Crippled by a substandard bullpen, the Braves got bounced in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth-straight season. Where do they go from here, and was their season a success?
If you listen to the conspiracy theorists, the Braves should have finished the tank job in the four-game series against the Phillies back on Sept. 15.
Rumor has it the Braves played soft against the Phils to better their chances of facing the Padres in the Divisional Series. The Braves won the final game for posterity, and as it turned out, one game was all it would have taken to force a one-game playoff between the Phils and Astros.
I don’t buy it. After all, the Braves flattened the Astros in the season series and lost their series with the Padres. Managers like Bobby Cox don’t ask alpha competitors to tank ballgames. They want to prove themselves against the best.
The problem is, the Braves were pretenders all along. They barely scraped by in a season decimated by injury, and didn’t play sharp, meaningful baseball late in the season. The result was another uninspired sleepwalk into October, only this time, they were an easy first-round draw.
The biggest problem in the regular season transferred into their biggest issue in the postseason. Atlanta’s bullpen was substandard since April and it came back to bite them hard in the Wild Card. The Braves charged out to a five-run lead yesterday only to watch the bullpen blow it, resulting in their fourth-straight first round exit.
For all the John Schuerholz worship on in this space, the celebrated GM made some questionable choices this season and should be blamed for the poor bullpen. He signed Danny Kolb to replace John Smoltz as closer, and when that flopped, he traded for Kyle Farnsworth, who flopped yesterday. Farnsworth gave up two homers in relief, including the tying shot to Brad Ausmus.
Fourteen-straight division titles is nothing to scoff at, but it never seems like the Braves have the proper parts to win in October. Plus, moving Smoltz back to starter may have sacrificed too much.
Still, the Braves should be back next season. They have one of the best farm systems in baseball, and a slew of emerging talent lead by outfielder Jeff Francouer. They’ll be dealing with only two free agents, a big one in shortstop Rafael Furcal and a minor one in Farnsworth. They also have an option on starting pitcher John Thomson.
It’s funny how the Phillies and Braves find themselves in the same boat. The Phillies had a good season, but once again fell short of the playoffs. The Braves made the playoffs, but lost in the first round again. Both teams have a veteran core that tends to fade away in big games.
Somehow, this gets my wheels turning about closer Billy Wagner and the idea of bringing him back next season. I’ve been opposed to the idea since the trade deadline, but watching playoff baseball always casts decisions like these in a different light.
Wagner finished as the premier closer in the National League and is someone you definitely want for the postseason. It’s likely the Phillies will be knocking on the door yet again in 2006 with a good chance to break in. There’s no way the Braves will land anything better than Wagner unless the Phils let him walk.
Ed Wade said resigning Wagner is his number one priority, even though his asking price is enormous. After watching the Braves series unfold, look for Wade to the raise the counter-offer.
Wagner's yapping about playing for a competitor and in front of positive fans is a recognizable ruse. Money talks, and he'll bite at the best offer.