The architect of one of the greatest championship runs in sports stands on a soft carpet of freshly cut grass, arms folded, his face expressionless as he peers through sunglasses into the midday sun. From his perch in front of the home dugout at Cracker Jack Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., John Schuerholz, the longtime general manager of the Atlanta Braves, soaks in the scene: His starter turned closer turned starter, John Smoltz, is unleashing fastballs from the mound; his new rightfielder, a rejuvenated Raul Mondesi, is taking cuts at the plate; and his new ace, Tim Hudson, is fielding grounders at first base.
Like an artist admiring his finished canvas, Schuerholz watches the Braves' latest incarnation, which he hopes will be his latest masterpiece. "Each off-season brings its own challenges, and this off-season may have presented the biggest challenges we've ever faced," says the 64-year-old Schuerholz, citing a winter in which he lost his top hitter, rightfielder J.D. Drew, and two best starting pitchers, righthanders Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz, to free agency. "But I'm pleased with this team, and I think that we've put together another championship-caliber club ... no matter what people are saying."
Forgive Schuerholz for being defensive, but for the past several years members of the baseball cognoscenti have predicted that the Braves' run of National League East titles, which at 13 straight is the longest in pro sports, would end. However, for the last three years the Braves have made the division as competitive as the 1984 presidential election, winning by 19, 10 and 10 games.
Despite this unprecedented standard of excellence, the naysayers have resurfaced in what has become a rite of spring. "The NL East is the most improved division in the majors," says a National League executive. "[The Braves'] run could be in real danger, because the Mets and the Marlins, with their off-season upgrades, could both be very good." One national publication has picked the Braves to finish fourth.
Third baseman Chipper Jones laughs at the thought. "You know, I bought into that stuff last year," says Jones, an 11-year veteran and a member of the 1995 world championship team. "It was the first time I doubted that we'd win the division, but then we win it by 10 games. That's the last time I'm going to doubt this team."
Atlanta's consistency is even more impressive when you consider that over the last five seasons only four teams in the National League have had more player turnover than the Braves, who have averaged 14 new players on their Opening Day roster each year since 2000. During that stretch Atlanta has used five primary starters at first base, four in leftfield, three at second base and three in rightfield. Since 2002 the Braves have had 12 primary starters in the rotation. This season, as the Mets and the Marlins have spent $196.6 million and $66 million, respectively, on free agents, Atlanta thinks that it has built another title team, while spending less than $13 million on six newcomers.
"You associate the Braves with constancy and stability," says Washington Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden. "But they're always putting a new team together. No one gets players more creatively than the Braves."
Atlanta's formula for success has changed since the '90s, when it won with fat payrolls and dominant starting pitching, anchored by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz. The Big Three have long since disbanded, and the Braves are no longer one of baseball's highest rollers, because of a mandate before last season from owner Time Warner (also SI's parent company) to slash the team's payroll by 20%, from $100 million to $80 million. "We've faced the challenge to be more outside the box, more imaginative with how to put together a team," says Schuerholz, who as he begins his 15th season is the longest-tenured general manager in pro sports. "This winter we had to think way outside the box."
At 9 a.m. on Oct. 12, less than 24 hours after the Braves had been eliminated by the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Schuerholz and assistant G.M. Frank Wren returned to Turner Field to say goodbye to players and outline a plan for the off-season. Their most pressing problems were whether to move Smoltz, the team's All-Star closer for the last 31/2 seasons, into the rotation and shop for a new closer and how to compensate for the probable loss of Drew, who they believed would command a steep price on the free-agent market. (They were right: Drew signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December.)
"We decided that if we could find a viable closer, we were going to move Smoltz," says Wren. Before a World Series game in St. Louis, Schuerholz and Wren bumped into Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin, who mentioned that his All-Star closer, Danny Kolb, was available. A little more than a month later the Braves acquired Kolb for prized pitching prospect Jose Capellan and righthander Alec Zumualt, and Smoltz's relocation was assured.