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Braves excited about new pitchers
Atlanta Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton watches Chipper Jones take batting practice during a spring training Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. - photo by David J. Phillip

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — No one with the Atlanta Braves sounded more enthusiastic about the reconstructed pitching staff than the guy who will catch it this season.

Brian McCann put down a welcome mat at the door Sunday as pitchers and catchers arrived for the first workout of spring training.

“I’m extremely happy, really excited about these guys coming in,” the All-Star catcher said. “It’s huge for us. After what we went through last season, this is great, getting these veteran guys who really know how to pitch. I just hope I don’t screw them up.”

While Sunday was the official start of spring training at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, many players, including McCann, already have been here working out, finding it hard to temper their enthusiasm or expectations for the new season.

After injuries devastated the rotation last season, the Braves gave a $60 million contract to Derek Lowe, signed Japanese all-star Kenshin Kawakami and traded for Javier Vazquez.

“I feel like I’m part of the pitching staff,” McCann said. “When they struggle, I felt like crap. When they dominate, I feel great. And right now I feel pretty good about it. You come to spring training now thinking you can get to the World Series.”

The new starters are all known for their durability, and the Braves are still hoping to re-sign 42-year-old Tom Glavine, baseball’s only active 300-game winner, to serve as their No. 5 starter. Jair Jurrjens, who won 13 games as a rookie last season, is the only holdover from 2008 assured a spot.

Then there’s Tommy Hanson, the team’s top prospect. While the Braves would prefer to give him a little more seasoning in the minors, the 22-year-old right-hander hopes to speed things up with a good showing this spring.

“This rotation has a chance to be really good,” manager Bobby Cox said after the first workout. “I like the new faces, the guys we’ve brought in. But I liked the staff last year — until the injury bug hit us.”

Atlanta’s top four projected starters last year made only 53 starts, and 23 of them were by Tim Hudson before he went down with an elbow injury that will likely keep him sidelined at least until August. The Braves suffered through their worst season since 1990 after losing starters Hudson, Glavine and John Smoltz to season-ending injuries, along with relievers Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan.

If Soriano and Moylan and closer Mike Gonzalez can fully recover from various surgeries, a once-suspect pitching staff will suddenly look a lot stronger.

“I’m very excited about the staff they’ve put together here,” said Vazquez, who was acquired from the Chicago White Sox for a package of prospects. “I take a lot of pride in getting the ball every fifth day and being ready to pitch. Injuries are part of the game, but staying healthy is what it’s all about.”

Vazquez has pitched at least 198 innings in each of his last nine seasons. Lowe also has been extremely durable during his career, having never been on the disabled list in his 12 big league seasons. He also finished strong last season, going 6-1 with a 1.27 ERA in his final 10 starts with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Braves gave Lowe a five-year contract and are counting on him to be the ace of the staff.

“I couldn’t wait to get here. You come to spring training ready to compete for a spot in the World Series,” Lowe said. “Since the day I signed I’ve been looking forward to this day. Getting started every spring is a feeling that is second to none.”

Kawakami, the franchise’s first Japanese player, arrived Sunday trailed by a gaggle of media from his home country. He, too, has a reputation for durability even though he missed several weeks last season with a strained back.

After a leisurely first workout, Kawakami acknowledged that he expected to work harder than he did.

“I’m very comfortable here,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s going to be exciting to be part of this staff. It looks like a good one.”

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