This was the year of the Baby Braves. With the Braves run of division titles running on fumes, some trades and free agent signings gone wrong that left some holes in the roster, and pretty much the only time of the decade where the Braves actually had good, young players throw at these holes, the Braves would ultimately call up 18 rookies to get them through this season.
For them having the distinction of making their debut with one team in one season, it’s a pretty good list: Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans, Kelly Johnson, Wilson Betemit, the late Andy Marte, Macay McBride, Blaine Boyer, Kyle Davies, Joey Devine, Pete Orr, Brayan Pena, and Chuck James, and guys that logged little big league mileage like Anthony Lerew, Frank Brooks, Matt Childers, Roman Colon, and Jorge Vazquez. This was at the beginning of my time following the Braves’ farm system. I was convinced Andy Marte and Wilson Betemit would be the left side of the Braves infield for years. They would not. Betemit looked like he was beginning what would be a great career (.281/.341/.432 line in 4 seasons of limited duty as a youngster for the Braves), but he never built on that success after being traded to the Dodgers and was ultimately out of baseball by 31. Andy Marte has to be one of the biggest busts of this century for Braves prospects. He was ranked as the #9 prospect in all of baseball with Baseball America going into the 2005 season, but simply was never able to put the bat on the ball, retiring with a 52 OPS+. Sadly, he passed away in a car crash at the age of 33 in 2017.
The Baby Braves joined what was actually already a fairly young team at that point with young homegrown players Adam LaRoche, Marcus Giles, and Rafael Furcal, and veteran homegrown players Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. Ryan Cothran, when he was at Walkoff Walk, speculates that it was during this season that the Braves might have had one of the few (if not only) completely homegrown lineups. It could have happened quite frequently that year if Brian McCann started at catcher over Johnny Estrada, because if you went around the diamond, you would have LaRoche, Giles, Furcal, Chipper, Kelly Johnson, Andruw, and Frenchy, all of which made their way through Danville, Macon, Greenville, Richmond, et al.
Speaking of Johnny Estrada, this is the beginning of the bad news: some of these players fell of a cliff very quickly. Estrada, for instance, was involved in a collision at home plate with noted red ass and “play the game the right way” enforcer Darin Erstad. Estrada made the All-Star game the year previous, but after his collision with Erstad (which I would say was as dirty as any collision I have seen), his bat and glove both drastically deteriorated to the point where he was forced to retire at the age of 32 after not having a single productive season since that collision. Coincidence? Maybe, but Johnny Estrada now has a service dog to cope with brain injuries, and had at least two public anger episodes before that, one of which involving domestic violence and another for shoving an umpire during a youth baseball game. So, screw you, Darin Erstad.
And we know of the rest of the Baby Braves. Frenchy could never learn what was a strike or a ball, Kelly Johnson had a long, respectable career, but many of these guys would enjoy maybe a couple good seasons and for a variety of reasons not sustain an entire career’s worth of success.
Unfortunately, the pitching side didn’t get the memo that the Braves were on a youth movement. Veteran Mike Hampton would get injured for what seemed like the 17th time in an Atlanta uniform, and veteran John Thomson would come back to earth after having an unexpectedly excellent 2004 season. John Smoltz was his usual self at the age of 38 and back in the rotation, Tim Hudson had an excellent first season in Atlanta after being magically acquired for almost nothing, and 21-year old Kyle Davies would fill the fifth spot in a very average way.
The bullpen, intending to be anchored with Dank Lob, I mean, Dan Kolb, would have mixed results. Kolb was acquired in the offseason to be our closer, but all we got from Milwaukee was pain and suffering at the hands ole Danny boy. He was so bad closing out games that Mac Thomason gave us incredible content on the man, including a great list of nicknames. Kolb ended up with a 5.93 ERA, which is actual worse than I even remembered. So the Braves went to Chris Reitsma, who was no closer and really no better, but that did inspire yet another great entry into our glossary for the term “Reitsma Room”, which means you need more than 3 runs (a normal save situation) to be comfortable bringing in Reitsma in the 9th.
So with the help of Braves Journal and Mac, the shenanigans in the bullpen made for some fun times, and the Baby Braves helped the product. But this was yet another very flawed team, and this would be the third year in a row that the Braves would lose to the Astros in the first round, and the last time the Braves would win their division until 2013. With only 90 wins, this is another division title win that was largely the product of getting through a weak East division, not the accomplishment of a playoff-caliber ball club.