We continue the series on to 2001. I think this is where the long run of success Atlanta had started to be more reliant upon under-the-radar free agent signings that turned into steals, some bad trades by JS started to create holes in the roster, and a farm system that had been picking towards the back of the draft was getting thin.
In the offseason, they let rental Andy Ashby walk in free agency. He had been picked up in the previous trade deadline with Bruce Chen being the main piece that went back. They also let Andres Galarraga leave in free agency, attempting to replace him with Rico Brogna. Reggie Sanders, after his one disappointing season in Atlanta, was also shown the door. They solidified their bench by signing Dave Martinez, who would prove to be a good pickup. They would also solidify their bench by trading for Jesse Garcia. John Burkett was re-signed after providing reliable league average inning for the team the year before. They would also attempt to revive Steve Avery’s career by signing him to a minor league deal, but he would later be released in Spring Training as he ended his unsuccessful attempt to make it back to the big leagues.
So Atlanta entered the season with some holes in their roster. John Smoltz was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, so he didn’t start the season in Atlanta and would eventually begin his run as a reliever mid-season. Returning were Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, but Kevin Millwood and John Burkett were your third and fourth starters, and Odalis Perez and Jason Marquis battled it out for the 5th spot. The bullpen looked pretty good on paper with John Rocker returning in the closer role and Mike Remlinger, Kerry Ligtenberg, and other cast of characters providing a solid bullpen.
The lineup boasted Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, as per the usual. But as I mentioned, Andres Galarraga is gone, so this begins the era in which Atlanta simply cannot fill its first baseman void for several years. Quilvio Veras returned, but he would continue to be a disappointment. Javy Lopez is starting to show his natural age as a 30-year old catcher, and, ahem, help had not yet been given to help his bat. Rafael Furcal returns after his Rookie of the Year 2000 season. Brian Jordan continued to play a role in the middle of the order that he’s simply not equipped to play. The result is what you might expect: only two hitters produce an OPS+ above 100, Chipper and Jordan.
They certainly throw lots of bodies at the offense in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. Non-prospect but promising youngster Marcus Giles provided a shot in the arm at second base. Mark DeRosa helped in a utility role and then as the every day shortstop after Rafael Furcal suffered a season-ending injury in July. Rico Brogna had a horrible season, so they signed the late Ken Caminiti, who was no help. They didn’t get any help at first baseman until they sign 42-year old Julio Franco out of the Mexican League late in the season. While he became a folk hero for us, providing incredible production for a 42-year old, he still doesn’t provide the middle-of-the-order bat Atlanta needs.
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine turn in great seasons, but what greatly stabilizes the rotation is that tremendous under-the-radar signing of John Burkett. Burkett throws 204 IP with a 3.04 ERA, and earns his second All-Star game appearance. Burkett had not had a season remotely close to that in almost a decade, and he would be out of baseball three years later. It was one of the most out-of-nowhere seasons for any Brave of the entire decade.
With John Rocker being both a lightning rod of negative attention and a loose cannon in the closer’s role, the Braves shipped him off to Cleveland to increase depth in the bullpen, getting both Steve Reed and Steve Karsay back. John Smoltz would take over the closer’s role in mid-August and never look back.
The Braves would only win 88 games in the regular season, but surprisingly, that would be good enough to win the NL East by two games over the Phillies. They sweep the 93-win Houston Astros off of some fantastic pitching performances, but the lack of offense runs into a buzzsaw in the NLCS when the Diamondbacks, led by Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, make quick work of them in 5 games. That duo end up pitching 25 innings between them, giving up only 3 runs total. They would later go on to win the World Series in one of the most dramatic Game 7’s in history.
Atlanta would enter the 2001 offseason with a need for a middle-of-the-order bat, relief help, and an aging rotation with very little help on the way.