3 Atlanta Braves A weakened lineup and a shaky rotation spell the end of a divisional dynasty

April 04, 2004

Clemie McNair, an 87-year-old who passes time quilting in
Columbus, Ga., when not watching her beloved Braves, frets about
the 2004 team. Her son, Mac, passed along her misgivings when he
went to Kissimmee, Fla., and sat a spell with his friend Bobby
Cox in the Atlanta manager's spring training office. "Ah," a
smiling Cox said, "your mom would worry if we had Babe Ruth in
the lineup."

The Braves don't have the Bambino, but they do have a babe at
first base (rookie Adam LaRoche). More to Clemie's point, they
are without three players--Garry Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinny
Castilla--who drove in 35% of the runs for the league's leading
offense in 2003 and contributed 104 of the franchise-record 235
homers. Their respective replacements are oft-injured
rightfielder J.D. Drew, unproven catcher Johnny Estrada and
former utilityman Mark DeRosa, who will play third base. Of
course, Atlanta has turned over roughly 40% of its roster
annually over the last decade, but ponder this: For the first
time since 1986 the rotation doesn't include Tom Glavine, Greg
Maddux or John Smoltz. As possible harbingers of a new division
order the Braves were upstaged by the Marlins in the postseason
and outspent by the Phillies in the off-season, all of which
makes everyone in Georgia twitchy except the Braves themselves.
"We're not going to hit as many homers," Cox said, "but we've won
100 games before without hitting many."

Atlanta has one unique attribute in the NL East: a sense of
entitlement, which comes naturally after 12 straight division
championships. Despite the departure of free agents Maddux,
Sheffield, Lopez and Castilla, the Braves' brain trust offers
unparalleled continuity: With 15 years on the job, John
Schuerholz is the longest-tenured general manager in the four
major pro sports; only Jerry Sloan of the NBA's Utah Jazz has
coached longer in one place than Cox has managed; and pitching
coach Leo Mazzone has been in the organization since 1979. "As
long as Bobby's here," leftfielder Chipper Jones says, "this
thing will go on."

"Certainly we can't rely on past formulas," said Smoltz, who has
saved 100 of 108 chances over the past two seasons. "Basically we
depended on superstars to do the bulk of the work, but now that
work has to be done by many players or we're not going to be able
to compete at the level we're used to. In the past the talent of
a few great players overcame our inefficiencies, but those
mistakes were our undoing in the postseason."

If the Braves were a dopey reality show, Smoltz would have earned
the final red rose. He is the last man standing, the lone member
of all 12 division winners (including the 1995 world champs).
That fact is bittersweet: Smoltz is delighted to have pitched for
only one big league club but saddened that the economics of
baseball have driven off his playmates. "I can understand it," he
says, "but I don't have to like it." Apparently healthy after
undergoing his fourth elbow surgery last October, Smoltz could be
the salvation of a relief corps so patchwork only Clemie McNair
could appreciate it. If the pain returns, however, Atlanta faces
the prospect of upgrading setup man Antonio Alfonseca, whose ERA
with the Cubs last year came perilously close to the number of
fingers on his pitching hand: six. Atlanta has a renewed urgency
for the top of its stellar rotation--Russ Ortiz, a rejuvenated
Mike Hampton, newcomer John Thomson and precocious lefty Horacio
Ramirez--to pitch deep into games.

There will be no keeping up with either Jones, a bulky Andruw,
who has sacrificed speed and average for power in recent years,
and Chipper, who returns to the No. 3 slot in the order after his
eighth straight 100-RBI season, but Cox expects the 24-year-old
LaRoche to contribute. He's a gap hitter with a flowing
lefthanded swing that emanates from a stance so open and upright
and casual that he looks like a man at a deli counter trying to
decide between the honey turkey and the smoked ham. The Braves
occasionally will platoon LaRoche with 45-year-old marvel Julio
Franco, who hit .294 in 197 at bats last year.

"We're not as deep," Chipper Jones says, "but I've been hearing
about the end of the Braves' run for five years. Maybe this is
the year, but our mentality is, We can do it again." For Atlanta,
number 13 needs to be a little lucky. --M.F.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO UP AND ADAM Rookie LaRoche must fill a hole at first and pick up some of the RBI slack with his seamless lefthanded swing.
COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES WRIGHT

IN FACT

Rafael Furcal was the only major leaguer to score more than half
the times he reached base last year (50.6%).

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

"For the first time in more than a decade they don't have a true
No. 1 starter. God didn't create an ace when he created Russ
Ortiz or Mike Hampton.... Jaret Wright is commanding the strike
zone better, and he's rid himself of that pigheaded mentality.
He's every bit as competitive, but he's learned to pitch with
controlled aggression.... Lefty C. J. Nitkowski has been the talk
of camp. He has a slider that can get righthanders and
lefthanders out, so he's gone from a situational pitcher to a
setup guy. With the March acquisitions of Juan Cruz and Chris
Reitsma, John Schuerholz has made their bullpen as good as any in
baseball.... Jose Capellan is another bright spot. You're talking
about the biggest fastball since Rob Dibble's, topping out at 101
mph.... I am concerned about their offense. I don't like Mark
DeRosa as an every-day third baseman--he's not going to hit .300,
and he's not a complete enough player.... Adam LaRoche has a
fluid swing and he can drive the ball to both gaps. The question
is, Can he survive the ups and downs he'll experience?"

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

SS Furcal
2B Giles
LF C. Jones
CF A. Jones
RF Drew
1B LaRoche
C Estrada
3B DeRosa

ANDRUW JONES
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 37 .277 36 116 4

CHIPPER JONES
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 34 .305 27 106 2

J.D. DREW [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 88 .289 15 42 2

RAFAEL FURCAL
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 40 .292 15 61 25

MARCUS GILES
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 119 .316 21 69 14

MARK DEROSA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 228 .263 6 22 1

ADAM LAROCHE (R)*
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 170 .295 8 35 1

JOHNNY ESTRADA*
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 149 .328 10 66 0

BENCH

ELI MARRERO [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 152 .224 2 20 0

JULIO FRANCO
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 333 .294 5 31 0

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA
RH Russ Ortiz 17 21 7 6.2 1.31 3.81
LH Mike Hampton 61 14 8 6.1 1.39 3.84
RH John Thomson 106 13 14 6.2 1.30 4.85
[New acquisition]
LH Horacio Ramirez 84 12 4 6.3 1.39 4.00
RH Jaret Wright 200 2 4 -- 1.90 7.35

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH John Smoltz 13 0 2 45 0.87 1.12
RH Chris Reitsma 194 9 5 12 1.32 4.29
[New acquisition]
RH Antonio Alfonseca 242 3 1 0 1.55 5.83
[New acquisition]

2003 RECORD
101-61
first in NL East

MANAGER
Bobby Cox
15th season with Atlanta

New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Triple A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)

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)