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Team has familiar look going into spring

POSTED: February 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The Atlanta Braves have a familiar look but plenty of questions heading into spring training.

Most players reported to camp Thursday at Kissimmee, Fla., by phoning in on their way to the golf course. The first workout for pitchers and catchers is today.

Still, the clubhouse had the feel of the glory days, when the Braves were in the midst of 14 straight division titles.

In one corner, John Smoltz has a locker next to 300-game winner Tom Glavine, who spent the last five seasons with the New York Mets before re-signing with Atlanta to close out his career. Across from them is the locker of catcher Javy Lopez, who rejoined the Braves with a minor-league contract in hopes of winning a backup job.

While the return of old favorites is sure to create a feel-good atmosphere this spring, the Braves have to resolve several key issues, mostly on the pitching staff.

Is Mike Hampton going to contribute after missing most of the last three seasons with injuries? Is Rafael Soriano ready to take over as the full-time closer while Mike Gonzalez continues his comeback from elbow surgery? Is Chuck James healthy? Is young Jo-Jo Reyes or Jair Jurrgens far enough along to claim a spot in the rotation?

Manager Bobby Cox, who has hinted this could be his final season, is confident the staff will sort itself out over the next six weeks.

“We have a lot of depth and there’s going to be a lot of fighting for the last couple of spots,” he said. “I like what I see from the starters. Smoltz is throwing lights out, and Glavine has been great. We have depth, but we have decisions to make also.”

Not at the top of the rotation, where Smoltz, Glavine and Tim Hudson are sure to hold down the first three spots.

Then there’s Hampton, who hasn’t pitched at all in the last two seasons. His first comeback from major elbow surgery ended last spring, when he tore a flexor tendon in the same elbow, requiring another season-ending operation.

In November, Hampton went to Mexico to test his left arm in a winter league game, only to hurt his right hamstring in the very first inning of his first start.

The Braves insist that Hampton is finally healthy, though they’re certainly not counting on him to make a big contribution.

Another starting candidate is James, who has 22 wins over the past two years but was diagnosed with a slight tear in his rotator cuff after last season. The lefty is eager to learn how his shoulder will hold up in camp.

“Is (the pain) going stay gone or is it going to come back?” he said. “But I guess we won’t find that out until I start throwing.”

The Braves’ backup plan includes late-blooming journeyman Jeff Bennett and promising youngsters Reyes and Jurrgens, the latter acquired from Detroit in a trade for shortstop Edgar Renteria.

The 27-year-old Bennett impressed management after coming up late last season, having added a sinker to his fastball-slider repertoire.

“You look at his ground ball-fly ball ratio,” general manager Frank Wren said. “They’re all in that 21/2-to-3 range (per fly ball). That’s doing a pretty good job of keeping the ball on the ground. That’s actually a pretty elite level — where Huddy is, guys like that.”

Gonzalez, who was supposed to be a key figure in an overhaul of the bullpen, instead pitched only 18 games before he was shelved. He is hopeful of being back by June, but Cox sounds as though that timetable might be a little optimistic.

“It is the hardest thing to do when you have to tell them maybe they can’t,” Cox said. “We’ll see.”
After Gonzalez went down and Bob Wickman was released, the Braves finished with Soriano as their closer. The menacing right-hander showed promise, going 3-3 with a 3.00 ERA and nine saves. He allowed just 47 hits in 72 innings while striking out 70.

Side-armer Peter Moylan (5-3, 1.80) figures to be the main setup man, with Tyler Yates, Blaine Boyer and Manny Acosta expected to contend for spots. Newcomer Will Ohman could be the only left-hander in the bullpen while Gonzalez recovers.

Lopez left the Braves after a career season in 2003, when he hit 43 homers with 109 RBIs. He never came close to matching those numbers during two-plus seasons in Baltimore and a short stint with the Boston Red Sox.

The 37-year-old Lopez didn’t play at all last season, but his former team was willing to give him one more chance. He’s trying his best to take advantage of it, getting into perhaps the best shape of his career and working hard on his defense.

“I’ve never see Javy work like that before, I’ll tell you,” coach Eddie Perez said. “He’s a different Javy. I’ve known Javy since we were in the minor leagues. He’s hungry to make the team.”

While Lopez was known more for his offense with the Braves, he will claim a spot only if he shows his defensive skills are good enough for an occasional start in place of all-star Brian McCann.

“I always tell people he was one of the best defensive catchers I’ve ever seen. He’s never concentrated on that,” Perez said. “The last four or five years, all he could think about was hitting, hitting, hitting.”
Glavine’s return reminded Cox of the old days, especially when he noticed the left-hander’s spot in the spring clubhouse. He’s flanked by Smoltz and longtime third baseman Chipper Jones.

“It seems like he never left,” Cox said. “Seeing Glavine, Smoltz and Chipper all together is great. It always feels the same. It hasn’t changed a whole lot.”



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