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New-look Braves optimistic for 2009
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Old habits are hard to break.

The Atlanta Braves haven't made the playoffs since 2005, the last hurrah in their record streak of 14 straight division titles, and it's hard to view them as a serious contender now. They're coming off their worst season since George Bush (the first one) was president.

They're looking up in the same division to the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies and the free-spending (if perpetually disappointing) New York Mets.

Still, the Braves head into spring training clinging to the mind-set of a franchise that once ruled the NL
East — not the one the lost 90 games a year ago.

"It's been a very fruitful offseason and we feel very comfortable," general manager Frank Wren said. "We like our club a lot."

Of course, everyone likes their team at this time of the year. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training at Atlanta's Disney World complex today, with the first workout set for the following day. The entire squad will be on the field for the first time on Wednesday.

So, are the Braves really a legitimate contender? Or is Wren just blinded by the perpetual optimism that was once so justified in Atlanta?

First, the hopeful signs:

The Braves rebuilt their injury-ravaged rotation over the winter, doling out a $60 million contract to Derek Lowe, trading for Javier Vazquez and signing Japanese all-star Kenshin Kawakami.

The bullpen should be much better if Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan are fully recovered from offseason surgeries.

Chipper Jones is still wreaking havoc in the heart of the batting order, coming off a career-best .364 average and his first NL batting title.

Now, for the bad news:

John Smoltz, who had spent his entire career with the Braves and was a leader in the clubhouse, signed with the Boston Red Sox after negotiations with Atlanta turned ugly. Needless to say, the fans weren't too thrilled about losing an icon of the team's once-dominant rotation.

The outfield is a mess. Right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, would have trouble landing a spot in a weekly shopper after the worst season of his once-so-promising career. The other two spots are even more shaky.

Former ace Tim Hudson continues to recover from Tommy John surgery and isn't likely to take the mound until August.

So is this team a contender or pretender?

In all likelihood, the answer will be provided by the pitching staff.

The Braves once dominated with a rotation that included Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, a trio that will likely team up again someday at Cooperstown. But the staff went down in flames last year, devastated by a string of season-ending injuries. Smoltz, Hudson, Glavine, Soriano and Moylan were all lost as Atlanta assembled a more formidable staff on the DL than it did on the field.

Wren was determined to avoid a repeat. He dealt a group of prospects to the Chicago White Sox for Vazquez. He signed Kawakami, the first Japanese player in franchise history. He doled out a huge contract to Lowe to be the ace of this reconstituted staff. Those three join the one reliable holdover from last year's staff, 13-game winner Jair Jurrjens.

"You've got to start off with your starting pitching," Wren said.

The 35-year-old Lowe is certainly durable, having never been on the DL during his dozen years in the big leagues, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the role of No. 1 starter. Even while putting together seven straight seasons with at least 12 wins during stints with the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, he was always viewed as a complementary member of the rotation rather than the top guy.
Lowe said he's ready to take on the burden of ace after pitching in Boston and L.A.

"You learn how to lose," he said. "What I mean by that is, you learn how to take criticism. You learn how to get booed. I think a lot of people don't know how to deal with it. I think it's a positive learning experience in so many ways. But no matter where you go, there's always pressure. There's no different pressure here."

While the top four spots in the rotation appear to be filled, the Braves will use spring training to settle on the fifth spot. They could go with journeyman Jorge Campillo, a pleasant surprise in 2008 (8-7, 3.91 ERA in 25 starts). They could bring back the 42-year-old Glavine, who was still mulling an offer to return for one more season with the Braves at a significantly reduced salary. They could push up the timetable on top prospect Tommy Hanson, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound right-hander who dominated the Arizona Fall League.

The 22-year-old Hanson figures to get as much attention as Mickey Mouse during spring training, though the Braves would prefer to give the non-roster invitee at least another partial season in the minors. After all, he's made just 18 starts above the Class A level.

"I feel zero pressure," Hanson insisted. "I don't feel any more expectations. I just want to go out pitch and get better and do what I've been doing for the last three years. Obviously I want to be in Atlanta.
That's been the goal. That's the ultimate goal, but if I start in Triple-A, that's fine."

Francoeur doesn't have the luxury of patience, even though he's only 25. The guy once projected as baseball's next great player looked totally lost in 2008, hitting a paltry .239 with just 11 homers. He even did a brief stint in the minors, hoping to regain his hitting stroke, but nothing seemed to work.

This season will likely determine whether Francoeur has a long-term future in Atlanta or was just another over-hyped prospect.

Jones, for one, is expecting to see major improvement.

"He's definitely made some adjustments," the Braves most reliable hitter said. "His thought process is
300 percent better."

Francoeur could certainly take some lessons from Jones, who just seems to keep getting better at the plate. His on-base percentage was .470. He had far more walks (90) than strikeouts (61). And he basically had to go it alone after Mark Teixeira was dealt away just before the trade deadline.

"It's a swing that's been crafted over 30-some years," the switch-hitting Jones said. "Over the last three, four years, it's really settled in. And that's what hitting is. It's all about timing. It's all about keeping things as simple as possible."

But Jones, who will turn 37 before the season is a month old, has been plagued by injuries. He played only 128 games last year and hasn't made it through a full year without some sort of ailment since 2003.

"This club can't afford for me to be off for an extended period of time," Jones said. "I can't afford to play 120, 125 (games). I can't have that."

Especially with some of the holes in the batting order. First baseman Casey Kotchman hardly impressed after coming over in the Teixeira deal (.237, two homers, 20 RBIs) and the Braves were still trolling around for another outfielder, having passed on the chance to bring back Andruw Jones.

For now, the Braves have three players — Gregor Blanco, Josh Anderson and prospect Jordan Schafer — battling for playing time in center field, while Matt Diaz and Brandon Jones are the leading contenders in left.


But this is spring training. Let's not let realism stand in the way of optimism, especially when you're a franchise that still remembers what it was like to make the playoffs year after year.

"We feel," Lowe said, "that we have every right to win this division."
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