The Braves' pitching is in a freefall and they know it. After over a decade of pitching superiority, the staff wavered last year. This year it took a nosedive with the departure of former ace and future Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux.
In an effort to correct some of the problems the Braves have acquired Juan Cruz from the Cubs and Chris Reitsma from the Reds. Both have good potential and are still relatively young (25 and 26 respectively). However, both were given up on by their former times. Cruz no longer had a spot in the rotation, and frankly, Reitsma was the Reds yo-yo between the majors and the minors and between the rotation and the pen for the last couple of seasons. Both have some good stuff and have shown great promise at times but haven't been to establish themselves.
Reitsma becomes the righty setup man and Cruz, apparently, will be the number-five starter. Both could have big seasons after working out the kinks with legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Then again, it's more likely that one or both will be a bust. And the Braves gave up three pitching prospects (Jung Keun Boing and Bubba Nelson for Reitsma and Andy Pratt in the Cruz deal).
The Braves either feel that they can contend or don't feel that losing three pitching prospect is too onerous. Well, there's one thing that I am now certain of: the Braves will NOT win the NL East in 2004. It may be the Phils or the Marlins, but not the Braves. I'm sure of it.
A team does not pick up odds and ends from another team and then expect to be a contender. In Cruz's case, he was almost traded for Maddux, who took his spot in the Cub rotation. Considering that the Braves have lost three major members of their lineup: catcher Javy Lopez coming off an incredible season, Vinny Castilla at third, and Gary Sheffield in right field.
This team has succeeded through adversity in the past. Hell, they haven't had a major-league first baseman since, seemingly, the days of Sid Bream. They flip-flopped second baseman for a time, etc. But they never had anything like this.
I expect the Braves to finish closer to fourth than first in 2004.