Pretend you’re a Braves fan in March 1985. You’re thrilled by the acquisition of free agent Bruce Sutter and hopeful new manager Eddie Haas will have the local nine playing smarter while developing promising talents like Brad Komminsk and Gerald Perry. A lot of people are predicting a return to the playoffs, and had we been around then we’d probably do the same. Or would we?
The Braves are at a crossroads. Was last year’s second-half collapse an aberration or a sign of things to come? Most seem to think the former. We’re told new manager Eddie Haas will have the Braves playing more fundamentally sound ball while developing the team’s young talent, in contrast to Joe Torre, who took the blame (unfairly) for the team’s sloppy play and the struggles of phenoms Brad Komminsk and Ken Dayley.
Dayley’s gone, traded for Ken Oberkfell, who was awful in 50 games with the Braves. Unfortunately, the man responsible for the trade, John Mullen, is still here. While we applauded his decision last September to reject Boston’s offer of Jim Rice, who is seeking a 5-year, $11 million contract, for Komminsk and Steve Bedrosian, his offseason work was underwhelming, Bruce Sutter aside.
Acquiring Rick Cerone would’ve been a coup four years ago, when he hit 14 homers and drove in 85 for the Yankees. Since then he has three fewer homers and one less RBI total. The Braves didn’t appear to give up much — Brian Fisher has struggled since his impressive ’82 campaign in Single-A Durham, walking 100 last year in Richmond — but I’m skeptical Cerone will be much of an improvement over Bruce Benedict.
The longtime Braves backstop remains on the team, with Alex Trevino likely the odd man out. (I’d rather see Trevino as the starter.) Meanwhile, Randy Johnson and Milt Thompson, solid off the bench last year, are headed back to Richmond. It would make sense to package some spare bats for some pitching depth, but Mullen has proven to be an unimaginative GM.
I’m still pissed about the Len Barker trade. Barker was mediocre last season while Brett Butler blossomed as Cleveland’s lead-off hitter. And Brook Jacoby also showed promise — he’d be an improvement over Oberkfell, at the very least.
Fortunately, it appears Horner will be manning 3B on Opening Day. Horns has played only 136 games the last two years, but he’s still just 26. If he can stay healthy the Braves shouldn’t have trouble scoring runs.
Across the diamond, it looks like Chris Chambliss has beaten out Gerald Perry for the first base job. So much for developing young talent.
At least Komminsk will get a chance to play everyday in LF. He flopped badly last year but lest we forget Murph hit just .226 in his rookie season. Perry, Terry Harper and Albert Hall are waiting in the wings if Komminsk struggles, but I don’t see that happening. He’s been hitting with authority this spring, enough so that Haas plans to bat him third. The 24-year-old won’t have to carry the offense — that’s what Murph is for — but if the Braves are going to win the West, Komminsk will have to start fulfilling his potential.
They’ll also need Claudell to stay clean. His troubles off the field in ’84 belied what may have been his best year offensively with the Braves, and he’s the only viable lead-off option.
It would help if Hubby and Raffy bounced back at the plate. Slick-fielding prospect Andres Thomas is coming fast, so Ramirez might be hearing footsteps.
The biggest question marks are in the rotation. Rick Mahler, Pascual Perez and Rick Camp were the only dependable starters a year ago. Bedrosian is an intriguing option and is poised to become a starter if Craig McMurtry, who took a big step back last year, and the sore-armed Barker don’t deliver. Fortunately Zane Smith looks primed to emerge, giving Haas the lefty starter Torre never had.
Last year Bedrock, Gene Garber and Donnie Moore combined to give the Bravos a solid triumvirate of closing options, but Mullen decided they were better off with just one. Sutter (1.54 ERA, 45 saves) had his best year since winning the Cy Young Award in ’79 with the Cubs but is 32 now and is coming off a career-high 122 innings. Geno, Terry Forster, Jeff Dedmon round out the ‘pen, which should be a team strength, with or without Bedrosian.
I wish I was as optimistic as some other local prognosticators. Atlanta Journal Braves beat writer Chris Mortensen picks the Braves to win the division, while Constitution columnist Jesse Outlar is predicting a trip to the World Series. The West should be better than last year, when only the Padres finished above .500. That’s a reasonable expectation for the Braves, but a return to the playoffs will require a productive Komminsk, a healthy Horner and a deeper rotation.
We can only hope Haas is the right man for the job.