CL John Smoltz
Enough debate. Let’s just go ahead and put Leo Mazzone in the Hall of Fame. Coaches of all sorts are criminally unrepresented in Cooperstown, so Mazzone’s decade of instruction in Atlanta is as good a start as any. While Mazzone may only be teaching what he learned from his coach, Johnny Sain, I don’t think Sain would mind. Each year, the question is asked how the Braves will overcome the loss of this pitcher or that pitcher. We look at a bunch of no-names and retreads in the bullpen and through his alchemical abilities, Mazzone and manager Bobby Cox end up in the playoffs again. This year, let’s not debate–Leo Mazzone is the best pitching coach inside the game, bar none.
What will Mazzone work with this year? Once again, he’s asked to overcome the loss of talent as Greg Maddux has moved on. Only John Smoltz is left from the core of the Braves dynasty. Instead of Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Smoltz terrorizing hitters, the Braves will send out Hampton, Ortiz, and…Jaret Wright?
Outside of a near-viral outbreak of Tommy John surgery a few years back, Mazzone has kept his pitchers amazingly healthy. Trainer Jeff Porter (and the retired Dave Pursley) of course deserve some of the credit, as does team physician Joe Chandler, but Mazzone’s published program of “throw more, pitch less” is the key. Mike Hampton came from Colorado and re-established his sinker, which may be explained almost entirely by altitude. The sinker actually is more of a breaking ball, planing ball-side (inside to a right handed batter from a right handed pitcher) rather than doing what you’d think, sinking. While I dislike differentiation of breaking balls, an SAT-type analogy works well here –curve : slider :: screwball : sinker.
Hampton’s re-emergence overshadowed the emergence of Horacio Ramirez last season. A surprise fifth starter, Ramirez appeared to tire down the stretch, and some still think he might be better suited for a bullpen role. He had a major jump in innings last season and was asked to pitch for Team USA, so he remains a risk. Jaret Wright has a medical file that is surpassed only by Darren Dreifort, so his red light should come as no surprise. If healthy–and that’s a big if–Wright’s certainly had time to shake off the abuse he faced as a rookie, but I can’t see him remaining healthy in a starter’s role.
If anyone falters or breaks down, the Braves should get Paul Byrd back mid-season. He’s shown some good progress in spring training, but the typical Tommy John warnings apply here. The entire pen, from John Smoltz on down, is running on yellow lights. Smoltz’s elbow locked up with adhesions at the end of last season, but with some minor surgery, he’s ready to go again. He went two years before the trouble came up and this isn’t like bone spurs where it’s likely to recur.
On the playing side, there’s only one player that really qualifies for a light. J.D. Drew is fast becoming another Cliff Floyd or Moises Alou–great when healthy, but not healthy enough to be great. Drew’s knee gives him trouble when stopping, so he’d argued for moving to center, but he’s not going to move Andruw Jones out of that spot. Expect 120 games from Drew and you’ll be happy with what you get from him. Expect more and you’ll likely be disappointed. If nothing else, Yankee fans should keep a close eye on what Drew is able to do in order to see where Jason Giambi might end up.
Julio Franco’s yellow light is based almost completely on his age. Since he’ll likely see less time at first unless LaRoche tanks, he should be fine and certainly seems in good shape for a senior citizen. While PECOTA isn’t expecting much from Dave’s son, he does have that Brooks Kieschnick vibe to fall back on.
Other concerns that didn’t quite make the transfer to a light are the continued slide of Chipper Jones and the career pattern of Andruw Jones. With Chipper, it’s simple aging. He’s a step slower, recovers less quickly, and while still one heck of a ballplayer, he’s also more likely to suffer from strains and soreness that could cost him some playing time. With Andruw, it’s more some hunch and some comparables. While everyone seemed to expect him to be more than what he is after exploding onto the scene as a 19-year-old, those lofty expectations may have kept many from appreciating what he actually is.
Andruw has two comps we should look at closely, despite not having extremely high similarity scores: Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr.. Whether Andruw’s career path more closely resembles Sammy or Junior depends almost entirely on his plate discipline and injuries. Andruw is the type of player that might not recover well from a leg or back injury. Despite his notorious work ethic, the subject of a great profile piece on his father last year, Jones is more the “natural athlete” type like Griffey than a workout demon like Sosa or Barry Bonds. Note too that his highest similarity score belongs to Paul Blair, who dropped off mightily after age 30. (I’m curious, was it an injury?)
It’s easy to count out the Braves, and I’m likely to pick them third in their own division, but counting the Braves out is a long-standing tradition. Each year, Cox, Mazzone, and Schuerholz are there in October. On paper, this team doesn’t stack up, but none of those pennants are printed on paper. Health could go a long way towards pushing the Braves back to yet another October run.