NL East Preview: Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves have won 14 straight National League East titles. Every season, it seems they've developed a chink in the armor and every season, they win again. Is this the end of the string in 2006?

The Braves came to camp thinking their number one concern was a closer. As they prepare to leave, their number one concern, suddenly, is the health of nearly all of their relievers.

Of particular concern is left-handed pitcher Macay McBride's left forearm, where there is a slight muscle tear. Left-hander John Foster will start the season on the disabled list with an inflamed ulnar nerve in his left tendon; Foster was not a big cog in the Braves' plans but, still, that's another left-hander out. Right-hander Blaine Boyer is struggling to come back from an inflamed rotator cuff and will not be on the roster at the beginning of the season.

Although manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell can piece a bullpen together, expect general manager John Schuerholz to make a deal for relief pitching.

Then there are the starters. None is headed for the disabled list, but only right-hander Tim Hudson and right-hander John Smoltz have pitched well. Right-hander John Thomson has been inconsistent, but that might be because he is getting accustomed to pitching a little farther to the first base side of the mound and because he is trying to remember to stay straight in his delivery. Horacio Ramirez, currently the only left-hander in the rotation, is giving up a hit an inning.

The team's other question marks - who will be the leadoff hitter now that shortstop Rafael Furcal is gone and who will replace Julio Franco as Adam LaRoche's platoon partner at first base - have been answered satisfactorily.

Second baseman Marcus Giles, everybody's candidate to bat first, has done the leadoff job with limited opportunities (because of his absence from camp to attend to the premature birth of his daughter).

And it turned out that as many as 10 players lined up to work out at first base. Veteran outfield Brian Jordan and minor-leaguer James Jurries did well enough to make Cox comfortable.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Edgar Renteria is back in the National League and hitting in the number two slot behind 2B Marcus Giles and in front of 3B Chipper Jones, which should revive his batting average. And that confidence should relax him on defense as well, not to mention backing up pitchers who work quickly.

GOING DOWN: For the moment, it is LHP Horacio Ramirez. Two seasons ago he was pitching as well or better than any of the starters but was derailed by arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder. He was mostly healed last season, physically, but his pitching was plagued by thinking too much. Doing that led to throwing too many pitches to each hitter, which resulted in giving up more than a hit an inning.

Smoltz on par: It came to right-handed starter John Smoltz where he does most of his best thinking: on the golf course. Long the keeper of a thick black notebook with the names and private numbers of the country's best golf courses, Smoltz plays golf every chance he gets.

He also plays basketball, something Braves rookies found out (to their dismay) this off-season when Smoltz invited them to work out with him. Every session began with a pickup game, which Smoltz promised would take only an hour; it always took two hours.

Smoltz has been vowing for months that he will take it easy during the course of this regular season in order to avoid a repeat of last season, when his arm was so fatigued by September that he was unable to pitch effectively and was not fit for playoffs in October.

To that end, he has already announced that he intends to structure his season as though he were the fifth starter; he'll be the one to be passed over when there is an off day, he says.

In his first few appearances this spring, Smoltz didn't throw a fastball over 91 miles an hour. He was palpably proud of his self control. Longtime observers were suspicious: How long could this mellow-on-the-mound Smoltz last?

Turns out, it might last the whole season because Smoltz has gotten reinforcement on the golf course. After all these years, he has discovered that being less aggressive with his swings and shot strategy has resulted in bogey-free rounds, a first for him. That's plenty of incentive.

He says this new knowledge has done wonders for his mental health, too: "I don't have to be stressed with every pitch."

THE NUMBERS GAME: (38) Number of players on the Braves' 40-man roster, leaving some wiggle room as the team nears Opening Day.

HE SAID WHAT? "They don't look too rusty to me." - Manager Bobby Cox on the hitting of third baseman Chipper Jones and right-fielder Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur went 3-for-3 with a home run and five RBI about an hour after Cox said that.

A slew of sore muscles, a plague of flu and players off to the World Baseball Classic have put the Braves about two weeks behind in their player evaluations. So far, hitters are ahead of pitchers.

1. RHP John Smoltz
2. RHP Tim Hudson
3. RHP Kyle Davies
4. RHP John Thomson
5. LHP Horacio Ramirez or RHP Jorge Sosa

No, there will not be six starters, but whether Sosa and Ramirez will have to work their way out of the bullpen, or whether one of them might be traded is not yet clear. At the very least, Sosa might begin the season in the bullpen because while he has pitched plenty of innings between winter ball and the World Baseball Classic, he was not as stretched out as one would like in a starter.

RHP Chris Reitsma (closer)
RHP Oscar Villarreal
RHP Lance Cormier
LHP Mike Remlinger
LHP Chuck James
RHP Joey Devine

Chris Reitsma will start the season as the closer, and RHP Jorge Sosa could work out of the bullpen early while he works up to starters' innings. Everything else is a work in progress.

1. 2B Marcus Giles
2. SS Edgar Renteria
3. 3B Chipper Jones
4. CF Andruw Jones
5. 1B Adam LaRoche
6. RF Jeff Francoeur
7. C Brian McCann
8. LF Ryan Langerhans

Big things are expected from SS Edgar Renteria, and, as usual, manager Bobby Cox has put his player in the best possible position to succeed; batting second. Marcus Giles might take awhile to get in the groove as the leadoff hitter, but only because he missed time this spring to be on hand for the premature birth of a baby daughter and then got sore muscles by training too hard to catch up after his absence. CF Andruw Jones' success batting cleanup last season motivated him to work out even harder this off-season.

OF Matt Diaz
C Todd Pratt
INF Wilson Betemit
INF Pete Orr
INF James Jurries or OF/1B Brian Jordan

The organization's minor-leaguers have performed so well when called up over the last two seasons that general manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox will not hesitate to give more kids a shot as the season goes along.

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: RHP Joey Devine kept his head on straight after getting shelled in mop-up situations last season. OF Matt Diaz's power hitting caught manager Bobby Cox's eye early and never let go. INF James Jurries, last season's Richmond Braves' MVP, was the spring's hot hitter.

TRAINER'S ROOM: RHP Blaine Boyer, recovering from an inflamed rotator cuff, is behind his teammates; he most likely will not be ready to come north with the team out of spring training, but he should be on the parent club's roster not long after that. LHP Macay McBride's sore forearm is not coming along as quickly as expected; there is a possibility that he may have to start the season on the disabled list. LHP John Foster has an inflamed ulnar nerve in his left tendon. LHP Mike Hampton will miss the entire 2006 season while he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories