|Braves believe they are armed for run to NL East title|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 28 March 2008 11:23|
``I saw him and my first thought was that it was the fastest five years that I can remember,'' Cox said. ``It felt like old times.''
But those five years Glavine spent with the New York Mets changed the Braves and their once-dominant pitching.
After 14 straight division titles, the Braves have finished third in the NL East two straight years. The bottom of the starting rotation - including Mark Redman, Kyle Davies, Buddy Carlyle, Chuck James and Jo-Jo Reyes - was the team's weak spot last year.
Another sign of a new era in Atlanta: John Schuerholz has moved from general manager to team president, and his successor, Frank Wren, spent the offseason trying to boost the team's starting pitching.
Glavine, eager to spend more time with his family in Atlanta, signed a one-year deal to return to the Braves, where he posted five 20-win seasons from 1987-2002. Wren traded shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit for highly regarded right-hander Jair Jurrjens. Mike Hampton, who hasn't pitched in the major leagues since 2005, appears ready to open the season.
The Braves never recovered from the losses of Lance Cormier and Hampton to injuries last spring. Cox said the rotation won't be as vulnerable to an injury this year and he won't have to stick with a struggling pitcher this season.
``Last year we went into camp, we didn't have a lot of depth and we lost two pitchers just like that and had a hard time replacing them,'' Cox said. ``If that's the case this year we've got guys to come in and take right over and get right in the rotation.''
Added Wren: ``I just feel like we've got options. Even if we have to weather a DL here or there or a guy not performing, we'll have some other guys at Triple-A who we really like.''
Jurrjens won a spot in the rotation and will open the season as the No. 3 starter, between left-handers Glavine and Hampton. Tim Hudson will start Sunday's opener at Washington and John Smoltz was expected to miss one start because of discomfort in his right shoulder.
Reyes, optioned to Richmond, and long reliever Jeff Bennett could be used as fill-in starters.
``We've got some depth and that's something we didn't have last year,'' third baseman Chipper Jones said. ``We're going to probably send down some guys who could pitch in the big leagues, no doubt. It affords us the luxury so that if somebody does go down, we have guys we can step in who have had some big league time and we'd feel comfortable with him going out there.''
There are still questions about the age and health of the starters:
-Glavine will be 42 on Tuesday.
-Smoltz will be 41 in May.
-Hampton returns from two shoulder surgeries. He hurt his hamstring in the first inning of a Mexican Winter League start, and then strained his groin in the second inning of his second spring start. He will open the year as the No. 4 starter.
Chuck James, beaten out by Jurrjens, was found to have a slight tear in his rotator cuff after last season.
The Braves' lineup should be strong, but it will be tough for Jones, Mark Teixeira, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann to carry the team back to the top of the NL East if the starting pitchers falter.
``That was our big problem last year,'' Jones said. ``We couldn't get enough quality innings out of the bottom of our rotation. The health of our 40-somethings, the health of Hampton, those were all big question marks coming into the season.
``If they're not healthy, we're going to really struggle again, but if they are and give us quality innings then we're going to be very competitive.''
Hudson and Smoltz were a combined 30-18 last year. The other starters were 28-40.
Teixeira could be a free agent after the season. He hit .317 with 17 homers and 56 RBIs in 54 games after his July 31 trade to Atlanta and may be difficult to re-sign.
The uncertainty surrounding Teixeira, combined with the age and injury worries in the starting rotation, increases the pressure on this mix of players to win this year.
Jones said there is the same urgency to win every season, but the 35-year-old slugger acknowledged there are no guarantees some players will be back in 2009, and he said it's important for the veterans to help the young players continue the Braves' tradition.
``We don't know how long Smoltz and Glavine are going to be around,'' Jones said. ``Hopefully I'll be here for a couple more years. But it's important that we instill the way it's been here for a long time with these young kids and get back to a competitive level at the top of the National League East and with a move here or there be able to contend for a championship.''
A key to the championship hopes is hard-throwing right-hander Rafael Soriano, the former setup reliever who moves into the full-time closer's role. Soriano was 3-3 with a 3.00 ERA and nine saves last year, when Bob Wickman opened the season as the closer.
Soriano felt discomfort above his right elbow early in the spring but then recovered nicely.
Left-hander Mike Gonzalez, recovering from elbow surgery, said he could join the bullpen and perhaps share save opportunities as early as May. Until then, Peter Moylan, left-hander Will Ohman and Manny Acosta should be the top relievers behind Soriano.
There's another health concern in center field, where Mark Kotsay was signed to replace 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones. Kotsay has shown no evidence of the back problems that limited him to 206 at-bats and a .214 average with Oakland last year.
If Kotsay's back problems resurface, the Braves could turn to Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco while waiting out top prospect Jordan Schafer's climb through the minors.
Left fielder Matt Diaz could be a full-time starter after hitting .327 and .338 the last two years.
Two more new full-time starters are shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson.
Escobar hit .326 as a rookie while sharing time with Johnson at second base, convincing the Braves they could trade Renteria.