As a child of the '90s, when I hearken back to iconic baseball teams from years past, I don't think about Lasorda's Dodgers, The Big Red Machine, or the "Miracle Mets." Instead, I remember the dominant Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine Braves of the late 1990s. As you probably know, these Braves parlayed the pitching of these three men, the steadying-if-eccentric guidance of manager Bobby Cox, and the hitting brilliance of 3B Chipper Jones into an astonishing 11 straight NL East titles from 1995 until 2005. Though they flamed out in the playoffs in every season after '95, the Bobby Cox Braves made an impact on my fledgling baseball-watching career, both due to their accessibility on TBS and their talent and improbable stability.
I bring this up because right now the Braves are on the verge of shedding the final vestiges of that generation. Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine are all long gone, Bobby Cox retired last year and Chipper Jones is sure to follow soon. But there is a renaissance of sorts occurring in Atlanta right now, as an influx of talented young players has already begun to flow onto the Braves' roster. SP Tommy Hanson and RF Jason Heyward led the charge, and they have been followed by 1B Freddie Freeman and now SP Julio Teheran. And these are the players who represent the core of the Atlanta Braves for years to come. Although to be fair, I feel like we were saying the same things about the D-Backs at the end of 2006, soooooo....
What the Stats Say (Courtesy of Fangraphs):
Arizona (18-23) Atlanta (25-19) Edge
Hey, you know what will help the D-Backs get out of this hitting funk they're in? The team with the best FIP in the majors!!! For all of the praise that gets (rightly) heaped at the feet of the San Diego bullpen, the Braves' bullpen literally hasn't allowed a base-runner in fifteen months. Okay, maybe not literally, but you get the idea. And their starting pitching has been pretty swell too, as all of their starters have an ERA below 3.75. Armando Galarraga could get a two-run mulligan in every game he starts and still not produce an ERA below 3.75. The Braves offense has seemingly gotten a little lucky this season, as they rank 10th in Runs Scored with 172 despite only being 18th in wRC+. But with pitching like the Braves have, the offense doesn't have to set the world on fire.
Martin Prado, LF
Jason Heyward, RF
Chipper Jones, 3B
Brian McCann, C
Dan Uggla, 2B
Freddie Freeman, 1B
Alex Gonzalez, SS
Nate McClouth, CF
I hear that there's an actual debate going on about whether Chipper Jones is going to the Hall of Fame. I'm all for debates, but seriously, the guy's put up an OPS of over .800 for sixteen straight major-league seasons. Every year since Bill Clinton's first term, Chipper Jones has put up an above average OPS. Just put him in the hall now. Oh, and make him give his speech tomorrow so the D-Backs don't have to face him in this series.
Outside of Chipper, the Braves' lineup is anchored by a couple of youngsters. Jason Heyward has put up a career OPS+ of .830, which isn't too bad for a RF. Oh, and he couldn't legally buy a drink until last August, I can't believe I left that part out. Basically, in terms of phenom right fielders, Heyward out-Justin-Uptons Justin Upton. The team has high hopes for Freddie Freeman, who is also only 21. He hasn't impressed much just yet, putting up an OPS of .678 this season. However, I doubt the Braves are too worried, seeing as Freeman has about twelve years of his natural prime left to figure it out. Brian McCann is one of the more underrated players in baseball, with a career OPS+ of 121 in seven seasons as a catcher. Dan Uggla mans second base for the Braves, but he's struggling this season, which may spare us from constant groaning from D-Back fans about how we let this guy go as a Rule 5 pick. I doubt it though.
Joe Saunders (0-5, 5.48) vs. Julio Teheran (0-1, 5.79)
Insightful Commentary: Joe Saunders' starts aren't the easiest thing in the world to get psyched up for, but he's not really the story here. Enter Julio Teheran, the 20-year-old phenom who is making his first start in the majors on Wednesday night. He's the top prospect in a loaded Braves farm system, and has more or less dominated every level of the minors that he's stopped at. He controls a fastball that sits at 93-96, along with a polished changeup and curveball. He's also only 20 years old. Where did the Braves find all these guys? Seriously, did Bud Selig go up to the stand during the 2008 draft and announce "With the first pick in the 2008 MLB ameteur draft, the Atlanta Braves select: everyone under the age of 20"?
Thursday: TBD (-) vs. Jair Jurrjens (5-0, 1.66)
Insightful Commentary: TBD has had a rough start to the season in Reno or Mobile, as he may or may not have struggled with command and accumulated an ERA of 4.85, 5.08 or 4.62 this season. All joking aside, I have no idea who's going to start in Galarraga's place, but Micah Owings and Wes Roemer seem the most likely candidates. I'm sad that Galarraga's stay in Arizona, and possibly his career, has ended this way, but you simply can't argue with the results he's put up here: 5.91 ERA, 7.20 FIP, HR/FB of 21.0%. That's not going to cut it, and credit to the front office for making a change.
Whoever gets the start gets to face off against Jair Jurrjens, who has been pitching absurdly well so far in 2011. He had a "breakout" 2009 season (2.60 ERA) that looked like a fluke at the time. He failed to get as many ground balls last year, and he suffered because of it. But he's back with a vengeance so far in 2011, with a ERA of 1.66 that is supported by an FIP of 2.51, putting him in elite company. His grounders are back as well, as his GB% is right around 50 (49.6%). Whoever gets called up for Arizona will have his hands full.
Final Verdict: Of the four starting pitchers in this series, two are likely making their first starts ever. I don't have any clue what Teheran is going to do in his debut, and I don't even know who the starter is for the D-Backs on Thursday. Therefore, I predict that the starting pitcher is Micah Owings, and the D-Backs pull out an unlikely victory for him on Thursday to split the series at one apiece.
Get the Braves' side of the story over at Talking Chop.