Braves continue to amaze

Well, today's as good a day as any other to eat my words.

Last spring, I predicted -- and not for the first time, I'm afraid -- the imminent demise of the Atlanta Braves. This resulted, as all my columns about the Braves do, in a great deal of reaction from the readers out there in Internet Land.

So much reaction, in fact, that I created a special e-mail folder. Why? Because I had fantasies of responding, sometime in September, with snide "I told you so" messages.

I didn't save every message. I received well more than a hundred, but I saved only the 30 messages that accused me of unnatural acts that are still illegal in most Southern states and a few of the Northern ones. It was these messages to which I fantasized responding.

Of course, the Braves did finish in first place. Not by 15 games (as one wild-eyed fan predicted). By a comfortable margin, though. I was wrong, and the fans were right. And now I somehow find myself without nearly enough time to respond to each and every person who questioned my sanity (and sometimes my ancestry). Instead, this column will have to serve as an open letter to all those lovely people.

Why was I wrong, and they were right? For one thing, the Braves won four more games than predicted by their run differential. But even if they'd won 97 games instead of 101, they still would have finished first (and their run differential was the best in the league).

The Braves didn't win because of their pitching, either. They finished with a 4.10 team ERA, which was 1) ninth in the National League, and 2) the first time since 1991 that they didn't finish No. 1 or 2 in the league. Granted, there were some fine individual performances, but this team won because of its hitters.

The Braves were adequate at first base (Robert Fick and Julio Franco) and third base (Vinny Castilla), and very good or excellent at the other six positions. Let's look at those six, with an eye on whether the performance could, last March, reasonably have been expected.

    C Ja. Lopez Nope
    2B Ma. Giles Hardly
    SS Ra. Furcal Moderately
    LF Ch. Jones Easily
    CF An. Jones Ditto
    RF Ga. Sheffield Not really

Javy Lopez enjoyed the best season of his career. By far. (And no, there's no real evidence that players in the last year of a contract typically boost their performance significantly.)

Marcus Giles had always been a solid hitter in the minors, but struggled in his relatively brief major-league action. If you believe in minor-league stats, then you had to believe he'd eventually make good in the majors. But not this good (or this fast).

Rafael Furcal played better than we thought he would, but he's now been solid in three of his four seasons, and it looks like his lousy 2001 was the exception rather than the rule. As Ron Shandler notes in his latest book, "Looks like one of the best NL shortstops after all."

Chipper Jones was Chipper Jones, his 2003 numbers right in line with the rest of his career. He's as sure a thing in baseball as you'll find.

Andruw Jones did in 2003 very nearly what he did in 2002.

Gary Sheffield, at 34, enjoyed one of the three best seasons of his career, and certainly his best since 1996. (See parenthetical statement attached to Javy Lopez's paragraph.)

There was not a single member of the Braves' lineup who played below (reasonable) expectations, and four of them played well above expectations. Now, that's not as bad as it sounds, going forward, because it may well be that both Giles and Furcal have redefined expectations. They might really be this good. Unfortunately, the other two are gone. In losing Lopez and Sheffield, the Braves lost two of the five best players in the league. You have to give the organization credit for recognizing that neither Lopez nor Sheffield are really that good.

But how do you replace their production? And what happens to the Braves in 2004?

Oh, no ... You're not going to find me predicting anything but first place for the Braves. Not today, and not before GM John Schuerholz has spent all the extra money he's got, what with Lopez and Sheffield and Greg Maddux leaving Atlanta.

In 2003, the Braves won like they'd never won before: great hitting, adequate pitching. For this, Schuerholz deserves both a great deal of credit and the benefit of the doubt. Sure, the skeptics among you can argue that Schuerholz and the Braves got lucky in 2003, what with all those hitters having career years.

But I know 30 Braves fans who know better.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.