The Braves are the forgotten factor when explaining why the Phillies haven’t been back to the postseason since 1993. Following Tuesday’s Phillies loss, the Braves clinched their 14th-consecutive division title, a streak unmatched in baseball.
Since realignment, the Braves have erected an unreachable tower above the NL East, while the Phillies and the rest of the division have splashed around the moat with a half dozen Wild Card peasants.
The closest the Phils ever got to climbing the tower was 2001 when they finished two games back. It was also the Braves' worst season during their stranglehold, amassing a .543 winning percentage. This year, they’ll likely finish five games ahead of the Phils, with their second-lowest winning percentage at .566.
When it’s all said and done however, the Phils never have much of a shot. Since 1995, the average margin between the Braves and the second-place finisher is 10.5 games, and in the last three years, they won the pennant by 10 games, 10 games and 19 games.
For Atlanta, solid starting pitching has been a constant, even though they've sought to shed payroll the last few seasons. That’s the key - maintain pitching, while keeping the farm system stocked with trophey bass.
The 2004 season was a magical year for scrapheap players, headed by free agent pickup J.D. Drew, along with castoffs like Jaret Wright, Vinny Castilla, Mike Hampton, Johnny Estrada and Julio Franco. They were asked to replace the Ruthian production of Gary Sheffield and Javier Lopez - players no one thought they could win without. In addition, they lost franchise face Greg Maddux, perhaps the best pitcher of the 1990s.
This season showcased the benefits a strong farm system. At last check, the Braves fielded 16 rookies, including outfielders Jeff Francouer, Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans – all contributing in big moments. The Braves also coaxed an MVP-caliber year out of Andruw Jones, and another productive season from franchise third baseman Chipper Jones.
For all the John Schuerholz worship that happens on this space, he made several gaffs this winter. Danny Kolb was brought in to replace John Smoltz as the team’s closer and he turned into an incredible bust. Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi were cheap parts, but they lost their jobs to rookies. And Tim Hudson, the big offseason acquisition, had a season comparable to Brett Myers.
On the other hand, Schuerholz found his requisite Leo Mazzone project in Jorge Sosa, probably their best arm this season. And at the deadline, Schuerholz yanked Kyle Farnsworth from Detroit to solidify the bullpen.
You’d never mistake the multi-layered Braves farm system with the Phillies, but at Triple-A, the Phils appear to have some serviceable parts that could fill in the way Francouer and others did this season.
Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito would have been Red Barons if Randy Wolf didn’t need season-ending Tommy John surgery. Shane Victorino is the kind of gem the Phillies never stumble upon and could factor into the future plans in center field. And Carlos Ruiz could find work as a part time catcher with Mike Lieberthal and Todd Pratt one step closer to retirement.
My hopes for next season follow a similar plan to the one Schuerholz used in 2004. With payroll and empty seats a growing concern, the question becomes "where can the team sacrifice to start building for the future,"
Of course, the Braves always have plenty of young chips to trade, and the Phils have almost nothing. But with three players on pace to hit over 100 RBIs, along with an aging home run king seemingly displaced by youth, the Phils will head to the winter meetings capable of flashing some bling.
As for that farm system, it's never too late to follow the Braves lead and start drafting a ton of pitching.