FORECAST FOR 2004
Lineup: With a strong possibility that Lopez and Sheffield will be lost because of free agency, the Braves lineup could be very different next year. Chipper Jones will likely move back into the No. 3 spot in the batting order, following Furcal and Giles. Catcher Johnny Estrada will likely hit behind Andruw Jones in the sixth spot.
If Sheffield and Lopez leave, Braves general manager John Schuerholz must locate a bat to account for the massive power loss in the middle of his lineup.
Rotation: With Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Ramirez, the Braves have the makings of a talented rotation. The addition of a power-pitcher could make it among the game's best. John Smoltz has offered his services, but the acquisition of Livan Hernandez or Javier Vazquez would also be a huge benefit to this staff.
Bullpen: The Braves' biggest asset of the 2002 season became their biggest problem in 2003. When healthy, Smoltz was as good as a closer could be. But the problem was getting through the middle innings and giving him a save opportunity. Kevin Gryboski, Will Cunnane and Jaret Wright should be key ingredients in the bullpen mix next year.
Biggest need: It all depends on what happens with free agency. If everything goes as expected, the Braves will need to fill a hole at third base and obtain at least one and maybe two outfielders (if Chipper Jones is moved to first base). Mark DeRosa is capable of starting at third base. Sheffield's exit would require the acquisition of a power-hitting outfielder.
One to watch: Adam LaRoche will be given the opportunity to win the starting first base job in Spring Training. The 24-year-old LaRoche has a picture-perfect swing that enabled him to hit .295 with eight homers in 264 at-bats after a June promotion to Triple-A Richmond. In addition, he has a steady glove the Braves have lacked at first base since the days of Andres Galarraga.
Adios, sayonara, buh bye: While it's tough to say goodbye to the likes of Sheffield, Lopez, Maddux and Vinny Castilla, there is a good chance they might all be gone next year. Sheffield appears to have the best chance of returning, but it seems more likely he could be wearing Yankee pinstripes next year.