The Braves have really overhauled their pitching staff from the end of last season. John Thomson and Mike Hampton are the only starters left, and Hampton may be on his way out. The closer is now in the rotation, Alfonseca (who was third on the team in relief innings) and Cruz (who was fourth) are no longer with the team. All in all, half of the team’s top ten pitchers from 2004 are gone, and the futures of three of the five remaining are in doubt. (Gryboski and/or Reitsma could be nontendered.) Right now, the pitching staff is:



I doubt that pen will actually be what the Braves start with, but for now, they’re the only experienced relievers on the 40-man.

On paper, the rotation is maybe the best in the league, and certainly one of the best. Hudson is a bona fide ace. You can never tell with pitchers, but his injuries from last season don’t look at all severe. If the Braves have a good infield defense — hard to say right now until we know where Chipper will play — he’s capable of vintage Maddux numbers. Not, probably, the 1994-95 vintage, when Maddux was unbelievable, but the years surrounding it when he was just the best pitcher in the League.

It’s hard to say what Smoltz will be capable of as a starter. With Hudson on board, he probably won’t be asked for more than six innings/100 pitches whatever comes first. If he can hold up without missing much time, he’ll be an awfully effective #2. Thomson was inconsistent last season, and Hampton each of the last two, but they’re perfectly capable of being capable back of the rotation starters. The Braves’ problem the last couple of years was that except when Wright was going well they didn’t really have any guys at the top, but lots of #3 starters. That shouldn’t be a problem anymore. And the pressure should be off Horacio Ramirez to be a rotation stalwart as he recovers from whatever was wrong with him last season. If the Braves can get 25 starts from him next year and he continues to be effective — I still don’t know if he can with that strikeout rate — they’re in great shape.

Then there’s the offense… The trades of Thomas and Marrero don’t break me up, obviously. Thomas is probably a fourth or fifth outfielder, and certainly not a good enough hitter to be even a platoon leftfielder for a contender. Marrero was mishandled by the Braves, pigeonholed into a role as a reserve/platoon outfielder instead of backing up everywhere. Obviously it didn’t matter, but they might have won a couple more games if they’d used him to back up, or platoon with, Estrada. However, their departure, and that of Drew, leave the Braves with this projected opening day lineup:

SS Furcal
2B Giles
3B C Jones
CF A Jones
C Estrada
1B LaRoche
LF Langerhans
RF McCarthy
SP Hudson

Not only would the Braves have two rookies, neither of them a top prospect, in the outfield, but it’s severely underpowered; only the Joneses, of that group, are potential 30-homer hitters. Other than them, only Giles has hit more than 15 on the Major League level.

It seems likely that there will be at least one other move. The rumor, of course, is that the Braves will take Sammy Sosa off the Cubs’ hands, with the Cubs either picking up the vast majority of Sosa’s salary or taking Hampton’s contract in exchange. Sosa isn’t what he was a few years ago, but even last year, in 478 AB, he hit 35 homers. He’s capable of at least putting up his career line of .277/.348/.545, which is more than adequate.

Even if they don’t make the Sosa deal, the Braves must have something in the works. Furthermore, they might move Chipper back to the outfield and give Andy Marte the third base job, or move Marte to an outfield corner ala Miguel Cabrera. Marte is certainly capable of big-time power; I think he’s going to win three home run titles before he’s done, and even as a rookie he’s capable of putting up 25. Or more. But the Braves don’t want to rush him.

Stay tuned, we aren’t done yet.