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October 5, 1999

Playoff Prospectus

Atlanta Braves vs. Houston Astros

by Keith Law

A rematch of the 1997 pairing that turned out to be no match, with the Braves handily beating the Astros in three straight. The Braves come into this series as heavy favorites, due both to their strong September and the Astros' struggles in the last two weeks.

Lineups

The Astrodome masks the fact that the Astros have been one of the National League's better offensive teams this year. Despite leading the league in walks, the Astros finished in the middle of the pack in runs scored, 17 behind the Braves. Injuries definitely played a role in the Astros' low run standing as well, but the decision to start Daryle Ward over Derek Bell in Game 1 certainly bodes well for the Astros' offensive chances.

The Astros also get below-average offensive production from Bill Spiers, who's logging time in right field, and their catching tandem of Tony Eusebio and Paul Bako. On the plus side, Craig Biggio, Carl Everett and Jeff Bagwell are among the most productive players in baseball at their positions, and Ward has tremendous potential.

The Braves relied on power to get their runners home in 1999, finishing fourth in the league in slugging percentage behind Colorado, Arizona and New York. However, with Brian Jordan hurting and Andruw Jones slumping, Chipper Jones is the team's only real power threat against the Astros' two key left-handers - starter Mike Hampton and closer Billy Wagner. The Braves also have a huge problem getting runners on, particularly since no one outside the power quartet of the Joneses, Jordan and Ryan Klesko drew as many as 50 walks in a Braves uniform this year. The two-headed catching monster of Eddie Perez and Greg Myers has been a disaster, with a composite OPS under .700.

Bench

Neither team has much firepower sitting on the bench, but Larry Dierker has one or two more weapons at his disposal. Russ Johnson knows how to draw a walk, has good pop and can play second base, shortstop or third base as needed. Matt Mieske is also a valuable bat off the bench against the Braves' stable of left-handed relievers, including closer John Rocker. However, the exclusion of Lance Berkman in favor of pinch-runner Glen Barker defies logic, particularly given the enormity of the task facing the Astros' hitters.

The Braves have stocked their bench with Bobby Cox's favorite type of bench player: the one who can't hit a lick. Ozzie Guillen, Otis Nixon, Keith Lockhart and obligatory third catcher Jorge Fabregas occupy spots better left to actual hitters. Cox has tried to generate an advantage by carrying just nine pitchers, picking up extra bench spots, but all he's done is waste them on guys like Fabregas.

Starters

The Braves' rotation comes into the postseason a bit upside down, with Kevin Millwood and John Smoltz its hottest members. The strength of the rotation leaves Cox with significant flexibility in using his bullpen, since all four starters could go the distance if needed. Terry Mulholland can step in as a fifth man if Smoltz' elbow acts up again.

The Astros' rotation is in disarray after troubling September performances from Jose Lima, who was hit hard in five starts, and Hampton, who was even more walk-prone than usual. Both pitched out of turn--albeit very well--over the weekend, leaving Shane Reynolds in the #1 slot. While the rotation is stronger from one through three than either the Mets or D' backs, the Astros can't compare to the Braves in this department.

Bullpens

The depth of the starting rotation and the early clinch means that the Braves' bullpen comes into the postseason similarly deep and very well-rested. From the left side, Mike Remlinger, John Rocker and Mulholland have all been solid for the Braves this season, and Kevin McGlinchy and Russ Springer have been effective from the right side. McGlinchy really solved his control troubles after the All-Star break, walking just five in 26 innings, and could see action in ninth innings if Rocker gets wild or if Dierker summons a lefty-killer.

The Astros' pen is also strong and boasts perhaps the game's most dominant reliever in Wagner, but the pen as a whole had about twice the September workload of Atlanta's due to the pennant race. The struggles of Scott Elarton and Chris Holt, who are both in the playoff pen, also kept the team's relievers in action in the final month. Holt's 8.10 ERA in September leads one to question what he's doing here in the first place.

Defense

The defensive standout in this series is the Atlanta outfield, which sports one legendary center fielder and two good-to-average center fielders playing on the corners. Their infield isn't anything special, despite the presence of media Gold Glover Bret Boone. It is better, however, than it was before the Jose Hernandez acquisition.

The Astros have the opposite: a good defensive infield, especially on the corners (although Ken Caminiti has slipped a few notches), but an almost amusingly bad outfield, with Bill Spiers and Daryle Ward flanking Carl Everett in center field. The Braves get the edge here, primarily due to the presence of Andruw Jones in center field.

Overall

The Astros bring the better offense to the table, but have problems in their pitching staff that may not work themselves out in the next few days. They'll likely steal one game on the backs of a strong pitching performance, but more than that isn't likely. Braves in 4.

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