Unsung Braves built for October glory
We take you back in time to the first week of March. The 2008 Grapefruit League was only a few days old. But a National League scout already had caught on to something that hadn't yet dawned on the rest of the hemisphere.He'd just returned from watching the new, improved Atlanta Braves. It didn't take him long to make this important announcement:
Meet The Braves
The Braves' projected lineup and rotation for the 2008 season. For more, see the Braves' team capsule:
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Yunel Escobar, SS
Chipper Jones, 3B
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Brian McCann, C
Jeff Francoeur, RF
Matt Diaz, LF
Mark Kotsay, CF Tim Hudson, RHP
John Smoltz, RHP
Tom Glavine, LHP
Mike Hampton, LHP
Jair Jurrjens, RHP
Want to know how much that matters? After Teixeira showed up in the final two months of last season, the Braves' batting average at first base went up 100 points (from .212 to .312), their slugging percentage went up 242 points (.363 to .605) and their OPS went up by a ridiculous 371 points (.633 to 1.004). My colleague, Keith Law, estimates a full season of Teixeira represents about a 60-run upgrade just at that one position. So this lineup has a chance to score as many runs as any team in the NL -- the Phillies included.The leather: Do they catch the ball? Yep, they do that, too. In last year's defensive-efficiency ratings by the Hardball Times, the Braves led the National League in fielding plus-minus (plus-58 plays made that an average fielder doesn't make) and outs made outside a fielder's "zone" (454). And, for those who still might believe that Andruw Jones was single-handedly responsible for those ratings, they raked in the second-most infield outs (only two fewer than the Cardinals) outside the "zone."
We haven't been in this position for a while. Well, it's time to change that. It's time to make it happen.
Cox wasn't able to work his customary miracles the past two years. But all of a sudden, the Braves have that mojo back that they rode into 14 consecutive Octobers."When I walked in here for the first time, in spring training of 2000, there was a clear difference [in attitude] from any place I'd ever been," said Wren. "I'm not sure we had that feeling in our clubhouse last year. But I think we have it again." If they do, and if this is The Year, think about the story they're about to write for themselves. How unbelievable a tale would that be? Which would make less sense -- 14 straight division titles that led to only one parade? Or a season that started with all the cameras and microphones pointed somewhere else, and then ended the way 13 of those championship seasons didn't end? "You know, you get to my time frame, and there's kind of a desperation," Smoltz said. "If I had to write my perfect scenario -- along with Tommy and Chipper, who have been here and endured it the most -- I think it would be to just kick off the next generation with guys who are starting their run. I'd like to say, 'I was along for the ride, I got one more sweet taste of it, and now it's their chance to run off a string of championships.' ... "I think these guys have the right mind-set. They're basically saying, 'The heck with a playoff string. We're going to win championships.' Not that that playoff string didn't mean something. But I sense that these guys are saying, 'We're going to change the way things have been viewed here over the last four or five years.'" It's too late to rewrite the history of the teams that ran off those 14 titles. But the great thing about sports is that the next chapter in the history books always can look different than the chapters that came before it. So don't let the lack of clubhouse volume fool you. This is a team talented enough to resculpt history. "We haven't been in this position for a while," said John Smoltz. "Well, it's time to change that. It's time to make it happen." Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.