|Monday, February 10
Updated: March 13, 10:54 AM ET
By Graham Hays
2002 in review
Annually able to piece together quality bullpens out of whatever spare parts happen to be around in spring training, the Braves again worked their magic. Chris Hammond, Darren Holmes and Tim Spooneybarger combined for a 1.68 ERA in 182 innings. On offense, a move to the outfield did little to disrupt Chipper Jones' productivity. Jones' .971 OPS was the third-best mark of his career.
What went wrong?
There was no better option at third base than Vinny Castilla, but the veteran's .613 OPS was far and away the worst among the circuit's regular third basemen. Rafael Furcal's second effort at duplicating his rookie success was no more productive than his injury-shortened sophomore season. Furcal lasted 154 games, but a .323 OBP and 27 stolen bases in 42 attempts weren't what the Braves needed out of their leadoff hitter. Behind the plate, Javy Lopez turned in what was unquestionably the worst season of his career, hitting .233 with a .671 OPS in 109 games.
In retrospect, the critical decisions were:
2. Acquiring Gary Sheffield before the season. Odalis Perez's outstanding season in Los Angeles proved the Braves paid a steep price in sending the young pitcher and outfielder Brian Jordan to the Dodgers in exchange for Sheffield, but pitching was a commodity they had to spare. The eventual outcome of Atlanta's season was yet another playoff disappointment, but there's no denying that having Sheffield in the heart of the order played a significant role in getting the Braves to 101 regular-season victories and another NL East title.
3. Not acquiring another bat prior to the trade deadline. GM John Schuerholz made a big move before the season acquiring Sheffield, and then watched his team run away with the NL East. So it's understandable that he might not have wanted to break the bank at the trade deadline. But in failing to add another bat to a lineup desperately in need of some help, especially at first and third base, he may have sealed his team's postseason fate.
Looking ahead to 2003
2. How good is pitching coach Leo Mazzone? Atlanta's pitching has dominated the National League for more than a decade, but this year's staff will likely feature three new starters and three or four new relievers in key bullpen roles. In the rotation, departed starters Tom Glavine, Moss and Millwood went a combined 48-25 with a 3.19 ERA in 620.2 IP. New starters Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz went a combined 38-36 with a 4.45 ERA. Even taking into account the degree to which Hampton's mile-high meltdown skews those numbers, the three new starters have their work cut out for them.
3. What will Lopez and Furcal produce? The Braves know they have a hole at third base and can expect only so much from their options at second, but Lopez and Furcal have shown the kind of offensive potential that could ignite a run-scoring revival when combined with the bats in the middle of the order. But neither Lopez nor Furcal is a lock to live up to his potential. At 32, not young for a catcher, Lopez's two-year decline could be the beginning of the end. And in 233 games the last two seasons, Furcal has shown none of the patience at the plate that made him a dangerous leadoff hitter as a rookie. If both players perform like they did in 2000, Atlanta's offense looks much better.
Can expect to play better
Can expect to play worse
A closer look
Atlanta's chances of winning yet another division title hinge on positive answers to at least a majority of those questions, but the attention given the starters obscures an equally important area of concern. The names of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Millwood, Leibrandt and Avery are readily associated with Atlanta's pitching dominance in recent seasons, but the bullpen has played an equally important role. Smoltz is the team's first 40-save closer, but opponents have long fared poorly against Atlanta's best relievers. Consider the combined ERA of the four top relievers (as judged by appearances) in each of the past 12 seasons.
2002: 2.35 ERA
Aside from the 2000 figure, skewed by Terry Mullholland's 20 starts, protecting leads hasn't been much of a problem. With an offense that isn't guaranteed to score more runs than it did last season, Atlanta needs more of the same. But like the starting rotation, this year's bullpen features one familiar aging ace and a host of unfamiliar faces. Who are the pitchers counted on to safely transfer leads from the starters to Smoltz?
Roberto Hernandez: Signing the long-time closer has prompted speculation that the Braves might consider returning Smoltz to the rotation. But given Hernandez's declining strikeout totals and rising ERA in recent seasons, they'll be lucky to get a full season of quality set-up work out of the 38-year-old right-hander.
Ray King: The lefty specialist replaces Chris Hammond, who signed with the Yankees. King pitched well in obscurity for Milwaukee, posting a cumulative 2.91 ERA the past three seasons. During that span, left-handed batters mustered a .212 batting average in 250 at-bats against King.
Darren Holmes: Coming out of nowhere after missing most of 2000 and all of 2001, Holmes allowed just 11 earned runs in 54.2 innings (1.81 ERA). Was it a fluke? Prior to last season, Holmes struck out an average of 0.86 batters per inning and walked an average of 0.40. Last season, he struck out 47 (0.86 per inning) and walked 12 (0.22 per inning). The strikeout numbers suggest Holmes' arm is fine, and the improved control suggests pitching coach Leo Mazzone has succeeded with yet another reclamation project.
Kevin Gryboski: An unheralded 28-year-old rookie who worked 51.2 innings with a 3.48 ERA in 2002, Gryboski might have trouble avoiding a sophomore slump. The most damning numbers? Gryboski walked 37 and struck out just 33 last season. Few relievers achieve consistent success with such a ratio.
Mike Venafro: The combination of a fresh start in a new league and Mazzone's tutelage make Venafro, a sidearm southpaw, an intriguing project. But there's plenty of work to be done: Venafro has never matched the 3.29 ERA he posted as a rookie with Texas in 1998, and opponents hit .308 against him last season.
Graham Hays is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.