I’m one of the many observers picking the Phillies to prevail in the NL East. Like many prognosticators, however, I make this prediction with a sense of foreboding that a certain team down in Atlanta isn’t quite ready to cede the division.

Rationally, I know the Braves’ rotation has been systematically disemboweled by age and departure. I also know that last season’s Panzer division of an offense has lost its two best performers, Javy Lopez and Gary Sheffield, to the AL East. Still, the last 13 years have taught me that betting against the Braves is a cockamamie endeavor.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at what PECOTA says about the division and determine what needs to happen for the Braves to dish out yet another dynastic noogie to the collective scalp of the NL East.

Team       Record    RS   RA  Run Diff.
Phillies    94-68   833  705    +128
Braves      82-80   763  752     +11
Expos       80-82   885  901     -16
Marlins     79-83   691  708     -17
Mets        76-86   718  768     -50

PECOTA has the Braves tabbed for second place, a hefty 117 runs–and a dozen games–behind the Phillies. For our purposes, let’s make the generous assumption that the rest of the division meets all forecasts, and focus on the Braves with an eye toward how they might make up some of that ground on the Phils.

Here are the Braves’ regulars and their respective projected VORP for this season:

Pos Player          PA  2004 VORP
C   Johnny Estrada  393    9.8
1B  Adam LaRoche    346    6.9
2B  Marcus Giles    655   45.3
3B  Mark DeRosa     598   15.6
SS  Rafael Furcal   737   38.8
LF  Chipper Jones   705   49.8
CF  Andruw Jones    684   29.8
RF  J.D. Drew       492   31.8

Laying aside concerns about under-projected playing time for a moment, I think two players in the lineup–Drew and Giles–are being underestimated by PECOTA. Drew’s.273/.369/.485 projection feels a bit low to me. Maybe I’m placing too much stock in his outstanding spring and the sporadic displays of excellence scattered through his five-year career, but I suspect he’ll churn out something like .290/.380/.540, a significant upgrade over PECOTA’s vision. If Drew is healthy enough to log 650 plate appearances, it’s not out of the question that he could double that VORP projection. I’m working strictly in quick-and-dirty terms here, so let’s say Drew adds 20 runs to his VORP and shaves the Braves’ deficit to 97 runs.

Giles is pegged for a 2004 batting line of .280/.358/.457, which is down from his 2003 level of .316/.390/.526. While I think it’s prudent to anticipate some regression, that seems a bit steep. His 2003 VORP was 65.0, and he’s projected for 45.3 VORP this season. Let’s say he splits the difference and puts up a VORP in the 55 range. The deficit is now down to 87 runs.

Another way the Braves can maximize their run scoring is to ratchet up Russ Branyan‘s playing time at the expense of LaRoche and DeRosa (which should really be the name of a professional-services firm). To delve further into this, let’s take a look at Branyan’s VORP per plate appearance when compared to that of the aforementioned professional services firm:

                          PA   VORP/PA
Branyan                  240    .053
LaRoche and DeRosa, LLC  944    .024

Branyan, who is projected to get playing time at first base and third base, is forecast to be roughly twice as productive as LaRoche and DeRosa on a per-plate-appearance basis. Let’s say the Braves catch on to this and allow Branyan to pilfer 200 PAs from the underwhelming duo. That shaves just six runs off the deficit, but it’s progress. We’re at 81 runs and counting.

Other than overly modest projections for Drew and Giles and wishful thinking for a larger dose of Branyan, I can’t quibble with the remainder of PECOTA’s projections for the Atlanta offense.

As for the rotation…

                 IP   VORP
Russ Ortiz      200   21.2
Mike Hampton    190   16.4
Horacio Ramirez 160    8.9
John Thomson    190   26.1
Jaret Wright     90    0.8

Pitching coach Leo Mazzone can already muster a reasonable Hall of Fame case, but this season he’s working with a rotation full of third and fourth starters. If he works his alchemy once again, well, I’ll be out of superlatives to describe what Mazzone has done over his the course of his inestimable career.

I’ve already opined that Thomson may thrive in his new environment. I think that PECOTA’s quasi-rosy projection for him (4.03 ERA) may even be on the conservative side. I’ll say he adds 10 runs to the above VORP projection and cuts the Phillies’ lead to 71 runs.

Mazzone and the Braves have waxed optimistic about Wright this spring, while most BPers are unconvinced. Given that Wright hasn’t been both healthy and effective since the Macarena Era, I don’t blame them. On the other hand, Wright has been a different pitcher since coming to the Braves late last season: 24.2 IP, 2.92 ERA, 23 K, 8 BB, 2 HR in a handful of September and March appearances. It’s just 24 2/3 innings, many of them in spring training, so you should behold the sample-size caveats in all their glory. It is possible, however, that Wright is responding to Mazzone’s teachings, and will be the 2004 version of Darren Holmes.

All of this is to say that I think PECOTA’s projection for him (5.88 ERA) might be overly grim. Expecting an ERA in the 5.00 neighborhood is defensible. Give him five more runs of VORP and drop the deficit to 66 runs.

Then there’s the recent petty larceny of Juan Cruz from the Cubs. It’s uncertain what Cruz’s role will be in Atlanta, but I’m wagering he bumps someone-probably Ramirez or Wright-from the rotation long enough and makes enough spot starts to cobble together 100 or so innings of work as a starter this season. Given the change of venue and superior coterie of handlers, Cruz’s 60th-percentile PECOTA forecast strikes me as tenable. That shaves roughly 15 runs off the Phillies’ lead and brings the deficit to 51 runs.

As for the bullpen, the recent acquisition of Chris Reitsma from the Reds is notable. Reitsma will open the season working as John Smoltz‘s primary right-handed setup man (although the Braves would be better served by giving the higher-leverage innings to Will Cunnane), and he’ll replace the innings Jung Bong threw in ’03. PECOTA sees Bong as a marginally better bet for ’04, but it’s largely a wash in terms of runs.

The Braves would do well to divest themselves of their recent fascination with Armando Almanza and apportion his 60 projected innings elsewhere. Let’s say they do that and pick up five runs in the process. We’re down to a 46-run deficit.

Revisiting the lineup, imagine for a moment that the Jones boys and Furcal all modestly exceed forecasts, which would add, say, 15 runs and reduce the deficit to 36 runs. Now I’m about out of ideas, and the Braves are still three-and-a-half games back in the standings. That actually sounds about right to me. I think they’ll be better than 82-80, and I’m not quite sure the Phillies are a 94-win team. The best hope for Atlanta is that I’ve underestimated the Mazzone factor, and that Larry Bowa will do his best to shanghai the Phillies’ hopes this season. Neither scenario is particularly outrageous.

While the Phillies are the better team, the Braves don’t have to wildly exceed expectations to make it a race. A key injury, or a Burrell-level underperformance, would whittle away at the Phils’ personnel advantages. This is going to be a race, regardless of the runaway that PECOTA envisions.

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