Mike Mills has been a baseball fan ever since his dad took him to see Atlanta's old minor-league team, the Crackers, in the 1960s. Soon after, the Braves came to town from Milwaukee, and he had found his team – even if that meant, as he puts it, enduring "many lean years" along the way.
Still, those early Braves teams gave him no shortage of favorite players – he singles out the likes of Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro and the immortal Rico Carty – and, just as he found fame in R.E.M., a young player named Dale Murphy became the face of the franchise ("He's still my baseball hero," Mills laughs).
These days, with R.E.M. finished, Mills has become an avid fantasy player, and has found a way to combine his love of music with his mania for hardball as a member of the Baseball Project – a sports-centric supergroup that features former bandmate Peter Buck, Linda Pitmon, Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey. Still, he remains a Braves fan first and foremost, and though 2015 might be a down year for the team, Mills is eternally optimistic. Here's his take on the Atlanta Braves.
I have a lot of conflicting emotions; first of all, I'm very unhappy with the move to Cobb County, which I think happens in 2017. Baseball belongs downtown, and I think it's going to be a logistical nightmare getting in and out of those games, and it was done in a pretty shady way. It stinks. And then, the moves made by the new front office – it's hard to say how they'll pan out. It's understandable that they had to restock the farm system; the Braves were an underperforming offensive team last year, second only to the Padres in runs scored, but my problem is they've restocked the farm system with pitching. And pitching is not the Braves' problem. Unless they're planning on trading some of that young pitching for hitting, there's still no hitting and there's still none in the pipeline. So I don't really understand those moves, especially when you look at what Theo Epstein is doing in Chicago; he's turned it on its ear. He's stocking the farm system with hitters, and using the FIP stat to go after pitchers that people might not think were that good, and it's paying off. Jake Arrieta, where did he come from? I'm not a huge Sabermetrics guy, but when something works, you have to give it some credibility.
One thing's for sure: now we find out what kind of manager Fredi Gonzalez is. Frank Wren was a micromanager in the front office, we had a bunch of hackers who struck out a lot, and now the Braves are going to have to play small ball – and small ball requires good managing. I'm OK with [Nick] Markakais coming in, he's a good on-base guy, and apparently they were going for clubhouse guys – [A.J.] Pierzynski, Markakis, Jason Grilli – to help pull this young team together. And if you combine that with an "Us Against The World" mentality, well, that's why I'm optimistic.
A guy like Pierzynski, he's a jerk, but he's one of those guys who can help provide some team unity. I think he will fight for whatever team he's on, and that can inspire younger players. I'm not thrilled to root for him, but I will certainly root for him to do well. If he does something like Brian McCann did two years ago, where he stood up and stopped Carlos Gomez from crossing home plate, I may root for him even more.
Other guys? I'm a Freddie Freeman fan for sure; he plays hard. I would pay money just to watch Andrelton Simmons play shortstop. He's clearly the best defensive shortstop in the game, and if he hits .275, who knows? Christian Bethancourt is definitely a defensive upgrade at catcher; he's got no power and he's not much of a hitter at all, he's there to call games and play defense. But defense and pitching wins games, and I think our 1-4 guys are pretty dang good: Assuming [Mike] Minor's problems last year were from his injury – I think they messed with his motion – I think he's a great number four. I think Alex Wood is going to surprise, and I'm hoping Shelby Miller has the potential that we think he does. And if you've got four starters and a good defense, that's why I'm looking at .500.
Fearless Forecast: I made a bet with a friend of mine that they'd finish at .500, but I'll say they finish 82-80, well ahead of the Phillies but right behind the Mets and the Marlins. My feeling is the pitching is going to be better and the offense can't be any worse, so I'm going into the season with a bit of optimism.