickname call from the dugout.
Now (since 2006) I spend my October months thinking about next season and pondering about what my boys in Hotlanta will do next year.
The Braves began the 2008 season with hopes of returning to glory and winning the World Series. Mark Teixeira was back at first base, Jones was healthy, Mark Kotsay was now roaming center field, Smoltz was reunited with Tom Glavine as the two wily veterans in the rotation, and Tim Hudson was the anchor.
Mike Hampton was finally returning to the bump after a three year hiatus, and Brian McCann, Jones, and Jeff Francoeur were set to provide the much needed offensive power.
Enter the injury and slump bug.
Hampton, who is a free-agent this off season, fell apart again and missed most of the season. Smoltz went down with shoulder problems, Glavine’s elbow showed its age and Hudson suffered season ending Tommy John surgery. Before you knew it, Atlanta was knocking at my door looking for a starter for its next series.
Jones and McCann provided the offensive sparks, but Francoeur’s (.239 batting average and only 11 home runs) bat disappeared all together, thus leaving the Braves with a 72-90 record and 20 games behind the division leading Phillies (congrats to B/R member Rick).
Good thing there is always next year.
The Braves traded away Teixeira for Casey Kotchman and some batting helmets, while the Red Sox acquired Kotsay for a bag of peanuts.
Smoltz has stated that he would throw for Atlanta if he came back, unless the Braves didn’t want him. Glavine has toyed with the idea of retirement and has said he would only throw for the Braves.
Plenty of uncertainties abound in Atlanta, but there is one positive. Since shipping out the big names, the Braves can reach in their pockets this off season and use their 40 million extra dollars to fill some crucial roles.
With the loss of Kotsay and the uncertainty of the pitching staff veterans, Braves fans hope all that extra cash goes towards roping in a quality pitcher or two and a reliable outfielder who can provide offensive numbers.
Jason Bay and Manny Ramirez are both free agents after this season and while it may be unlikely that either make it to Atlanta, the possibilities are fun to think about. Adam Dunn from the Reds and the Phillie’s Pat Burrell are both available next season as well. If the Angels decline the option on outfielder Vladimir Guerrero he too will be available as a free-agent. Xavier Nady of the Yankees is also available and could be considered a realistic option to fill a much needed outfield spot for Atlanta.
A shaky Braves rotation provides lots of fun ideas regarding free-agent pitchers. Milwaukee’s C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets are both at the end of their contracts with the Brewers, and while both could possibly demand a lot of money, either one would provide an obvious lift to the Braves rotation.
Atlanta is fortunate to have a fantastic and young group of players to begin building around. Jair Jurrjens, who finished 2008 with a 13-10 record and a 3.68 ERA, was a surprise from the mound and will continue to provide “ace” material to the Braves staff next season. Rookie Charlie Morton showed some potential in 15 starts last season, and with further development he could fill the fifth starter role. Yunel Escobar and Martin Prado proved that they have the talent and ability to be every-day players, thus adding some intrigue to the Braves offensive lineup.
Jones obviously showed he can still swing the bat (batting title winner with a .364 batting average) and if he can somehow manage to stay healthy and give the Braves 150-plus games, Atlanta will be that more dangerous with the bats.
Omar Infante, who hit .293 on the season, returns while the Braves leader in stolen bases last season (13),Gregor Blanco, returns as well. Blanco can play all three spots in the outfield while Infante showed he can flash a glove at almost any position on the diamond.
The Braves lost closers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez early last season and while both returned, it was too late to make any difference. However, if Soriano signs with the Braves again this off season, both he and Gonzalez could play vital roles in the Braves bullpen.
Atlanta could look at picking up another relief pitcher or two to add some more stability to an often times shaky bullpen. The relief pitcher free-agent market is thick this off season and with the Braves in need of some bullpen help several options are available (click for list). As a whole, the Braves pitching staff ranked nineteenth in the Major’s last season in strikeouts (1,076) and could be looking for a hard thrower to come out of the pen to get those much needed K’s with runners on base.
One thing is for sure: If I’m writing about Atlanta’s potential next October and I am not six inches from my television set watching Atlanta October baseball...
I might lose it.