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Braves camp tour: Atlanta could surprise


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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Chipper Jones looks across the Atlanta spring clubhouse and this is what he doesn't see: arms in slings. Lines outside of the trainer's room. Excess ice. Pained expressions.

He no longer sees a tattered rotation, a bullpen that smells like burned rubber, tryouts in left field.

Does this mean we'll renew our acquaintance with the Braves in October this fall?

No guarantees.

But it does mean there's a chance the Braves won't be repeatedly stabbed in the heart during the ninth innings again this summer.

In one of the most astounding statistics of the 2008 season, the Braves were -- count 'em -- a major league-worst 11-30 in one-run games.

And in their road grays, you usually needed the Official Dead Roadside Animal Spotter's Guide to identify them. They were an incredibly inept 2-23 in one-run road games.

"Our starters didn't give us enough quality innings," Jones says. "We had to overuse our pen, overexpose them and wear them out.

"We need our starters to go six or seven innings every time out. That allows people to fall into their roles."

Because of circumstances, the Braves usually were descending on a luge run toward their bullpen far too often -- and, most crucially, far too early -- last summer.

Their Nos. 1-3 starters entering the season each wound up on the surgeon's table: Tim Hudson, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.

Their closer, Rafael Soriano, was sidelined with a bum elbow. Key set-up man Peter Moylan blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. Desperate manager Bobby Cox plopped more and more weight onto reliever Blaine Boyer, who eventually caved in the second half. Diagnosis: overworked.

All of this is why the signing of free agent pitcher Derek Lowe and the acquisition of Javier Vazquez from the Chicago White Sox are moves that make more sense than fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Since the start of the 2002 season, Vazquez ranks third in the major leagues with 1,502 1/3 innings pitched and Lowe is ninth at 1,456.

Presumably, with these two aboard, joining Jair Jurrjens and Japanese free agent Kenshin Kawakami in the Atlanta rotation (and maybe rehabbing Tim Hudson by August), Cox no longer will feel the need (or the temptation) to fire warning flares over the bullpen beginning in about, oh, the second inning.

And then maybe general manager Frank Wren can take a long, cautious exhale after an offseason that ranked somewhere between swear-at-the-dog bad and pound-your-fist-through-the-car-window awful.

The Braves thought they were closing in on a trade to acquire San Diego ace Jake Peavy in November. They chased free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett and were out-moneyed by the Yankees. They reached a preliminary deal with free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal before he reneged and signed with the Dodgers. They had an ugly parting with John Smoltz.

Then, apparently just for kicks and to remind the Braves that their offseason wasn't finished yet, Ken Griffey Jr. met with Wren and Cox in Orlando and indicated serious interest -- then he re-signed with Seattle.

"Derek Lowe is a 200-innings guy," Jones says. "Vazquez is. Kawakami's done it in Japan. Jurrjens is coming off of a really good year. He was probably our best, most consistent starter. And now you're talking about him in the three- or four-hole.

"We were nine games from .500 -- 72-90. I don't think there's any doubt that with more consistent starting pitching, we would have been over .500. No doubt."

Essentially, Lowe and Vazquez are a bridge to the days when Jurrjens, who's only 23, is joined in the rotation by such younger, up-and-coming Braves as Charlie Morton, Jo-Jo Reyes, Tommy Hanson, Jeff Locke and Kris Medlen.

"That's the biggest transition you can make," Jones says. "You go from [seven] Cy Young awards to guys coming out of the minor leagues, there's going to be a big drop-off.

"You replace Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz with kids from the minor-league level, news flash: You're going to take your lumps. That's what we're doing."

As Cox points out, there is no rigid schedule for how quickly young starters can develop. Case in point, the manager says: Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, the two kids who disappointed in the Yankees' rotation last year.

"The good thing is we've added three starting pitchers, veteran guys, and we didn't deplete from our farm system," Cox says.

With the World Series champion Phillies and a Mets team that improved its bullpen significantly by adding Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz, the NL East again will be unforgiving for the Braves, Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals.

But with a rotation that should be more durable than last year's, with closer Mike Gonzalez more than a year removed from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, Soriano ready to go this spring and Moylan hoping to return early in the season following Tommy John surgery, the Braves at least appear built to compete.

And, if things fall into place -- including Garret Anderson's arrival in left field -- they're built to surprise.

Last season, only Pittsburgh's bullpen was busier than Atlanta's: The Braves' 554 1/3 relief innings ranked only behind the Pirates' 567 2/3 in the National League.

"We were in a ton of one-run games," Cox groans, still flinching at the memory.

Maybe that changes now.

And if not the frequency, at least, perhaps, the results.

"I think the biggest thing you have to expect is that our pitching is going to be a lot better," Glavine says. "That's going to give us a lot more innings, and a lot more opportunities to win games."

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if our starters can go 7 innings 4 out of 5 nights... we can remember how to bunt and play smart baseball... all those 1 run losses will find a way to become W's

We can back to the Bobby Cox way of baseball - not long winning streaks, not long losing streaks. But winning 2 out of every 3 games. We won't run away with this division, we just have to hang in there long enough to play our best baseball in September.

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I wouldn't be surprised if Heyward is knocking down the door next season, more than Hanson is this season. People keep saying 2011 at the earliest, but this dude can straight hit.

Not me I said 2010 at the latest. I even went as far as saying if we did not get a FA LF that I would be fine with him starting at LF. Now saying that I would much rather him get more time in the minors at least until sept. call ups, but if Jeff recovers I think it will be Heyward in LF next spring.

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with how these guys have been playing I wouldn't be surprised if Heyward isn't our LF in 2010, and Hanson isn't on the MLB roster for the 3rd day start. Our pitching staff is RIDICULOUS right now due to everyone looking all healed up outside of Hudson:

SP - Lowe, Vazquez, Jurrjens, Kawakami, Hanson, Glavine, Reyes, Hudson

MRP - Acosta, Bennett, loser in the SP race like Glavine or Reyes.

SUP - Logan, Boyer, Moylan

CL - Soriano, Gonzalez

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