Braves Notebook: 3/31

Six weeks ago, almost everything about the Braves was a question mark. Now, on the eve of Opening Day, most of the same questions remain. And the atmosphere surrounding the club continues to focus on the teams subtractions, rather than their additions.

Six weeks ago, almost everything about the Braves was a question mark. The exceptions were starters Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton, catcher Johnny Estrada, shortstop Rafael Furcal, second baseman Marcus Giles and outfielders Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones.

John Smoltz? He hadn't pitched off a mound.

Now, on the eve of Opening Day, most of the same questions remain. And the atmosphere surrounding the club continues to focus on who is not here -- Greg Maddux and Gary Sheffield, specifically -- and what is no longer available -- endless financial resources.

Younger players are optimistic because they finally get a chance to play every day. Manager Bobby Cox seems to be enjoying watching the progress of minor league pitchers. But the person who seems to be thriving under the transition from sure postseason presence to maybe-not-this-time is general manager John Schuerholz. He loves building a team, and one gets the idea from watching the Braves this spring that he will have that opportunity all season long.

The businesslike aura of inevitability is absent from the Braves clubhouse for two reasons. One is that it came, in part, from the demeanors of Maddux and Tom Glavine. The other is that the enthusiastic young players hope and believe they are good enough to keep the Braves' train rolling. But they don't know that for a fact.

No one does.

Veterans Smoltz and Chipper Jones feel almost betrayed by the team's budget-cutting.

"Chipper and Andruw [Jones] have to realize that they're going to have to be the guys," Smoltz says. "We're going to have to prove to other teams that we're going to do the little things."

The Braves have not done that before, and they haven't done it this spring, either.

Coming into camp, Chipper Jones said, "Spring training, I think, is going to be a huge measuring stick for us. With so many questions for us this year, a lot of that will be answered the first couple weeks. Confidence springs from there. I think if we come down, swing the bats well, play some defense so we come out of spring training with some confidence, we're gonna be there come October."

Well, the Braves have not swung the bats well and they have not fielded with authority, either. Starters Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton have had as many bad outings as good ones. Smoltz has been sharp in his limited appearances, but only C.J. Nitkowski -- who wasn't even promised a training camp invitation when he signed a minor league contract -- and second-year pitcher Trey Hodges have pitched as if they can get the ball to Smoltz to save a game.

The leaky bullpen was the impetus for Schuerholz's acquisitions of Juan Cruz from the Cubs and Chris Reitsma from the Reds.

As the Braves break camp, they find themselves looking forward to having a fight on their hands.

"You can't create that [playoff] intensity," Smoltz says, opining that having a double-digit division lead by June may not be the best thing for winning a World Championship.

Chipper Jones agrees. "It's gonna be a battle all summer. And that's a good thing. It's nice to come to the ballpark every day knowing that every day's a playoff game. I'm kind of looking forward to it."

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RF J.D. Drew looks great and ready to ditch that if-he-can-stay-healthy caveat.

ON THE DECLINE: RHP Antonio Alfonseca led the National League with 45 saves in 49 appearances in 2000. The Braves always assume they can save a pitcher, but Alfonseca has not yet fallen under that spell.

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