MANAGER BOBBY COX18th season with Braves
JOHN SCHUERHOLZ, Atlanta's venerable general manager, views his team's failurelast season to win a 15th straight division crown as anything but a portent ofa Braves-less New World in the NL East. "Last year was a bump in the roadfor us," he says. "We were able to feel what it was like not to win,and we didn't like it. Now we're back on track."
To jump-starttheir speedy turnaround, Atlanta will rely on a five-player Georgia-bred cadre,none of whom was older than 10 when the streak began. The group--the fruit of aSchuerholtz epiphany 10 years ago that a disproportionate percentage of thegame's top talent was emerging from the Braves' backyard--includes startersKyle Davies (raised in Stockbridge) and Chuck James (Mableton), and leftyspecialist Macay McBride (Sylvania). The headliners, though, are best friendsand longtime roommates who first played together on the 1996 Moores MillMustangs travel team: Lilburn-raised rightfielder Jeff Francoeur andDuluth-raised catcher Brian McCann.
Call the23-year-olds--with apologies to the ATL's similarly named platinum-sellingcrunk rappers--the Yin Yang Twins because in most ways, says McCann, "we'reabout as different as you can get." Francoeur is gregarious and perpetuallyenergetic, with a "How you doing?" for every reporter and clubhouseattendant, while the reserved McCann, Francoeur says, is "trying to sleepall the time."
"It's asymbiotic relationship," Francoeur says. "He keeps me relaxed, and Iget him going."
Neither requiresmotivation when it comes time to compete--particularly when the competition isbetween the two. Mario Kart sessions become hours-long battles; three springsago a heated seven-game Ping-Pong series ended with Francoeur taking a swing atthe victorious McCann. Their brotherly rivalry is more healthy on the diamond.Although McCann reached the majors a month ahead of Francoeur in 2005,Francoeur mashed 10 homers in his first 30 games while McCann toiled as abackup who mostly caught John Smoltz.
That Smoltztrusted the then 21-year-old McCann as his personal catcher hinted at the rolereversal McCann and Francoeur would undergo in 2006. "When the veteran, thebell cow, the Mr. Reliable of this pitching staff says, 'I want this kid tocatch for me,' that says it all," says Schuerholz. Francoeur put up solidpower numbers but demonstrated an incomplete skill set (box, below right).McCann, meanwhile, became baseball's best all-around catcher this side of JoeMauer.
After starting28--25 last season, Atlanta looked to be in contention behind its youngGeorgians. Then came a 6--21 June, a swoon that prompts Schuerholz to waxmetaphorical. "June became the mirror of truth that reflected the deadlyflaws of our team," he says. Chief among those flaws was a bullpen thatSchuerholz called a "debacle"; it had a 5.13 ERA in the month and fiveof its NL-high 29 blown saves.
Schuerholzaddressed the need by trading for closer Bob Wickman, once-and-future closerMike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, who has closer's stuff. "Even in theyears the Braves won, they did not have this kind of bullpen," says onerival G.M., who believes the upgrades make Atlanta a cofavorite, along with NewYork and Philadelphia, to represent the NL in the World Series. Braves fans maybe cheering into October once more.
Cheering loudestwill be McCann's Cans, a coterie that dresses up as beer containers to supporttheir favorite catcher--or will it be the hot-dog-costumed Francoeur's Franks?"I've met the Franks," says Francoeur. "They'd beat up McCann'sCans." Counters McCann, "Who wouldn't rather have a beer than a hotdog?" For the Braves, competition between their two young hot shots canonly have positive results. --B.R.
a modest proposal ...
For much of their15-year reign atop the NL West from 1991 through '93 and the NL East from 1995through 2005, the Braves were built around pitching and defense, but that haschanged. They have finished below the league average in defensive efficiency (ameasure of the rate at which teams convert balls hit into play into outs) ineach of the past three seasons. So it's somewhat puzzling that Bobby Cox istrying to turn outfielder Kelly Johnson into a second baseman, even thoughJohnson has never played second in his pro career and has not played anyinfield position in the majors. Projected for a robust .375 on-base percentageby PECOTA (explanation, page 77), Johnson deserves a spot in the every-daylineup; but giving him the leftfield job--and using a defense-first infieldersuch as Pete Orr at second base--might be a better use of resources.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
|MARTIN PRADO (R)||INF||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†|
* New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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THE NUMBER DON'TLIE
Unintentional walks drawn by Jeff Francoeur in 686 plate appearances last year.Not surprisingly the rightfielder--who hit .300 and finished third in theRookie of the Year voting in 2005--had a paltry on-base percentage of .293,which took the shine off his 103-RBI sophomore season. His runs created per 27outs dropped from 6.61 in his rookie season to 4.42 in 2006.