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Following the 2003-2004 offseason, many Braves fans and sports pundits are predicting 2004 to be the Braves unlucky thirteenth season. The loss of superstars Greg Maddux, Gary Sheffield, and Javy Lopez (in no particular order) has left many quick to judge John Schuerholz's moves in much the same way that the losses of Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood were judged following the 2002 season. But if I may say so, there is plenty of room for optimism for the Atlanta Braves in 2004. The Tomahawk Chop should be as lively as it has been in recent years. Despite what seems like an offseason firesale, the Braves are actually left in very good shape. The season certainly cannot be predicted with pinpoint accuracy, but the Braves should definitely be competitive in the NL East, and dependending on the performance of their division rivals, Atlanta could win the NL East for the tenth straight season. Without looking at what's gone out the door, let's take a look at Atlanta's Opening Day roster -- or, at least, what I think it will be, based on this year's spring performances and many years of witnessing Bobby Cox's methods. I confess, before I even begin, that I have actually seen very little this spring; most of my analysis is based on statistics and what I've read about what others have seen. Starting Pitching Just because I think it's more difficult to analyze a pitching staff, that's where I'm going to start. Pitchers are always the toughest bunch to analyze in spring training, because unlike hitters -- whose progress or lack thereof is obvious -- pitchers progress by tuning their pitches, control, and stamina. They're not worried so much about young hitters smashing their #3 and #4 pitches; they're more concerned with making sure the pitch was where they wanted it when the #8 hitter in the lineup crushed it into the right-field corner. Similarly, I believe teams whose pitchers take this approach in spring training are going to have deceptively successful seasons. A team that locates pitches and takes some losses instead of trying to beat the teams who are playing at 50-75% is going to get a lot more exercise. The muscles are going to be loosened and ready to go by opening day, thanks to chasing balls all over the field, and all those other teams are going to be waltzing up with bad expectations thanks to a deceptively easy time in March. But back to pitching, which has been the Braves' trademark for the last 14 years. For the first time since 1986, there isn't a starter named Tom or Greg. For the first time since 1992, there isn't a former Cy Young Award winner in the rotation (though Smoltz still looms in the bullpen). Yet the rotation of Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez, and Jaret Wright form quite a formidable five. A lot hinges on holding on to Hampton's revival, Wright's health, and Ramirez's ability to overcome the mythical sophomore jinx, but even if the best rotation in baseball is no longer in Atlanta, no staff under Leo Mazzone can be far behind. Relief Pitching The same goes for the bullpen. Chris Reitsma, C.J. Nitkowski, Trey Hodges, Antonio Alfonseca, Armando Almanza, and Will Cunnane are the top six contenders for bullpen spots, and closer John Smoltz will be the anchor to bring things to a halt at game's end. Without putting much thought into it, this is adequate. Braves fans will be cursing one or more of these guys in April in favor of the one that's on fire in AAA Richmond, but you have to go with who looks best in March... or the ones who make too much money to be optioned to AAA -- stupid politics. Catcher After the pitcher, the next most important position on the diamond is the catcher, because he's the one working with the boys on the mound for every pitch of the season. Johnny Estrada is certainly no Javy Lopez -- this point has been made overabundantly clear -- but he is an above average catcher, and he will put up good numbers. Forty home runs? No. But a .300-ish hitter with a few home runs and enough production to outperform Javy's three-year splits? You-betcha. Javy may have had a great 2003, but given his history, he is unlikely to repeat his 2003 numbers, and Braves fans should be happy with Estrada behind the plate even if Lopez finds success in Baltimore. Infield The infield looks the same up the middle, and you should expect more of the same out of Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles. Furcal antipicates returning to his rookie-season form of slapping the ball around, getting on base, and stealing bases more than slugging his way around like he did in 2003 -- but for my money, either method works for me if he performs as well as he did last year. The corners look a bit different. Rookie of the Year candidate Adam LaRoche is a young, sweet-swinging, smooth-fielding lefty with 20+ homer power who will probably hit around .300. His glove is also expected to save a few of Furcal's rockets in the dirt, and depending on Mark Derosa's defense at third base, maybe some of his too. Derosa's offense earns him the eighth spot in the lineup, but he's still above average for that spot in the lineup. Some Braves fans are asking why Chipper isn't moved back to third to give someone more productive than Derosa a chance in the outfield. Well, good question! Maybe Cox has faith in Derosa to put up a better season than you think he will. Maybe I do too. Outfield The outfield, of course, is where it's at. Even without Gary Sheffield, the Braves have an outfield among the best in baseball. Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones are consistent both in the field and at the plate, and if J.D. Drew can play for a full season, his bat will provide enough fireworks to keep things interesting in Atlanta. Bench But of course, that's what it's all about -- staying healthy. If any of these guys goes down, the Braves are left to replace him with the likes of Julio Franco, Jesse Garcia, or Eddie Perez. Those guys are qualifiable, and they're great to have coming off the bench, but I wouldn't want them starting in October, if you know what I mean. As for the rest of the bench, I won't venture to guess who they'll be, because if it were up to me I'd probably choose the ones that Cox & Co. are going to send back to the minors. And, in any case, they don't affect the team nearly as much as the bullpen does, so I'm not so concerned. Conclusion In short (if you've made it this far or if you skipped the rest), the Braves do not have the same stellar team on paper that they usually have in April, but there is enough talent present to keep your betting options open for now. Consensus warrants an underdog label for the 2004 Atlanta Braves, and maybe that's just what they need to light the fire for lucky number 13. My prediction: The Braves will finish 92-70, Hampton will be the ace with about 18 wins and an ERA barely over 3.00, and Ramirez will shock doubters with something close to a 16-6 record and 3.40-ish ERA. Drew and 'Druw will outperform their expectations, and Chipper will rediscover his 35-homer stroke to fill the power vacuum. Derosa will be the weakest link, but he'll still do well enough to keep his job, at least until the Braves' expectation for October is certain. Finally, expect Adam LaRoche to be a contender in the Rookie of the Year voting, and expect him to win if the Braves win the NL East.
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