1 Atlanta Braves New faces and payroll restraint won't put an end to a long-running success story

March 31, 2003

There is a growing nostalgia among spoiled Atlanta fans, who muse
about free-spending Ted Turner buying back the Braves from AOL
Time Warner and returning to his familiar seat next to the dugout
with a beer in one hand and Jane Fonda by his side. (O.K., with a
beer in one hand.) The harsh business of baseball has interrupted
the reverie of winning a 12th straight division title. For the
first time in his 12 1/2 years in Atlanta, general manager John
Schuerholz was obliged to trade a player, Kevin Millwood, a
28year-old righthander who had won at least 17 games three times
in the past five seasons--in other words, precisely the type of
pitcher whom 29 other teams covet--strictly for economic reasons.
Worse, Schuerholz, whose club lost more than $40 million over the
past two seasons, dealt Millwood to NL East rival Philadelphia.
The Braves' payroll is $98.8 million, which is $20 million less
than that of the hated Mets', and Atlanta will pare it further in
coming years. "All of a sudden big names start disappearing and
you realize it's over, man, it's really over," says closer John
Smoltz, who's been in Atlanta since 1988. "This is a little dose
of reality--and there's been no dose of reality before when
people talked about the Braves."

Atlanta refreshes its roster annually, but Schuerholz has rarely
had to move key players. This winter the Braves lost three fifths
of their gilt-edged rotation--Millwood, 242game winner Tom
Glavine and young Damian Moss--and four of seven relievers from
its fabulous bullpen, whose 2.60 ERA last season was the lowest
since the 1990 A's. "We have new guys in the lineup and a lot of
question marks," leftfielder Chipper Jones says, "but we didn't
exactly bring in a bunch of schmucks to replace them."

Atlanta imported three pitchers--Paul Byrd, Mike Hampton and Russ
Ortiz--who were No. 1 starters elsewhere and reconfigured the
bullpen with hard-throwing righthander Roberto Hernandez, who
will set up Smoltz, and lefty Ray King, who is murder against
lefthanded hitters. Byrd and Hernandez came from Kansas City,
where Byrd accounted for 17 of the Royals' 62 victories (an
astounding 27.4%) last season. Along with first baseman Robert
Fick, an All-Star outfielder with Detroit last year, the Braves
will rely heavily on players from teams that had 412 losses among
them in 2002. "That's like getting out of jail for these guys,"
Smoltz says. "The excitement they bring will help."

Fick is the most intriguing. He is the anti-Brave, a viscerally
intense player who jumped at a $1 million deal from Atlanta after
the Tigers stunningly declined to offer him arbitration. (He made
$1.15 million last year.) Fick was suspended for four games in
2000 and five games in '01 for his role in brawls; he doesn't
start them, but he doesn't exactly stop them, either. "I've got
five older brothers," he says. "It's their fault." Manager Bobby
Cox says the club wanted Fick for his bat--he hit 36 home runs
over the past two seasons in cavernous Comerica Park--but his
openly emotional style also should be welcome on a coolly
professional team that keeps getting coolly knocked out of the
playoffs.

"I went to all the Anaheim playoff games last year; [Angels
second baseman] Adam Kennedy is my best friend," says Fick, who
underwent left shoulder surgery last autumn. "I want to play in
the playoffs. I'm not satisfied just being in the big leagues.
People say I should be, but screw that. I want to win. I couldn't
have landed in a better spot."

Despite the wholesale changes, the Braves did little to address a
somnambulant offense that finished in the bottom half of almost
all major offensive categories. Atlanta failed to add a single
player who has batted .275, hit 20 homers or driven in 75 runs in
a season. The Braves won with pitching and mirrors, scoring just
708 runs, a seven-year low. Gary Sheffield's slugging percentage
declined from .643 in 2000 to .512 last year, while oft-injured
catcher Javy Lopez hit only 52 homers over the past three
seasons. (He hit 80 from 1996 through '98.) The Braves can also
chew on these numbers: Ace Greg Maddux had the second-best ERA in
the league, but he barely averaged six innings per start and
failed to complete a game for the first time in his 16-year
career.

Economics be damned, Atlanta will make its division title run an
even dozen, simply because the Braves are still the Braves. Just
a little different, that's all. --Michael Farber

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO WAKE-UP CALL The fiery Fick will add a much-needed dose of intensity to the Braves' lineup--and their clubhouse. COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/GETTY IMAGES FURCAL

IN FACT

Although he did not play in 27 games last season, rightfielder
Gary Sheffield led the major leagues with 23 game-winning
RBIs.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Braves

"They will be a little better offensively with a healthy Javy
Lopez and newcomer Robert Fick in the lineup. Lopez was in good
shape and swinging the bat really well this spring. Those two
need to take some pressure off Chipper Jones and Gary
Sheffield.... Atlanta subtracted Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood
and still improved the rotation. That's impressive. Paul Byrd can
pitch and is a good Number 4 starter. Russ Ortiz is very similar
to Millwood, so the Braves lost nothing there. I think Mike
Hampton is going to figure it out and be a big winner for them.
When I saw Greg Maddux in the spring, he was painting the corners
like he always does.... I think the bullpen also got better.
Roberto Hernandez was an especially good pickup. I had him at 93,
94 mph this spring. I'd rather have him setting up than closing.
I like Ray King's stuff, and he's durable.... If I were them, I'd
play Mark DeRosa at third base over Vinny Castilla, whose bat has
gotten slow. Also, DeRosa is a much better defensive player....
Rafael Furcal gets complacent on defense and sometimes gives away
at bats. He seems to lose his focus and doesn't go to the plate
with a purpose."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2002 statistics

BATTING ORDER

SS Furcal
1B Fick
RF Sheffield
LF C. Jones
CF A. Jones
C Lopez
3B Castilla
2B Giles

RAFAEL FURCAL

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-R 125 .275 8 47 27

ROBERT FICK [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

L-R 168 .270 17 63 0

GARY SHEFFIELD

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 21 .307 25 84 12

CHIPPER JONES

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-R 24 .327 26 100 8

ANDRUW JONES

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 52 .264 35 94 8

JAVY LOPEZ

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 208 .233 11 52 0

VINNY CASTILLA

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 284 .232 12 61 4

MARCUS GILES

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 225 .230 8 23 1

BENCH

MARK DEROSA

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 245 .297 5 23 2

MATT FRANCO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

L-R 315 .317 6 30 1

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Greg Maddux 24 16 6 5.9 1.20 2.62
RH Russ Ortiz[#] 35 14 10 6.5 1.33 3.61
LH Mike Hampton[#]85 7 15 6.0 1.79 6.15
RH Paul Byrd[#] 71 17 11 6.9 1.15 3.90
RH Jason Marquis 159 8 9 5.2 1.54 5.04

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH John Smoltz 12 3 2 55 1.03 3.25
RH Roberto Hernandez[#] 187 1 3 26 1.42 4.33
LH Ray King[#] 196 3 2 0 1.31 3.05

[#]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page
157)

2002 RECORD
101--59
first in NL East

MANAGER
Bobby Cox
14th season with Atlanta

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)