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," left-fielder 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 left-handed 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.
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