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For those with excellent foresight, the beginning of the end came in spring training. The Atlanta Braves had just lost lefthander Mike Hampton to a torn flexor tendon, his second season-ending injury in three years. Hampton has long been a pitcher who can pitch well in the number three slot. He may not be the best, but he is valuable.

The loss of one starting pitcher is not an indicator of a lost season. Having to sign the likes of Mark Redman is. Redman missed the majority of spring training, so he did miss quite a bit of time of trying to get into game shape. His first few starts were forgettable, and the Braves released him.

Another injury was that of Lance Cormier. The righthander was nothing special, but with the way he was pitching in spring training -- 1.15 ERA over five games -- he could be considered a worthwhile candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation.

The top two members of their starting rotation, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, could match up with any other duo in the National League. Hampton, Chuck James, and Cormier rounded out a solid, but not gangbusters, rotation.

But the Nos. 4 and 5 slots became a collection of guys who elicited the question, “They are still playing baseball?” Buddy Carlyle, JoJo Reyes, Kyle Davies, Redman, and Anthony Larew. And that caused the ultimate demise of the Braves season.

Starting pitching wins games. It’s plain and simple. General manager John Schuerholz thought he had enough of it collected going into spring training, but there was not enough.

The bullpen was to be a major strength for the 2007 squad, but it fizzled out. The trio of Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Bob Wickman forced many to label the Braves back end of the bullpen as “Nasty Boys Part II.” All three started off well, but Gonzalez went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, Soriano has hit a slump as of late, and Wickman has been released for allegedly putting himself before the team.

Not even an all-in mindset at the trade deadline could save the Braves. Schuerholz looked for starting pitcher, but there apparently wasn’t anything out there. The only starter to be moved on July 31 was Kyle Lohse, who is anything but a staff savior.

Instead, Schuerholz built up an already-strong offense that featured two guys hitting clear over .350 in left field -- Matt Diaz and Willie Harris -- the Jones Boys, and the former roommates, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. Mark Teixeira produced as the Braves hoped he could, but he was not enough to keep a sinking ship afloat.

The Braves, after the games of Monday, are 7.5 games behind the New York Mets for the National League’s east division lead and 5.5 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for the NL Wild Card. Both of these deficits have been made worse by the Mets’ recent three-game sweep. It would be next to impossible for this Braves team to make the postseason.

Is this failure doomed to repeat itself next year? Losing center fielder Andruw Jones is not a good start to any offseason, but the Braves will be getting a full year of Mark Teixeira. Also, Francoeur will be one year older and McCann should finally be healthy.

In the starting rotation, Hampton, who has reached Grant Hill status, should be healthy, along with Lance Cormier or whoever the Braves pick up off the scrap heap for the fifth slot.

The bullpen might turn out to be a weakness, even if Peter Moylan repeats the spectacular season he has had so far. Soriano is ready for the closer’s role, which means the Braves have $6.5 million (the cost of Wickman’s 2007 salary) to spend on another starter or a couple of relief pitchers.

Here’s what the Braves will look like next season, assuming no major changes in free agency/trade.

CF Willie Harris
SS Edgar Renteria
3B Chipper Jones
1B Mark Teixeira
RF Jeff Francoeur
C Brian McCann
2B Kelly Johnson
LF Matt Diaz

SP John Smoltz
SP Tim Hudson
SP Mike Hampton
SP Chuck James
SP Lance Cormier

RP Blaine Boyer
RP Royce Ring
RP Oscar Villarreal
RP Chad Paronto
RP Ron Mahay
RP Peter Moylan
RP Rafael Soriano