For 14 years, the Atlanta Braves were the one certainty in baseball. In a sport short on absolutes, the Braves’ dominance over the National League East is unmatched in baseball history. For a generation of Superstation faithfuls, 2006 made us question everything we believe as the club unraveled. Why are the Jones brothers sitting at home in October? Where’s our typical questioning of Bobby Cox‘s playoff game management? Did John Schuerholz make a mistake? What happened?

What happened last year was anything but ordinary. Come to think of it, winning the division is the only thing that’s been a constant in Atlanta in the new century. There was a full five years, and one strike-shortened year before the Bronx returned to glory. From 1991 through 1999, Atlanta won a World Series, five National League pennants, and eight division titles.

It can be argued that no team has suffered more by the addition of the Wild Card than the Braves. The Curse of the Wild Card, as I like to call it, began with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and the Eric Gregg game, but took its hold on the franchise in the new millennium. Since 2000, Atlanta has lost in the National League Division Series five of six years, with three of those being to Wild Card teams. The Florida Marlins have two World Series titles and zero division titles, while Atlanta had 14 consecutive division titles and only one championship.

The Braves are notorious for slow starts, but in 2006 they stayed in contention through May. In the first three weeks of June, Atlanta fell from 4 ½ games behind the New York Mets to 15 ½ behind, losing 18 of 20 games. Without exception, the biggest factor was the Braves’ horrendous bullpen. The relief corps blew a league high 29 saves.

General Manager John Schuerholz took aim at rebuilding the bullpen with power arms, and he didn’t wait until the off-season. Before the 2006 trade deadline, closer Bob Wickman was acquired from the Cleveland Indians. Over the winter, the Braves acquired Rafael Soriano for oft-injured starter Horacio Ramirez in what has been widely considered a coup.

When the offseason began, Schuerholz’s staff focused on Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez. Atlanta will miss Adam LaRoche‘s budding star bat, but will miss his defense at first even more. With Wickman, Gonzales, and Soriano set as the big three, Oscar Villarreal, Tyler Yates, Chad Paronto and Macay McBride will make up the rest of the bullpen.

Will a power bullpen get the Braves to the World Series? Not alone. The club’s rotation is still one of the best in the game. John Smoltz is in the final year of his contract with the club and is primed for another durable and successful season. The keys to the rotation will be Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton. Hudson has not pitched like his American League version since joining Atlanta. In the spring, he was one of the most talked about pitchers. After changing up his offseason conditioning program, Hudson appears primed for his NL breakout season.

Hampton missed all of 2005 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He was making progress in the spring, but a quad injury during batting practice has pushed back the timetable for his return. In his place, Schuerholz signed starter Mark Redman to a minor league contract. Redman might turn out to be a John Burkett-type pitcher for Atlanta, getting innings, but may end up with a 10-10 record.

Chuck James returns for his first full season in the rotation. James was coveted by other teams in trade discussion, but Schuerholz sees him as a frontline starter to build around in the future. In the spring’s main battle, Lance Cormier won the fourth starter spot–which was originally fifth but moved up with Hampton’s injury–over Kyle Davies, who will return to the minors to work on his command. Davies is one of those players you just root for. From the moment he made his first major league pitch in Fenway in 2005, he’s always been one of my favorite players. If he can get his command under control, he can be a serviceable number four or five starter.

The most overlooked stat of 2006 was the fact Atlanta was second in the National League in runs, with division mates Philadelphia ranked first and the New York Mets third. The right side of the infield is new, with Kelly Johnson being given a chance at second after Marcus Giles was released. First base will be one of the patented Bobby Cox platoons as detailed in the Atlanta Braves piece in Baseball Prospectus 2007. The platoon, as Braves fans know, has been one of Atlanta’s most successful ways of integrating new players into the big leagues. Scott Thorman will be this year’s new beneficiary, sharing time with veteran Craig Wilson.

Shortstop Edgar Renteria returned to All-Star form last year in Atlanta and former NL MVP Chipper Jones needs a healthy season at third to keep the team in the race. Atlanta broke with tradition and rewarded catcher Brian McCann with the organization’s first long-term contract for a player not eligible for arbitration. While the Braves locked McCann up, the former Sports Illustrated cover boy Jeff Francoeur did not have a progressive sophomore season. He got off to a terrible start and his season-long lack of walks became a national story. Perhaps predictably, Atlanta showed the patience of a monk; that will continue this season as Francoeur will again be the everyday right fielder.

Left field has been an issue for the Braves over the last couple seasons. If the Braves could combine Ryan Langerhans‘s defense with Matt Diaz‘s bat, they’d have the outfielder they’d been looking for. Until that time, though, it looks like another platoon is in order.

The story of the summer at Turner Field will no doubt be Andruw Jones‘ impending free agency. In the offseason, center fielders Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano signed free agent contracts in excess of $100 million. Jones gave the Braves a hometown discount in his last contract, but this time, the club will not be so lucky. He is one of the greatest center fielders of all-time, but will he finish his Hall of Fame career as a Brave?

In some of the Hope and Faith articles, writers have had to stretch to make a case for a club’s chances to win the World Series. Not so in Atlanta. The bullpen is going to give the Braves the ability to shorten games. Added to a high scoring offense and a solid rotation, the Braves are a complete team, and they compare favorably with this year’s NL East pick, New York Mets. As long as the injury bug stays away, Atlanta will enjoy its final full season on the Superstation with its 15th division title in 16 years.

Brent S. Gambill is the producer of Baseball Beat with Charley Steiner, Fantasy Focus, MLB Post Season, and XM Hot Stove for XM Satellite Radio’s MLB Home Plate on XM 175. He can be reached here.

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