Hey look, kids! It’s almost Opening Day 2023! Let’s all freak out over who the Atlanta Braves starting shortstop will be! AHHHH!
The on-going series of various “... Braves since 1990” articles continues, this time with a look at some of the random players who have drawn a starting assignment for Atlanta since 1990.
While it would be fun to look at some of the names who have made the roster on Opening Day, that would take more time than I have, so I’m going to instead focus on the position players and starting pitchers who laced them up on the most glorious day of baseball’s regular season: Opening Day.
As far was what “random” means ... well, that’s a term that is certainly open to interpretation, but I’m going to try to frame it as either a player that doesn’t have a memorable tenure with the Braves or a longer-standing roster member not typically seen as a starting position player (or as a number one-type starting pitcher).
The limitations for this piece are tied to one, super-obvious restriction: the player must have started for Atlanta on Opening Day.
We will take a look at each season, determine the most random player or players per season, then selected the most random player for each decade. Lastly, we will then decide the most random player to start for the Braves on Opening Day 1990.
1990: Ernie Whitt (C), Nick Esasky (1B), Jim Presley (3B), Tommy Gregg (LF), Oddibe McDowell (CF)
1991: Mike Heath (C)
1993: Damon Berryhill (C)
1995: Mike Kelly (LF)
1996: Mike Mordecai (3B)
1997: Kenny Lofton (CF)
1998: Tony Graffanino (2B)
1999: Bret Boone (2B)
The 1990s, outside of that awful 1990 season, only had a couple of random starters. Mike Mordecai and Tony Graffanino were both utility players who had long careers. All three of the starting catchers had notable careers in other organizations. Kenny Lofton should be in the Hall of Fame. Brett Boone, Nick Esasky, Jim Presley, and Oddibe McDowell all had varying levels of success elsewhere.
The two finalists for this decade are Tommy Gregg and Mike Kelly, who both started in left field. Gregg played parts of nine seasons with the Braves and other organizations - having some success as an outfielder and pinch-hitter. He battled injuries (which seemingly happened at the most inopportune time for him).
The winner for 1990s is Mike Kelly.
Kelly was the number two overall draft pick by the Braves in 1991 and made his major league debut as the starting left fielder for the Braves in 1995. He played in 30 games for Atlanta in 1995 and then 97 the following season. He saw time for a few other organizations over a total of six seasons, appearing in a total 327 games.
Here’s the real reason he was the choice. I was there for Opening Day 1995. I remember Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux having their little infield pop-up issue; reliever Brad Clontz making his debut; Fred McGriff hitting two home runs; the Braves handing it to the Giants; and maybe a two-thirds full Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium crowd, since this was a delayed Opening Day after the players’ strike.
But I have zero memory of Mike Kelly on Opening Day ‘95.
2000: Reggie Sanders (LF), Quilvio Veras (2B)
2001: Rico Brogna (1B), Quilvio Veras (2B), B.J. Surhoff (LF), John Burkett (SP)
2002: B.J. Surhoff (1B)
2003: Henry Blanco (C), Robert Fick (1B)
2004: Julio Franco (1B), Mark DeRosa (3B), J.D. Drew (RF)
2005: Raul Mondesi (RF)
2006: Ryan Langerhans (LF)
2007: Scott Thorman (1B), Ryan Langerhans (LF)
2008: Mark Teixeira (1B), Mark Kotsay (CF)
2009: Casey Kotchman (1B), Garrett Anderson (LF), Jordan Schafer (CF)
Three trends that are obvious, even if you didn’t live through this decade as a Braves fan:
- First base was a major problem.
- Left field was a second major problem.
- Random players drew starting assignment in multiple seasons.
I could have easily added Russ Ortiz (SP), Matt Diaz (LF), or the first of three-consecutive Opening Day starts for starting pitcher Derek Lowe, but there’s enough to chew on without those three players. Many of the other names were either prospects or end-of-career types who the Braves brought in for a single season.
Dear Lord at first base.
Canadian Scott Thorman might be the most random starter there for some of you, Robert Fick for others, but I literally said, “huh?!” when I saw Rico Brogna’s name, as I totally forgot the former Philles and Mets first basemen spent time in Atlanta.
The three finalists here are Brogna - who I still am befuddled by - John Burkett and Quilvio Veras.
Burkett was a long-time starting pitcher, who spent multiple seasons with Atlanta and was exceptional in 2001 but was merely average in 2000. This was the era of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. Good career for Burkett, who was also one heckua bowler, but I totally forgot he was an Opening Day starting pitcher for the Braves.
Veras played in 155 games over two seasons with Atlanta, and played well in his first season, but he is someone I - and many of you - have totally forgotten about. If you did remember the former Marlin and Padre, then I doubt you remembered that he started two different Opening Days with Atlanta. Two!
The winner here - and I’ll be honest, I changed my mind on this several times - is Brogna.
As much as I initially thought the honor should be bestowed upon Veras, given he started back-to-back years, I kept coming back to Brogna, who spent the last season of his nine-year career with Atlanta.
Honorable Mention to right fielder Raul Mondesi who didn’t have much left by the time he made it to Atlanta.
2010: Melky Cabrera (LF), Troy Glaus (3B)
2011: Alex Gonzalez (SS)
2012: Tyler Pasternicky (SS), Michael Bourn (CF)
2013: Gerald Laird (C)
2014: Evan Gattis (C)
2015: Christan Bethancourt (C), Alberto Callaspo (3B), Jace Peterson (2B), Eric Young, Jr. (CF)
2016: A.J. Pierzynski (C), Jace Peterson (2B), Adonis Garcia (3B), Erick Aybar (SS), Hector Olivera (RF)
2017: Brandon Phillips (2B), Adonis Garcia (3B), Matt Kemp (LF)
2018: Ryan Flaherty (3B), Preston Tucker (LF)
Take that 2016 Opening Day line-up and blast it directly into the sun. How. Absolutely. Horrible.
Only five years ago - 2018 - the Opening Day lineup included both Ryan Flaherty AND Preston Tucker? FIVE YEARS AGO? (I need to take a minute.)
Sorry about that.
Last decade was rout with names I barely remember and totally would have never guessed started on Opening Day. There were a number of players whose careers were notable, but their time with Atlanta was limited. I didn’t include Josh Donaldson on this list, but guys like Troy Glaus, Alex Gonzalez, A.J. Pierzynski, Brandon Phillips, Matt Kemp, Garald Laird and Michael Bourn were all long-time major leaguers and All Stars.
Melky Cabera will always be everyone’s least favorite Braves outfielder of the decade, even more so than B.J. Upton. Wait, nope, everyone’s least favorite outfielder is Hector Olivera. Unless you’ve forgotten about him by now, which hopefully you have, in that we-really-are-going-to-forget-about-him kind of way. There shall be no more Olivera talk.
Jace Peterson made the list twice - and personally, I’m glad he’s carved out a long career similar to that of Mordeci and Graffanino. Christan Bethancourt’s comeback is also a lovely story.
There are more than two finalists here, because Flaherty and Tucker both have to be included, and Alberto Callaspo is someone I always forget about. Tyler Pasternicky makes the list, as does the person who makes wins this decade.
The winner is Eric Young, Jr.
A) I totally forgot he played for the Braves, and that’s despite the fact that his dad has been the team’s first base coach for a number of years now.
B) I remembered Young, Jr. as a second baseman, not an outfielder. I actually had to look up his career stats to see that he was only an outfielder in his last few stops as a major league player.
C) Young, Jr. only played in 35 games for Atlanta and was awful.
That’s why he beat out Callapso, barely.
2020: Alex Jackson (C), Mike Soroka (SP)
2021: Cristian Pache (CF)
2022: Adam Duvall (CF)
2023: TBD but Sam Hilliard, Orlando Arcia, and Kevin Pillar could all be candidates.
Here’s the deal: If you remembered that delayed 2020 Opening Day battery was Alex Jackson and Mike Soroka, good for you. Maybe you were working from home/taking remote classes because of the COVID shutdown and remember it. I wasn’t and I don’t.
Honestly, I totally forgot that Cristian Pache was the Opening Day centerfielder in 2021. Ditto Adam Duvall last year. I’m not saying that if I hadn’t taken a minute to think about it, I wouldn’t have remembered Duvall being forced into center after Pache was traded, but yeah, I’m not saying I would have either.
Alex Jackson wins this one because Opening Day in late July 2020 will always be one of the great oddities of the sport. Jackson was a decent prospect in the Atlanta system, after the team picked him up from Seattle and moved him back behind the plate, but he was third on the catching depth chart behind Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers. After both d’Arnaud and Flowers hit the injured list on the same day, Jackson drew the starting assignment over fellow prospect William Contreras.
Jackson only played in five games in 2020 - and 19 games across three seasons with Atlanta - before being traded to Miami in 2021.
Most Random Opening Day Starter Since 1990
As a reminder, our decade winners were Mike Kelly, Rico Brogna, Eric Young, Jr., and Alex Jackson.
Alex Jackson has recency bias. Ask me again in 10 years, and he might well be the answer for the 2020s, but there’s a lot of years until then.
Young, Jr’s name itself isn’t random. But as a Braves Opening Day starter - in center field, no less - is.
The top of the 1991 draft was a disaster. What a bad year to have a top 10 pick as only Dmitri Young (4) and Joey Hamilton (8) produced double-digit bWAR and Kelly was the only other player to put up a positive bWAR, and that was by the slimmest of margins.
Kelly’s lack of success at the major league level isn’t remembered like a fellow outfield prospect from a decade earlier - Brad Komminsk - in part because of the success the team had in the 1990s and in 1995, specifically. World Champions, baby!
When I got to 1995, and saw Kelly’s name, I thought there was no way he wouldn’t be the winner.
I was wrong.
Five first basemen started for Atlanta in 2001 - Wes Helms, Ken Caminiti, Julio Franco, Dave Martinez, and the winner for the most random Braves starter: Rico Brogna.
The blackhole the Braves had at first base for most of the 2000s started with Brogna. Not that it was his fault, he hadn’t been an above average performer for several years when Atlanta gave him the starting assignment, but the Braves had come off of a decade of high-quality first base performances ranging from David Justice and Ryan Klesko to Fred McGriff and Andres Galarraga.
It was so bad, the organization brought Julio Franco from out of nowhere to be the starting first baseman at the end of the season after two third basemen and an outfielder took turns trying to make up for Brogna’s lack or production.
And Yet ...
Recency bias played a role, yet again, in the final decision because Ryan Flahery and Preston Tucker should probably have been considered for this honor more seriously than they were. So should multiple members of that 1990 squad that many of you are too young to remember.
There’s a part of me - a big part - that thinks the overall winner should have been Alberto Callaspo, who was the Damaso Garcia of his era.
Garcia, if you don’t recall, was the Braves starting second baseman in 1988, but only spent 20-something games with the team. He is far-and-away the most random Braves Opening Day starter during the 1980s, at least from the position player side of things. Tommy Boggs as an Opening Day starting pitcher is a close second.
Maybe, just maybe, I should have chosen Callaspo.
Relax, This Is Supposed To Be Fun
With all the consternation around the 2023 Opening Day lineup - one that could yield some surprises because of the team’s shortstop and left field situation - it’s worth taking a little bit of time to relax and realize that his happens almost every year.
Just look at the lists above!
In my estimation, there were only three seasons with no surprise or random players. That’s just the starting line-up - to say nothing of the final bullpen spots or the last bench spot.
So yeah, let’s all reduce our stress level a little by taking some time to collect ourselves, take a few deep breaths and say together:
“Jorge Sosa, Adam Bernero, Ramon Colon, Tom Martin”
“Jorge Sosa, Adam Bernero, Ramon Colon, Tom Martin”
“Jorge Sosa, Adam Bernero, Ramon Colon, Tom Martin”
Repeat that a few more times, if you need to. Random, forgotten relievers make everything better.
But that’s an article for another time.
(It should have been Alberto Callapso, shouldn’t it?)