A World Series is set to begin Wednesday without the Atlanta Braves, which has been the case with every World Series this millennium. And I know some among you were so disgusted by the Braves’ collapse that you can’t see this team reaching the Fall Classic for the next thousand years, but that’s just disappointment talking. In truth, the Braves aren’t far away.
Last October, the Braves were one out from taking a 2-1 Division Series lead over San Francisco, which would win the World Series. This fall the Braves were two outs from forcing a play-in game against St. Louis, which just won the National League pennant. I know most of you wouldn’t have given a farthing for the Braves’ chances in such a game, but consider: The Cardinals would have started Kyle Lohse in Game No. 163, and in his two postseason appearances he’s 0-2 with a 7.45 ERA.
That said, the two seasons were different. In 2010, it was a wonder the diminished Braves steadied enough to slip into the playoffs. In 2011, the wonder was that they didn’t steady. The chief reason — well, that and the 8 1/2-game lead — that the Braves’ flop was so stunning was the composition of the club itself. From April through August, this looked every bit a playoff team.
Come February, it will look like one again. Relative to the other NL contenders, the Braves enter the offseason without much to do. The Cardinals have to re-sign Albert Pujols, and the Brewers need to keep Prince Fielder, neither of which might be possible. And the Phillies, who have won five division titles in succession, but who were gone in Round 1 this October, face the impending loss of Raul Ibanez and perhaps Jimmy Rollins and the injury rehab of Ryan Howard, who tore his Achilles on the final play of the final game.
The Braves? They need to secure a shortstop — Alex Gonzalez is a free agent and the prospect Tyler Pastornicky isn’t quite ready — but that’s about it. The bulk of this team’s decisions have to do with projection: Will Chipper Jones be healthy enough to play 100 games? Will Tommy Hanson’s shoulder be OK? Will Martin Prado remember how to hit? Will Jason Heyward remember he’s Jason Heyward?
The Braves didn’t really challenge Philly this season — they finished 13 games back — but that day is coming. Among the Phillies’ everyday eight, only Hunter Pence is under 30, and the touted outfield prospect Domonic Brown hasn’t done much. (If he had, the Phils wouldn’t have needed Pence.) The great rotation likewise has some age on it: Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt 34; Cliff Lee is 32. The Phillies weren’t built to win in 2015; they were built to win in it all in 2011, and they failed.
The Braves’ failure wasn’t one of composition — on paper, they had enough good players — as of follow-through. Some excellent hitters stopped hitting for bewildering stretches. The team has moved to help correct that by firing Larry Parrish, whose season as hitting coach was a bad idea that turned out worse, and next year we should get at least a partial answer to that great imponderable: Does a hitting coach really matter?
There wouldn’t seem to be a Braves’ buying spree coming this winter. Kenshin Kawakami is finally off the payroll, but Derek Lowe remains — for one year more at $15 million. The Braves might have enough money to re-sign Gonzalez for a short term at a modest price, but they surely can’t afford the big-name shortstops (Rollins or Jose Reyes) who’ll become free agents. Even so, will keeping Gonzalez and hoping for better elsewhere be enough to turn this team, which has won 180 games the past two seasons, into a bigger winner?
Yes, because they have a phalanx of young pitchers who are big-league ready. That’s the greatest currency there is, and Wren was right to hoard it at the trading deadline. But there will come a time when one or two of these pitchers will need to be moved — can’t really have a seven-man rotation — as simple asset management.
The Braves, believe it or not, are very close to a World Series. They’ll need to get beyond the memory of this season’s fold, but that’s why there’s an offseason. They had enough talent to win 89 games in a season when they didn’t hit a lick, and they have enough to offer in trade that they can go buy whatever they lack. If even a few of those hitters return to form, they won’t lack much. Why, they even have a leadoff man now. Can world domination be far behind?
By Mark Bradley