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Braves ready to make a run in Cox's final season
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ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves are inviting fans to celebrate Bobby Cox's career this season. He would prefer to celebrate a return to the playoffs.

And Cox is counting on rookie Jason Heyward to help he and the Braves get there.

Cox, retiring after this season, named the 20-year his starting right fielder during sprint training.

Heyward caused a stir when his batting practice homer cleared the bullpen beyond the right-field wall and destroyed the sun roof on assistant general manager Bruce Mano's car.

It was no fluke. Heyward's blasts kept reaching the parking lot at the Braves' spring facility, so a net was raised to protect the cars. In one week of spring training, J-Hey forced the stadium addition that had not been needed in the Braves' first decade at Disney.

The Braves return to Atlanta from Florida with a few dented cars — and a rising star in Heyward, the new starter in right field.
Heyward adds needed power to the Braves' lineup.

"When you add a young player like Jason Heyward, it gets everyone jacked up," said third baseman Chipper Jones. "It makes our lineup better to have him in it. Now it's up to the old guys like me to do our part."

Jones and first baseman Troy Glaus are keys in the middle of the lineup.

Jones' batting average dropped 100 points in 2009 from his NL-leading .364 mark in 2008. He fell to .264 last season with 31 fewer hits in almost 50 more at-bats and finished with career-low totals of 18 homers and 71 RBIs.

Jones, who will turn 38 in April, this spring repeated his pledge to retire after the season "if I don't play this game at the level I want to play it." He signed a three-year, $42 million contract extension last spring which runs through 2012.

Glaus, who missed most of last season with St. Louis after shoulder surgery; is moving from third base to first base. He has made a smooth transition defensively and gives the team a right-handed bat between the switch-hitting Jones and catcher Brian McCann.

Glaus carried a strong batting average through the spring but has yet to prove he has regained his power stroke.

The Braves finished 22nd in the majors with 149 homers in 2009. They need more than singles from Glaus, who has hit 27 or more homers in eight of his 11 seasons. He hit .270 with 27 homers and 99 RBIs for St. Louis in 2008.

If Heyward, Jones and Glaus are productive, the lineup should be improved.

The Braves made a late playoff push in 2009 after Martin Prado took the starting job at second base from Kelly Johnson. Prado, who hit. 307, found a home as the No. 2 hitter. Shortstop Yunel Escobar moved to fifth and sixth in the lineup and hit .299 with 14 homers and 76 RBIs.

The Braves added outfielder Melky Cabrera in the trade which sent right-hander Javier Vazquez to the Yankees. Cox says Cabrera can play any spot in the outfield. Matt Diaz, who hit .313 last season, and Nate McLouth return in the outfield.

The other major offseason additions were new closer Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito. Wagner, 38, pitched for the Mets and Red Sox last year in his return from Tommy John surgery. Saito, 40, could see some saves opportunities behind Wagner.

Atlanta's strength in Cox's final season as manager is starting pitching, the same as in most of the last two decades. Even after dealing Vazquez, the Braves have a strong top four of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson.

Hudson, the team's former ace, made a late-season return last year from elbow ligament-replacement surgery and says his arm has never felt better.

Strong cases could be made for Hudson, Jurrjens or Hanson as the No. 1 starter, but Cox chose Lowe as the opening day starter. It could be a confidence boost for Lowe after he heard his name in trade rumors through the offseason.

Jurrjens, who was 14-10 with a 2.60 ERA last year, was held back at the start of spring after feeling discomfort in his right shoulder. Tests showed only inflammation in the shoulder, and he is ready for the season.

Hanson was 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts as a rookie and is entering his first full season. Kenshin Kawakami, 7-12 with a 3.86 ERA in 2009, is the No. 5 starter.

"We've got five quality starters, and how many teams can say that?" Cox asked.

Entering his 21st consecutive season and 25th overall as the Braves' manager, Cox led the Braves to 14 straight division titles. He says the Braves have the talent to return to the playoffs an end their four-year postseason drought.      

"I like our pitching and I like our chances," said Cox, 68. "We should be right there in the race."

The problem is the Braves compete with the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. Jones set his aim on a wild-card spot even before the season began.

"Is this team capable of winning 90 games with the talent that's in here?" Jones asked. "No question. Is 90 games enough to make it to the wild-card? Who knows?"

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