Baseball Season Preview: Atlanta Braves

You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.

Well, we're just more than a month away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Atlanta Braves. Your author is Jay Busbee.

Jay Busbee is the creator of Sports Gone South, a regular columnist for the Chicago Sports Review and ChopTalk, the Braves' official magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff, Slam, and other places — in short, a sportswriting whore. His words are after the jump.

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Ladies and gentlemen, your 2007 Atlanta Non-Core Assets!

Hell of a rallying cry, ain't it? Thanks to this offseason's most significant Braves news — the sale of the team from one megalithic media conglomerate to another in some kind of hypercomplex three-card-Monte asset swap — Atlanta's fans enter the 2007 season realizing that, in corporate terms, their team is as disposable as an extra ketchup packet.

The spectre of a corporate daddy stings in Atlanta more than in most cities, since the Braves were built on the wackass antics of nutjob/genius Ted Turner. True, Turner's baseball acumen gave us the days of Biff Pocoroba and Pascual Perez, when attendance dipped into the three figures and we Braves fans mostly showed up, as Jeff Foxworthy once said, "to watch the girls eat hot dogs." But Turner figured out that he didn't know jack about baseball and turned the job over to a couple guys who did — general manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox. They put together fourteen straight division championships, a feat unprecedented in American sports.

Which brings us to last year ... when it all came crashing down.

The Braves had been cruising on fumes for a few years, and last season, everything completely fell apart. The starting pitching, with the exception of perennial ace John Smoltz, began throwing batting practice-level heat. And when the Braves did manage to take a lead into the late innings, the bullpen coughed it up a league-leading 29 times. The Braves' big sticks hit well enough, but they couldn't sustain the 15 runs a game necessary to outlast the crappy pitching.

Schuerholz didn't take kindly to a bitch-slapped bullpen, and by the end of the offseason, he was like Jack Nicholson in The Departed — hands covered with blood, but results delivered. The Braves dealt Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh for Mike Gonzalez, and a legally dead Horacio Ramirez to Seattle for Rafael Soriano. Combine them with burly closer Bob Wickman, and suddenly, Atlanta went from having a pen shakier than Britney's case for child custody to one that might just hold a goddamn lead once in awhile.

So the bullpen's set. What about the rotation? Smoltz, who's apparently part Terminator, ranked among the league leaders in innings pitched and strikeouts last year even though he'll turn 40 in May. The Braves are banking that Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton can recapture at least a fraction of their twenty-game-winning forms. And they're praying that Chuck James, who led the NL in winning percentage last year, then went back to installing windows for Lowe's, won't have a sophomore flameout.

Among the everyday players, there are a couple of sure things and some decent bets:

• Catcher Brian McCann, an All-Star last year in his first full season of play, a batting-title threat cut straight from the barrel-shaped Fisk/Bench mold;

• Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, who has the makings of a multimedia superstar, and could steal your girlfriend/wife/mom in a heartbeat if he felt like it;

• Shortstop Edgar Renteria, who put Fenway in his rear-view mirror and immediately returned to All-Star form in 2006; and

• Third baseman Chipper Jones, who's growing creaky and crotchety in the autumn of his career. Though he can still produce, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Chipper go Jack Bauer in some June game and throw a plastic bag over Yadier Molina's head.

Some positions remain up for grabs. Cox will be holding everything short of sack races and tetherball showdowns to see who'll win the starting left field spot — slick fielder Ryan Langerhans, big stick Matt Diaz or newcomer Craig Wilson. Kelly Johnson should win the second-base spot, but he's got to be looking jealously to his left, where second-year man Scott Thorman has had first base handed to him. There, the Braves are essentially gambling that their strengthened bullpen won't need the runs LaRoche would have produced.

Still, it's a good thing the Braves are starting to groom some stars, because it's not like they're going to be buying one anytime soon. The Braves are hamstrung by a corporate mandate to keep payroll at $80 million. As a result, they've spent the last few seasons like the dude in a poker tournament who folds every single hand, hoping he can cash in before the blinds eat him alive.

The strategy started showing cracks last year, and it's going to completely throw a rod in 2007 when the Braves, barring a miracle, will have to bid farewell to Andruw Jones. Andruw's the best centerfielder since Willie Mays, but he's also a Scott Boras client, which means he'll probably start cashing $20 million checks from somewhere northeast of Atlanta next year.

So how will the Braves do in 2007? The good news is, they've got enough solid players who just need to play at their potential, not far above it, that they should make a run. And even if a starter or two pops a rivet, the bullpen will keep them in enough games to threaten for at least the wild card.

Should the Braves make the playoffs again, Atlanta fans will no doubt feel that familiar knot of dread in their stomachs. Every year, it's like snagging the hottest chick at the party, then watching in horror as she pukes sushi all over your floorboards. Me, I nearly broke my hand punching a brick wall in Charlottesville, Virginia when the Braves lost the '92 Series; four years later, I smashed an Ikea desk into Swedish kindling when Mark Wohlers surrendered a Series-changing homer to the Yankees' Jim Leyritz in Game 4 of the '96 Series. (The Braves haven't won a World Series game since.)

The problem isn't Bobby Cox, despite what people want to believe. The problem with the Braves in the playoffs is one of monkey-see, monkey-do. In the postseason, the Braves' hitters are as lemming-like as right-wing talk show audiences; if one goes cold, they all go cold. This year, though, the Braves have a whole slew of players with little or no postseason experience. We can only hope they haven't read the script to see how they're supposed to play.

And should the Braves win the World Series, their new corporate overlords will surely schedule 15 minutes of appropriately branded, synergistic, tax-deductible celebratory activity.