ATLANTA -- These Atlanta Braves have a little Augusta National in them. You think their roster is perfectly equipped to dominate the National League again, and what happens? General manager John Schuerholz does his best to tweak it.
They may have established residency in the National League Championship Series the past nine seasons, but it's never been with the same artillery.
"One of the best things about this franchise is we've been able to win using so many different people," said Tom Glavine, the longest tenured Braves at 12 years.
And now, a year after reaching the World Series with a lineup sprinkled with too many reserves, the Braves appear as formidable this coming Opening Day as they were in 1998 when they established franchise records for wins, home runs, runs batted in, batting average and fielding percentage.
That's partly because of an off-season trade to acquire Quilvio Veras' speed and Reggie Sanders' versatility, dumping the one-dimensional players of Bret Boone and Ryan Klesko to San Diego. Veras will be the Braves' fifth leadoff hitter in five years, as Schuerholz continues his search for that elusive table-setter.
Veras and Sanders combined for 187 runs and 66 stolen bases a year ago, and that was for a lousy Padres offense. Supplement them with stalwarts Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan, healthy again Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez, and about-to-burst-out Andruw Jones, and Team Tomahawk may have baseball's most daunting collection of 1-7 hitters around, with or without Ken Griffey Jr.
But there are potholes in the reconfigured roster. No John Smoltz means more innings for pitching mule Terry Mulholland and more starts for Bruce Chen. Even bowler John Burkett could get 10 starts. This may be the first Braves team in recent memory who'll need to win games like they're at Coors Field.
The bullpen, without John Rocker the first two weeks, may need reconstructed arms to carry it, always a tenuous proposition. We still don't know about Kerry Ligtenberg (Tommy John surgery) or Rudy Seanez (stress fracture in his right elbow) or Rocker, a prime candidate for implosion. As with Braves teams of the past, the bullpen, the team's lowest compensated segment, appears most vulnerable.
"Every year, you guys think our bullpen is our problem," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "I think for a team with only nine complete games a year ago, our bullpen was pretty good."
Even with the roster juggling, the National League's still chasin'. There will be a year when the other 15 teams catch up. So who's out there to dethrone the decade-long champs?
The New York Mets? If Bobby Valentine had realized not to throw strikes Chipper's way a year ago, maybe. They've added a front-line starter in Mike Hampton, but losing John Olerud's glove and Roger Cedeno's speed will mean more.
The Houston Astros? How many aces can this team lose and still compete? Gone the last three seasons are Darryl Kile, Randy Johnson and Hampton, who led the NL with 22 wins. The new Enron Field could help Astros bats and hinder the arms, a negligible tradeoff.
The Arizona Diamondbacks? Sorry, but career years by Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley will be tough to duplicate.
The Cincinnati Reds? They won the Griffey stakes, but do they have a pitcher to log 200 innings or post an ERA under 3.50?
The St. Louis Cardinals? They could have the MVP (Mark McGwire), comeback player (Kile) and rookie of the year (pitcher Rick Ankiel). Still, the lineup might be a step below the Braves', the rotation may be asking too much from retreads, and they may need a closer.
Final question: When do the Braves start selling NLCS tickets?
Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.
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