There are times when both knowledge and numbers fail to give a clearer understanding of something that everyone "sees." The genius of Leo Mazzone is one of these cases. Is Mazzone in fact the first pitching coach worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, or is he an illusion created by one of the best long-term troikas in pitching history? His legacy may rest on how a rebuilt staff performs in 2003, fairly or not.
With the era-ending loss of Tom Glavine and the inexplicable trade of Kevin Millwood, combined with three off-season acquisitions, the starting staff has been remade. Behind the starting five is a reconstituted bullpen, albeit with the same S.U.N. (Show Up in the Ninth) pitcher in John Smoltz.
While any rotation led by Greg Maddux begins with a leg up not seen in other teams that don't include Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez, Mazzone does have some interesting challenges to work with. Mike Hampton is left-handed, but clearly a breed apart from Glavine. Hampton may be helped more by Smoltz's sports shrink than by Mazzone, but Leo's work with him can't hurt and is already being touted. It will be interesting to see park-adjusted and support-neutral numbers for Hampton, even early in the season.
Mazzone's work with Byrd and Ortiz will also be interesting. Byrd already served one unsuccessful stint with the Braves in 1997 and 1998. Carried by a microscopic walk rate (and a worrisome low K rate), Byrd broke out last year. Can he do it again, as a 32-year-old soft-tosser? He struggled down the stretch last year, and his loss of velocity for a pitcher who doesn't exactly blow guys away at the best of times scares me. It's enough to earn him a yellow light.
Russ Ortiz is the most likely candidate to improve under the tutelage of Mazzone and the protection of Cox. Ortiz is regularly at the top of PAP lists (fifth-highest in baseball last year) and has been a breakdown candidate for several years. Ortiz showed some signs of wear in 2000, but came back strong. The indicators show red, but Ortiz gets only a yellow due to his track record of staying healthy despite the heavy usage. Some pitchers can succeed under a workload that would send many others running to Jim Andrews – Ortiz may be one of those.
The position players are reasonably healthy and their core lineup of the Jones brothers and Gary Sheffield has been very healthy. Sheffield always seems to be banged up, but never exhibits any drop off during these times. The same cannot be said for the middle of the infield. Rafael Furcal, no matter how old he is, has some serious shoulder problems. The problems appear to be congenital and chronic, so a move to 2B might help long term. Furcal gets a yellow light not only for history, but he also seems to play himself into injuries with headfirst slides, awkward dives for balls, and brutal hacks that are biomechanically damaging. Both Mark DeRosa and Marcus Giles have dealt with a series of traumatic injuries, including twin ankle injuries last year. Giles also played last season after dealing with a family tragedy that inexplicably cost him a demotion. On many teams, Giles would be a prized prospect, but the Braves treat him like he pissed in the punchbowl.
At third, Vinny Castilla proves once again that Bobby Cox can win with one roster spot tied behind his back. For years, Cox carried the carcass formerly known as Rafael Belliard, but last year he went to the playoffs with several players that would seemingly have a hard time hitting for a Frontier League team. Castilla played last season with a sore wrist that did not heal, but that's little excuse. Add the wrist to chronic back and hamstring problems and Castilla gets a bright yellow light.
Early reports from Atlanta indicate that Javy Lopez spent the off-season in the gym, with the word "chiseled" and "rebuilt" coming up in almost every conversation. There's little evidence, positive or negative, that a Gabe Kapler physique helps with anything but the ladies–any evidence that Lopez can hit will come in spring training. Lopez is injured just a bit more than the average catcher, but his numbers have never recovered after missing much of 1999 with a torn ACL. Lopez gets a yellow light–we'll learn a lot more about him in Spring Training.
Some of you may wonder why John Smoltz doesn't make the list of injury concerns. Pitchers two years removed from Tommy John surgery seldom have any recurrent problems with the elbow, and Smoltz gets bonus points for a very reasonable workload. I'd be slightly worried, but probably not enough to warrant a yellow light, if Smoltz were to move back to the rotation. Even with the increased risk, the increased value would make the move worth it.
The Braves must also deal with the retirement of longtime trainer Dave Pursley. Jeff Porter takes over after 18 years as the assistant, so there should be plenty of continuity. The Braves have seldom let any injury beat them, and this season should be no different. Given the team's off-season losses and their failure to significantly upgrade the offense, a division rival may turn the trick instead.