ATLANTA — Bobby Cox saw Tom Glavine in the clubhouse and was transported back to the days when the Atlanta Braves always won their division and finished among the ERA leaders.
“I saw him and my first thought was that it was the fastest five years that I can remember,” Cox said. “It felt like old times.”
But those five years Glavine spent with the New York Mets changed the Braves and their once-dominant pitching.
After 14 straight division titles, the Braves have finished third in the NL East two straight years. The bottom of the starting rotation — including Mark Redman, Kyle Davies, Buddy Carlyle, Chuck James and Jo-Jo Reyes — was the team’s weak spot last year.
Another sign of a new era in Atlanta: John Schuerholz has moved from general manager to team president, and his successor, Frank Wren, spent the offseason trying to boost the team’s starting pitching.
Glavine, eager to spend more time with his family in Atlanta, signed a one-year deal to return to the Braves, where he posted five 20-win seasons from 1987-2002. Wren traded shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit for highly regarded right-hander Jair Jurrjens. Mike Hampton, who hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2005, appears ready to open the season.
The Braves never recovered from the losses of Lance Cormier and Hampton to injuries last spring. Cox said the rotation won’t be as vulnerable to an injury this year and he won’t have to stick with a struggling pitcher this season.
“Last year we went into camp, we didn’t have a lot of depth and we lost two pitchers just like that and had a hard time replacing them,” Cox said. “If that’s the case this year we’ve got guys to come in and take right over and get right in the rotation.”
Added Wren: “I just feel like we’ve got options. Even if we have to weather a DL here or there or a guy not performing, we’ll have some other guys at Triple-A who we really like.”
Jurrjens won a spot in the rotation and will open the season as the No. 3 starter, between left-handers Glavine and Hampton. Tim Hudson will start Sunday’s opener at Washington and John Smoltz was expected to miss one start because of discomfort in his right shoulder.
Reyes, optioned to Richmond, and long reliever Jeff Bennett could be used as fill-in starters.
“We’ve got some depth and that’s something we didn’t have last year,” third baseman Chipper Jones said. “We’re going to probably send down some guys who could pitch in the big leagues, no doubt. It affords us the luxury so that if somebody does go down, we have guys we can step in who have had some big league time and we’d feel comfortable with him going out there.”
The Braves’ lineup should be strong, but it will be tough for Jones, Mark Teixeira, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann to carry the team back to the top of the NL East if the starting pitchers falter.
“That was our big problem last year,” Jones said. “We couldn’t get enough quality innings out of the bottom of our rotation. The health of our 40-somethings, the health of Hampton, those were all big question marks coming into the season.”
The uncertainty surrounding Teixeira, combined with the age and injury worries in the starting rotation, increases the pressure on this mix of players to win this year.
There’s another health concern in center field, where Mark Kotsay was signed to replace 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones. Kotsay has shown no evidence of the back problems that limited him to 206 at-bats and a .214 average with Oakland last year.
If Kotsay’s back problems resurface, the Braves could turn to Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco while waiting out top prospect Jordan Schafer’s climb through the minors.
Left fielder Matt Diaz could be a full-time starter after hitting .327 and .338 the last two years.
Two more new full-time starters are shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson.
Escobar hit .326 as a rookie while sharing time with Johnson at second base, convincing the Braves they could trade Renteria.