I've got a feeling the Atlanta Braves won't be hitting the golf course the first week of October this season.
It still sounds strange, the Braves being on the outside of the playoffs looking in the past two autumns. After all, this is a team that always won its division champions, be it the old National League West or the new National League East. When the postseason party began, Atlanta always possessed a ticket to dance in baseball's brightest spotlight.
Then came 2006, when a leaky bullpen helped doom the Braves' unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles. Then came 2007, when the back end of the starting rotation finally imploded in the season's final eight weeks.
Last season's fade to third was unfortunate, indeed. Save the billowing black hole otherwise known as the third, fourth and fifth spots in Atlanta's rotation, the 2007 Braves had the type of team constructed to win in the month that matters most - October. But alas, a team cannot win in the playoffs if it cannot get there.
So, give the Braves credit. As the 2008 season nears with the Braves playing Washington on Sunday Night Baseball, Atlanta has addressed its most dire need and appears to have rediscovered the path to October.
It's a familiar route for a franchise that in the past constructed its success on pitching.
Last season, the Braves had to turn to the likes of Mark Redman, Anthony Lerew, Kyle Davies, Buddy Carlyle and Lance Cormier to round out their five-man starting staff. Mike Hampton? He of the large contract, injured and on the shelf for a second consecutive season. Chuck James? He with a two-pitch arsenal, getting by until opposing lineups locked in on either the fastball or change-up and teed off with fury in the middle innings.
But now Atlanta looks like ... well, Atlanta.
There is warhorse John Smoltz and veteran Tim Hudson anchoring the top two spots. There is the return of Tom Glavine. It's not the Glavine of Cy Young vintage (1991, 1998), but it is a durable veteran who puts up 200 innings a season and figures to be good for 11-14 victories - exactly what the Braves need so desperately in the middle of the rotation.
And now look at Hampton, healthy and pitching like he did before injuries hit.
Fifth starter Jair Jurrjens - the young phenom who the Braves got for steady shortstop Edgar Renteria - looks every bit like one of the Young Guns we watched this franchise produce for years. James, Carlyle, Jo Jo Reyes and Jeff Bennett, leaned on so heavily last season, stand ready to provide depth and spot-starting duties as needed.
Offensively, the Braves figure to score plenty of runs. Renteria is gone, but star-in-the-making Yunel Escobar takes on everyday duties at shortstop.
Kelly Johnson, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann form the foundation for a bright future, and the switch-hitting duo of Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira will more than make up for the loss of
Andruw Jones to free agency.
Much like the rotation and the starting lineup, the bullpen appears stable and deep. Rafael Soriano is the unquestioned closer, locking the revolving door to that position that's plagued the Braves since Smoltz returned to the rotation.
Peter Moylan is among the better set-up men in baseball, Will Ohman is a dependable veteran lefty and Manny Acosta may have the best stuff of any of the relievers.
Getting back to the playoffs won't be easy. The race in the NL East figures to be tight all season. But the Braves have assembled a starting rotation that is better and deeper then the rotations Philadelphia and New York will employ this season, and in the end, that will spell the difference.
The past two seasons have reminded us of a tried and true baseball adage - you win with pitching. The Braves used that formula to win for years.
In 2008, it will lead the Braves back to the NL East title and a return to the playoffs.