C Johnny Estrada: There are a lot of people that owe John Schuerholz an apology. Estrada’s just going to owe him, period. About the only negative is the lack of a credible backup.
1B Adam LaRoche: A separated shoulder seemed to do something for his season, an odd side effect. You get some weird things like this that look like cause and effect when you look at enough injuries. It’s the medhead equivalent of random endpoints.
2B Marcus Giles: If the injury prone have a role model, it might be Giles. He’s healthy unless someone randomly runs him over. Even so, he’s productive enough to be in the discussion for best second baseman in the game. His power should be back this spring. Just know that at some point, he’ll miss a couple weeks.
SS Rafael Furcal: He’s 27, more or less, and should be near his peak. He’s becoming more than a speed player and if that were all he was, he’s got healthy legs. He healed quickly from a back problem as well.
3B Chipper Jones: There’s really no such thing as a slight tear. It’s a tear. It’s like being pregnant or a Devil Ray. You are or you aren’t. Jones had a torn hamstring, something that could hasten his decline. He could be at third or back in left, depending on überprospect Andy Marte.
LF Brian Jordan: If it took a full year to get his legs healthy, then just how bad was that knee? The hamstring injury was a cascade, so watch out for anything leg-related, which would probably mean the Braves would have to bring up a rookie like Ryan Langerhans or Andy Marte.
CF Andruw Jones
RF Raul Mondesi
1B Julio Franco: As long as he keeps going out there, who am I to say he’s anything less than green? I sure don’t have anyone to compare him to.
SP Tim Hudson: Hudson’s got a lot of mileage on his arm, so Mazzone’s throw-a-lot program might test Hudson early. Watch his velocity. If he’s good in May, he’ll be good all year.
SP John Smoltz: He’s another one that’s very literally incomparable. There were some parallels between Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley for a while, but no one talked about bringing Eck back to the rotation. Smoltz’s season will be an interesting test for some fatigue models. No one really knows if it’s harder to pitch as a starter or reliever from a pure recovery standpoint. He goes red by breaking the system – the expected increase in innings is enough to push him over, but there’s really no telling.
SP Mike Hampton: His off-season knee surgery was more involved than the typical tuneup. He needed a bone graft and may use the same substance Randy Johnson uses to lubricate his damaged knee. If it holds up, he can repeat his 2004.
SP John Thomson: Thomson missed the playoffs with an oblique strain. He seemed to respond well to Mazzone’s program before the injury. At the bottom of the rotation rather than the top, he’ll look better.
SP Horacio Ramirez: The shoulder has been problematic for the better part of two years. He’s in spring training without his breaking balls, which leaves him with…well, he is lefthanded.
CL Danny Kolb
The Braves stump me. Do I write again about the genius of Leo Mazzone and how his adaptation of Johnny Sain‘s “throw more, pitch less” philosophy has worked for all types of pitchers? No, the BP 2005 essay does that a lot better than I could in this space. Do I talk about the overall lack of injuries this team has had during key pennant chases? Been there, done that. Do I mention that my newest pitching student is 12, meaning he’s never been alive in a year where the Braves didn’t win the division? (Or does that just make you feel old, too?)
There are a lot of players with injury problems on this team, just as there has been for their decade-plus dynasty. The Braves have never had it cost them in the end stages of the season because it’s actually a team focus. Led by Bobby Cox’s “win in September” plan, the team actually builds itself much in the manner a college basketball team does, hoping to peak late in the season and make a run.
There are certainly some that would say October might be a bit more important than September, especially given the lack of rings that this run has put on the Braves’ fingers. Cox may not be Stengel and Mazzone may not be Sain, though those are impossible standards to meet. This team has dealt with turnover around a core, getting a lot out of some players that were considered broken down, over the hill, or problem players. As Mazzone spins league average lefties into a bullpen, Cox lets players with noted attitude problems like Raul Mondesi simply play.
The Braves then come stumbling back, red and yellow lights blazing, like some sort of zombie in Army of Darkness. Every time you think they’re dead, they come back. Cut off a limb (or a Cy Young pitcher or two) and they come back. Let one of their All-Stars drop for a six week DL stint and they’ll just shuffle or wait for John Schuerholz to pick up another batch of brains. I’m just not picking against these Braves again.