ATLANTA -- Given the Braves' success during the past nine years, anything less than another World Series appearance isn't acceptable come October.
However, there are challengers to their crowns lurking in the National League East, and Central and for the first time in recent memory a division championship isn't automatic.
"I think the fight for our division will be a lot harder than it has been in the past," four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux said. "The teams around us are better. I don't think we're going to be thinking about the postseason the first week of September like we have in the past."
Perhaps not, but a club that made another major winter trade and is welcoming back Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez, Kerry Ligtenberg and Rudy Seanez is the odds-on favorite to win an unprecedented ninth straight division title.
Scoring runs won't be a problem. The lineup is nicely balanced with speedsters Quilvio Veras and Reggie Sanders in front of MVP third baseman Chipper Jones, while Galarraga, Lopez, Brian Jordan and Andruw Jones provide the muscle.
But for the first time since the dark days of the late 1980s, there are questions in the rotation. John Smoltz's elbow injury has thrust the venerable Terry Mulholland and Tampa Bay reject John Burkett into the mix. If the Braves get 20 wins from the pair, they'll be happy. If Mulholland isn't effective, general manager John Schuerholz will be forced to deal for a No. 4 starter.
The bullpen, which posted the major league's second-best ERA (3.58) last year, should be a strength again with the return of Ligtenberg and Seanez.
Mike Remlinger blossomed into one of the league's best setup men last season, and Kevin McGlinchy should improve on last year's numbers. Closing duties will be handled by several relievers until John Rocker returns from his two-week suspension on April 18.
"There's always doubts about the bullpen, but I think they've proved they can do the job," Ligtenberg said. "Now people think the bullpen is solid and there are a lot of expectations."
After fighting a successful battle against lymphoma, Galarraga is returning from 18 months away from the game. While his bat in the middle of the lineup benefits Jones and Brian Jordan, his presence in the clubhouse is equally important. One of the game's most respected players, having him around every day may negate the Rocker distraction.
"It's great to see his smile every day," Chipper Jones said.
Lopez's recovery from knee surgery is equally important. When he went down last July, the lineup lost a key run producer as well as its best clutch hitter. His return will give Galarraga some protection in the No. 5 hole.
"We probably have a little more speed and versatility than we've had in years past," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "We still have a lot of power and our bench is deeper and stronger. But we still have got to avoid injuries. If this team stays healthy, I like it a lot. But you don't really know how things are going to shake out."
Maddux feels the club hasn't had a stronger lineup since he joined the Braves in 1993. From top to bottom, it's hard to disagree. Veras gives the team its first true leadoff hitter since Kenny Lofton in 1997. With Sanders and Chipper Jones following him, he figures to become the first Braves' leadoff hitter since Marquis Grissom in 1996 to score 100 runs.
"On paper, it's probably the best eight everyday players and bench guys we've had since I've been here," Maddux said. "Defensively, I think it's our best team. There's really not a hole defensively. That makes the pitchers feel better."
The bench is filled with experienced hitters. Wally Joyner will give Galarraga an occasional day off, Bobby Bonilla and Trenidad Hubbard give manager Bobby Cox capable backups for third base and the outfield and Keith Lockhart is one of the league's best pinch hitters.
However, the pitching staff, particularly the starters, is a concern. Maddux, Glavine and 18-game winner Kevin Millwood are Cy Young candidates, but Mulholland and Burkett are wild cards. Cox hoped to use Mulholland in a variety of roles, but John Smoltz's injury forced him to shift the veteran left-hander into the rotation. Mulholland is a workhorse, but at age 37 it's doubtful he can provide 220 innings as a starter.
The staff produced a 3.63 ERA last season, the sixth time in eight years it has led the majors. Smoltz's loss will cause that number to rise, but not enough to top the 4.58 ERA the staff posted in 1990, the last time it was above 4.00.
"The pitching staff is pretty banged up," Maddux acknowledged. "Losing Smoltz is a big blow. Thirty or 40 of the innings (Smoltz would pitch) will have to be picked up by the bullpen."
The lack of depth in the rotation draws the Braves closer to a National League pack that's salivating at their vulnerability. But it's hard to imagine the team's string of eight straight division titles ending this year.
A powerful lineup and strong bullpen will compensate for the loss of Smoltz, so figure a fourth straight season of 100 wins and another run deep into October.
"You look around the National League and some teams definitely got better," Glavine said. "But we've done some things to make us better too, and getting Javy and Cat back is like signing two free agents.
"I don't know if teams are catching up to us because there are some teams right there with us every year. Maybe there are just more of them this year."
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