While the 2000s rolled merrily along, Major League Baseball continued to search for a dominant franchise. The New York Yankees were suddenly challenged. Their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, won the 2004 World Series. It was their first title since 1918. Other teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, and Detroit Tigers rose to the occasion. Even the Colorado Rockies got a shot at the title, though they were defeated. In short, baseball had a diverse array of teams fighting for the championship.Unfortunately, the Atlanta Braves were not one of them.
Desperately seeking more glory, they wound up throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck. The team, which once solely relied on pitching, now saw their once vaunted staff reduced to ashes. A corps of young players combined with some former stars to create something of a Frankenstein’s monster. That being said, this monster would never find a bride. Instead, it focused on eating its villagers in the form of Braves fans everywhere. So, let’s take a bite out of it and see what the mechanics were.
Braves by Decade: 2000’s Braves, Part Two
2006: The Downward Spiral Begins for the Braves
In 2006, the Braves long string of consecutive division titles was finally snapped. Not only that, but they came nowhere near the playoffs. The offense really had no issues. Built for power and average, it delivered on all counts. Its 222 homers led the big leagues, backed up by a .270 collective average. Andruw Jones smashed 41 bombs, while Adam LaRoche hit 32. Jeff Francoeur hit 29, Chipper Jones had 26, and Brian McCann crushed 24.
However, it’s difficult to keep up such a pace when the team’s pitching is underwhelming. A 4.60 ERA was tenth in the league. John Smoltz won 16 games with a respectable 3.49 ERA. Chuck James went 11-4 with a 3.78 ERA. Bob Wickman saved 18 games with a 1.04 ERA and a walloping 434 ERA+. Those were the lone bright spots. The rest of the staff had ERAs between the high threes and the forties.
2007: Gelling, Yet Not Quite Succeeding
The next season, the team seemed to gel a bit more. An 84-78 record was a definite improvement. The offense was one of the best all-around in the league. A .275 batting average was second only to the aforementioned Rockies. They ranked second in hits and third in doubles. Showing no signs of slowing, Chipper Jones murdered baseballs to the tune of a .337 average. His 29 homers and 165 OPS+ led the team. Left fielder Matt Diaz broke out with a .338 mark in 135 games. Midway through the season, the team dealt for slugger Mark Teixeira. The trade paid dividends, as the first baseman hit .317 with 17 homers in only 54 games.
On the mound, the Braves placed third in ERA. However, the long ball came back to bite them 172 times. This was three more than the league average. Individually, Tim Hudson won 16 games with a 3.33 ERA. Smoltz backed him up with 14 wins and Wickman saved 20 more games. Additionally, reliever Peter Moylan posted a sparking 1.80 ERA. Unfortunately, this could not balance out poor performances by Buddy Carlyle, Kyle Davies, and Tyler Yates. For the second straight year, the Braves missed the postseason.
2008: Regression for the Atlanta Braves
In 2008, the team experienced a major backward slide. Despite an offense built to make contact, the pitching was filled with holes. McCann had another tremendous season with the bat (.301 avg, 23 HR, 87 RBI, 153 H, 135 OPS+). Chipper Jones won the batting title with a whopping .364 mark. Shortstop Yunel Escobar had a very productive second season in the big leagues (.288 avg, 148 H, 103 OPS+). Teixeira crushed 20 homers in 103 games. However, oddly enough, he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels at the deadline. The return on the deal was Casey Kotchman, who wound up posting a mediocre .237 average.
However, the pitching sunk the ship. A 4.46 ERA was 12th in the league. With the loss of Smoltz after five starts, younger pitchers attempted to step up and lead. There were some successes. New Brave Jair Jurrjens was tabbed as the ace. He did a respectable job, winning 13 games and posting a 3.68 ERA. Another fresh face, Jorge Campillo, went 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA. Hudson was there to support both of them. He went 11-7 with a staff best 3.17 ERA and a 132 ERA+. However, struggles abounded. Young southpaw Jo-Jo Reyes only won three games with an ERA near six. Rookie Charlie Morton had an ERA of 6.15. New closer Mike Gonzalez saved a mediocre 14 contests with an ERA in the mid-fours. Because of this poor pitching, the Braves would have to wait yet another year to find the postseason. The one time strength of the club had become its ultimate weakness.
2009: A Reversal of Roles
By the time 2009 rolled around, Braves fans were getting restless. The team had not made the postseason since 2005. Times were tough. The once frightening powerhouse had been reduced to little more than a whimper. More than that, the club was experiencing another shifting of roles. The offense took a backseat as the pitching turned into one of the best in the league. New Brave Javier Vazquez went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA. Fellow newcomer Derek Lowe won 15 games as well. Jurrjens turned in an excellent season (14-10, 2.60 ERA, 159 ERA+). Tommy Hanson went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. Closer Rafael Soriano saved 27 contests with a 2.97 ERA and a 139 ERA+. Yet, the Braves missed out on the postseason once more.
The main reason was the lackluster offense. A year after being the league’s best hitter, Jones found his average tumbling. In fact, it fell 100 points to .264. He also only had 18 homers and 71 RBI. However, he did walk 101 times, leading to a .388 on-base percentage. McCann had another solid season (.281 avg, 21 HR, 94 RBI, 119 OPS+). Kotchman also rebounded sharply, raising his average to .282 with 84 hits in 87 games. The rest of the offense was simply okay. Down seasons from players like Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur helped extend the Braves woes. It would take one more season, but the roller coaster would eventually hit its peak. The misery of Braves fans would not be around for much longer.
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Players Mentioned: Andruw Jones, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francoeur, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, John Smoltz, Chuck James, Bob Wickman, Matt Diaz, Mark Teixeira, Tim Hudson, Peter Moylan, Buddy Carlyle, Kyle Davies, Tyler Yates, Yunel Escobar, Casey Kotchman, Jair Jurrjens, Jorge Campillo, Jo-Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton, Mike Gonzalez, Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Rafael Soriano, Kelly Johnson.