Last Thursday morning, I did my regular radio session with Louie Belina on KZNE in College Station, Tex. Louie’s show is BP’s longest-running media hit, dating back to…well, I think I was still living in Huntington Beach, so at least 2001. Gary Huckabay and I shared the slot for years. It’s always a fun session; you talk to someone a couple times a month eight months a year for six years and you develop a rapport. I’d like to think I’ll be talking baseball with Louie years from now, no matter what else I’m doing.

I mention this because Louie and I got to talking about the Braves, about whether this was finally going to be the year that their streak of division titles comes to a close. You might recall that I picked the Braves to win the NL East, with no rationale better than, “I’m tired of picking against them while they win.” Oh, there was some analysis behind that, most notably preferring the management team in Atlanta to its counterparts in New York and Philadelphia, but by and large, it was a throwing-up-my-hands selection.

It would appear that I picked the wrong year to climb back aboard the bandwagon. Still, four days ago, I was fairly sanguine about the Braves’ chances to recover and be a factor. As bad as they’d looked, they were 30-36, a dozen games back in the NL East and nine back of the Reds for the wild card. They’d played much of the first half without a full lineup, losing Chipper Jones and Brian McCann to DL stints. Given the charges we’d seen from teams like the Astros, Indians and A’s in recent seasons, 30-36 didn’t seem like an insurmountable barrier. The lineup had upside, the front of the rotation could be very good and the bullpen…well, it couldn’t get worse, right?

A day later, Rob Neyer looked at the exact same team and got out his shovel. A Royals fan, Rob is something of an expert on teams being out of contention in June, and he pronounced the Braves dead given their deficit and the talent on hand.

Rob 1, Joe 0.

I wasn’t convinced last week, but I am now. Not to step out of straightforward analysis for too long, but one characteristic of truly bad teams is that they lose games in a number of ways. The Royals, just to pull a name, can lose 2-1 and 12-11. They can get blown out or get beat by a walkoff. They can blow leads early and late. They can fail to hit, fail to pitch and fail to field. A bad team loses all kinds of games; a good team playing poorly will often seem to play the same game over and over again. Recent A’s teams come to mind; their losing stretches always seem to be a series of 5-2 games where they get a decent-but-not-great start, strand 12 baserunners and go 1-for-13 with runners on base. (They’re over it now, apparently.) The Yankees are in the middle of a stretch where their middle relief is just killing them, helping them to a lot of losses like Saturday’s in Washington.

The Braves lost to a rookie starter last Thursday, 3-2. They lost to another rookie on Friday, this time 4-1. Saturday, emergency starter Lance Cormier wasn’t at all up to the task and helped the Braves lose 5-3. Sunday, the Braves were on their way to another low-scoring loss when Jeff Francoeur hit a two-out, three-run homer to give them a 5-3 lead with six outs to play. Two relievers erased that in eight batters, on the way to a 10-7 loss.

Go back a few days more, and you see a come-from-ahead loss to the Florida Marlins and their troop leaders, and another dead-bat night against a rookie starter. The Braves have had an uncanny knack for pairing their good-hitting nights with their bullpen meltdowns. That’s how you lose seven straight and end up with the national media writing eulogies.

Sunday night’s loss to the Red Sox was the latest example of how bad the Braves’ bullpen has fallen. Remember all those random pitchers who would wend their way to Atlanta, spend some time with Leo Mazzone and find themselves getting key outs in August? The current Braves’ bullpen has a comparable name-recognition value to those pens, but the difference is that this one has an ERA of 5.29, and is killing the team. There’s no Jorge Sosa, no Chris Hammond, no Russ Springer. Ken Ray looks like that guy if you squint, but he’s scuffled after a strong start and has so-so peripheral stats (23/14 K/BB in 32 2/3 IP). Chris Reitsma went from “closer with upside” to “injury case with ERA like Woolner’s SAT Math score” in the time it took the NHL to play a playoff series.

Overall, the Braves and their negative WXRL have the worst bullpen in the National League. That’s not a fluke; looking at the personnel, they may well have the worst bullpen pitchers in baseball, and they’ve resurrected some people this summer (Ray, Chad Paronto, Tyler Yates) who haven’t been heard from since there was only one “Law & Order.” The homegrown talent hasn’t been very effective, either; Macay McBride was largely responsible for last night’s disaster, walking consecutive batters with two outs and no one on to trigger the Sox’ winning rally. 2005 #1 pick Joey Devine made two appearances and was demoted with an ERA of 63.00.

And yes, the Braves do have a potentially effective front of the rotation, with John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. Neither pitcher has been a star this season, although both have provided a ton of innings. After those two pitch, though, it’s a long three days. Braves’ starters outside of those two have an ERA of 5.33 and are averaging just shy of 5 1/3 innings per start. Even with the big two, the Braves are in the bottom third in MLB in starting pitching.

The elephant in this particular room, of course, is Leo Mazzone. Mazzone left the Braves over the winter to work for the Orioles. That hasn’t worked as well as planned so far–Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera haven’t blossomed under Mazzone’s tutelage quite yet–but Mazzone has once again assembled a fairly effective bullpen from unknowns. That hodgepodge has been in the middle of the pack among MLB bullpens; some of that is the talented Chris Ray, but more of it is the work done by the same type of guys who used to get the Braves outs in the seventh and eighth innings.

Jump back to the rotation, and you see in fine detail what J.C. Bradbury concluded about Mazzone: he gets results. Under him last year, Sosa had a 2.55 ERA, well ahead of his peripherals, with by far the lowest home-run rate of his career (12 in 134 innings). This year, he’s allowed 15 bombs in 66 2/3 innings. In 2004 and 2005, John Thomson was effective with a 2.4 to 1 K/BB and just 26 homers allowed in 298 innings. This year, he’s slipped to 42/28 K/BB in 73 innnings with 10 homers allowed.

Is the absence of Leo Mazzone the cause of the Braves’ pitching collapse? I doubt it’s quite that linear, but I wouldn’t argue with people who point to the absence of Mazzone as a contributing factor. This is going to be the worst Braves pitching staff in 16 years, maybe more, and what it lacks is the hundreds of innings of effective work done by pitchers with little or no status before they arrived in Atlanta.

The Braves haven’t produced enough runs to cover for this staff. That’s partly a problem of their own making, because few teams get less offense from the nominal hitters’ positions–first base and the outfield corners–than the Braves do. Despite starting with a massive edge up the middle in McCann, Marcus Giles (not playing well at all), Edgar Renteria and Andruw Jones, as well as an above-average third baseman in Chipper Jones, the Braves have just a .260 EqA, exactly average. The organization has had some one-year and two-year successes on the corners, but this year’s crop won’t be counted among them. Only Matt Diaz, in just 113 PA, has been productive. Adam LaRoche looks more and more like a Paul Sorrento type, where the hitting just doesn’t stop you from looking at other options. And the gap between perception and reality on Francoeur–who is just crushing this team with his .265 OBP–is approaching “Derek Jeter‘s defense” proportions. The Jones boys aren’t what they used to be, either.

Much of this should have been apparent in March, but having picked teams other than the Braves the past few seasons, only to see those teams fall flat, I was unwilling to repeat that mistake. The Mets are doing this year what I thought they would do last year, and seem to be in greater danger of clinching early than of being caught from behind. A cold look at the Braves’ roster, as well as their chances for improving it, leaves little room from any conclusion other than the one Rob reached last week: this team is done, and needs to prepare for 2007 and beyond. It’s a daunting task; while the Braves have some good young players, the team on the whole is past its prime and expensive, without short-term help in the farm system. It’s not just 2006 that may have to be written off. It’s hard to see, as of today, the Braves being better than third in the division next year, and after that the Marlins start to look very, very scary.

For 15 years, the Braves have simply reloaded, not rebuilt. All those years of drafting low, and the business practices in the latter years of the Time Warner era, have taken their toll on the organization’s depth and its upside. It took seven years of being a national joke to set up the 1991-2005 run in Atlanta. The job ahead is to make sure the coming valley is neither so deep nor takes so long to cross. Letting go of the idea of contending this year is the first step in that process.

Thank you for reading

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