here and there, but the Braves season and prolonged era of "contendership" ended with the trade of Mark Texiera to the Angels on July 31st. With some of the lineups the team has been trotting out recently, it's hard to believe this is a team that just a few months ago picked by many to win the NL East, and in some cases (I'm looking at you, Jason Stark), the World Series.
In all honestly, I haven't watched more than a half-inning of any Braves game in more than a month. Banwagon-esque? Maybe, but I've had no problem watching meaningless Hawks games in March or April for years now. The easy answer to say that even the worst NBA game is infinitely more entertaining than a baseball game I have no interest in, but I have to think that I really haven't seen the Braves play a meaningless August game, pretty much ever, has something to do with it.
I became a Braves fan in 1990 at the age of 8. Needless to say, I'm not used to their season being effectively over before most neighborhood pools close. I don't want to get used to it.
So, with that in mind, no more looking back (unless the next few years are so miserable that the Chop House begins looking back fondly at the likes of Marcus Giles). Move onward and forward, that's my motto in life...so let's use it here. Going into 2009 (and beyond), here is what we're looking at as the closest things to be locks on the Braves roster:
RF- Francoeur (Look, I know he sucked ass this year, and he handled his demotion about as well as my kid handles taking a swig of leftover gin n' tonic I left on the breakfast table the night before, but there isn't a cheaper option out there with more raw talent. Especially given the Braves situation at the other OF slots.)
Yeah...thats it. I won't even begin the fruitless exercise of guessing who they should fill the remaining 18 roster spots with (future post!), but it's fair to say the areas of need outweigh the positions of strength. The infield is solid for now...but probably isn't stout enough to be carrying a lineup to the playoffs anytime soon, and that's before you even consider the injury risks among that crew.
The Braves have the albatross contracts of Hampton, Smoltz and Glavine, as well as a bevy of smaller contracts, coming off the books this year. All told, there should be between $40-$45 million in payroll to replace.
It has been years since the Braves had this many holes to fill, even with so much potential cash to throw at replacements. Liberty Media has promised to field a competitive team (presumably to be able to sell the team at a nice profit in three years), but their feet have yet to be held to the proverbial fire. Maybe the Atlanta Spirit has made me cynical toward local sports ownership, but I'm not overly confident that this ownership group will be reinvesting the entire $X million available back into player contracts.
Basically, the entire 2009 season (and beyond) rests on that question. Will Liberty Media open their checkbooks and allow the Braves to field a competitive team and begin to replenish the farm system that was their strength throughout the 90s and even up to the Texiera deal? (Although, to be fair, a good starter hasn't come out of the system in almost 15 seasons outside of Jason Schmidt and Adam Wainwright, and that was for other teams...Odaliz Perez, Jason Marquis, Horacio Ramirez, Kyle Davies, et. al...ugh) If not, the Braves are likely to fall into that "we're willing to spend just enough to be competitive for four months, and if we catch fire beyond that, we'll get some more help" purgatory that the Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros seem to find themselves in every year.
I also don't think going the Yankees route and throwing $20mil/season at CC Sabathia or Ben Sheets is the answer either. There are too many holes to fill, and signing one player to big bucks won't do the trick. Find some value players (Schurholtz-esque signings) at CF, RF and SP. Throw Reyes, Morton or, gulp, James (definitely his last shot) in the 5th spot. Build the bullpen with reliable veterans, because Lord knows they'll be pitching a lot in '09. (Manny Acosta and Pete Moylan's arms are still MIA). Throw whatever resources are left over into rebuilding the farm system through scouting or drafting. Sounds so easy on paper, no?
The Braves won't be favorites again in 2009. But they can be competitive in the NL, and they can build toward a quick 1-2 year turnaround. Their nucleus, while not star-studded, is young but experienced enough to be able to compete on a big stage soon. How ownership and management handle this offseason will let Braves fans know if this season will indeed be a bump in the road and lead to a quick turnaround, or if these last 40 games will be the status quo for the next 5+ seasons.