- AJ Mass, Fantasy
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Imagine you're Tom Glavine. You wake up one morning and discover you're back in Atlanta. Bobby Cox is your manager. John Smoltz is sitting next to you in the dugout. Chipper Jones waves to you from third base. Were those five years in New York all a dream? "Are you OK, Tom?" Javy Lopez's voice interrupts your train of thought. What the heck is going on? What year is this?
It's 2008, but the Braves are hoping for a return to the past, when making the playoffs was as easy as putting on a uniform. Atlanta is banking on a veteran starting staff, led by Smoltz, the return of Glavine and Tim Hudson. In addition, they're hoping Mike Hampton can return from a spate of injuries and give them something of value as he nears the end of his eight-year, $121 million contract. They've even invited former starting backstop Lopez back as a non-roster invitee to training camp hoping he can pass on some of his experience to young Brian McCann.
Atlanta is also hoping for a return to the past for Mark Kotsay, acquired in a trade with Oakland for young prospect Joey Devine. Replacing longtime Braves center fielder Andruw Jones will be no easy feat, but if he's to even attempt the task, he'll have to be closer to his 2004 numbers, when he hit .314, than last year when injuries forced him to miss much of the season. And speaking of injuries, it would be nice if Chipper Jones could make it through a whole season without needing to visit the disabled list.
With Kotsay and Jones, along with first baseman Mark Teixeira who is unsigned past this season, and a pitching staff who will likely have an average age over 30, the Braves are quite the paradox. They're a team that needs to win now, yet they have a roster full of untested hitters, green relievers and on top of that, they're stuck in a division where the very realistic outcome of finishing third behind the Phillies and the Mets won't be good enough to make the playoffs.
The clock is ticking.
Ballpark: There's nothing about Turner Field that screams "pitcher's park," yet the numbers can't be argued with. The stadium was 24th in the league in runs scored and 19th in home runs allowed in 2007. While you may want to attribute some of that to the Atlanta rotation's ability to keep the ball on the ground, it takes two teams to tango, and the Braves offensive output at home last season didn't look much different from that of their opponents.
Top Sleeper: Yunel Escobar. The young shortstop hit .355 with a .409 on-base percentage against lefties and .303 with a .367 on-base percentage against righties in 2007, numbers good enough to make Atlanta feel comfortable trading away both Edgar Renteria and Willie Aybar this offseason. He'll likely be given first crack at the leadoff spot in the lineup, as well, which should help with his runs scored and stolen base totals.
Intriguing spring battle: There will be a royal rumble in Orlando for the final spot in the pitching rotation. Chuck James currently holds the slight edge over Jair Jurrjens (acquired in the Renteria deal), Jeff Bennett, Buddy Carlyle and Jo-Jo Reyes. However, there's always a chance that one spot might become two
Trainer's room: because Mike Hampton, currently penciled in as the No. 4 starter hasn't actually stepped on a major league mound since 2005. The Braves are counting on his presence in the rotation, but certainly the naysayers have every right to be concerned. Also, Mark Kotsay is coming off of a season where his back forced him to miss more than 100 games, and Chipper Jones hasn't been injury-free since 2003.
Platoons: Left field for the Braves is far from set in stone. Matt Diaz has a leg up on winning the job, but he'll be on a very short leash. Prospects Brandon Jones, Josh Anderson and Jordan Schafer were all being considered as a replacement for Andruw Jones before Atlanta dealt for Mark Kotsay. For now, the Braves can afford not to rush them, but if one of them has a standout spring, there's no reason Bobby Cox wouldn't consider giving him a shot in left, at least on a part-time basis.
Schedule Preview: The September schedule screams "controlling your own destiny" as Atlanta plays 12 games from September 12th through the 24th against the Phillies and the Mets. And that number could grow if there are any rainouts between the clubs earlier in the season. That means come crunch time, the Braves will likely keep their veteran players in the lineup and their youngsters on the bench something to keep in mind when your league's trade deadline approaches.
Future Closer: Keep the name Mike Gonzalez on your radar screen. He's coming off of Tommy John surgery and likely won't be ready to go until June. However, it was only 2006 when Gonzalez saved 24 games for the Pirates. If Rafael Soriano struggles, Peter Moylan may get the first shot at replacing him, but Gonzalez could get the last.
Backups to watch: Omar Infante hit 16 home runs and stole 13 bases in 2004 in Detroit, but found little opportunity to repeat that level of success there. He can play multiple positions, making him a prime candidate to step up and fill in should an injury strike just about anywhere on the field. As it is, he gives Bobby Cox a lot of late-inning flexibility.
Prospects to watch for 2008: With the trade of Willie Aybar, speedy Brent Lillibridge now looks poised to make the Braves roster, and the young shortstop certainly could hit the ground with both feet running should Yunel Escobar not be able to handle the everyday job. The Braves also liked Josh Anderson enough to trade young reliever Oscar Villarreal to Houston for him. Anderson stole 40 bases in Triple-A last season and will battle with another rising prospect, Brandon Jones, for the fourth outfield spot coming out of Spring Training.
Prospect to watch for the future: While the Braves may have briefly considered Jordan Schafer to replace Andruw Jones in center field, the fact is he's never played higher than Class A, and needs more time in the minors. But don't be surprised to see him out there in 2009, especially if Mark Kotsay turns out to be a bust.
Base-running philosophy: Bobby Cox and speed don't exactly mesh. Perhaps he'll change his ways once the new crop of quick youngsters like Lillibridge and Anderson find their way into the lineup in a few years. But keep this stat in mind: Last season the Braves, as a team, attempted 94 stolen bases -- five fewer than Jose Reyes of the Mets did by himself -- and nearly 30 percent of those tries were by Willie Harris, who is no longer with the team.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
AJ Mass previews the Atlanta Braves from a fantasy angle, where the help of an old hand might solidify the rotation and piece that with a solid lineup for success.