Another season, another division title, another first-round loss in five games to an historically star-crossed opponent. We’ve been here before.
The Braves “overachieved” this year, winning ten to fifteen more games than predicted. It wasn’t a situation where their record overstated the quality of the team; they were legitimately a 96-win caliber team. What happened is that some players played better than had been expected, though not really out of the range of their abilities. Foremost of these were:
Jaret Wright, who emerged as a legitimate top-line starter;
J.D. Drew, who didn’t really play any better than he has before, just stayed healthy;
Johnny Estrada, who hit for the high average he had in the minor leagues last year, which at the time was widely declared a fluke.
Of course, Wright lost two games in the NLDS, and Drew went into a deep slump. Estrada hit two homers, so it breaks down from there, but it was largely the players who got the Braves there who let them down against the Astros. Their slumps weren’t really all that remarkable, just badly timed.
The Braves led the majors in ERA despite a rotation that was at all times somewhat a patchwork and which lacked a “true” #1 starter or Cy Young candidate. They scored an above-average number of runs despite losing an enormous number of home runs off of the 2003 ballclub and having Chipper Jones spend the entire first half in a slump, when he wasn’t hurt. Going forward, the Braves could improve, or at least stay at the same place, with only minor adjustments. On the other hand, if they follow the same formula as they did last season — allowing several key contributors to depart and bringing in mostly second-tier replacements — it will be difficult to maintain their success, must less build on it to return to pennant-winning form.
Both Wright and Drew are free agents; so are a fair number of their teammates. The Braves have a remarkably low, by recent standards, number of players under contract, though they control the destinies of several of these who haven’t reached the free agency threshold yet. Three-fifths of the second-half rotation are free agents. There are also a number of Braves who are more or less “young” players still who will start getting expensive soon, and whom the Braves will need to begin to make long-range decisions on. Meanwhile, they have something like $40 million, nearly half their projected payroll, tied up in just three players.
In the coming days, I will break down the Braves’ situation going forward, starting with the free agents they need to address.