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Monday, February 10, 2003
Updated: March 13, 10:54 AM ET
Atlanta Braves

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

The Numbers
2002 record:
101-59, .631 (3rd overall)

Runs scored:
708, 10th in NL
Runs allowed:
565, 1st in NL
Run differential:
+143 (7th overall)

Starters' ERA:
3.42, 1st in NL
Bullpen ERA:
2.60, 1st in NL

Payroll (Opening Day):
$93.5 million (7th overall)
Attendance:
2.60 million (13th overall)

3-year record:
284-200, .587 (4th overall)

2002 in review
What went right?
The Braves captured a division title for the 11th time since 1991, winning the most games in the NL and finishing a comfortable 19 games in front of second-place Montreal. Successful in all surroundings, they won more road games than any other NL team. As usual, pitching proved pivotal in propelling Atlanta into the postseason. The Braves allowed just 565 runs, 51 fewer than the next-best NL team. Kevin Millwood recovered from back-to-back disappointing seasons, winning 18 games with a 3.24 ERA. Plagued by arm woes in the minors, Damian Moss won 12 games with a 3.42 ERA in his first extended major-league duty.

Annually able to piece together quality bullpens out of whatever spare parts happen to be around in spring training, the Braves again worked their magic. Chris Hammond, Darren Holmes and Tim Spooneybarger combined for a 1.68 ERA in 182 innings. On offense, a move to the outfield did little to disrupt Chipper Jones' productivity. Jones' .971 OPS was the third-best mark of his career.

What went wrong?
Of the 14 teams that finished the season with a .500-or-better record, no team scored fewer runs than the Braves. The team's total of 708 runs ranked them 10th in the NL. Needing just one win to advance to the NLCS, the Braves scored only four total runs in the final two games of the NLDS, losing Game 4 in San Francisco and Game 5 in Atlanta. While the pitching staff was mostly a collective bright spot, highly touted right-hander Jason Marquis failed to capitalize on a strong rookie performance, posting a 5.04 ERA in 22 starts and spending significant time on the disabled list.

There was no better option at third base than Vinny Castilla, but the veteran's .613 OPS was far and away the worst among the circuit's regular third basemen. Rafael Furcal's second effort at duplicating his rookie success was no more productive than his injury-shortened sophomore season. Furcal lasted 154 games, but a .323 OBP and 27 stolen bases in 42 attempts weren't what the Braves needed out of their leadoff hitter. Behind the plate, Javy Lopez turned in what was unquestionably the worst season of his career, hitting .233 with a .671 OPS in 109 games.

In retrospect, the critical decisions were:
1. Moving John Smoltz to the bullpen. Despite the team's success in recent seasons, no Atlanta pitcher had ever saved more than 39 games in a year. When the team signed Smoltz to a three-year, $30-million deal prior to last season, it was with the understanding that the veteran would serve as the closer, a role he first handled at the end of 2001. And while Smoltz converted 10 of 11 chances in that initial stint, there was some doubt as to how he'd hold up over the course of an entire season. One rough early outing, eight of the 29 earned runs with which he was charged all season, skewed his ERA, but Smoltz led the majors with 55 saves. He failed to convert just four chances.

Gary Sheffield
Right fielder
Atlanta Braves
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM AB R HR RBI AVG
135 492 82 25 84 .307

2. Acquiring Gary Sheffield before the season. Odalis Perez's outstanding season in Los Angeles proved the Braves paid a steep price in sending the young pitcher and outfielder Brian Jordan to the Dodgers in exchange for Sheffield, but pitching was a commodity they had to spare. The eventual outcome of Atlanta's season was yet another playoff disappointment, but there's no denying that having Sheffield in the heart of the order played a significant role in getting the Braves to 101 regular-season victories and another NL East title.

3. Not acquiring another bat prior to the trade deadline. GM John Schuerholz made a big move before the season acquiring Sheffield, and then watched his team run away with the NL East. So it's understandable that he might not have wanted to break the bank at the trade deadline. But in failing to add another bat to a lineup desperately in need of some help, especially at first and third base, he may have sealed his team's postseason fate.

Looking ahead to 2003
Three key questions
1. Is the addition of Robert Fick enough to spark the offense? There's little doubt that Fick is an improvement over last season's three-headed monster of Julio Franco, Matt Franco and Wes Helms, but the rest of the everyday lineup will look strikingly familiar. And it's not as if Fick represents the same kind of offensive talent that Sheffield brought to the club last spring. Among the 13 NL players with at least 400 at-bats as first basemen, eight finished with a better OPS than Fick's .764 mark for Detroit. He has the potential to improve -- he posted a .816 OPS in 2001 and moving to Turner Field should help his power numbers -- but is this an addition that dramatically improves the batting order?

2. How good is pitching coach Leo Mazzone? Atlanta's pitching has dominated the National League for more than a decade, but this year's staff will likely feature three new starters and three or four new relievers in key bullpen roles. In the rotation, departed starters Tom Glavine, Moss and Millwood went a combined 48-25 with a 3.19 ERA in 620.2 IP. New starters Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz went a combined 38-36 with a 4.45 ERA. Even taking into account the degree to which Hampton's mile-high meltdown skews those numbers, the three new starters have their work cut out for them.

3. What will Lopez and Furcal produce? The Braves know they have a hole at third base and can expect only so much from their options at second, but Lopez and Furcal have shown the kind of offensive potential that could ignite a run-scoring revival when combined with the bats in the middle of the order. But neither Lopez nor Furcal is a lock to live up to his potential. At 32, not young for a catcher, Lopez's two-year decline could be the beginning of the end. And in 233 games the last two seasons, Furcal has shown none of the patience at the plate that made him a dangerous leadoff hitter as a rookie. If both players perform like they did in 2000, Atlanta's offense looks much better.

Stats Corner
  • Chipper Jones (above) batted a team-high .327 in 2002 and also had 100 RBI, the seventh straight season he has knocked in 100 or more runs.
  • Mike Remlinger had a career-best 1.99 ERA and allowed just three home runs in 68 innings pitched.
  • Gary Sheffield batted .359 in the second half after struggling to hit just .265 in the first half.
  • John Smoltz allowed only five earned runs in 31.2 innings pitched in the second half (1.42 ERA).
  • Can expect to play better
    Based on last season's numbers, there shouldn't be much competition for the starting job at second base between Marcus Giles and Mark DeRosa. After entering last season as the starter, Giles battled a hitting slump and injuries before eventually losing his grasp on the job. But if he's healthy, and with the Braves pondering ways to get both Giles and DeRosa into the lineup on a regular basis, Giles should be able to perform like he did in 2001.

    Can expect to play worse
    There are signs the anchor of Atlanta's rotation is starting to rust. Greg Maddux's 2.62 ERA in 2002 was better than his career mark, but the season was far from his most dominating performance. Despite making 34 starts, Maddux failed to top 200 innings for the first time since 1987. He also recorded just 0.59 strikeouts per inning, noticeably worse than his career mark of 0.70. And even with last year's low number, his ERA the past four seasons is 3.07. Maddux's productive days aren't done, but he appears to be on the decline.

    Projected lineup
    SS Rafael Furcal
    1B Robert Fick
    RF Gary Sheffield
    LF Chipper Jones
    CF Andruw Jones
    C Javy Lopez
    3B Vinny Castilla/Mark DeRosa
    2B Marcus Giles

    Rotation
    Greg Maddux
    Mike Hampton
    Paul Byrd
    Russ Ortiz
    Jason Marquis

    Closer
    John Smoltz

    A closer look
    Not since 1989, when only Zane Smith entered the season with as many as 45 career starts, have the Braves faced so many questions about the viability of their starting rotation. Does Greg Maddux have enough left to make a run at another Cy Young? Will Jason Marquis regain the form that saw him post a 3.48 ERA in 2001, or were last year's arm injuries the first indication of a troubling future? Free of Coors Field, can Mike Hampton replace Tom Glavine as the team's lefty ace? Is Russ Ortiz's control -- he has walked an average of 105 batters the past four seasons -- eventually going to catch up with him? And can Paul Byrd possibly repeat last season's unexpected success?

    Atlanta's chances of winning yet another division title hinge on positive answers to at least a majority of those questions, but the attention given the starters obscures an equally important area of concern. The names of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Millwood, Leibrandt and Avery are readily associated with Atlanta's pitching dominance in recent seasons, but the bullpen has played an equally important role. Smoltz is the team's first 40-save closer, but opponents have long fared poorly against Atlanta's best relievers. Consider the combined ERA of the four top relievers (as judged by appearances) in each of the past 12 seasons.

    2002: 2.35 ERA
    2001: 2.98 ERA
    2000: 4.16 ERA
    1999: 2.70 ERA
    1998: 3.48 ERA
    1997: 3.51 ERA
    1996: 3.75 ERA
    1995: 2.89 ERA
    1994: 3.84 ERA
    1993: 2.57 ERA
    1992: 3.66 ERA
    1991: 2.66 ERA

    Aside from the 2000 figure, skewed by Terry Mullholland's 20 starts, protecting leads hasn't been much of a problem. With an offense that isn't guaranteed to score more runs than it did last season, Atlanta needs more of the same. But like the starting rotation, this year's bullpen features one familiar aging ace and a host of unfamiliar faces. Who are the pitchers counted on to safely transfer leads from the starters to Smoltz?

    Roberto Hernandez: Signing the long-time closer has prompted speculation that the Braves might consider returning Smoltz to the rotation. But given Hernandez's declining strikeout totals and rising ERA in recent seasons, they'll be lucky to get a full season of quality set-up work out of the 38-year-old right-hander.

    Ray King: The lefty specialist replaces Chris Hammond, who signed with the Yankees. King pitched well in obscurity for Milwaukee, posting a cumulative 2.91 ERA the past three seasons. During that span, left-handed batters mustered a .212 batting average in 250 at-bats against King.

    Darren Holmes: Coming out of nowhere after missing most of 2000 and all of 2001, Holmes allowed just 11 earned runs in 54.2 innings (1.81 ERA). Was it a fluke? Prior to last season, Holmes struck out an average of 0.86 batters per inning and walked an average of 0.40. Last season, he struck out 47 (0.86 per inning) and walked 12 (0.22 per inning). The strikeout numbers suggest Holmes' arm is fine, and the improved control suggests pitching coach Leo Mazzone has succeeded with yet another reclamation project.

    Kevin Gryboski: An unheralded 28-year-old rookie who worked 51.2 innings with a 3.48 ERA in 2002, Gryboski might have trouble avoiding a sophomore slump. The most damning numbers? Gryboski walked 37 and struck out just 33 last season. Few relievers achieve consistent success with such a ratio.

    Mike Venafro: The combination of a fresh start in a new league and Mazzone's tutelage make Venafro, a sidearm southpaw, an intriguing project. But there's plenty of work to be done: Venafro has never matched the 3.29 ERA he posted as a rookie with Texas in 1998, and opponents hit .308 against him last season.

    Graham Hays is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.