These Braves Look Like a Spent Force

042908 smoltz web These Braves Look Like a Spent ForceHeading into the 2008 season, the Atlanta Braves were the fashionable pick to win the National League East. Seven different ESPN writers had Atlanta on top, with one picking them to win the World Series.

That’s nothing new, particularly. Atlanta is expected to be successful, having won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, a feat that hasn’t even been approached in baseball history.

But unlike those championship teams, this iteration of the Braves suffers from a lack of overall talent and health, particularly on the pitching staff. Those limitations were on display during this weekend’s series with the Mets, as New York won two of three games.

After 25 contests, Atlanta stands at 12-13. And what is notable isn’t that the Braves have played beneath their talent level.

John Smoltz, the team ace, had four otherworldly starts, with a 0.78 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 23 innings. Even in his prime, that was unlikely to continue. But the Braves saw Sunday why relying on a 41-year-old with shoulder problems can be a dicey proposition. Smoltz’s velocity was down, and he lasted just 4 innings against New York.

That short outing was especially problematic, because number-two starter Tim Hudson had lasted just 3 innings on Saturday. The abbreviated Hudson has now appeared in two of his past three assignments, with reduced velocity that certainly points toward possible injury, though Atlanta is not acknowledging that possibility yet, at least publicly.

And for the Braves, Smoltz/Hudson was supposed to be the given. Tom Glavine, it’s easy to forget, provided solid starts to the Mets for most of 2007. But his strikeout rate dropped noticeably, and Glavine, even healthy, isn’t a good bet to be a league-average pitcher. In addition, he also made a trip to the disabled list this season—the first of his 22-year major league career.

And would-be fourth starter Mike Hampton has been hypothetical since 2005 due to a number of injuries. While warming up for his first start since August 2005, he incurred a new one, a strained left pectoral muscle, and returned to the disabled list. He is expected to return this week—but expecting any value from him seems optimistic in the extreme.

The Plan Bs in the rotation: rookie Jair Juurjens, career minor leaguer Jeff Bennett, and the uninspiring Chuck James and Jo-Jo Reyes, don’t remind anyone of the younger Smoltz-Glavine-Maddux-Avery foursome that paced Atlanta during the team’s glory years.

The bullpen is in even worse shape. The closer, Rafael Soriano, who has a history of elbow troubles, is on the disabled list. The setup man, Peter Moylan, is expected to be out for the season due to a bone spur pressing against his elbow.

Left behind are pitchers like Manny Acosta, who has struggled to throw strikes at every level, converted minor league starter Jorge Campillo, lefty mediocrities Royce Ring and Will Ohman, and Chris Resop, who owns a career major league ERA of 6.18, due largely to control problems. Only Blaine Boyer shows much promise—and Boyer, coming off of an injury himself, isn’t nearly enough.

Even the lineup, while it will continue to score runs, isn’t likely to improve. Chipper Jones, for instance, while an elite player, isn’t a .433 hitter with a .711 slugging percentage. But even less likely than Jones becoming baseball’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams is his accumulating enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Jones played in Atlanta’s first 23 games, but missed Saturday and Sunday with back spasms. The last time Jones played in 92 percent of Atlanta’s contests, it was 2003—Jones has missed 25 games or more each season since.

Either way, though, the Atlanta teams that won 14 straight division titles did so on the strength of their arms. This year, the Mets’ old tormentors are a shadow of their former selves.