Originally created 02/20/03

Braves still consider themselves team to beat



KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Bobby Cox arrived at his office before the sun came up Wednesday, all pumped up for another baseball season.

Never mind that Tom Glavine now pitches for the New York Mets. Never mind that Kevin Millwood now wears the uniform of the Philadelphia Phillies.

In Cox's mind, nothing much has changed: The Atlanta Braves are still the team to beat - just as they have been for more than a decade.

"We lost some big names, but we also gained some big names," Cox said. "I think we're strong as ever."

Indeed, even with the loss of 18-game winners Glavine and Millwood, the Braves still have a rotation that won 62 times last season. They still have John Smoltz and his 55 saves anchoring the bullpen. They still have Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield to drive in a bunch of runs.

"The atmosphere around here is unbelievable," said newcomer Robert Fick, who spent last season losing 106 games with the Detroit Tigers. "They know they're going to the playoffs."

Atlanta has been to the playoffs 11 years in a row, an unprecedented baseball achievement. But nothing lasts forever, and there are certainly indications that this franchise is about to enter a Brave new world.

Corporate owner AOL Time Warner reported the largest loss in U.S. history and is willing to sell the Braves should the right offer come along. In the meantime, the team is trying to improve its bottom line, having endured five straight years of declining attendance and millions of dollars in red ink.

The Braves will probably cut payroll about $3 million this season, having accomplished that goal with a couple of gut-wrenching moves. First, they failed to re-sign Glavine, who had spent his entire career in Atlanta until he went to the NL East rival Mets. Then, the Braves practically gave away Millwood to another division foe, trading him to Philadelphia for minor-league catcher Johnny Estrada.

At the end of this season, things could get really messy. Greg Maddux re-signed for the largest one-year contract in baseball history, $14.75 million, but this will likely be his Atlanta farewell. Sheffield will make $11 million in the final year of his contract and isn't optimistic about returning for 2004.

"I want to be here, but sometimes things don't work out," Sheffield said. "I've already been part of two fire sales because of money. I understand the situation."

The Braves did a major overhaul to the pitching staff, which has long been the key to their success. Maddux will be joined in the starting rotation by newcomers Russ Ortiz, Paul Byrd and Mike Hampton. Smoltz is still the closer, but Ray King and Roberto Hernandez will probably be setting things up after being acquired in the offseason.

Byrd, who pitched for the Braves in the 1990s when money wasn't such a concern, re-signed with Atlanta after winning 17 games for the 100-loss Kansas City Royals a year ago.

"Some of the names have changed," he said. "But they got some quality players to replace them. To me, this team is just as good as ever. Coming from Kansas City, I don't have any complaints."

Maddux (16-6, 2.62 ERA), Byrd (17-11, 3.90) and Ortiz (14-10, 3.61) are a solid group at the top of the rotation, and the Braves are counting on a comeback from Hampton, whose career went horribly off-course during two years in Colorado. The left-hander was 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA in 2002 - just three years removed from a 22-4 season.

"They get guys who are winners," Fick said. "Look at Hampton, Byrd and Ortiz. Those guys are bulldogs. There may be games where they're pitching like crap, but they're not quitting."

Smoltz scoffs at those who are predicting Atlanta's downfall. After all, this franchise does know a thing or two about winning in transition.

Look no further than Smoltz, the last holdover from the 1991 team that started this amazing streak of 11 straight division titles.

"We've had teams gunning for us every year," he said. "I'm sure teams like the Mets and the Phillies don't come to camp thinking they're just going to let us win it."

Smoltz started his career for the Braves in the late '80s, when they were one of the worst teams in the majors. He doesn't want to go back to the bad ol' days.

"I refuse to give in," he said. "I put on this uniform with pride. I was here in years past when we were the laughingstock of baseball."