By Pete Trosini, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (101-61) - First Place (NL East); lost in NLDS to Chicago Cubs
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Antonio Alfonseca, RP - Armando Almanza, INF - Russell Branyan, OF - J.D. Drew, OF - Eli Marrero, OF - Gary Matthews, Jr., C - Eddie Perez, SP - John Thomson
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: C - Henry Blanco, OF - Darren Bragg, 3B - Vinny Castilla, 1B/OF - Robert Fick, 1B - Matt Franco, RP - Roberto Hernandez, RP - Ray King, C - Javy Lopez, SP - Jason Marquis, RP - Kent Mercker, SP - Shane Reynolds, OF - Gary Sheffield
PROJECTED LINEUP: Rafael Furcal (SS), Marcus Giles (2B), Chipper Jones (LF), Andruw Jones (CF), J.D. Drew (RF), Mark DeRosa (3B), Adam LaRoche (1B), Johnny Estrada (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Russ Ortiz (RHP), Mike Hampton (LHP), Horacio Ramirez (LHP), John Thomson (RHP), Jaret Wright (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: John Smoltz (RHP).
MANAGER: Bobby Cox
The 2004 Atlanta Braves are coming into this season a bit like Mark Twain, who once said upon learning that a newspaper story stated he had died that "the reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated." With 12 consecutive division titles (not including the 1994 season, when a work stoppage ended the season in August) and the longest tenured head coach with one team in professional sports, one would think the Braves would be getting more respect.
Virtually every major baseball pundit or publication has this year's team finishing behind the Philadelphia Phillies or the reigning world champion Florida Marlins, or both in the NL East. In that regard, maybe this season's Braves are more like Rodney Dangerfield than Twain, searching for the respect they've certainly earned, but seem to be lacking in 2004.
With manager Bobby Cox, pitching guru Leo Mazzone and general manager John Schuerholz, Atlanta has three major elements that have been virtual constants during its run of success. Even though the Braves have cut payroll and lost key cogs such as Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood over the last two years, they still appear poised to make a serious challenge for their 13th consecutive division title.
Bear in mind that even though Atlanta bowed out early in last year's playoffs, falling to the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS, they were still one of only three teams to finish with more than 100 wins in the regular season, and finished 10 games ahead of the Marlins. And that was in a division that, top-to-bottom, may have been the toughest in the majors last year.
Don't believe the NL East was that tough? It was the only division in the majors to have four teams with above .500 records.
But subtracting an old horse in Maddux, along with the amazing production of Sheffield and Lopez, may be even too much for Atlanta to overcome. But the Braves are used to such speculation, as their demise has been reported before, including last season, before their 12th straight division crown.
Atlanta's infield strength lies mainly up the middle, where Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal form one of the best second base-shortstop tandems in the National League. From a defensive standpoint, the speedy Furcal has great range and Giles, once thought to be somewhat of a defensive liability, has become a more than adequate fielder.
Offensively the tandem might be the most productive 1-2 hitters in the National League. With the power quartet of the Joneses along with Sheffield and Lopez hitting behind them, Furcal and Giles combined to score 231 runs and steal 39 bases. But the duo wasn't just relegated to table-setter roles, as they also combined for 36 homers and 130 RBI.
However, the rest of the infield comes laden with question marks. Perhaps the biggest question mark in the infield from a replacement of productivity standpoint can be found behind the plate, where Johnny Estrada is attempting to fill the very large shoes left by the departure of Lopez to the Baltimore Orioles.
Atlanta had been planning this day for some time, as it traded Millwood to Philadelphia prior to the 2003 campaign for Estrada. Lopez, who had been injury-prone in the years leading up to a monster 2003, responded by putting up one of the best offensive years for a catcher in major league history.
Estrada certainly won't be able to match Lopez's 43 homers, 109 runs batted in and .328 batting average, but he has dominated at times at the Triple-A level, and appears ready to make the jump to everyday catcher in the majors.
The loss of veteran third baseman Castilla also leaves a fairly sizeable hole at the hot corner. DeRosa, a former quarterback at the University of Pennsylvania, plays with both heart and brains, a good combination. He isn't likely to hit the 22 home runs Castilla did last season, and doesn't quite have the arm Castilla does, but he should provide more range and a better on-base percentage.
Rounding out the infield will be the rookie Adam LaRoche at first base. The team has high hopes for the youngster who will be stepping in for the departed Robert Fick. Fick was adequate for the Braves last season, recording 11 homers and 80 RBI, primarily at first base. And if the reports on LaRoche are true, he should be able to at least come close to matching that production, and possibly improve upon Fick's power numbers.
The outfield for the Braves last season was perhaps the best offensive outfield in the history of baseball. And with Andruw Jones posting 36 home runs and 116 RBI and Sheffield contributing 39 round trippers with 132 runs batted in, they more than made up for Chipper Jones' "off" year with a mere 27 homers and 106 RBI.
Though the New York Mets' Mike Cameron and Minnesota's Torii Hunter have their backers, it is likely that Andruw Jones has become the best center fielder in baseball, erasing the defensive deficiencies of Chipper Jones. In fact, he may be the best center fielder in baseball in two decades. However, the tremendous trio lost a member when Sheffield bolted for the New York Yankees this off-season.
To replace Sheffield, Atlanta brought in J.D. Drew from St. Louis in a December trade in exchange for Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis and Ray King. The oft-injured Drew has been having a torrid spring, showing the kind of potential that made him a top-10 draft choice on two occasions.
Drew's time in St. Louis was disappointing, to say the least, but the Braves are counting on a bounce-back year from him. He has been working out like a madman this off-season, trying to strengthen his right knee and quad in order to avoid any injury setbacks during this campaign.
The aforementioned Chipper Jones, a former NL MVP is coming off a sub-par season by his lofty standards, but now that he is firmly entrenched in left field, it should take a little bit of weight off his shoulders and help him to rebound.
The loss of Maddux is no doubt going to hurt. True, the multiple Cy Young Award-winner is on the downside of his career. However, he still won 16 games in 2003 and was a stabilizing force in the clubhouse.
Stepping into the role of staff ace last season was Russ Ortiz, who was in his first year with the club. Ortiz won 21 games for the Braves in 2003, three more than any NL starter, and was the top starting pitcher in the NL Cy Young balloting. Ortiz won't strike out a lot of batters, but he's got excellent control and is one of the best hitting pitchers in the game.
Mike Hampton was a pleasant surprise for the Braves last season, joining the growing number of pitchers who have seen an upturn in their careers once they've begun to work with Mazzone. The left-handed Hampton won 14 games after a disastrous run in Colorado sidetracked his career. Hampton gets a lot of ground balls, which is a nice thing in a hitter's park like Turner Field.
The club also added John Thomson from the Texas Rangers in the off-season, and he'll slide into either the third or fourth spot in the rotation. Thomson really began to put things together toward the end of last season in Texas, overcoming spotty defense and even more of a hitter's paradise than Turner Field. The fact that he now gets to work with a wizard like Mazzone should make him all the more impressive.
Ramirez quietly put together a superb rookie campaign for the Braves in 2003, winning 12 games. The young lefty on occasion looked as if he were a 10-year veteran, which speak volumes about Atlanta's coaching and the makeup of the Californian. If all things break right and he avoids a sophomore slump, Ramirez could easily be a 15-game winner in 2004.
The fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs. Ideally, once Paul Byrd returns from the elbow injury that had him sidelined for the entire 2003 campaign, he would fill that void. However, should he falter, Jaret Wright, Trey Hodges, or Jung Bong could fill the final spot in the rotation. Wright, who once started Game 7 of the World Series at age 21, is the most likely candidate.
The Braves' bullpen wasn't especially strong last season, with the obvious exception of John Smoltz, but the group more than got the job done.
After losing relievers Mike Remlinger, Kerry Ligtenberg, Tim Spooneybarger, and Chris Hammond following the 2002 season, the team said goodbye to Roberto Hernandez, King, and Kent Mercker this off-season.
It doesn't matter though because Smoltz, the most important piece of the bullpen, is returning healthy. Another legitimate Cy Young contender in 2003, Smoltz had his bid for the award derailed by injury. But he has still shown time and again that he is one of the most dominant closers in the game, last season pitching to a 1.12 ERA and 45 saves.
In addition to the losers of the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation, Atlanta's bullpen will be manned by new acquisitions Antonio Alfonseca and Armando Almanza, both big men with big fastballs. Neither pitcher had great seasons in 2003, but joining the Braves should help them get the most out of their ability.
Will Cunnane and Kevin Gryboski are both young pitchers who had terrific 2003 seasons and should only get better, especially Cunnane. Both of these hurlers should help make up for the loss of the rubber-armed King, who pitched in an amazing 77 games for Atlanta last season.
A potential surprise would be Jose Capellan, a young man who potentially could make the jump from Single-A ball to the majors thanks to his 100 mph fastball.
The December trade that brought Drew to Atlanta also brought in Eli Marrero, a talented, versatile player who can man first base, either corner outfield position, or slap on the "tools of ignorance" behind the plate.
The team likes Marrero's potential so much that they've already signed him to a one-year contract extension, keeping him in the fold through 2005. That's for a player who spent most of last season on the disabled list, and hasn't played a regular season game for the Braves yet, and isn't even projected to start.
Another player who has spent time in both the infield and outfield is Russell Branyan, who comes to Atlanta as a free agent from Cincinnati. The big, lumbering Branyan has flashed the ability to hit the long ball in the past, but he must stay away from the strikeout.
Gary Matthews Jr. has never been much more than a fourth or fifth outfielder in his career, and it's not likely he will ever be more than that in Atlanta. However, he is still relatively young and may eventually become a starting major league outfielder elsewhere.
Eddie Perez returns to Atlanta after a stint in Milwaukee to back up Estrada behind the plate. Perez, always known more for his defensive ability than his prowess at the plate, showed that he could handle himself a little bit with the bat for the Brewers.
While the Braves may not put up the kind of numbers in 2004 that they did in 2003, there's only one number that really counts, and that can be found in the win column. The Braves will be hard pressed to win 101 games again this season, but they have more than enough talent, coaching and experience to make a run at yet another division crown. Yes, the Phillies are greatly improved and the Marlins now have two World Series titles to the Braves' one since Atlanta's incredible streak began, but the road to the NL East crown still runs through Turner Field.