Every year I question the Braves' ability to make the playoffs, and every year they prove me wrong. Therefore, I'm going to officially question the Braves' ability to make the 2004 playoffs. John Scheurholtz is the game's best GM, but has some hard times in front of him.
Surprisingly, the team's strength in 2003 was its offense. But, of this top-notch offense, few players will be returning. Up the middle, Marcus Giles, Rafeal Furcal, and Andruw Jones will all return. As will Chipper Jones, whom has now become the Braves' best hitter since Hank Aaron. But, the team will lose Gary Sheffield, Vinny Castilla, Rob Fick, and Javy Lopez, all whom had big 2003s. The team could go with prospects to fill 1B and C, they have Dave LaRoche and Johnny Estrada ready. Castilla should re-sign, or the team will go after Robin Ventura or Joe Randa. Javy Lopez may get re-signed, but he'll likely be too expensive.
One interesting rumor floating around is Richie Sexson. This team is loaded in pitching prospects, and would probably have to pick one or two blue-chippers, along with Dave LaRoche to do the deal. He would replace Gary Sheffield in the lineup, and allow the team to go cheap in right.
Greg Maddux, the Braves' best since Warren Spahn, won't be wearing an Atlanta jersey in 2004. Right now, the rotation has Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, Horacio Ramirez, and Paul Byrd locked up. They may look within, someone like Bubba Nelson or Adam Wainwright, or sign a cheap free-agent like Shane Reynolds.
What will be really interesting, is the bullpen. John Smoltz will be back in full force next year, but the team must put better arms before him. Kent Mercker and Will Cunnane have been sensational in Braves' uniforms, probably giving the team reasons to not bring Roberto Hernandez and Ray King back. Jaret Wright, Trey Hodges, and Kevin Gryboski should compete for two spots, and Jung Bong and Andy Pratt for another. The team may pursue a big-name set-up man, although I feel that isn't necessary. This is a team that will need the balls to bounce the right way, again, for them to win in 2004.