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Inside Baseball | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Braves Thriving in New World

May 11, 2003|Ross Newhan

So much for vulnerability, for being prime for plucking.

Wasn't that the sense of it in the National League East, where the reign of the Atlanta Braves was perceived to be in jeopardy as General Manager John Schuerholz had to mastermind his most extensive overhaul of a hallmark pitching staff, the bedrock on which 11 consecutive division titles were won?

Well, if they were salivating from Montreal to San Juan, up and down the East Coast, Schuerholz had other ideas.

He said by phone, "What I told people all winter was this: 'Look, we're going to have a good team here, I can assure you of that. I just don't know what some of the names on the back of the uniforms are going to be.' "

A scorecard is still recommended, but there's definite familiarity to the NL East standings, and Schuerholz said, "I have all the confidence in the world we can make it 12 in a row."

Scheduled to open a three-game series Monday night at Dodger Stadium, the Braves began a weekend series against the San Francisco Giants having won 19 of 22 games after a 4-8 start, chilling the optimism of division rivals.

"Everybody was saying, 'Finally the Braves are out of the race,' " center fielder Andruw Jones said in Atlanta. "We said, 'We're going to prove everybody wrong.' "

Motivation comes in different forms, of course.

If people were thinking that the Braves might be in trouble, who could have blamed them?

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's statistical wing, the Braves were the first 100-win team (101, actually) in history to change three members of their rotation -- Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood and Damian Moss all left -- and the first since the 1902-03 Pittsburgh Pirates to jettison two 18-game winners, Glavine and Millwood.

Greg Maddux is now the only regular starter remaining from a pitching staff that produced, as it usually does, baseball's best earned-run average last year, 3.13. But that's not all.

Basically, only closer John Smoltz remains from what had been one of the most effective bullpens in baseball. Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Kerry Ligtenberg and Tim Spooneybarger followed Glavine, Millwood and Moss out the clubhouse door.

"Since 1991, we've averaged 10 new players on our roster every year," Schuerholz said. "The difference this year is that more well-known and well-established Braves' pitchers were part of the restructuring process. The change was more dramatic."

Some decisions were made by the Braves, some for the Braves by players choosing free agency. All generally came down to economics.

The Braves have a payroll of about $106 million, on par with the Dodgers and Texas Rangers, behind only the New York Yankees and Mets.

But, Schuerholz said, if he hadn't made the pitching changes, the payroll would have been at least $15 million more -- unsustainable as AOL Time-Warner is trying to minimize corporate losses and sell the team.

"Talking about and whining about how the economics of baseball stinks doesn't do any good," he said. "I whined about the Millwood trade for a couple days, then got over it. What you have to do is be proactive in managing the economics of your team and the talent of your team, maintaining a balance.

"It's one of the challenges in our game today, and it's a pretty significant accomplishment to have been able to sustain a championship team for 12 years."

It's only May, of course, and no one in the East is conceding.

After all, these aren't the heyday Braves when Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz fronted the rotation.

Can Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds, two of the reclamation projects in the new rotation, sustain their comebacks?

Can free-agent acquisition Paul Byrd regain his 17-victory Kansas City form when the tendinitis in his elbow heals and he finally leaves the disabled list in June or July?

Can Ray King and Roberto Hernandez continue their effective setup work for the almost unassailable Smoltz, whose last 67 appearances before the weekend had been in games the Braves won?

For now, Moss' being 5-0 for San Francisco and Millwood 5-1 with a no-hitter for Philadelphia is part of the price of doing business, part of the fallout of a complex winter of tough decisions. Schuerholz said he couldn't have lost both Glavine and Maddux to free agency

Thus, when Glavine left and Maddux accepted Atlanta's arbitration offer, Schuerholz knew he would be on the hook to Maddux for at least $15 million this year and that he had to deal the arbitration-eligible Millwood.

"I certainly didn't want to trade him to a contender in our own division, but it was my only option," he said.

That, though, was only part of the chain reaction.

There were the signing of Byrd, the trade for Hampton -- leaving the Florida Marlins paying most of his immediate salary -- and the deal that sent Moss to San Francisco for Russ Ortiz, recapturing the experience lost with Glavine and Millwood.

The Braves now have five starting pitchers -- including the sidelined Byrd -- who are or have been No. 1s. The staff ERA during the 19-3 run typical of the streaks the Braves have used to bury the division in recent years was less than 3, and the four new additions to the bullpen had a 9-0 record before the weekend.

Plus, the offense has been averaging almost six runs a game with Andruw Jones leading the league in runs batted in, Gary Sheffield fully recovered from the wrist injury that plagued him last season, and maturing middle infielders Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal providing consistent ignition at the top of the lineup.

The Braves are back atop the standings, with those new names on the backs of the uniforms, and, as usual, the rest of the division is seeing only those backs.

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