One more season for a club, one last ride for the Thumb King. Bobby Cox is retiring as manager after the 2010 Braves, who are congregating for spring training, finish playing, and one of the summer’s subplots will be to see if the all-time ejection leader can lay claim to being the first (and surely the last) man ever to be thrown out of a full season’s worth of games. (Meaning 162.)
It will take determination and stamina and some luck, but I’m thinking Cox can do it. (He’s at 151 ejections and counting.) As for his final team … well, let’s let our own thumbs do the work.
Thumbs up for youth. Jair Jurrjens is 24 and nearing All-Star status. Tommy Hanson is 23 and finished third in the 2009 Rookie of the Year voting. Jason Heyward is 20 and might be named the 2010 Rookie of the Year. Freddie Freeman is 20 and might be named the 2011 Rookie of the Year. Arodys Vizcaino is 19 and might salvage the Javier Vazquez trade for Frank Wren. Put simply, the Braves can match prospects with any club.
Thumbs down for age. Chipper Jones is 37 and is coming off his worst season. Derek Lowe is 36 and is coming off his worst season since 2004. The Braves re-signed Tim Hudson, who’s 34 and who had arm surgery in 2008. They signed Billy Wagner, who’s 38 and who likewise had arm surgery in 2008. They signed Troy Glaus, who’s 33 and who had shoulder surgery last summer. They signed set-up man Takashi Saito, who’s 40. That makes two starting pitchers, two key relievers and two corner infielders on the far side of 30, three of whom have had surgery in the past two years. That’s a lot of risk.
Thumbs up for the bullpen. Even if some of them are old, there are a lot of arms here. It will be tough even for Cox to overtax this relief corps. Though he’ll try.
Thumbs down for the outfield. Heyward could turn this into a thumbs-up just by himself, but that’s probably too much to ask of a rookie who mightn’t even begin the season in the big leagues. Without him in the mix, the Braves are looking at some combination of Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera. That’s substandard.
Thumbs up for the rotation. Hudson, Lowe, Hanson, Jurrjens and Kenshin Kawakami — that’s a good group.
Thumbs down for the rotation. With Vazquez, it would have been a great group.
Thumbs up for the farewell tour. Teams across the majors will line up to pay tribute on his final visit. Cox will hate it — after a career in the spotlight, he still gets antsy doing an on-camera interview — but it will be nice to see the rest of the sport acknowledge what too many of us locals have taken for granted or discounted entirely: That this is among the handful of greatest managers ever.
Thumbs down for winning one for the skipper. This is baseball. Rah-rah stuff doesn’t work. (If it did, Larry Bowa would have been Walter Alston.) The desire to send Cox out a winner might flare in September, provided the Braves are still in it, but it won’t be evident in April or June or August. These guys play 162 games. Nobody can stay geeked up for that long.
Thumbs up for the Phillies’ flub. The team that has won three division titles in succession had a chance to assemble the best 1-2-3 array since Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz but traded Cliff Lee once they’d landed Roy Halladay. Asked about Halladay, Cox said: “At least we don’t have to face the other guy, too.”
Thumbs down for the feisty Fish. Over the past two seasons the Florida Marlins have won 13 more games than the Braves and have finished ahead of them both times. This winter Florida didn’t do as it traditionally does — sell off its good young players. On the contrary, the Marlins re-upped both pitcher Josh Johnson and second baseman Dan Uggla.
The all-thumbs forecast: Someone else will finish first in the East, but it won’t be the Braves. Florida will edge the Phillies. The Braves will win 85 games, one down from last season, and come home third, same as last season. And then the real fun will begin: Who replaces the Thumb King?