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Atlanta Braves
Overall rank: 5 Division rank: 1
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New faces and payroll restraint won't put an end to a long-running success story

By Michael Farber

The fiery Fick will add a much-needed dose of intensity to the Braves' lineup -- and their clubhouse. Chuck Solomon
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."
Although he did not play in 27 games last season, rightfielder Gary Sheffield led the major leagues with 23 game-winning RBIs.
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 28-year-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, 242-game 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.

Issue date: March 31, 2003