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From the Sidelines: Bitter endings

For any fan who remained in denial regarding the fall of the Atlanta Dynasty, Tuesday’s virtual give away of Mark Teixeira should be the final piece of evidence necessary for Braves’ fans to come to terms with the fact that the Washington Nationals are the only thing standing between their team and the bottom of the National League East. Unfortunately, that fact applies not only to the current standings, but to the franchise as a whole.

Once the best-run organization in baseball, Atlanta has limped its way back to the middle of the pack.

Atlanta general manager Frank Wren’s trade of Teixeira not only acted as the symbolic waving of the white flag for this season, but confirmed that John Schuerholz’s last trade did little more than gut his team of organizational depth.

In the deadline deal that brought Big Tex to the ATL last season, the Braves gave up power-hitting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, teenage infield phenom Elvis Andrus and three pitching prospects, including left-hander Matt Harrison.

In its desperation to move Teixeira before Thursday’s deadline, Atlanta surrendered him for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek. The latter’s name is likely one destined for obscurity. Marek, once a 40th round draft pick, is a Double-A pitcher who has been pitching in relief for the Arkansas Travelers. While he does have a sub-four ERA, the knock is that the 24-year-old’s minus body can’t keep up with his plus arm. That is the picture perfect recipe for injury problems. And, for those of who were unaware, injuries to its pitching staff are the chief reason the Teixeira is now an Angel.

Seven players were anticipated to have realistic shots at contributing to the Braves’ starting rotation during spring training. Of them, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Tim Hudson entered Tuesday on the disabled list. Mike Hampton has made only one start on the season and Jo-Jo Reyes and Chuck James were each relegated to Triple-A for their struggles. That translates to rookie Jair Jurrjens being the only viable, consistent starter on the roster.

Still, the cornerstone of the deal for Atlanta was Kotchman. In him Atlanta gets a 25-year-old first baseman who is a career .274 hitter. While he is regarded as a strong defensive presence, Kotchman has managed only 31 home runs and 165 RBIs in 1,137 career at-bats. To put that into perspective, Teixeira blasted 37 homers and knocked in 134 runs in the 157 games he suited up as a Brave. Over that stretch, only Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard had more of either.

The Angels have long clung to their belief that Kotchman’s power would ultimately progress. However, for a Braves’ organization in dire need of speed and power, Kotchman offers little of either. In fact, other than his stellar defense, the only thing Kotchman provides that Teixeira didn’t is stability. He is contract-controlled through 2011.

Granted, Teixeira is in the walk year of his contract and his status as a Scott Boras client made it unlikely the Braves would have been able to meet the 10 years and $230 million he was expected to command on the open market. But this deal still wreaks of desperation.

Atlanta is notorious for winning its deals. It swindled Tim Hudson away from Mr. Moneyball himself, Billy Beane, in a 2004 trade with the Oakland Athletics. In that deal, the Braves landed a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter for outfielder Charles Thomas and pitchers Juan Cruz and Dan Meyer. Incidentally, Cruz now solidifies the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bullpen, Dan Meyer boasts a plus-eight ERA and Thomas has provided little indication he is any more than the flash-in-the-pan label with which front office reps branded him during his one productive season in Atlanta.

In his run as the front man of the Atlanta Regime, Schuerholz negotiated blockbuster deals for Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield and a host of other players who helped the Braves along the way. However, his last deal, while meant to solidify a world championship run, ultimately backfired.

Harrison has a sub-four ERA in 15 starts in the Texas farm system. Saltalamacchia should be a fixture in middle of the Ranger lineup for years to come and Andrus, still just 19, had swiped 41 bases in 85 games heading into play Tuesday for the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate Frisco RoughRiders.

All of that is to say that the Braves dealt the speed, power and pitching to get Teixeira and received none of the three in return when they parted with him just 12 months later.

Now, the once-proud organization, faces a 2009 that offers tremendous amounts of uncertainty. The Braves are uncertain if Glavine or Smoltz will ever pitch again. Hudson just learned of ligament damage in his elbow. While the prognosis has yet to be determined, the injury screams the potential for Tommy John surgery, which could make the hurler unavailable.

Moreover, the lineup will still rely heavily on an injury-prone Chipper Jones whose body will be yet another year older. The heart of the order, as it stands right now, would consist of Jones, Brian McCann and Jeff Francouer. The Braves brass has long expected Francouer to continue to progress as a run producer. However, this yearthe right-fielder has taken a step backwards, hitting only .188 with runners in scoring position entering play Wednesday night.

So, with little minor league depth and a chunk of its payroll on the disabled list, Atlanta looks up at the New York Mets, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Florida Marlins. Unfortunately for Braves fans who have grown accustomed to winning, Atlanta may need to get comfortable with its role in the NL East pecking order as there are few indicators the franchise will field more than a .500 ball club for the next few seasons.

Jeremy D. Smith is the sports editor of The Times. You can reach him at 334-289-4017 or sports@demopolistimes.com.