Braves no longer dominant, but still dangerous

Posted: March 26, 2007

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - It seems as if all the talk about the National League East this off-season has centered on the Mets and Phillies.

The Mets are the defending champions and the Phillies, according to Jimmy Rollins, are the team to beat.

Little regard has been given to the team that will be in Philadelphia to open the season next week. The Atlanta Braves relinquished their streak of 14 straight division titles, including 11 straight in the NL East, last year, and now it seems as if everyone has forgotten about them.

Chipper Jones thinks that's a mistake.

"If they choose to overlook us, there's nothing we can do about it," he said. "But we'll be heard from. We'll have impact. We're as good as anybody in the division. Everybody here wants to get back to the playoffs."

Braves manager Bobby Cox thinks his team was as good as anybody in the division last year. That 79-83 record and third-place finish, he says, was directly attributable to a bad bullpen.

"We had a good team last year," he said. "We had one little soft spot and it showed up."

Showed up in the form of a league-high 29 blown saves.

"Horrible," he said. "If we had just a bad year and blew only 20, I think we're in the postseason."

Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz began addressing his team's major weakness in the second half of last season, when he acquired veteran righthander Bob Wickman, who took the adventure out of the closer's role with 18 saves in 19 chances.

The retooling continued this winter when Schuerholz picked up lefty Mike Gonzalez and hard-throwing righthander Rafael Soriano in a pair of trades. Gonzalez had 24 saves and a 2.17 ERA in 54 games for Pittsburgh last year. Soriano had a 2.25 ERA in 53 games for Seattle. They join workhorse Chad Paronto and lefty Macay McBride in a bullpen that should be a solid bridge from what looks like a good rotation to Wickman.

"We're vastly improved in the bullpen," Cox said. "If we have those guys last year, we're in the postseason."

You have to go back to 1990 to find the last time that Braves hadn't made the postseason.

"I enjoy pitching at that time of year," said John Smoltz, the Braves' ace. "Watching it - it's not a lot of fun."

Smoltz, who'll face the Phillies on opening day, is known for being brutally honest. He's not happy about the way the Braves played the last several years, even as they were winning division titles. The Braves were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs four straight seasons, 2002 to 2005.

"I don't think the streak ending should be a motivator," he said. "That would imply that the previous three or four years were successful. We just weren't very good last year and we weren't for a couple years prior to that, but the streak got continued."

Smoltz likes the way this team has been put together.

"We're getting close to the formula that takes you to the postseason with a chance to win it all - that's pitching," he said.

It all starts with Smoltz. He'll turn 40 in May, but he's still one of the best in the game, a righthander with overpowering stuff. And he could be as good as ever with a free-agent contract on the line. Smoltz won 16 games last year and he might have gone over 20 if the bullpen hadn't blown six of his late leads.

Tim Hudson, Chuck James and Mark Redman follow Smoltz in the rotation, with Kyle Davies and Lance Cormier battling for the fifth spot. Hudson, a stalwart during his six seasons in Oakland, is just 27-21 in two seasons in Atlanta, but seems primed for a big season after a new winter conditioning program.

The Braves' rotation took a serious hit when lefty Mike Hampton, who missed all of last season after having elbow surgery, went down in spring training with a muscle pull in his left side. Hampton should be back sometime in May.

"Maybe it's a blessing in disguise," Jones said of Hampton's injury. "It'll give him an extra month to get everything in place."

The Braves paid a price in upgrading their bullpen. Soriano cost them rotation insurance in Horacio Ramirez, and Gonzalez cost them first baseman Adam LaRoche, who had 32 homers and 90 RBIs in 492 at-bats last season. LaRoche's right-side infield partner, second baseman Marcus Giles, was not re-signed for financial reasons. This leaves the Braves counting on unproven Scott Thorman and Kelly Johnson at first and second, respectively.

"The only question mark is the guys on the right side of the infield, and that's doable," Smoltz said.

The Braves have two bright young talents in catcher Brian McCann and rightfielder Jeff Francoeur. Chipper Jones remains a major offensive threat, but must stay in the lineup, and that hasn't been easy as he's battled assorted injuries the last three seasons.

One of the biggest pluses the Braves have going into the season might be centerfielder Andruw Jones' impending free agency. A month before his 30th birthday, he's gotten himself into excellent shape and seems ready for a huge season and the free-agent pay day that will come with it.

Andruw Jones had never missed the playoffs in his big-league career before the Braves relinquished their hold on the division last year.

"That only makes us more hungry," he said.


 

Find more baseball season preview coverage at http://go.philly.com/sports.


Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury

at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

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