Scouting The Opponents: Atlanta Braves

While they're not the powerhouse that they once were, you can never count out the Atlanta Braves. With a bunch of fresh faces, the Braves look to reload and push for a spot near the top of the NL East.

Expect the future of third baseman Chipper Jones to be an ongoing saga this season, particularly if the All-Star break arrives and no reworked contract or contract extension is offered.

Jones was shocked when pitcher John Smoltz left for the Red Sox. At first he was angry with the Braves, aghast that they would let Smoltz walk over a few million dollars. General manager Frank Wren subsequently met with Jones and other players to detail what the Smoltz offer really was: the same as Boston's if Smoltz pitched, not the same if Smoltz didn't.

Jones understands, but he also senses that he might be low-balled when his time comes. He says he warned his wife, Sharon, that he might have to finish his career somewhere else. It isn't that easy, he says, to pick up and move a family of five.

And don't get him started on the fact that he plays almost every day, not every fifth day; the relative contracts for position players vs. those of pitchers is a sore subject with him.

Jones, who turns 37 in April, rested his right shoulder, which has been plagued by acute tendinitis, until right after Christmas and then started working out. His goal for the season is, as always, playing 150 games.

"I can't afford to play 120, 125," he says. "I can't have that. This club can't afford for me to be off for an extended period of time."

For the record, his 120-game seasons were the result of freak injuries, not aging. And the strained oblique muscles are to be expected of a switch-hitter.

Jones knows Wren will be weighing the number of his appearances and construct an offer accordingly. Jones expects to sign one more contract in his career and wants to finish as a Brave. But after having reworked previous contracts to give the team flexibility, and especially after moving to left field years ago to accommodate the acquisition of Vinny Castilla, Jones is not of a mind to work cheap.

"I have a hard time believing we're not going to get something worked out," Jones says.

In the meantime, he has settled into his new locker at Turner Field, the one that used to be Smoltz's. He asked to move there, saying, "The captain of our club, the guy who called all the meetings, is no longer here."

As Jones assumes that mantle, he's hoping his last days with the Braves don't mirror Smoltz's.

Ready to surpise...
Second baseman 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.

Setup to disappoint?
Reliever Rafael Soriano should be the ideal setup man for lefty 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?

Big Chief
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.

Keep this in mind...

  • Outfielder Garret Anderson signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Braves, and he likely will platoon with Matt Diaz in left field. The signing came days after the Braves lost out on free agent Ken Griffey Jr., who landed with the Mariners. Anderson, 36, has hit .290 with an average of 16 homers and 84 RBIs the past five seasons.
  • Left-hander Tom Glavine agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract that could be worth another $3.5 million in incentives. Glavine will be the number five starter in the rotation and, as a result, won't be needed until mid-April. Glavine made only 13 starts last year before a partially torn tendon in his elbow sent him to the disabled list for the first time in his career and ended his season, and he said he didn't want his career to end that way.
  • Meanwhile, right-hander Tim Hudson feels better. Much, much better. For the first time since his Tommy John surgery last August, he feels like a baseball player again. As spring training began, he was doing everything every other pitcher is doing, except actually pitching. Once the season begins, he'll be traveling with the team.

    Obviously, the focus is on his elbow. He began his rehab by lobbing balls from 60 feet, then 90 feet, then 120 feet. Then he started at 60 feet again, this time throwing in a straight line. He'll spend the next few weeks throwing straight at the 90-foot distance; he's been told that that's the distance where he will see the most improvement. By the end of spring training, Hudson expects to be throwing normally.

    The real improvement, however, is with his cleaned-up rotator cuff. "My throwing motion's been great from Day 1," he says. "My arm's hitting spots it hasn't been in years." The fatigue in his rotator cuff - which Hudson didn't realize was happening - prevented his elbow from staying above his shoulder. To pitch successfully, Hudson's arm has to stay up; that's what keeps his sinker down.

    Hudson, while following the protocol of the team's physical therapist, has not been afraid to throw, not even on the first day he got the OK to do so from Dr. James Andrews, who performed the surgery.

    "The only way to figure out if it's stable," Hudson says, "is to get started and do things right."

  • Ken Griffey's decision to sign with Seattle instead of the Braves was met with consternation in Atlanta. Griffey initiated contact with the Braves, his daughter plays for an AAU basketball team in Atlanta, and his son will be playing varsity football at home in Orlando, which is obviously much closer to Atlanta than Seattle. Newspapers in Atlanta and Seattle both reported that he appeared headed for Atlanta before he turned an about-face and chose his former team instead.
  • Right-hander Peter Moylan faced hitters Feb. 15 for the first time since his Tommy John surgery last May, and Braves hitters were dazzled by his velocity.

ROSTER REPORT
Chipper Jones looks around the clubhouse from his new locker - the one vacated by John Smoltz - and sees few players his age. Good thing that Tom Glavine will return and Garret Anderson is aboard; otherwise, Jones would have been alone as an elder statesman.

Newly arrived Braves
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), OF Garret Anderson (free agent from Angels).

No longer Brave
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).

Plans for the spring
Manager Bobby Cox will be working with an almost entirely new rotation - with the exception of second-year righty Jair Jurrjens and possibly veteran Jorge Campillo. Tom Glavine must show he's healthy enough to open the season on time.

PROJECTED ROTATION:
1. RHP Derek Lowe
2. RHP Jair Jurrjens
3. RHP Kenshin Kawakami
4. RHP Javier Vazquez
5. LHP Tom Glavine

Remember last year's expected Opening Day rotation? John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, 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, finally was re-signed to be the number five starter. General manager Frank Wren left no stone unturned in the rotation's near total makeover, including consulting with the Japanese consul.

PROJECTED BULLPEN:
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 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 Will Ohman.

PROJECTED LINEUP:
1. CF Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco
2. SS Yunel Escobar
3. 3B Chipper Jones
4. C Brian McCann
5. 2B Kelly Johnson
6. RF Jeff Francoeur
7. LF Garret Anderson or Matt Diaz
8. 1B 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.

PROJECTED RESERVES:

OF Matt Diaz or Garret Anderson
OF Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco
INF Omar Infante
INF Martin Prado
C David Ross or C Clint Sammons

Manager Bobby Cox and general manager Frank Wren are counting on the versatility of Prado - who can play all infield positions - and 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.

Young Braves
Atlanta doesn't expect right-hander Tommy Hanson or outfielder Jordan Schafer to make the Opening Day roster, but seeing them in mid-season 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 Triple-A 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 Double-A, trying to prove his stats weren't artificial. He finished with a .269 average, 10 home runs, 51 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 84 games.



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