2004 Braves Preview

John Schuerholz has been through this before. The Atlanta General Manager is used to people believing it was time for his Braves' tremendous run to end. Other teams have tried to knock the Braves off their perch before with no success. This year is no different.

With a near 60% turnover in the Braves roster, there are more questions than ever heading into the 2004 season. The 12-year division-winning streak is on the line, and it's never been more in jeopardy with the Philadelphia Phillies doing everything possible to replace the Braves as the Best in the East.

There is no denying the potential impact of losing sluggers like Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Vinny Castilla or the end of the Greg Maddux era. But the key will be to judge this team and its individual players on its merits, not comparing this roster with last year's group that won 101 games. If you simply look at this roster and avoid comparing, for instance, John Thomson with Maddux or Johnny Estrada with Lopez, you will find there is enough talent on here to have a winning team.

It's always been about the pitching with the Braves, and this year is no different. Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz must both win fifteen games for the Braves to be contenders. They are the leaders now, and both have the ability to lead a contending rotation. Don't be worried about their spring ERA's (Hampton – 5.48 and Ortiz – 6.26). These guys simply have to throw strikes, cut down their walks, and keep the Braves in the games. Then they have to go and dominate in the postseason.

Hampton and Ortiz aren't Glavine and Maddux or Wood and Prior, but they are two pitchers who have been very successful in the majors. There are a lot of teams who would love these two at the top of their rotation.

John Thomson has settled in well as the number three starter. He had a 3.32 ERA in his six starts and fits in with Leo Mazzone's style. Thomson won 13 games on a poor Texas team a year ago. The Braves need him to at least win that many again and advance to that next level scouts think he can reach. If we do have a pitcher who has yet to reach his potential, it will be fun to see if Thomson's role can become even more important in a postseason environment.

Horacio Ramirez won 12 games as a rookie in 2003. He's wiser now and has the complete confidence he can win in the major leagues. Don't be surprised if Ramirez becomes a leader on this pitching staff. Ramirez has tremendous charisma that is infectious in the clubhouse. Horacio, perhaps more than any pitcher, wants to continue this string to playoff appearances. He wants to lead the next era of Braves pitchers, and his ability on the mound could make him one of the best young lefties in the National League.

Despite claims he had to win the job, Jaret Wright was pretty much handed the number five starter's role in spring training. After a few rocky starts, Wright showed glimpses of the tremendous future he had with the Indians back in the late-90's. He throws gas, and when he locates his hard breaking stuff, Wright can be dangerously good.

The big question is whether or not Wright can handle significant innings. This could be the most interesting thing to watch early in the season. If Wright has returned to the almost dominant pitcher he was early in his career, the Braves will be very, very good.

But then there's a wildcard in all of this. Paul Byrd is due back on June 1st. Byrd's rehab from Tommy John surgery has gone superbly well. He's throwing at almost 90% and is actually throwing harder now than he did before his surgery. If Wright is doing well as the number five come June 1, the Braves will have a decision to make. Would they move an effective Wright back to the bullpen? Or would they put a $7 million dollar arm in the bullpen?

Antonio Alfonseca's struggles during the month of March forced Schuerholz to go out and acquire Juan Cruz from the Cubs and Chris Reitsma from the Reds. Now an area that looked like a weakness has become a strength. The depth behind closer John Smoltz is important; since Smoltz must go out and prove he's 100% healthy. If Smoltz falters or can't go regularly, the Braves now have a pitcher in Reitsma who can pick up the slack. Reitsma has a fantastic changeup, perhaps one of the best in the game. He had twelve saves with the Reds last season and will probably get a few opportunities with the Braves to give Smoltz some rest. Reitsma is a really good pitcher, and there's little doubt he is a huge key to our bullpen being successful.

Here's hoping Alfonseca will do better with less pressure on him. Who knows with this guy? He throws hard, as evidenced by his consistent 97 mph fastball on Saturday against the Red Sox. But the six-fingered Alfonseca has done nothing to justify the Braves giving him a $1.3 million dollar contract. With Reitsma now on board, it's not as important for Alfonseca to do well. If he struggles, the Braves will simply let him go and bring up Trey Hodges or someone else doing well in AAA.

C.J. Nitkowski is now our main left-handed reliever, and who in the world would have believed that last winter. Nitkowski worked with Guy Hansen before going to spring training and improved his mechanics. The results were tremendous as Nitkowski sported a 1.35 ERA in 9 spring games. With Armando Almanza on the disabled list, Nitkowski is the only lefty in the bullpen. By the time Almanza returns, he'll still be the best.

Will Cunnane's spot in the bullpen is probably in jeopardy. He'll have to pitch well to avoid getting sent out when Almanza gets back in a few weeks. Kevin Gryboski has considerable injury questions, but Cox only uses him with runners on base anyway so maybe he can stay healthy.

Juan Cruz is a pitcher who could really help in various ways this season. If Wright falters as the number five, Cruz could move into the rotation. Cruz has been called "Little Pedro" for his similarities to Pedro Martinez. He has a great, live arm and could help out in the bullpen as a 7th inning guy.

Atlanta's starting lineup will have four new starters. Johnny Estrada has experience as a starting catcher, getting significant playing time in Philadelphia a few years ago. While Javy Lopez was a great hitter, Estrada is a good hitter. The power will not be there as much, but he can hit well from both sides of the plate. Estrada will be an upgrade behind the plate. He does a good job leading the team on the field and working with the pitchers.

Eddie Perez showed the Braves exactly why they signed him last winter with a solid spring. Perez will spell Estrada and give the pitchers a veteran to lean on as the season progresses. Perez could probably start for some teams, so the Braves are fortunate to have a player in this position. Eli Marrero is starting the season on the Disabled List, but he will be the third catcher and play behind the plate only occasionally.

The rookie to watch will be the new first baseman Adam LaRoche. A career .288 minor league hitter, LaRoche busted out with 20 home runs last season to prove to the Braves he was ready for a crack at the big leagues. His .290 batting average in spring training eased any concerns the Braves had over his readiness. LaRoche will be a Mark Grace-type player, but he believes he will generate more power than Grace. Defensively, LaRoche could win a Gold Glove his first year. He's smooth in the field and will be a steadying force at first base.

With all the questions on this team, the middle infield must be a positive. Second baseman Marcus Giles and shortstop Rafael Furcal must continue to provide offensive production at the top of the batting order. You hate to simply want players to do what they did the year before, but if Giles and Furcal do what they did last season, our offense should be in good shape. Giles has had nagging injuries this spring, but he's expected to be ready to go when the season starts Tuesday.

Third base is a question mark, only because Mark DeRosa has never been a regular before. Over the last few years DeRosa has been a tremendous role player with Atlanta, being the first bat off the bench and an occasional starter. But now he's the man at the hot corner, and although you can't expect him to put up the normal numbers you want from a third baseman, his production will be important to the lineup. DeRosa must hit at least fifteen home runs and provide good defense. He showed solid glove work in Florida. You hate to say a player is simply "renting" a position, but there's little doubt Andy Marte is the future at third base. DeRosa must simply give the Braves an above average player while they wait on a potential superstar in Marte. If DeRosa struggles and Marte shines in Greenville, don't be surprised if a change is made in midseason. But for now, the Braves are hopeful DeRosa will be a solid player for them in 2004.

The infield bench is a huge question mark. Not many people are worried about Julio Franco; everyone knows the old man is going to hit and provide solid leadership. But Jesse Garcia, a career .197 major league hitter, and Mike Hessman, a career .227 minor league hitter, are huge concerns. They won't get significant playing time and must produce when called off the bench. When Eli Marrero returns, he'll see action at first base and perhaps third as well. Marrero should be a solid reserve when he's healthy, but he may be it.

Numbers-wise, Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones just need to stay consistent. The world is waiting for Andruw to control the league, and maybe this season is it. Andruw's a guy who has averaged 35 home runs over the last four years and yet you know he can do better. Now that's kinda scary. But he does have the talent to simply dominate the National League. If he can avoid trying to pull everything in site and looking like a fisherman at the plate, his numbers will be even better than ever.

Chipper Jones returns to the third spot in the batting order this season, and he hopes that will increase his power production. Chipper averaged only 26.5 home runs the last two seasons as the cleanup man after averaging 38.25 home runs per season as the number three hitter from 1998-2001. The Braves need that big threat in the lineup now with Sheffield in New York.

Of course, Sheffield's replacement is a huge key to this season. J.D. Drew showed everyone in Florida that he's a hitter. Ask the Yankees parking attendant in Tampa if Drew can hit. J.D. hit one on the road in Tampa way past the right field fence. Drew hit 6 homers in spring (including the one against UGA), showed great defensive ability, and most importantly stayed healthy. If he can keep this up, there will be no letdown from losing Sheffield. If Drew clearly has a breakout season, there's no doubt Atlanta will be in the postseason. He's that important. But to do that he must stay healthy, and Braves fans will be holding their collective breath hoping Drew can remain in the lineup.

DeWayne Wise played well in spring and won the 4th outfield job. Again, when Marrero returns, this will be his main role with the team. But Wise hit well this spring and showed terrific defensive ability. However, this could be a spot the Braves try to improve as the season progresses.

There are offensive players at Richmond who can help if needed in Atlanta. Dave Nilsson is back after taking a few years off and living in Australia with his family. Nilsson spent eight seasons with the Brewers in the 90's and has a career .284 career average. He's gained some weight that will need to come off, but Nilsson showed in spring training that he can still hit. Ryan Jackson and Russ Branyan have also had some success in the big leagues. Both will be in Richmond's starting lineup. Ryan Langerhans is battling shoulder trouble, but hopes to have a solid 2004 season to get the Braves thinking he can help down the road. And Wilson Betemit continues to show flashes of his tremendous talent, but the Braves are still looking for that consistency.

This Braves team will be fun to watch simply because of the unknowns. We've had turnover to deal with before, teams that needed time to gel and get to know one another. But this squad is very new. Fourteen of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster were not with the Braves when the season started last year. So even though this group has played together for the last month, there's a lot of chemistry that needs to be developed.

There are positive signs that chemistry is already in place. Adam LaRoche has been accepted by the older veterans; Chipper Jones especially has taken LaRoche under his wing to make the rookie feel like he's a huge part of this team. Drew has also fit in well, and the players seem genuinely excited about DeRosa becoming a regular.

With the payroll down in the mid-80's range, there may be flexibility for John Schuerholz to go out and get an extra bat or an extra arm late in the summer. That flexibility has not been in place the last few years, but now Schuerholz is able to improve the team if needed. If the Braves are in the race in July, there's no doubt Schuerholz will be aggressive and get the team what it needs. The money should be available (as long as it's not too excessive) and the farm system has the players in place to trade.

This is a good team, and several things could make it a great team. Anytime you have pitchers with the ability to win 15 games, a dominating starter, and several star players in the lineup, you have the ability to be a great team. Who knows if it's good enough to win a World Series, but the pieces are definitely in place to make this club a contender from day one.

Schuerholz has laughed at his critics before. Here's saying he's going to do it again this year. The Braves will win the National League East with 92-95 wins. As Braves fans we all know it's dangerous to predict what will happen in the playoffs, but with the Braves history, other teams will know they'll have to go through Atlanta to make it to the Fall Classic.

Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show." He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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