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Braves look to right last year's wrongs


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The World Series hopes the Braves carried when they left Spring Training last year were squashed when their pitching staff spent more time undergoing MRIs than attempting to lower their ERAs.

Now with a less-accomplished new-look starting rotation, they find themselves flying under the radar with a confidence that they can realize those same expectations that went unfulfilled last year.

"We've got starters who can go deep into the game and our bullpen is rock-solid," Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "Then you look at our lineup, and we've got guys that can hit throughout it. We're going to be good."

When the Braves won an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles, they did so with the reliability they annually received from starting rotations that minimized the bullpen's workload and minimized the stress felt by the lineup.

While the new-look starting rotation is less accomplished than last year's group, it provides the Braves reason to believe it will prove to be more dependable. With the additions of Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez, they gained two durable right-handed hurlers who have routinely registered 200-inning seasons throughout their careers.

If Kenshin Kawakami finds success during his first Major League season and Jair Jurrjens avoids a sophomore slump, the Braves will possess a rotation that should complement a bullpen that could prove stingy if closer Mike Gonzalez and setup men Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan remain healthy.

It's been four years since the Braves participated in the postseason, and they now find themselves with the challenge of competing in a strong National League East that possesses the defending World Series champion Phillies and a Mets team that has the luxury of having Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz at the end of their bullpen.

"It's a great division," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Everybody has improved."

Calling card

Pitching is the name of the game. But the Braves' potential success once again rests on the health of Chipper Jones. With the veteran third baseman, this lineup appears to be formidable. Without him, it appears ordinary at best.

Achilles' Heel

With Garret Anderson, the Braves gained an accomplished hitter who adds limited power and yet another left-handed bat to the lineup. With a plethora of left-handed hitters, the Braves may find themselves weakened in the late innings by opposing left-handed specialists.

You'll know they're rollin' if ...

You see Jeff Francoeur continuing to stay aggressive while maintaining his new sense of plate discipline. With a greater understanding about his powerful swing, Francoeur is entering this season with the confidence that he lost last year, when he routinely squandered run-producing opportunities. His ability to routinely put the ball in play could equate to another 100-RBI season.

You'll know they're in trouble if...

Gonzalez and Soriano continue to have trouble regaining their normal velocity. At full strength, these two relievers provide the Braves the same kind of luxury the Mets possess with Putz and Rodriguez. Gonzalez seemed to round into form during the exhibition season's final week. But Soriano has provided the club little reason to believe he'll regain his dominant 2007 form.

Testing, testing

After getting their feet wet in April, the Braves will have the opportunity to affect the division standings while playing the Mets, Marlins and Phillies during a 10-game stretch (May 4-13). Another challenging nine-game stretch awaits in June (19-28), when they play the Red Sox and Yankees.

Interleague Play

Along with exchanging home series with the Red Sox and hosting the Yankees for the first time since 2000, the Braves will travel to Baltimore and host the Blue Jays.

The Bottom Line

Pitching will once again determine who wins the NL East, and the Braves seemingly have enough of it to put themselves in position to make things interesting for the Mets and Phillies in September.

Projected starting lineup

1. 2B Kelly Johnson

2. SS Yunel Escobar

3. 3B Chipper Jones

4. C Brian McCann

5. LF Garret Anderson

6. RF Jeff Francoeur

7. 1B Casey Kotchman

8. CF Jordan Schafer

9. P Starting pitcher

Projected rotation

1. RHP Derek Lowe

2. RHP Javier Vazquez

3. RHP Jair Jurrjens

4. RHP Kenshin Kawakami

5. LHP Tom Glavine

Projected bullpen

Closer: LHP Mike Gonzalez

Setup: RHP Rafael Soriano

Setup: RHP Peter Moylan

Middle: RHP Blaine Boyer

Middle: LHP Eric O'Flaherty

Middle: RHP Buddy Carlyle

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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We look solid. I kind of wish we went after Ohman (we probably still can. There's got to be $2 million lying around there somewhere). Overall, the offseason has provided enough buzz for the Braves fans to be excited about. I'm excited to see how Schafer will play as a rookie, how Kawakami will make his transition from Japanese ball to American ball, and most importantly, I'm excited to see how this "new look" team will mesh.

It's a good thing that the Hawks are facing the Celtics tonight and that UConn has a Final Four game tomorrow... or else I wouldn't know what else to do to wait for this Sunday to come.

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