For a while this offseason, things looked really, really bad for the Braves as general manager Frank Wren tried in vain to swing trades and woo free agents. And that was before right-handed pitcher John Smoltz bolted for Boston.
It wasn't only the fans who were restless; players, too, wondered what was going on. And then, in the span of a three days, right-handed pitchers Kenshin Kawakami and Derek Lowe were introduced, and the players were hopeful again.
Wren has more work to do. He has yet to land the power-hitting outfielder that was one of two offseason goals -- along with two veteran starting pitchers -- and there is still the matter of what to do about free agent left-hander Tom Glavine. The Braves' 40-man roster is full, and Glavine cannot be in camp without signing a contract.
(Glavine, rehabbing from left flexor tendon surgery, is still a few weeks away from knowing how well he can pitch, and how soon, so there is some wiggle room there.)
For the rotation, then, spring training will be about slotting the starters, not about hoping to find some.
The bullpen should fall into place with healthy left-hander Mike Gonzalez cemented in the closer's role. There are enough candidates for setup men even if right-handers Rafael Soriano and Manny Acosta can't stay healthy, as they couldn't last season.
For the lineup, the question is whether certain hitters will hit the way they have hit before. Third baseman Chipper Jones and catcher Brian McCann will anchor the lineup, batting third and cleanup, respectively. No one is worried about them.
First baseman Casey Kotchman needs to be a much better hitter than he showed after his trade to Atlanta last July. That would help a lot, as would some plate discipline out of shortstop Yunel Escobar, the presumptive leadoff hitter.
There's still the matter of a power-hitting outfielder. Right fielder Jeff Francoeur worked and trained furiously this offseason to avoid a repeat of last season's shocking fall-off at the plate. Jones, for one, is hopeful.
"He's definitely made some adjustments," Jones said. "His thought process is 300 percent better."
WHERE, WHEN: Champion Stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The first exhibition game against a major league opponent is Feb. 25 against the Tigers.
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: 2B Kelly Johnson poured so much effort into becoming a bona fide second baseman the past two seasons that there wasn't time or energy to work on anything else. But late last season, with his fielding becoming second nature, Johnson was able to relax, and that showed up in his hitting. Manager Bobby Cox has always marveled at Johnson's beautiful swing, and now that it's flowing free and easy, Johnson is ready to deliver.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Rafael Soriano should be the ideal setup man for LHP Mike Gonzalez, and he should also be able to close when the need arises. But he is guarded about how his arm feels in the best of times, which last season was not. How realistic is it, then, to expect anything different this season as he attempts to come back from right ulnar nerve transposition surgery last August?
AUTHORITY FIGURES: Manager Bobby Cox is entering his 28th season as a major league manager, and his 20th consecutive season with the Braves. Cox also managed the Braves from 1978-81 and the Toronto Blue Jays from 1983-85. He has a career mark of 2,248-1,771 and is 1,972-1,561 with the Braves.
Cox had the plastic parts of both artificial knees replaced in October, and while his gait appears to be the same, he says the knees feel better -- notwithstanding the physical and hydrotherapy he's been subjected to.
His entire staff returns: bench coach Chino Cadahia, pitching coach Roger McDowell, hitting coach Terry Pendleton, first base coach Glenn Hubbard, third base coach Brian Snitker and bullpen coach Eddie Perez, a former Braves catcher.
--3B Chipper Jones has taken over the locker formerly used by RHP John Smoltz. It has better access to the training rooms and a better view of the clubhouse TVs, but the move is also symbolic; the locker is at the head of the clubhouse. The opposite prime spot still belongs to LHP Tom Glavine.
--LHP Mike Gonzalez worked hard at rehab last season from Tommy
John surgery, then worked just as hard when he returned to the team, concentrating on throwing strikes. He took more time off than usual over the winter just for the mental break.
--RHP Tim Hudson, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, has strengthened his rotator cuff, which is allowing him to raise his right arm higher than he's been able to raise it in at least four years. That's where his arm needs to be for him to be effective.
--RHP Tommy Hanson, the Braves' prime pitching prospect, wasn't kidding when he said recently, "I'm tired of sitting around." He was throwing with authority off the indoor mound Feb. 6 as the team's early pitching program wrapped up at Turner Field. Most pitchers, rookies and veterans, use the throwing camp simply to get the kinks out.
--1B Casey Kotchman has signed a one-year, $2,885,000 deal, leaving only two unsigned arbitration-eligible players: 2B Kelly Johnson and RF Jeff Francoeur.
BY THE NUMBERS: 31 -- Pitchers on the Braves' training camp roster ... so far.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Frank's not done yet." -- Manager Bobby Cox, suggesting that general manager Frank Wren will be making more moves.
3B Chipper Jones looks around the clubhouse from his new locker -- the one vacated by RHP John Smoltz -- and sees no position players his age and precious few pitchers in that category. And if LHP Tom Glavine does not return, Jones is alone in the icon department. It's a strange feeling.
ARRIVALS: RHP Derek Lowe (free agent from Dodgers), RHP Kenshin Kawakami (free agent from Japan), RHP Javier Vazquez (trade with White Sox), LHP Boone Logan (trade with White Sox), C David Ross (free agent from Red Sox).
DEPARTURES: RHP John Smoltz (free agent, signed with the Red Sox), LHP Mike Hampton (free agent, signed with the Astros), RHP Jorge Julio (free agent, signed with Brewers).
SPRING FOCUS: Manager Bobby Cox will be working with an almost entirely new rotation -- with the exception of second-year RHP Jair Jurrjens and possibly veteran RHP Jorge Campillo and as-yet unsigned free agent LHP Tom Glavine. General manager Frank Wren is still looking for a power-hitting outfielder; one may emerge from the group that manned left and center last season -- Matt Diaz, Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson -- but a midseason trade is a possibility.
- RHP Derek Lowe
- RHP Jair Jurrjens
- RHP Kenshin Kawakami
- RHP Javier Vazquez
- RHP Jorge Campillo
Remember last year's expected Opening Day rotation? RHP John Smoltz, RHP Tim Hudson, LHP Tom Glavine, LHP Mike Hampton? That blew up in a hurry. Smoltz and Hampton left as free agents. Hudson is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and might return in August. Glavine, rehabbing after left flexor tendon surgery, remains weeks away from knowing whether he can pitch and has not yet been re-signed. General manager Frank Wren left no stone unturned in the rotation's near total makeover, including consulting with the Japanese consul.
LHP Mike Gonzalez (closer)
RHP Rafael Soriano
RHP Blaine Boyer
RHP Manny Acosta
LHP Jeff Ridgway
RHP Buddy Carlyle
RHP Jeff Bennett
A healthy Gonzalez in the closer's role makes everything different, allowing everyone else to fill a more suitable role, especially when RHP Peter Moylan returns after his Tommy John rehab, which could be as early as May. And the Braves still hope they can bring back free agent LHP Will Ohman.
- CF Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco
- SS Yunel Escobar
- B Chipper Jones
- C Brian McCann
- B Kelly Johnson
- RF Jeff Francoeur
- LF Matt Diaz
- B Casey Kotchman
Manager Bobby Cox is inclined to keep McCann in the cleanup position where he finished last season, despite the fact that McCann gets regular days off: "He did a pretty good job there, don't you think?" McCann hit .301 with 87 RBIs in 509 at-bats over 145 games.
OF Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco
INF Omar Infante
INF Martin Prado
C David Ross or C Clint Sammons
INF Greg Norton
Manager Bobby Cox and general manager Frank Wren are counting on the versatility of Martin Prado -- who can play all infield positions -- and Omar Infante -- who can shuttle between the infield and left field -- to cover the inevitable injuries. Or to take over a position if the incumbent struggles.
TOP ROOKIES: Atlanta doesn't expect RHP Tommy Hanson or OF Jordan Schafer to make the Opening Day roster, but seeing them in midseason is not far-fetched. These two are right on the cusp.
Hanson, 22, is the first pitcher in the 17-year history of the Arizona Fall League to be named MVP, which earned him a non-roster invitation to spring training. He has yet to play Class AAA ball, so if that's where he ends up, he'll take it in stride. General manager Frank Wren is adamant about not rushing Hanson to the majors.
Schafer, 22, was the heir apparent in center field last season before a 50-game suspension for testing positive for HGH set him back. Then he pressed at Class AA, trying to prove his stats weren't artificial. He finished with a .269 average, with 10 home runs, 51 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 84 games.
3B Chipper Jones (acute right shoulder tendinitis) spent the offseason resting, then strengthening his shoulder. His goal is the same this year as it always has been: play in 150 games. Management thinks 120 games is more realistic.
RHP Tim Hudson (Tommy John surgery on right elbow in August 2008) has begun tossing in a straight line -- as opposed to lobbing a baseball -- and is taking his cue from what has become the norm for other pitchers when he says he's targeting an August return.
RHP Peter Moylan (Tommy John surgery on right elbow in May 2008) is not expected to be ready for Opening Day, but he is pushing himself to be ready shortly after the anniversary of his surgery.
RHP Rafael Soriano (right ulnar nerve transposition surgery in August 2008) is thought to be ready to throw in spring training, but no one has heard definitively, including manager Bobby Cox.
LHP Tom Glavine (left flexor tendon surgery in August 2008) is a free agent, and he might retire if no Braves contract is forthcoming, but that decision won't come until he sees what he can do in spring training. He did not participate in the team's early throwing program the first week of February at Turner Field.