-- Atlanta Braves General Manager John Schuerholz let all-star outfielder Gary Sheffield sign with the New York Yankees without much of a fight last offseason, and he all but opened the clubhouse's exit door for former all-stars Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla.

Schuerholz replaced Sheffield's big bat by trading for injury-prone outfielder J.D. Drew, who was on the disabled list six times in his five seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Schuerholz pegged former Ivy League quarterback Mark DeRosa to replace Castilla at third base, and minor league catcher Johnny Estrada to fill Lopez's spot behind home plate.

The Braves' choices to replace starting pitchers Shane Reynolds and Maddux, a four-time Cy Young Award winner, were even bigger gambles. The team signed Texas Rangers starter John Thompson, who had never won more than 14 games in a season, and promoted Jaret Wright from its bullpen. He hadn't won more than three games in each of the previous four seasons and had been plagued by arm injuries.

"That situation would have never happened eight or 10 years ago," third baseman Chipper Jones said, after the star players' mass exodus from Atlanta.

Schuerholz, the architect of Braves teams that have won a remarkable 12 division titles in a row, faced a daunting mandate from AOL Time Warner executives during the offseason: trim $15 million from a $95 million payroll. So Schuerholz went bargain hunting. He traded for Drew, who signed a one-year contract for $4.2 million -- a little more than one-third of the $12 million the Yankees are paying Sheffield this year. Thompson and Wright are costing the Braves about $4.35 million this year, or about half of the $8 million the Chicago Cubs are paying the 38-year-old Maddux.

Early in the season, the Braves played like a makeshift squad with a middle-market payroll. On June 23, they found themselves six games under .500 and trailing the Philadelphia Phillies by 61/2 games in the National League East.

"Shoot, there isn't a guy here, if you gave a lie-detector test" that could say he didn't have doubts about this team, said closer John Smoltz.

But the Braves won 13 of their last 17 games before the All-Star Game, and caught the Phillies on July 15. Despite losing two of three games to the Cardinals at Turner Field this weekend, including a 10-4 loss Sunday night, the Braves have a commanding eight-game lead over the reeling Phillies.

"It's been a lot of fun," Drew said. "We've enjoyed it."

It has been just as fun for Schuerholz, who built a contending club with a payroll of less than $80 million -- more than $10 million less than the Phillies, $40 million less than the Boston Red Sox and $100 million less than the Yankees.

The Braves' Opening Day roster included 10 new players, a rebuilt bullpen and suspect starting pitching. The Braves are platooning rookie Charles Thomas in left field, after DeRosa flopped at third, and Jones moved there from left field to rest his ailing right hamstring. Their platoon at first base includes rookie Adam LaRoche and 46-year-old Julio Franco.

"It's what you think and not what everybody else thinks," Manager Bobby Cox said. "We thought we had a good team when we broke camp. We liked this team."

Two of Schuerholz's more questioned moves -- trading pitcher Kevin Millwood for Estrada in 2002 and acquiring Drew and utilityman Eli Marrero for pitchers Jason Marquis and Ray King and a minor league prospect -- have turned out to be two of his best trades. Estrada was the Braves' only player in the All-Star Game and is hitting .323 with seven homers and 59 RBI. Drew, who sat out Sunday night's game with a mild hamstring strain, is hitting .306 with 26 home runs and 69 RBI -- one homer shy of his career high.

The Braves' starting pitching, the foundation of the franchise in Schuerholz's 13 years, has been even more surprising. Wright, who won 12 games for Cleveland in 1998 but only 17 in his next five seasons combined, is 11-5 with a 2.95 ERA. He hasn't lost since May 22. In July, Wright and starters Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton combined to go 14-0 with a 1.87 ERA.

"It's the same old formula that's always made them successful," said New York Mets pitcher Tom Glavine, who left the Braves after the 2002 season. "I'm not surprised by it. Any time Bobby is managing over there, he's going to find a way to get that team to play well and be in contention. Maybe this is the year he'll get the recognition for how good a manager he really is."

Schuerholz also credits much of the team's success to Cox, who is 28 games shy of 2,000 victories.

"He has proven time and time again he can take a mixture of new guys and returning guys and make a team out of them as well, if not better, than any manager in baseball," Schuerholz said.

Whether the Braves can win in the postseason this year remains the biggest question in Atlanta. The Braves have only the 1995 World Series title to show for their unprecedented postseason run.

"If you put a team together that's good enough to win over [the course of] 162 games, who's to say that they can't win in the postseason?" Schuerholz said. "You've got to hope you've got the hot team when you get to the playoffs."

GM John Schuerholz, left, Manager Bobby Cox have the Braves on course to win their 13th straight NL East title.