Twelve straight division titles is a remarkable accomplishment.
Should the Atlanta Braves extend that streak to 13, it would be by far their most surprising.
Atlanta begins the process of finding replacements for several departed players when it faces the New York Mets at Turner Field in the season opener for both.
The Braves have been division winners every season since 1991, but 2004 brings a whole new set of challenges for the organization. Gone from last season’s team are sluggers Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Robert Fick and Vinny Castilla and pitcher Greg Maddux.
By failing to re-sign Sheffield, Lopez, Castilla and Fick, manager Bobby Cox must find a way to replace 115 homers and 397 RBIs. Though on the downside of a Hall of Fame career, Maddux still managed to win at least 15 games for the 16th consecutive season.
Not only has Atlanta lost half its lineup and a reliable starter, but the competition in the NL East is tougher. Philadelphia acquired closer Billy Wagner, Florida won the World Series with one of the game’s best young pitching staffs and the Mets added outfielder Mike Cameron and Japanese shortstop Kaz Matsui.
“From what I understand, they’ve been saying that for the past several years,” Braves pitcher Horacio Ramirez said. “Nobody in here pays attention to all of that. But, for sure, I don’t want to be a part of the team that loses for the first time.”
John Smoltz is the only player left from that 1991 division-winning team—a starter then, a closer now.
“If I had to do it, I wouldn’t pick us to win it,” Smoltz said. “I want us to win it and I think we can win it. But with what we’ve lost and the uncertainties of what we can do, there are other teams that are favored.”
If the Braves are to contend again this season, they’ll need several youngsters to fill the void left by the departed players.
“It’s kind of fun to put this little jumble together and see how they perform,” Cox said. “I think the fans are going to be in for a treat with the new faces. We’ve got a good team. In some areas, it might be better than last year.”
Drew has shown flashes of his potential, but has been on the disabled list every year of his career, never playing more than 135 games. Last season, coming off knee surgery and bothered by a strained side muscle, Drew hit .289 with 15 homers and 42 RBIs in 100 games.
While Atlanta is hoping for a repeat of last season, the Mets would like to completely erase the memory of 95 losses in 2003 and their second straight last-place finish. New York is the first team since Cincinnati from 1956-60 to see its victory total drop four consecutive years.
Cameron and Matsui figure to improve a poor defense while also helping an offense that produced just 642 runs last season, second-worst in the NL next to Los Angeles.
An Achilles’ injury limited Floyd to 108 games last season and Piazza played only 68 games due to a groin problem. Piazza, four home runs shy of tying Carlton Fisk’s record of 351 by a catcher, is expected to see some time at first base this season.
Glavine struggled in his first season with the Mets after 16 years with the Braves. The left-hander failed to reach double-digits in wins for the first since he was 7-17 in 1988.
Part of Glavine’s problem was his inability to beat his former team. He was 0-4 with a 10.35 ERA against Atlanta, but gets the opening day assignment again this season.
“Glavine likes to downplay everything because he’s a humble kind of guy,” Floyd said. “He’ll say it’s just another start for him and hopefully it will be in his favor this year, instead of what happened last year.”
The Mets ran into trouble before this season even began.
Injuries have prevented star shortstop Jose Reyes and Matsui from playing together for a single inning during the spring. Reyes will begin the season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring.
2003 STANDINGS: Mets - 5th place, 34 1/2 GB, NL East. Braves - 1st place, NL East.
METS PROBABLE STARTER: Glavine (9-14, 4.52 ERA). The veteran left-hander will make his fifth opening day start at Turner Field. He was 2-2 with a 3.67 ERA in the previous four with the Braves. Glavine was very hittable last season, allowing more hits than innings pitched for just the second time in the past nine years.
BRAVES PROBABLE STARTER: Russ Ortiz (21-7, 3.81 ERA). Ortiz quietly put together an outstanding 2003 season as the only 20-game winner in the NL. However, he struggled against the Mets, going 2-2 with a 5.96 ERA in four starts.
2003 SEASON SERIES: Braves, 11-8.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Mets - SS Matsui batted .192 (15-for-78) with a team-high 19 strikeouts and made four errors in 22 games this spring. … The Mets made 45 errors in 34 exhibition games. … C Piazza is 6-for-16 (.375) with two homers and four RBIs against Ortiz. Braves - CF Andruw Jones is 5-for-10 with two home runs and three RBIs against Glavine. … Cox had the option on his contract extended Monday, keeping him with Atlanta through the 2005 season. … 1B Julio Franco, 5-for-7 with two homers against Glavine, is expected to start Tuesday.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Mets- 32-49 on the road. Braves - 46-35 at home.
INJURIES: Mets - SS Reyes (hamstring), 15-day DL; RHP Scott Strickland (elbow), 60-day DL; 1B Mo Vaughn (knee), 60-day DL. Braves - RHP Paul Byrd (elbow), 15-day DL; C Eli Marrero (abdominal), 15-day DL; LHP Armando Almanza (elbow), 15-day DL.