- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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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:
And they are. Consider this a warning -- to you and the rest of the National League East. They're back.
It's been 2½ years since the Braves last played a postseason game. It's been 13 years since they won the only World Series of their 14-year rampage as division champions. It's been 17 years since the Braves of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and Charlie Leibrandt made their first foray into October in the Bobby Cox-John Schuerholz era.
But it wouldn't shock anybody -- anybody -- who has seen them this spring if this Braves team turns out to be as good as any of those teams. And by that we mean: The Braves -- yeah, the Braves -- are our pick to win the World Series.
Go ahead. Call us nuts. Start typing those e-mails lecturing us on why the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Tigers, Mets, Phillies, Cubs, Rockies, yada yada yada are better than this team. Maybe they are. All we know is, while 98 percent of the planet was busy obsessing on those clubs, the Atlanta Braves built themselves a tremendous team.
Everywhere we went this spring, we asked the same question: What team has opened your eyes? Everywhere we went, we heard the same answer: The Braves. Take a listen:
"People are wayyyy underestimating that club," said one NL executive. "It's amazing how far under the radar they've been. But you might think that till you see them play. Then you say, 'Shoot, this team's dangerous.'"
"I don't think anybody should be looking forward to going into Atlanta this year and facing [Tim] Hudson, Smoltz and Glavine," said Nationals manager Manny Acta. "And [Mike] Hampton, too. That's a bunch of tough hombres to go up against. And as long as Bobby Cox is over there, I don't think anybody should overlook that team."
"They're good," said the voice of the Phillies, Jimmy Rollins. "They've got the swag back. There's no doubt about that."
Hey, funny he should mention that. The Braves, after all, have Rollins to thank, in part, for their exclusion from the NL East conversation. When he launched that raging who's-the-team-to-beat debate last year with his good friends, the Mets, he did more to redirect the floodlights away from the 404 area code than any other living human.
Well, it was fun while it lasted -- that Phillies-Mets talk. But even the man who kicked it off thinks people have been much too inclined to forget That Other Team.
"You know how people are," Rollins said. "It's refreshing to talk about something different. And we got to talk about two new teams after talking about the same team for 14 years. But no one's forgotten about them. Just the light isn't on them because they haven't won the last couple of years."
Nope. Sure haven't. And that's part of it. But it's not as if they were going 65-97 the last two years, either. In fact, the Braves (163-161) actually won more games during those two seasons than the Cardinals, Cubs, White Sox or Brewers.
So let's face it. What really has helped them stay out of that team-to-beat chatter is that the Braves just aren't yappers. They don't teach that Yapping 101 course at Robert Cox University, apparently.
"We've never been in that situation, where we've been able to do that," said Smoltz, now in his 21st season of eligibility at this fine institution. "I mean, think about it. We won 14 years in a row. So what are we going to do -- (say we'll) add on? It was hard enough to win one in a row or two in a row. So if they want to talk, that's fine."
But to be honest, it wasn't really that fine with every resident of Coxville. With a little intrepid reporting (alert the Pulitzer committee), we finally uncovered one Brave who admitted he couldn't suppress his urge to speak up one minute longer.
"For a while," said right fielder Jeff Francoeur, "you just want to be professional and stay out of it. But you know me, with my football mentality. After a couple of weeks of that (Phillies-Mets talk), it started getting to me a little bit. I wasn't going to shoot out there and say we're going to win the division. But I'll say this: We've got a damn good team. ... I think we've got the best team in this division, if we stay healthy."
Uh-oh. Was that a brand-new war of words we just heard rise up out of the southland? Well, not exactly. Francoeur said this stuff so matter-of-factly, we'd be hard-pressed to call it a skirmish. Or a fray. Didn't even feel like isolated sniper fire.
The fact is, no matter how much or how little they say, this edition of the Braves knows exactly what it is -- a team that can play baseball with anybody.
"I really believe," said catcher Brian McCann, "we've got every piece of the puzzle in place."
So do they? Let's break them down.
The lineup: Do they have enough offense? No question about that. The only teams in the league who scored more runs than they did last year (810) were two clubs that play in official hitters' paradises -- the Phillies and Rockies. But this year, even though the Braves will start five players 26 or younger, they should be even better -- now that they'll get a full season out of first-base mega-force Mark Teixeira.
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."
True, the Braves have subtracted Jones and Edgar Renteria. But they'll be replaced by Mark Kotsay and Yunel Escobar. And, given Teixeira's Gold Glove abilities at first, it's not a stretch to argue this team will be at least as good defensively now as last year, if not better overall.
The arms: Finally, can this team pitch? A year ago, even they knew they didn't have enough pitching. The proof was that, halfway through the spring, they went out and signed a free-agent pitcher who was still sitting at home in March (Mark Redman) -- and plugged him into the rotation the day he got off the plane.
For a team that not so long ago produced seven NL Cy Young winners in eight years, and finished first or second in the league in ERA 11 years in a row, that was the baseball equivalent of a billboard on the side of a highway, flashing this message:
You need more frigging pitching.
"We've talked about that the last two years," said new GM Frank Wren, hand-picked successor to the legendary John Schuerholz. "John and I talked about it at length, that we had to get more pitching depth."
So they did what they needed to do. Now we look up, just a year later, and here's what we find:
They've added Tom Glavine (free agent), the electric Jair Jurrjens (centerpiece of the Renteria deal) and Mike Hampton (freed from captivity in the trainer's room) to the rotation behind Smoltz and Hudson. That means they're so deep in potential starters that Chuck James, Jo-Jo Reyes, Buddy Carlyle and Jeff Bennett -- who combined for 23 wins and 62 starts last year -- will start the season either in Triple-A or the bullpen.
And, with the addition of left-hander Will Ohman (trade) and 98-mph flameball launcher Chris Resop (waiver claim), they have so much bullpen depth that they had no room for Tyler Yates. That might not seem like a stop-the-presses development. But Yates (just traded to the Pirates) was such an integral bullpen cog last year, he finished second on the team in appearances (75) and struck out 69 in 66 innings.
"The feeling here last year was, we had to have our two studs, Smoltzie and Huddie, go and go big," Francoeur said. "But the feeling this year is completely different. I think the feeling is, if Smoltzie misses a start or two this year, we're covered. If Hampton needs a couple of starts off, or anybody, it's OK now, because we have that depth to fill that in. Last year, if we didn't have our two big guys going, we had to score six, seven, eight runs a game."
We understand, of course, that the top four starters will all be 33 or older by midyear. And that by Memorial Day, Smoltz and Glavine will be 41 and 42, respectively.
We're aware that Smoltz has had shoulder issues already (though he'll miss just one start). And that Glavine went 0-3, 14.81 in his final three starts with the Mets. And that if Hampton wins even 10 games, he would be the first pitcher to do that at his age (35) after missing two full seasons since Schoolboy Rowe in 1946.
But we should also point out that Smoltz, Hudson and Glavine finished second, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the league in quality starts last year.
And having nine legitimate starting pitchers -- when the Mets and Phillies can barely find five -- is no small factor when you consider that the average NL team last year needed to get 42 starts out of pitchers who weren't in its original rotation.
So the Braves have enough arms to survive the marathon. For them to win that marathon, "this is one of those seasons where health will be huge," said Smoltz.
Will Smoltz stay healthier than Pedro Martinez? Will the closer, Rafael Soriano, have a healthier year than new Phillies closer Brad Lidge? Who will come back and make the bigger contribution after major surgery -- Mike Gonzalez (Braves) or Kris Benson (Phillies)? The NL East could well be decided by all of those questions.
But if this does turn into a war of attrition, remember this: The Braves are younger than the Mets and Phillies, deeper in most respects than the Mets and Phillies and have a better farm system to mine for reinforcements than the Mets and Phillies.
Plus, the Braves have a quality that struck everyone who saw them this spring. When we say they're back, we don't just mean on the field. We mean in their minds.
Just because they're not swapping we're-the-team-to-beat diatribes with the Mets and Phillies doesn't mean the Atlanta Braves don't believe it. It just means that as long as the remarkable Bobby Cox has been their manager, they'd rather do it than say it.
"It comes from Bobby," said Wren. "Bobby has a way of making these guys feel like good things are going to happen."
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.
10hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com
17hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com