|2003 Preview: The Atlanta Braves||| Print ||
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on January 16, 2003
2002 Record: 101-59 - 1st place NL East
Home: Turner Field
The Braves won the NL east running away last year. However the team they field after this offseason may not be recognizable as the team who won 11 straight NL east titles.
The big change of course is the pitching staff. Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood and Damian Moss are gone. In their place are Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd. Still with the team are Jason Marquise and Gregg Maddux. As the rotation shakes out today the rotation would be Maddux, Hampton, Ortiz, Byrd and most likely Marquise.
This is the most dubious rotation Atlanta has thrown in the last ten years. Hampton was abysmal last year, and there is a serious question as to if he can return to being the ace he once was. Byrd has only had three winning seasons in his 11 year career, capped by last years 17-11. If you scratch last years numbers he is only a .500 pitcher.
The surest thing of the newcomers is Russ Ortiz, who lead the San Francisco Giants to the World Series last season. He is moving from one pitchers' haven to another, so no real change should be expected in his game.
The bullpen has been devastated by the loss of Tim Spooneybarger, Chris Hammond, Kerry Ligtenberg and Mike Remlinger. This loss on top of the changes in their rotation could be devastating. Without a good start, either Byrd or Marquise could find themselves the bullpen as a long reliever.
Confounding the picture of course is the fact that John Smoltz will still be in the bullpen. This could be a huge factor if Mike Hampton or Paul Byrd fall flat and the Braves are in danger of being ridden out of the playoff hunt. Smoltz returning to the rotation would be an enormous gamble.
One of the considerations, would be that Smoltz has not pitched more than two consecutive innings since his surgery two years ago. Secondly such a move would further decimate a bullpen which is already weaker than last year. Moving Smoltz after his record setting season as a closer, might risk his health, as well as open a hole in the closer role, which might be very hard to fill.
As it stands the bullpen outside of Smoltz is a unknown factor. Setup man Ray King was acquired from Milwaukee and should be a role player. Darren Holmes and Kevin Gryboski will be back and with the addition Mike Venafro and rule V pick Chris Spurling, the staff may already be complete. However a handful of pitchers may still be in the mix including future starters Jung Bong and Trey Hodges, either of who could knock Marquise from the starting rotation.
This pitching staff will be sorely pressed to come close to last year's season statistics of a 3.13 era and 101 wins.
Last year the Braves offense disappointed. Out of 30 teams the Braves vaunted lineup ranked 21st in offense. Outside of the big three in the Atlanta lineup, the team was unimpressive with the bat. GM John Schuerholz, did not do a lot to address this.
Offensively this team is still has its core, Gary Sheffield, Andruw and Chipper Jones form a powerhouse in the outfield. In the infield the Braves have added Robert Fick, who is expected to play first base, but can also catch and play outfield. He should be a good addition, and hit for a solid average with slightly lower power numbers than most other first basemen.
New catcher Johnny Estrada, picked up in the Kevin Millwood trade, should get the bulk of the catching duties - despite his less than stellar numbers over the last two seasons. This of course is provided that the Braves can unload the contract of Javy Lopez. Should the Braves not be able to get rid of Lopez, Estrada probably will platoon with him, in the hope that Lopez impresses someone enough that they will be willing to take on part of his $7 million contract before the season ends.
The rest of the infield is fairly unimpressive. Third baseman Vinny Castilla at age 35, showed there was little left in the tank last year with a .232 average and 12 home runs. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Atlanta signed another first baseman, moved Fick to the outfield and let Chipper return to his best position.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal will be returning and once again be leading off. His goal this season has to be to increase his on base percentage, and stop striking out so often. Second base is up for grabs, but will probably look something like last year’s Marcus Giles/Mark DeRosa platoon.
One of the biggest changes on this team may not be evident. The trade of Kevin Millwood may have been forced by financial reasons. Its likely that the Braves have been told to bring their budget into line by what their ownership wants. That means they are actively trying to unload their bad (and big) contracts. The biggest of these contracts they really want to unload is that of catcher Javy Lopez( ~$7 million).
Depending on how deep that budget cut is, the Braves might well be dumping salary if not contending at the All Star Break.
Players gone include Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood, Damian Moss, Albie Lopez, Tim Spooneybarger, Mike Remlinger, and Chris Hammond, Wes Helms and catcher Steve Torrealba.
New faces: Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd, Ray King, Robert Fick, Mike Venafro,Chris Spurling, Ray King and Johnny Estrada.
At the moment this is the weakest Braves team in better than a decade, and its hopes rest on the shoulders of a dubious starting pitching staff, a unproven bullpen and a offense which underperformed last year. Two of the three, will have to significantly step up to keep the Braves competitive. Looking at the other teams in the NL east it makes you wonder if the Braves are going to be capable of defending their title. Their demise has been predicted before, but if the season were to start today, I would predict that the Braves would finish third in the NL East.