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October 3, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Chasing the NL (L)east

by Joe Sheehan

The Braves did it again last night, wasting a good start by Greg Maddux and losing 2-1 to the Phillies, shortening their lead in the NL East to one game. This team's inability to score against anyone not named Armando Benitez has gotten ridiculous, and may cost them a spot in the postseason, their first miss since 1990.

The Braves' offense is one of the worst in recent memory for a division leader. A typical Braves' lineup consists of exactly one player, Chipper Jones, with an OBP above .350. If Julio Franco or Dave Martinez plays, that's another one above .340. Everyone else is at .333 or below. The Braves are 11th in the NL in Equivalent Average at .255, the worst rank of any contending team in baseball. In fact, the only .500 or better teams below them are the Twins and Mets.

The Braves did this to themselves. Yes, they had the misfortune of losing their middle infield at midseason, but Marcus Giles hasn't been any worse than Quilvio Veras, leaving just the--not inconsiderable--gap between Rafael Furcal and the other St. Rey, Sanchez. At the corners, though, it's all John Schuerholz, who has assembled a flotilla of old, inadequate stopgap players--Ken Caminiti, Julio Franco, Bernard Gilkey--in an effort to cover the fact that he did a lousy job of committing gobs of money to the starters, B.J. Surhoff, Brian Jordan, and the now-retired Rico Brogna.

Phillies fans might accuse me of not giving their guys sufficient credit, but let's face it: it's not like this is a great baseball team. They've outscored their opponents by just 27 runs, and are outplaying their Pythagorean projection by a couple of games, which is keeping them in this thing.

They have two good hitters in the middle of the lineup, which almost makes up for massive on-base problems in the first two slots. (The team EqA of .259 sits just above the Braves for tenth in the league.) The rotation is surprisingly strong, even after Larry Bowa's dismissal of Bruce Chen and his mishandling of Randy Wolf. Ed Wade's off-season decisions in the bullpen turned out much better than I expected. Collectively, Jose Mesa, Rheal Cormier, and Ricky Bottalico have provided 180 innings of good relief, while unheralded May pickup Jose Santiago has been the team's best reliever since his arrival.

I think the Phillies' mound success this season is equal parts the product of player development and pitching coach Vern Ruhle. They've been able to patch the rotation with guys from the system like Dave Coggin, Nelson Figueroa, and Brandon Duckworth, all of whom have provided quality innings. Ruhle has taken gobs of raw material in those guys, plus Wolf and Omar Daal and Robert Person, and turned it into a competitive rotation. The continuing development of Person might actually be the best story on the Phillies this season.

I'm not a big fan of Bowa; he seems to be a "boy, I sure managed good; they just played bad" guy, someone willing, even eager, to blame his players in public for their failings. It's my opinion that the worst trait a manager can have is a tendency to rip his players to the media, and Bowa seems to spend a lot of his time doing that. It's a good way to become popular with the press--being a good quote can be morphed into being a good guy all too easily--but it's a lousy way to manage people. If the Phillies win the division, Bowa is going to receive far too much credit for the feat.

Will they? At this point, I have no idea. The Braves blew their best chance to put away the Phillies, and now face suboptimal matchups for the rest of the series. They need Tom Glavine to step up and toss a shutout, and even then, I'm not sure they'd get the run they need to win.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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