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Posted on: November 23, 2008 11:13 pm
 

Fix This Team: Atlanta Braves

On September 18, 2006, the Atlanta Braves officially ended their unprecedented run of winning fourteen straight divisional titles. Since that year, the Braves have faltered and have been pushed to the brink of the dreaded "rebuilding" phase.

John Schuerholz tried to secure another World Series Ring before he moved up the proverbial ladder to become president of the organization in 2007 and traded away promising prospects Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, and Beau Jones for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. In 2008, the Braves needed to receive compensation for losing these players when a winning season was all but lost. The new GM on the block, Frank Wren, traded Teixeira away to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek.

Last season, there was a certain feel about the Braves team assembled that brought back nostalgia as well as the prospects of winning big. However, after injuries systematically put down Mike Hampton, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and even Tim Hudson, there was great reason to be concerned about the future of the starting rotation. The shrewd trade for Jair Jurrjens added an ace-in-the-waiting, but what was there behind Jurrjens? Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes provided youth and inconsistency to the rotation. Journeymen like Jorge Campillo started out effective and then faded away near the end of the season.

Not only are there legitimate problems finding legitimate frontline starters, but there is a need for a power hitting outfielder as well. Jeff Francoeur struggled mightily this past season. Both center field and right field were power drains. Once Tex left, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones were the only major power threats in that lineup.

Simply put, the Braves need at least two starting pitchers and a power threat in the lineup -- and they have more than $40 million to play with.

The Braves have been rumored to be interested in a great number of pitchers including (but not limited to) Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf, and possibly others by trade. Getting two of these pitchers would be a great success to this offseason. However, as the current prices for those like CC Sabathia and Burnett have skyrocketed, obtaining only one of the listed pitchers may be possible.

So who should the Braves sign?

The Braves should sign both of their starting pitchers here. Trading for Jake Peavy may happen, but what happens if the Braves do not agree to terms with the Padres? They cannot wait forever for Kevin Towers to make a decision. They must move forward and make the splash on the free agent market.

The Braves should sign A.J. Burnett. He has been an injury liability (as well as Ben Sheets), but there seems to be an improvement in innings recorded. Signing a lesser name like Oliver Perez or Jon Garland would also help to add stability to the rotation. If John Smoltz and/or Tom Glavine prove to be healthy enough (and effective enough) to return to pitching, then the Braves should sign them too. Mike Hampton is also a possibility, as he did well at the end of the season last year. Signing these people would make a rotation of Burnett, Perez/Garland, Jurrjens, as well as the other former Braves mentioned -- with Tim Hudson possibly returning from his Tommy John surgery in August or later.

While signing their two pitchers in free agency, the Braves still need to find a left-field power bat. They should do this via trade. Trading for an outfielder like Ryan Ludwick would add tremendous power potential to the lineup as well as solid average, run production, and on-base percentage. Ludwick has had one great year, but the potential is all there to repeat. Giving up a middle infielder in the likes of Kelly Johnson or Yunel Escobar would certainly help in the short-term before outfielder Jason Heyward arrives in the MLB. If Escobar is traded, a shortstop should be signed in free agency (Rafael Furcal, preferably). If Johnson is traded, Martin Prado would be more than a capable replacement.

Category: MLB
Posted on: November 9, 2008 11:37 am
Edited on: November 9, 2008 11:55 am
 

Big XII vs. SEC...Which is the better conference?

This season, more than ever, raises the question of which conference is better: the SEC or the Big XII?

As a fan of the University of Georgia, I have been biased in the past. However, this year, I believe the Big XII has taken the crown. Let's take a look inside each conference:

Traditionally in the SEC, powerhouse teams like Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, and Alabama beat up each other in a race for the championship. It can definitely be argued that these teams in a weaker conference would walk away undefeated, but because of the marquee matchups in this conference, that is definitely less likely. It was not uncommon to see UGA, UF, and TENN very close at the top of the SEC East with one game being the deciding factor on who would move on to play in Atlanta. The same can usually be said with LSU and Auburn (and Alabama this year).

This year, several teams have faltered and have failed living up to expectations -- Georgia being one of them. As a preseason #1, I believed that they would lose one game this year but still manage to wrap up the SEC. However, I could have been farther from reality. Alabama and Florida really exploited the weaknesses of this UGA squad this year and have left them out to dry to play in a non-BCS bowl. Tennessee and Auburn have really struggled with finding a new offensive rhythm. LSU has suffered under the leadership of a freshman quarterback most of the time. Vanderbilt started off the season with victories and made it into the middle of the top 25. That's nothing against Vandy (as they are a good team), but that definitely says something about the complexion of the SEC East.

It has come down to Alabama and Florida. It can be argued that the winner of the SEC championship should play for the National Championship. I, for one, believe that this will be the case hands down. The SEC has been the class of football traditionally, and snubbing either Alabama or Florida would be a great injustice.

Now to the Big XII. Where do I begin? Several teams have improved and have hit the national spotlight: Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Missouri (with Kansas hanging on in the balance). In past years, Texas and Oklahoma were the big powerhouse teams here that had a shot for competing for the national championship. This year, Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech have legitimate shots at becoming the national championship. The problem? They are all in the Big XII south. Missouri takes a hold of the Big XII north, but these great teams have had to play against each other and beat each other up like my example of SEC teams.

Great teams beating up on each other will lead to inevitable losses, even if the losing team could win the national championship. This year, there are more viable teams that could potentially play in a National Championship game or in a BCS game as an at-large bid. This year, the Big XII has more teams that can win (and win big) than the SEC does.

I hope to see an SEC vs. Big XII National Championship game this year. The tough SEC defenses versus the high-octane Big XII offenses would prove to be an excellent game, no doubt.

Posted on: November 3, 2008 8:20 pm
 

A new chapter in Atlanta sports

After watching the Atlanta Falcons dismantle the Oakland Raiders piece by piece this past Sunday afternoon, I came to a conclusion.

Atlanta's sports franchises are on the rise -- all of them -- and they are showing more promise than in years past.

Forget the ownership of the Atlanta Spirit in the Thrashers and the Hawks organizations. Forget the miscues that the Falcons have had over the past forty years. Forget the end of the Atlanta Braves' fourteen year dynasty.

It all starts over now.

Let's start with the Atlanta Falcons. As a preseason favorite to be the worst team in the National Football League by many sports analysts, they are 5-3. That's correct, one more win than the grand total for all of last year. Why is that? Well, first of all, Arthur Blank hired a future GM from the Patriots' organization who has done wonders already in Atlanta with building a team from the ground up -- Thomas Dimitroff. With that and the hiring of Mike Smith as the head coach, the Falcons were set for the Draft. On Draft Day, many Atlanta fans wanted Glenn Dorsey in a Falcons uniform. Matt Ryan could wait -- there were other quarterbacks in the draft. I was one of those who were upset that Atlanta did not strengthen their defensive line.

Boy, am I glad they made that move in spite of my wishes.

Matt Ryan looks like a veteran in the form of a rookie. The Falcons D-line has done relatively well, led by John Abraham and his NFL-leading 10 sacks. Stripping off the age and adding talent has this team screaming for more wins down the road. Will they continue this success throughout the remainder of the season? Nothing is for sure, but there is definitely a bright spot for the future. With Ryan excelling, the Atlanta Falcons can establish themselves as a respectable franchise for the next ten years.

Now, on to the Atlanta Hawks. When the Hawks decided to trade for Mike Bibby without giving up much (in hindsight), I knew that the team was beginning to try to push and win. I honestly thought they would play better and get a spot in the playoffs higher than the 8th seed in a weaker Eastern Conference. Nevertheless, getting that 8th seed was probably the best thing that could have happened for these Hawks. Being able to beat the champions at home for three games brought a sense of excitement to this city -- one that has not been around since the pre-dogfighting Michael Vick days in the playoffs against the St. Louis Rams (or extending even further back to when the Braves perenially made it to the playoffs).

It doesn't matter that Josh Childress left. Let him go. The more important player in Josh Smith stayed around. And with Smith earning a long-term contract with the team, along with a rising superstar in Joe Johnson and tremendous talent and ability in Mike Bibby and Al Horford, the Atlanta Hawks have stopped playing around in the sandbox. They are built to win. After two early convincing wins in the season, they have the chance to push deep into the playoffs.

With the Atlanta Thrashers, everyone knows that there is a major rebuilding phase here. However, as an avid Thrashers fan, I must say that this team is tremendously better than the one that was put out on the ice last year. There is a new legitimate coach in John Anderson who stresses offense as defense. I like this style -- if the puck is always in the opponents' zone, is there a huge need for defense? Shots on goal have already increased since last year, along with defensemen in assisting and scoring goals. The power play is their main problem, along with others, but at least this team is competitive. There sure are Thrashers fans who are completely faithful that see the potential in this team; I am certainly one of them. Kari Lehtonen is one of the most underrated goalies in the National Hockey League. In the past few years, his numbers have not been great. But...look at the number of shots on goal. When opposing teams constantly shoot in the high 30's and into the 40's every night, it begins to take its toll on the goalie. Even with that high number, Lehtonen has done extremely well.

Combine Lehtonen's talent level alongside Ilya Kovalchuk, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Erik Christensen, and Bryan Little, and there is a solid nucleus of players to build around. Zach Bogosian will hopefully turn into a superstar once he is able to recover from his injuries and get more playing time under his belt. The Thrashers are at least competitive and are probably at least a year until getting back into playoff contention. However, the future is certainly bright here also.

The Atlanta Braves are the most intriguing sports franchise in this city at the moment. This city has not experienced a 90-loss season like the performance this year in quite some time. Many of the older players have been banged up -- and the baseball world saw once again what can ultimately happen to a rotation made out of aging arms. From the original rotation set at the end of Spring Training, all but one pitcher missed time on the Disabled List -- Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Mike Hampton (note: all over age 30). The only remaining pitcher was Jair Jurrjens, the newcomer from the Tigers' organization.

Boy, what a trade. Bringing in Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez for a declining Edgar Renteria was the right call by Frank Wren. Jurrjens has the potential to be the new ace of the staff down the road at a very affordable price for the next few years. Hernandez joins a group of elite prospects in the Braves farm system that proves to be promising down the road.

The Braves have many pressing needs to fill -- two starting pitchers and a power-hitting corner outfielder. With the sudden power outage of Jeff Francoeur, this team lost a great amount of it's potency. It went from a lineup featuring a threat in Andruw Jones and Mark Teixeira to without those two after the trade deadline passed this year (although Jones really did not do well in Los Angeles this year, either). The Braves have a great nucleus of players to build around, but acquiring that power threat and two pitchers are a necessity. As soon as that happens, the Braves are back in contention once again. With the right pieces and confidence, that team can dethrone the Philadelphia Phillies as the reigning NL East champs. It will take time, money, and effort though. And, fortunately, the Braves front office have all three.

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have also woken the city up from its football slumber. With the departure of Chan Gailey and the arrival of option-loving Paul Johnson, the Jackets are in a fine position to wrap up the ACC title. I never saw it coming to be honest -- I was certain an option offense could not survive against some of the great defenses of the Atlantic Coast Conference. I was wrong. Tech has looked very good this year and have shown more life than I could have expected. At this pace, they have a legitimate shot at becoming ACC champions and playing in a BCS bowl for the first time in a long time.

As a Georgia Bulldog lover for life, I am extremely disappointed in how UGA has fared in its two losses this season. However, there is room for hope here as well. Remember that many cornerstone players of this team has been lost to injury -- primarily on the offensive and defensive lines. This offensive line has done a tremendous job refocusing its efforts in such a small amount of time. Give them the remainder of this year to gel. Next year, the line will prove to be much more stronger and efficient with more experience among the players. If Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno both stay around for next year, the offense will have some of the nation's top players in key positions at quarterback, runningback, and A.J. Green at wide receiver. There is a bright future here, with tons of depth at each position because of the great coaching and recruiting ability of Mark Richt.

Some of these franchises aren't there yet, but some of them are able to compete for the gold right now. Atlanta has been a dismal city for sports for as long as I can remember -- not more than two really had great seasons at a time. That's close to changing. The tide will shift, and Atlanta can become the new sports powerhouse on the block.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com