Offseason Journal
Mac Thomason
Braves vs. Astros Preview by Alex Ramati

10/24/2001:  Interrupting our regularly scheduled planning...  Merv Rettenmund was fired yesterday.  Inevitably, Rettenmund will be labeled a "scapegoat" for the Braves' problems on offense.  Leaving aside the precise meaning of scapegoat, it's by no means clear how much to blame Rettenmund actually was, but firing him was the correct action.

The Braves have been declining offensively for years.

Year NL Rank (Runs Scored)
1991 2
1992 3
1993 3
1994 5
1995 9
1996 4
1997 3
1998 4
1999 6
2000 6
2001 13

Ironically, the worst finish by a Braves team in the nineties was in the year they won it all, 1995, but that's a little fluky, and they were only 12 runs out of seventh.

Strictly speaking, the Braves have not so much declined as failed to increase scoring as much as the league as a whole.  The 2001 Braves, who finished thirteenth in the league in runs, scored 4.5 runs a game; the 1992 Braves, who finished third, scored 4.21.  Also, a lot of this is just park effects.  Fulton County Stadium was one of the best hitter's parks in baseball in 1991.  Since then, the Braves have bucked a leaguewide trend towards hitters parks.  While teams were building new stadiums that almost always were better hitters' parks than their predecessors, or remodeling their old parks to increase offense, the Braves first remodeled Fulton County and refurbished their infield (after the Falcons left) and then moved into a pitcher's park, Turner Field.

Anyway, the Braves before this season have always been near or above the league average in runs.  This year, they were well below.  Before this season, the Braves had already gained a reputation as being solely dependent upon their pitching to succeed.  This year, that reputation was -- for the first time -- deserved.  And this past season should put to rest the theory that you can succeed without having a decent offense.

It's unclear how much Merv Rettenmund has to do with this.  As you can see above, he's coming in at the end of a trend.  The Braves finished sixth in the league in 2000, the same place they were in 1999 with Don Baylor as hitting coach.  However, whatever share of the blame he deserves, Rettenmund failed anyway.  The most generous interpretation is that Rettenmund is a victim of events beyond his control.  In which case, he should still have been fired.  His job was to guide the Braves to score runs.  He didn't do that.  He either (a) failed to help the offense, or (b) actively hurt the offense.  Either way, he got what he deserved.

Those of you who doubt the value of walks as an offensive weapon -- as Rettenmund apparently did -- should look at the 2001 NL.  Six teams drew fewer than 500 walks.  Those teams all ranked tenth to fifteenth in the league in runs scored.  Only the Mets, who were about average in walks, finished below them, and the Mets were last in the league in slugging.

10/23/2001:  Looking ahead at the Braves' offseason, first of a series...

The only thing given about next year's Braves team at this point is that Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine will be in the rotation, Brian Jordan will be in the outfield, and Chipper Jones will play somewhere.  OK, Mike Remlinger and Jason Marquis will have roles of some sort.  But even Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez, who have been constants, might be elsewhere.  The Braves have been making occasional noises about dealing Andruw, and Javy is a free agent.

Looking at the Braves' offseason, part I:  Free Agents.

The Braves have a number of players who will be free agents this offseason. Leaving aside pure bench players like Keith Lockhart, whom we'll save for later, they include:

John Smoltz
Steve Karsay
Steve Reed
Rudy Seanez
John Burkett
Javy Lopez
Rey Sanchez
Julio Franco
BJ Surhoff*

*Player option

Smoltz and Karsay should be taken together; it's very unlikely that the Braves would seek to keep both.  There are also some similarities in their situations.  Both have been starters in the past -- Smoltz much longer, of course -- both have made noises about moving back into the rotation at times, and both have had arm problems.  Smoltz has a much longer history with the team, was more impressive with the Braves (though Karsay was very good overall), and is well liked.  I think that if John is committed to being a reliever, the Braves will make a strong effort to re-sign him.  Karsay will probably go elsewhere, but hopefully the Braves will at least offer arbitration (and pick up two draft picks).

Reed is not a closer candidate.  He's a specialist, a pitcher to one or two righthanded hitters whom the other manager won't pinch-hit for.  He was death to righthanded batters this year but lefthanded batters were death to him, and while lots of teams (not the Braves, though) like to keep lefthanded one-out relievers (LOOGYs in John Sickels' parlance) around, righty specialists are rarer.  In a division with Mike Piazza, Vlad Guerrero, and Scott Rolen, Reed is a valuable commodity.  I think that the Braves will make an effort to bring him back, but I don't know how high they'll go.

The Braves picked up Seanez cheap at the deadline.  I don't know if they'd be willing to offer him a major league contract.  He's been fragile, and is getting up there.  On the other hand, he's been with the team before.  My guess is that if he's willing they'll offer him a minor league deal and a chance to make the team in spring training.

Burkett will probably be gone.  The Braves would have to offer him a significant raise, and can fill the rotation without him (by bumping Jason Marquis to a full rotation spot and making Odalis Perez the fifth starter). Alternatively, the Braves could try to re-sign him for one or two seasons and trade Kevin Millwood, but that only makes sense if (a) Burkett is cheaper than Millwood and (b) Millwood brings something significant in trade.

Javy...  The Lopez situation is probably the most difficult here, even more difficult than Smoltz's.  The Braves could let John walk and replace him internally.  There's no internal solution at catcher.  At his best, Eddie
Perez wasn't good enough to play regularly, and he's missed most of two seasons now, and still isn't fully healthy.  I'm one of Paul Bako's biggest boosters and even I don't think he's good enough to play regularly.  Steve Torrealba was called up at the end of the season and was on the Division Series roster, but he doesn't look like a regular either.

So it looks like re-signing Javy would be one of the Braves' biggest priorities, perhaps the biggest.  But he had his worst season since his rookie year in 2001.  He played his best ball at the end of the season, which was enough to get his on-base up to .322, which is dreadful but not too atypical (his career OBP is .335) but he only slugged .425, which is unacceptable for a guy whose value is mostly his power.  Right now, I'm projecting the Braves to re-sign Javy.  But I wouldn't be surprised if they looked elsewhere, perhaps at Charles Johnson (who has an out clause in his contract with the Marlins).

I can't believe that Rey Sanchez would be re-signed, but then I still can't believe he was brought in in the first place.  To re-iterate:  Sanchez hit an empty .300 for the Royals but played sparkling defense.  The Braves traded two borderline prospects in deep areas (middle infield and relief pitching) to get him, and Sanchez did almost nothing right.  His defense wasn't actually that good in the regular season and he hit worse than even I anticipated.  In the postseason, he made key errors, including the one that opened the floodgates in Game Four of the NLCS, and showed an uncanny knack for hitting into double plays.  With Rafael Furcal -- who at least doesn't hit into double plays -- coming back next season, the Braves have a young infield combo set, plus they have Wilson Betemit waiting in the wings. Sanchez will probably be shown the door.

Julio Franco played well for the Braves after being signed out of the Mexican League.  He was arguably the team's best position player in the NLCS, for what that's worth.  His defense was pretty good and he gave the team some needed on-base skills in the second spot in the order.  While it's nice to fantasize about Jason Giambi in a Braves' uniform, that's not likely to happen in the reign of AOL.  My guess is that the Braves will re-sign Franco to a one-year deal and try to address the left field situation instead of first base.

Surhoff has an option for the upcoming season.  He would be foolish not to take it, in my opinion, but might be convinced to do so if the Braves offer a sufficient buyout.  They might also try to deal him to anyone who will have him.  If the Braves can unload Surhoff, they could be in a position to bring in a big name free agent or make a blockbuster trade.  If they can't it would be extremely difficult.

The score...

Re-signed 4 (Smoltz, Reed, Lopez, Franco)
Unsigned 3 (Karsay, Sanchez, Burkett)
Desperately asked to go elsewhere 1 (Surhoff)

10/22/2001:  Sigh.

The way to look at it is that the Braves went farther than they should.  Really, they shouldn't have beaten the Astros, and were in second place most of the season.  There's nothing to be ashamed of.

The series was lost Saturday night, in the top of the third inning.  The Braves were winning 2-0, and with one more baserunner in either of the first two innings would have been up 4-0 or more.  They were this close to chasing Albie Lopez and getting into that soft Arizona bullpen.  Unfortunately, the Braves defense -- led by "Mr. Glove", Rey Sanchez, who made the worst throw any shortstop has ever made -- collapsed, and the Diamondbacks scored four runs and never trailed again.

I'll look ahead at the Braves' offseason soon; there are a lot of decisions to be made.  Normally I would wish the winner of the NLCS good luck, as I did the Padres in '98.  But I despise the Diamondbacks.  If they play the Yankees I hope they both lose.

10/19/2001:  Well, so much for my theory about the Braves being able to hit Randy Johnson.

The Arizona pitcher nearly no-hit the Braves (they got three hits, but the first could have been changed to an error by the official scorer if it had mattered, and the other two were with two out in the ninth) in Game One of the NLCS Tuesday.  As you could expect, the Braves were shut out and Greg Maddux took the loss despite only giving up two runs.

In Game Two, the Braves answered back with Tom Glavine, who went seven and gave up only one run, and the Braves exploded for seven runs in the seventh and eighth to win 8-1.  Five of the runs came in the eighth off of the Diamondbacks' bullpen, and that's the secret of the series; the Braves have to get to Arizona's middle relief.  Their starters are either good or excellent, and their closer, Byung-hyun Kim, is good.  But they're missing two other top relievers and are relying upon has-beens in middle relief. Yesterday, only two runs down and with Luis Gonzales guaranteed at least one more at-bat, the Diamondbacks desperately needed to shut down the Braves to have a chance.  But they sent, in succession, Mike Morgan, Greg Swindell, and Bobby Witt -- three broken-down starters who remember the moon landing -- to pitch. Voila, five runs, game over.

Javy Lopez was the hero of Game Two with a two-run homer in the seventh.  He's still hurting but he can hit, and it's not like he makes a living with his legs.  He was, as I've mentioned, tearing the ball up when he got hurt, and represents a huge upgrade at the catcher position.  With Lopez in the lineup, the Braves and Diamondbacks are pretty much equal offensively.  Arizona maybe has a slight advantage because they don't have anyone as bad as Double Pley Sanchez.

The Braves head home to face Curt Schilling in Game Three.  After that, nobody's quite sure.  The winner of that game will probably send out their fourth starter in Game Four, the loser their Game One starter.

10/13/2001:  No fooling around, as the Braves won yesterday, 6-2, to finish off a sweep of the Astros.  The Braves outscored Houston 14-6, and weren't seriously threatened yesterday after jumping out to a 4-0 lead.  The Astros made it 4-2, but never got the tying run to the plate...  Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio will get the blame ( has already named them the goats of the series), which is monumentally unjust in Bagwell's case.  He didn't hit a homer, but was 3-7 with five walks.  There is nothing to be ashamed of when you're on base two-thirds of the time.  The real story of the series was that Lance Berkman and Moises Alou couldn't deliver even with a runner almost always on base in front of them.

The Braves will face Arizona or St. Louis in the NLCS.  Currently, Arizona is ahead 2-1 in their series with Game Four delayed by rain.  Conventional wisdom is that you don't want to face the Diamondbacks in the postseason because of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who would start four or five games between them in a seven-game series.  For the Braves, that's probably not a concern, and they match up with Arizona better than almost anyone.  No team hits Johnson better than the Braves, and no player hits him better than Chipper Jones.  Andruw has also pounded him for a better than 1.000 OPS.  The Braves, as I've mentioned below, hit lefties much better than righties, and Johnson is no exception.  And while Schilling dominated the Braves in his Philadelphia days, they haven't have any real problems with him as a Diamondback.  To be honest, St. Louis' Matt Morris scares me more than either of those guys, and Tony Larussa always seems to pull at least one game against us out of his cap a year.  Bob Brenly doesn't concern you nearly that much.

I'm still rooting for St. Louis, though.  The Diamondbacks annoy me.

10/10/2001:  See, this is what I meant.  The Braves won today's game, 1-0, behind some Tom Glavine magic.  The game featured about 750 double plays, most of them either turned by or hit into by Rey Sanchez.  The game's only run was scored on a Sanchez double play.  And Sanchez has been by far the better shortstop in this series; Houston's, Julio Lugo, committed two errors, one of which helped lead to the Braves run.  He also committed an error yesterday.

Anyway, the series heads back to Atlanta, where hopefully the Braves have figured out how to win.  A team that trails an evenly matched opponent 0-2 in a five game series has only a 12.5% chance of winning the series.  It can happen, so let's not get overconfident.  Still, the Astros look crushed.

10/9/2001:  The Braves (as usual) got to play the Early Game Nobody Gets To See, 1 PM ET, noon my time.  And they won, breaking a seven-game losing streak in postseason.  The final was 7-4, mostly on the strength of Chipper Jones' three run homer -- against Billy Wagner, no less.  Houston manager Larry Dierker managed against the "book", or at least the book's current edition, bringing in his closer to pitch to Chipper in the eighth inning with the score tied.  It didn't work out and Dierker will probably get criticized for "misusing" his closer, but it was unquestionably the right call.  That was a game situation, and you still have to turn Chipper around.  Wagner's the only competent lefty the Astros have (on the whole staff, they're heavily righthanded) and that's when you have to use him.  He still had Octavio Dotel in reserve, and Dotel is probably Houston's best reliever.

Kevin Millwood was left off of the roster for the Division Series, though if the Braves make the NLCS they will probably put him on in place of a catcher -- either Eddie Perez or Steve Torrealba, depending upon Perez's ability to play.  (When Bako was pinch-hit for today -- Lockhart was the pinch-hitter, and he doubled, later scoring the tying run -- Torrealba came into the game.)  Jason Marquis made the roster instead, mostly because he relieved a good bit this season.  The thing is, Marquis should be the fourth starter anyway if the Braves use one -- they're going with a three-man rotation this series -- because he's been far better than Millwood.  But I can't really argue with going with the veteran in this case.  (Now, Reychel Sanchez, that's a different matter.  He should be home.  I'd much rather DeRosa was the starter and Jesse Garcia the reserve, but I'm not entirely rational on the subject of Sanchez.)

I've decided not to do a full breakdown of the series.  That's partially because (due to a network failure) I wasn't able to get it done before today's game.  But also, the standard format is kind of silly.  It's not like Andruw Jones is facing off against Richard Hidalgo.  Alex Ramati does have a preview.  Anyway, some comments about the series:

As I mentioned above, the Astros are a righthanded team.  That's pretty much all around, in the lineup as well as the pitching staff.  There are three reasons for this I can think of, all of which probably have some bearing.  One is dumb luck, which is always underrated as a factor.  The second is their ballpark, which has an exceptionally small left field, which plays to the strengths of righty pull hitters and the weakness of lefty pitchers.  (Think of the Boston Red Sox and the Green Monster; they've traditionally built their teams around righthanded sluggers, and have rarely had any good lefty pitching.  Of course, Fenway Park isn't the hitters' haven it once was.)  Finally, in the pitching staff, the Astros have an organizational philosophy of going after undervalued talent -- as most teams do, of course --- and they see small righthanders as undervalued talent.  Teams will go after any lefty who throws hard, but don't draft small righties.  Except for the Astros.  The Astros have a number of starting pitchers like that, both currently on the team and in the farm.

What does that mean for the Braves?  Offensively, it hurts them.  The Braves are far better against lefthanded pitching than righthanded.  The only Braves who don't hit lefties better are lefty hitters who probably wouldn't ever face lefties if Bobby could help it (Lockhart, Surhoff, Martinez, Bako), the atrocious Rey Sanchez, and, oddly enough, Andruw Jones.  At any rate, righty power pitchers -- the Astros' specialty -- are poison to the Braves.

But on the other hand, it helps the Braves' pitchers immensely.  The Astros have one switch-hitter, Lance Berkman, in their starting lineup, and no lefty hitters.  (They do have a heavily lefthanded bench, with Daryle Ward and Orlando Merced the top pinch-hitters, both lefthanded, and switch-hitting utility infielder Jose Vizcaino, who might get a start or two in the series.)  The Braves' playoff roster features only two lefties, Mike Remlinger and Tom Glavine.  Glavine has been only marginally more effective against lefthanded batters, and Remlinger has been worse.  So, despite today's doings, I expect that this series will be low-scoring.

With the Braves up 1-0, the most likely outcome of the series is Braves in four, and the Braves have something like a 65-70% chance of winning the series.


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