Before jumping into the concerns and expectations, let's take a look at how the Braves have changed since the 2004 postseason:
SP Paul Byrd (Angels)
SP Russ Ortiz (Diamondbacks)
SP Jaret Wright (Yankees)
RP Antonio Alfonseca (Marlins)
RP Jose Capellan (traded to Brewers)
RP Juan Cruz (traded to A's)
RP Dan Meyer (traded to A's)
OF J.D. Drew (Dodgers)
OF Eli Marerro (traded to Royals)
OF Charles Thomas (traded to A's)
IF Mark DeRosa (Rangers)
IF Mike Hessman (Tigers)||GAINED:
SP Tim Hudson (traded from A's)
RP Danny Kolb (traded from Brewers)
RP Jorge Vasquez (traded from Royals)
RP Gabe White (free agent)
OF Brian Jordan (free agent)
OF Raul Mondesi (free agent)|
Less notably, Turner Field will look a bit different
as well, with parking improvements and the installation of the largest high-definition video display in any stadium in the world.
Obviously, gaining half as many players as they lost means the Braves will necessarily be relying on their farm system a bit going into 2005 (barring any last-minute deals), but mainly on the bench unless a rookie really shines in spring training. As it stands, it looks like the Braves will start with at least two position players and maybe one or two relief pitchers on their major-league roster in April that played most or all of last year in the minors.
The Braves also have at least three players "coming back" in 2005. Horacio Ramirez returns after tendonitis sidelined him for the last four months of 2004, and Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan are attempting to resurrect their careers (or at least go out gracefully) by filling the Braves right- and left-field spots. The current buzz is at least very optimistic about Mondesi
, who is reportedly in outstanding physical and mental health and is looking forward to working with Julio Franco -- both hail from the Dominican Republican and have known each other for several years.
You could also count John Smoltz as a "comeback" player, returning to the starting rotation for the first time since he was sidelined from that role and forced to come back as a closer over three years ago. Smoltz and Ramirez certainly have the talent, but are they healthy enough to contribute according to their ability for a full season?
My only other concerns are focused on the Braves' bench, specifically the outfield options
. Behind Jordan, Jones, and Mondesi are... Ryan Langerhans and a short list of other minor leaguers itching to be the one (or two) to squeeze their way into the 24th and/or 25th spot(s) on the roster. I've taught myself not to be cynical with the Braves, though, because John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox tend to surprise us and themselves (Chris Hammond, Julio Franco, and Charles Thomas anyone?)... so I'll remain optimistic until given a reason not to be.
So what do I expect of my Atlanta Braves this season? Well, I expect a solid starting rotation, with four potential 20-game winners on staff, although I say Smoltz and Hudson have the best chance of getting there. I expect Thomson and Ramirez to post decent numbers, and Hampton is the wildcard -- he could be anything from great to just okay, but I don't think he'll self-destruct or anything.
The bullpen will be solid, but probably not as automatic as last year's pen that included Smoltz, Juan Cruz, and Antonio Alfonseca. There's also a good chance that a couple of guys with whom we're not too familiar will make a splash in Atlanta. But enough of last year's pen is coming back, and Leo Mazzone is still the man in charge, so I'm comfortable. Others that could make a splash include Kyle Davies, Sam McConnell, Ryan Glynn, Chuck Smith, and Jorge Vazquez. And let's not forget that Bobby likes to go with a seven-man bullpen sometimes...
I am much more comfortable with the 2005's potential lineup than I expected to be after hearing of JD Drew's departure, but looking at how the team has come together since then has provided much relief. To the right, you can see the lineup as I predict it will look. It's really anyone's guess where Andruw, Chipper, and Raul will bat, but I pick them to be our 3-4-5 spots in the order, with the rest of the lineup pretty much set as it is. In any case, I'm comfortable with any lineup that puts Adam LaRoche in the 8-hole.
The bench will likely include Eddie Perez (C), Julio Franco (1B), Nick Green (IF), and Ryan Langerhans (OF), with at least one spot remaining for someone like Andy Marte, Jeff Francoeur, or Pete Orr (all of whom I would prefer to see playing full-time in AAA Richmond until/unless they're needed), so I'm hoping the spot goes to someone like SS Wilson Betemit or OF Billy McCarthy. Assuming the Braves aren't too concerned with having a fifth outfielder (as they weren't last year), I predict Betemit gets the spot, forming a reasonable reasonable group of reserves if Eddie Perez doesn't bat too much!
Notice that this projected roster only includes 24 players. This is intentional, since there's no telling whether the Braves will go with six on the bench or seven in the bullpen.
I won't dare predict in what position the Braves will finish in the 2005 NL East, but I will predict that this year's squad should win 90-95 games, plus or minus a couple depending on the breaks. If nothing else, Schuerholz, Cox, and the rest of the Braves' upper management have done a superb job maximizing their chances to extend the streak to 14!