Revamped Braves ready to compete
Following down season, club looks to contend in NL East
ATLANTA -- Lost amid the countless bullpen meltdowns that ruined the 2006 season was the fact that the Braves' offense was quite formidable. The division-rival Phillies were the only National League team to score more runs.
Yet, ranking second in runs did nothing to prevent Atlanta from finishing eighth among the NL's 16 teams in the much more important wins category. And when this occurs to a proud organization that had won 14 consecutive division titles, it obviously signals time for change.
Even before the 2006 season reached its demoralizing finish, Braves general manager John Schuerholz vowed that he'd do everything he could to prevent a repeat of such anguish. A short time later, he indicated his focus would be on improving the pitching staff.
Now four full months since their consecutive division titles streak came to an end with their first losing season since 1990, the Braves head to Spring Training looking to proudly display the fruits of Schuerholz's offseason labor.
With two trades, Schuerholz landed Rafael Soriano from the Mariners and Mike Gonzalez from the Pirates. In doing so, he exceeded all expectations that were created after he pledged to improve the Braves' pitching staff. By acquiring these two [highly respected] relievers, he's seemingly transformed an embarrassing bullpen into one that could be regarded as the game's finest.
"We always shoot high in everything that we do," Schuerholz said. "We try to do the very best that we can. Every aspect of our team we try to make as strong as everybody that we're competing against, if not stronger."
With Bob Wickman serving as the closer and having Gonzalez and Soriano available to serve as reliable setup man, it's safe to assume there will be no repeat of last year, when the Braves bullpen converted just 38 of 67 save opportunities. Those 29 blown opportunities were the primary reason that a Wild Card berth was only a flimsy hope by the time September arrived.
"Last year we scored a bunch of runs, but we [the pitching staff] didn't do our job," Braves starter Tim Hudson said. "It's exciting to know that we now have all those guys down in the bullpen to hammer it down."
While the offseason additions primarily dealt with the bullpen, the overwhelming effect will be felt by all. The pressure on the offense has been lessened and the starters now can feel confident about giving their all for six innings and then handing the ball over to the relief corps.
Hudson admittedly was his own worst enemy last year. But John Smoltz's greatest enemy was the bullpen, which blew six leads when Smoltz was in line for a win. Consequently, his potential Cy Young Award-winning season turned into simply one that included a respectable 16 wins.
With Smoltz and Hudson back to head a starting rotation that will be bolstered with the return of Mike Hampton, who missed all of last year while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Braves appear quite capable of handing this revamped bullpen plenty of leads to protect.
"This bullpen, especially the back end, is as strong as it's ever been," Schuerholz said. "There's obviously reason to believe that we won't have to endure what we did last year."
Last year's bullpen struggles were minimized after Wickman was acquired on July 20. The veteran closer converted 18 of his 19 save opportunities with the Braves while recording 25 strikeouts and issuing just two walks in 26 innings.
Wickman's right elbow hasn't proven to be a problem for the past 2 1/2 seasons. But if his 38-year-old arm needs a break, both Gonzalez and Soriano seem quite capable of handling the closer role.
Along with being perfect in 24 save opportunities in 2006, the 28-year-old Gonzalez limited opponents to a .213 batting average and posted a 2.17 ERA in 54 innings.
Had he not gotten hit in the head with a Vladimir Guerrero line drive on Aug. 29, Soriano may have spent this past season's final month as Seattle's closer. Opponents hit just .204 against him in 60 innings last season.
Adding to the strength of the bullpen will be Macay McBride, Tyler Yates and Chad Paronto, who all showed signs of encouragement as they gained further experience last year. Handling the long-relief role will likely be the versatile Oscar Villarreal, who did nothing but impress during the final two months of 2006.
With the bullpen in place, Braves manager Bobby Cox's biggest decisions this spring seem to center around job openings in left field and at second base. Having put an emphasis on improving their pitching staff provides indication that they'll give the [defensively savvy] Ryan Langerhans a chance to prove he deserves regular playing time in left.
Matt Diaz's offensive success in 2006 simply enhanced his chance to earn regular playing time in left field. But his defensive deficiencies may lead him to watch Langerhans and Craig Wilson share the left-field platoon role.
Losing Adam LaRoche at first base and Marcus Giles at second base could weaken the defense on the right side of the infield. But the Braves believe Scott Thorman is a suitable replacement for LaRoche and they're confident that Kelly Johnson will gain further comfort as he learns the second-base position.
If Johnson wins the second-base job, he'll likely also fill the void in the leadoff role. But for now, Cox isn't stressing over that decision. The veteran skipper knows that he has a pitching staff that can make up for any offensive deficiencies.
"Our problem [last year] wasn't runs, the leadoff hitter or any type of hitter," Cox said. "We scored plenty of runs to win the division. We just didn't hold people late in the game."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.