ATLANTA - For the Atlanta Braves, the difficult questions lie ahead. Will third baseman Vinny Castilla remind fans of Mathews and Horner - not Oberkfell and Presley - or will Mark DeRosa, who has teased the club for several years with his potential, settle into the hot corner?
Is Horacio Ramirez a wunderkind, or will he flame out like Steve Avery? Will Andruw Jones pull all of his talent together and knock in 120 runs, or take aim at Andres Galarraga's franchise strikeout record? Will Mike Hampton coax his sinker back to life, or has it been left for dead in Colorado's Rockies?
"We have a lot of questions right now," left fielder Chipper Jones said. "We're going to need significant contributions from certain guys on this club, and it remains to be seen whether we're going to get them."
The Braves have been in the playoffs 11 straight times, winning five National League pennants and one World Series. But they have never experienced a winter of discontent like the past one, an off-season that was measured in losses:
The team might top last season's 101 wins, but it will have to do it with four new starters, a revamped bullpen and a new first baseman, Robert Fick.
"We'll have to wait and see, but I think we're going to have a good team," manager Bobby Cox said. "We're strong, but we've got to make sure Paul Byrd gets well."
Byrd, the No. 4 starter, will start the season on the 15-day disabled list with a tender elbow. He is expected to be ready when he's eligible to be activated April 5. But No. 3 starter Hampton joined him on the shelf Saturday after injuring a calf muscle.
The Braves' philosophy remains unchanged, from Tommy Bonds, the first to win 20 games for the old Boston Red Stockings 126 years ago, to Greg Maddux, the slight 37-year-old who has won 178 games since joining the Braves in 1993.
Pitching is the bedrock on which championships are built.
"With the Cubs, it seemed like hitting was more important than pitching," said Maddux, who will make his seventh Opening Day start for the Braves on Monday afternoon at Turner Field against the Montreal Expos. "At Wrigley Field, it was like, let's win 12-10. Here it's like, let's hold them to three runs or less and eventually we'll win."
"If your pitcher doesn't keep you in games, then you can have all the hitting in the world and it won't do you any good," Cox said. "And you've got to manage the pitchers and take care of them. The trick is keeping good starting pitching over a long period of time."
In some ways, there isn't much separating last year's rotation from this year's starters. Glavine has been replaced by former 20-game winner Hampton. Russ Ortiz, who averaged 16 wins during the last four seasons, takes Millwood's spot. Byrd, last year's 17-game winner, comes on board for young lefty Damian Moss. Ramirez, a California kid with a biting slider, has drawn rave reviews for his poise and command of three pitches.
"Obviously, we don't have Glavine and Millwood, but we have guys with good track records," right fielder Gary Sheffield said.
Home run hitters may drive Cadillacs, Pete Rose once remarked, but 20-game winners get you to the World Series.
"I don't care if you're the greatest manager in the history of baseball, there's not a lot you can do without starting pitching," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "If you have good starting pitching, you can figure out something at the end of the game. If you don't, what's there to figure out?"
The team's biggest concern - besides whether Hampton, Ortiz, and Byrd can duplicate the 48 wins Glavine, Millwood and Moss produced last year - is run production from the lower half of the lineup. When Chipper Jones suggested significant contributions must come from certain players, he was referring to catcher Javy Lopez and Castilla, who will probably bat sixth and seventh in Cox's lineup.
"They're huge," Jones said. "We've got to have good years out of them. It's two elements that we didn't get much from last year. It's imperative they come back with some authority."
The pair's decreased production and combined $11.5 million in salary made them virtually untradeable this winter. But the balance of power between the Braves and the rest of the league may hinge on whether they swing thunder sticks or tooth picks this season.
"If we get 25 home runs and 90 RBI from them, can you imagine this lineup?" hitting coach Terry Pendleton said. "But I don't know if there's going to be enough RBI out there with those boys hitting in front of them."
"I say to myself, I have to produce," Lopez said. "I have to be the Javy that people know from the past, that's the Javy I want to be."
For years, the Braves have been written off as too old, too complacent or too successful, but no NL East challenger has been able to knock them off their throne. By the end of October, they will know if a winter of discontent has turned into an autumn for the ages.
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