Chuck James was one of my favorite Braves. I even named one of my fantasy teams after him (The Chuck James Show; not very original, I know). He wasn't one of my favorite players in the traditional sense (i.e., he was a superstar playing for my favorite team, like Chipper Jones), nor was he one of my favorite players in the sentimental sense (i.e., a player from my alma mater, a la Huston Street). No, Chuck James was one of my favorite players because to me, he represented the hope of carrying on the Braves' string of championships and playoff appearances.
First, some history. The last starting pitcher the Braves have successfully developed was Kevin Millwood. Kevin Millwood's first full year was 1998. Millwood's best year was 1999, which not so coincidentally, was the last year the Braves made the World Series. He posted this line at the ripe young age of 228 IP, 205/59 K/BB, 2.68 ERA, .996 WHIP, 167 ERA+, 3rd in Cy Young voting. At the time, Millwood was the hope. Unfortunately, he never produced near those stats for the Braves again, and was salary dumped for Johnny Estrada following the 2002 season.
The next year, 2000, was the first for the Braves without John Smoltz in the rotation, and though not felt at the time (they did go one to win 6 more Division Titles, after all), may have been the beginning of the end for the Braves. Why, do you ask? Ever since losing Smoltz from the rotation, the Braves have had a disturbing trend of failing to develop their own young pitching
2001: The Braves try out two youngsters, Jason Marquis and Odalis Perez. Marquis starts 16 games with a respectable overall ERA 3.48 but a disturbing 98/59 K/BB ratio. Perez takes the hill for 16 games as well, posting a 4.91 ERA and a decent 71/39 K/BB ratio.
2002: Perez is included in the deal to LA for Gary Sheffield. Good return. Marquis bombs in 22 starts (5.04 ERA, 1.53 WHIP), thus ending his time in the rotation. He follows Perez out the door following the '03 season. Both have a couple decent seasons for other teams. Damian Moss comes out of nowhere to post a 3.42 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 29 starts at age 25. Braves management looks at his 111/89 K/BB ratio and correctly trades him. Good. They trade him for Russ Ortiz. Baaaaad. This is also Millwood's last year.
2003: At this point, the Braves had been coasting with Glavine and Maddux still at superstar level (or near it), plus an electric Smoltz as closer. After 2002, due to budget constraints, Glavine bolts for the Mets, and Maddux starts his trend down to league average-ness. Combine that with a dwindling payroll, and young players become tremendously important. Unfortunately, the Braves have no young pitching. Prospect Horacio Ramirez enters the rotation, and promptly throws smokes and mirrors a la Moss. He does happen upon a 4.00 on the dot ERA, but combines that with a horrid 100/72 K/BB ratio. It didn't take revisionist history to know Ho-Ram would turn out to be terrible. How we got Rafael Soriano for him I'll never know. Nevertheless, the Braves think it's a good idea to keep Ramirez in the rotation for the next three years. He doesn't repay their confidence.
2004: Maddux leaves. Ramirez injures himself early in the season. Braves somehow win division with a rotation of Russ Ortiz, John Thomson, Jaret Wright, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd. Amazing. At this point, the Braves have a few interesting youngsters: Juan Cruz (acquired from the Cubs) and Jose Capellan. Both turn out to be glorified hard-throwing relievers. They also have Dan Meyer, who they use to acquire Tim Hudson (along with Cruz). Capellan is dealt for the corpse of Dan Kolb. Not one of John's finer moments.
2005: The last division title, thanks to the return of Smoltz to the rotation and the introduction of Hudson. Ramirez sucks again, yet somehow gets 32 starts. Youngster Kyle Davies is introduced, and holds his own in 14 starts to the tune of a 4.91 ERA and a 62/49 K/BB ratio. Did I say holds his own? I meant sucks. But he's only 21! He has potential! Uhh, no. They hold on to the playoff spot thanks to a surprise season by Jorge Sosa and the mid-season of Kyle Farnsworth (playoff performance exlucded). Smoke and mirrors, people.
2006: At long last, Chuck James! At this point, the Braves are done. Their hitting is fine; Andruw Jones and Marcus Giles regress, but they're developing young hitters to go replace them. BFFFL's McCann and Francoeur are the next Braves stars. Adam LaRoche (who would be traded at the end of season) has a monster second half. Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans had ok campaigns in left in '05 and '06 respectively. At least one of those turned out well. So where was the problem? Young starting pitching. Sosa turned back into a pumpkin. Davies...stayed one (8.38 ERA...wow, just wow). Johnny Estrada should've never been traded for Oscar Villarreal and Lance Cormier. But the next hope had arrived! It came in the form of Chuck James, who posted absolutely filthy numbers in the minors. Although scouts had their concerns, James didn't disappoint. In 18 starts, he posted a 3.87 ERA with a 91/47 K/BB ratio and a 118 ERA+. He was young (24), left-handed, and feisty. Armed with a decent fastball and a great change, he had potential. After years of crap in a bucket, this was what I was hoping for. With James and Davies, the chance for the Braves to have the young arms they needed yet again. It was not to be.
2007: James showed a little regression, but I still believed. He went 30 starts, posting a 4.24 ERA and a 116/58 K/BB ratio. He had a propensity to give up the long ball, but if he could just develop a third pitch and get his head on straight...Meanwhile, Davies was already out (5.76 ERA in 17 starts) and youngster JoJo Reyes was horrendous (6.22 ERA and 27/30 K/BB ratio in 10 starts). If we were going to turn things around it had to be with Chuck James. We needed the young pitching. I mean, take a look at the perennial contenders from the late '00s: they all had developed young, solid, dependable starting pitchers, from prospects to the majors.
- Angels: John Lackey, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Jared Weaver (with K-Rod to close...simply incredible development)
- Red Sox: Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz (maybe), and Jon Papelbon (who was 50/50 start/close at one point)
- Yankees: Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain
- White Sox: Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland
- Dodgers: Chad Billingsley
- Diamondbacks: Brandon Webb
- Cubs: Kerry Wood, Mark Prior (poor guy), Carlos Zambrano
- Indians: CC Sabathia
- Astros: Roy Oswalt
- Twins: Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano
- Phillies: Cole Hamels, Brett Myers
I mean, every team had one! (well, maybe not the Mets.) Surely Chuck James would be ours! Right? RIGHT?!? And so we entered 2008 full of hopes and expectations. Those hopes and expectations would be quickly dashed with the exit of Smoltz and Hudson from our rotation. But to me, the biggest downfall was Chuck James and his 9.10 ERA in 7 starts. James was supposed to represent the future. The hope. Almost every team in Major League Baseball has developed someone of substance for its own rotation (I realize we developed Adam Wainwright, but he never benefited us). Even crap in a bucket teams like he Pirates and Royals have got young, established pitchers other teams want. The Braves? They have Chuck James.
And so we trudge forth, hoping the future will paint a different picture. We have our new hopes in Charlie Morton (2008 nonwithstanding), Cole Rohrbough, and our next big thing, Tommy Hanson. But for all the press and coverage we give for acquiring Javier Vazquez, or for failing to acquire Jake Peavy, or for attempting to sign Adam Dunn, or AJ Burnett, or Rafael Furcal, I'm here to venture it's not going to mean a damn thing unless we develop our own pitching. First off, we've got the lineup. We've shown a tremendous acumen of developing young hitting, and it's still coming (Yunel Escobar being the latest example). But we once manufactured pitching prospects that other teams would want, only to quickly realize they were pieces of coal. But gone are the days of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Now we are the team in need of those prospects. And yet, they're still turning out to be pieces of coal. In order to succeed, this needs to change. We need Tommy Hanson (and his motley bunch) to succeed. To prosper. To star. And if not, it's going to be another long climb to the top.
So fare thee well, Chuck James. I had high hopes for you once. May you find second success on another team, a la Jason Marquis. But let us never forget what once may have been, and how the potential of Chuck James turned into 3rd and 4th place finishes.