Everybody counted them out. It was impossible. There was too much to overcome. Nobody gave them a shot. Too many question marks, too many uncertainties, too many gaping holes to fill. Well, everyone was wrong.
The Atlanta Braves now have a commanding lead in baseball’s tightest race, the NL East, are poised to capture an unbelievable 14th straight divisional crown and are doing this while running their own minor revolution in the impermanent world that is Major League Baseball.
The Braves, led since the first Bush administration by the genius that is Cox/Mazzone/Schuerholz, have thrown convention to the dogs this year. In doing so they have proved themselves, once again, to be the tightest run ship in the game.
Somehow, Atlanta is doing it with rookies. Yes, rookies. Seven in all. Young, untested kids straight from the minors, with mysterious names like Francoeur, Betemit, Langerhans and McCann. The Braves are daily throwing rookies onto the field and then watching with pride, as they blend in with heralded veterans like John Smoltz, Rafeal Furcal and the Joneses, while the rest of the league blinks and does double takes.
The Braves are redefining baseball. No one, no team has ever done this before, not successfully. Inserting seven rookies into your starting lineup midway through a 162-game season would normally be an open admission of failure. A way of letting fans know that next year really isn’t that far away. Yet, not with the ’05 Braves.
This year, their most miraculous of miracle years (and they’ve had a few,) they are calling into question everything that a winning team is supposed to be composed of in modern day baseball. Veterans – who needs them? Veterans get old quick and have to watch helpless as their once prestigious careers are swallowed up by injuries.
Just ask the Yankees, Cubs and Giants. Veterans are fool’s gold to the Braves’ bonanza. In fact, take away evergreen Julio Franco and the Braves would have the youngest roster in MLB. They are the best team on the diamond since mid-June and they are setting the pace with an average age of just 27.
For the last two decades, youth has been seen as a parallel to loss in baseball. Too many rookies equal not too many wins. While nearly every team would begin the season with a couple of unproven faces and address the requisite injuries with a couple more, outside of the eventual September call-ups, you would never see more than three to four rookies on a major league squad at a single time. And the ones on the team usually rode the bench. They watched and learned while the true stars chalked it up.
Not this year. The Atlanta Braves are currently the answer in MLB. They are the answer to $200 million vanity cases – “Hall of Famers” raised on a diet of steroids and overpaid stars who no longer run out ground balls. The Braves’ payroll resides in the bottom half of the league and they had only two players make the All-Star team.
Their hottest player, Jeff Francoeur, now a hometown hero, was a complete unknown until a month ago. Three-fifths of their current starting rotation had never toed a big league rubber before the season began. The Braves, once again proving all of the critics and pundits wrong, have used their tried and true farm system to replenish areas that were once weak and fallow.
The same pipeline that once gave them Andruw Jones has now swiftly sent them Wilson Betemit, Kyle Davies and Adam LaRoche. They, as a team, have allowed talent, grit and hustle to dictate their actions. And by staving off mediocrity, the Atlanta Braves have publicly confirmed the theory that, in MLB, only the slimmest of margins separates a future All-Star from a minor league phenom.