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The Times Braves 2009 Preview
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Braves vs. Phillies

When: 8:05 tonight

TV: ESPN (Charter channel 32)

Braves fans braced for new sights, sounds

Braves notebook: Lowe looking to 'embrace' opening day

Rebuilt pitching staff: Aces in the hole? 

First it was John Smoltz. Soon after it was Tom Glavine. Then Tim Hudson. joined them two days after Mike Hampton finally rejoined the team in late July.

By that point the 2008 season was already considered a loss, wrecked by injuries to the pitching staff and the bullpen (top relievers Mike Gonzalez, Pete Moylan and Rafael Soriano all missed significant time as well.

No wonder then that the Braves spent much of their offseason piecing together a sturdier rotation.

The Braves notably tried and failed to trade for San Diego’s Jake Peavey, then were unable to convince A.J. Burnett to sign.

After the team declined to match Boston’s offer to Smoltz, a lifelong Brave, the staff seemed to be in shambles.

But the team moved quickly to shore up the rotation and seems to have dramatically improved on last year’s patchwork crew — even though elbow surgery could cause Hudson to miss the entire season.

The strength of this year’s unit is its depth. All five starters could conceivably chew up 200 innings and take some of the burden off a bullpen that was overworked last year.

The weakness could be the lack of a proven ace. Free agent acquisition Derek Lowe will take the mound today and in Friday’s home opener, but the 35-year-old has spent most of his career in a co-starring role. That’s not the only question mark.

How well Kenshin Kawakami will transition to the major leagues?

Can Jair Jurrjens improve on the promise shown during his rookie campaign last summer?

How many more innings does Glavine have left in that 43-year-old arm?

Three's a crowd 

The defending world champs in Philadelphia and the Mets with bolstered bullpen are the popular picks to run away with the NL East this year.

After a 14-year run of division dominance, the Braves haven’t been in the postseason picture since 2005.

With games against the Phils and Mets accounting for nearly a quarter of the schedule, it won’t be easy to get back this year.

On the plus side, they’ll have ample opportunities to make up ground in September, when they play the Mets six times and the Phillies three.

Frenchy's missing stroke

The Braves can’t afford another season like 2008 from Jeff Francoeur.

Chipper Jones is an All-Star when he’s healthy, and Brian McCann has become one of the game’s best catchers. But minus solid production from Francoeur, the lineup doesn’t compare with the top-shelf NL teams.

After two and a half promising seasons, he hit .239 last year. A return to .290 form is a must.

All the young dudes 

The Braves minor league system is loaded with prospects. Outfielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Freddie Freeman have been touted as future .300/30/100 type of hitters.

They’re still considered to be at least a year away from the big leagues, but two of the organizations most prized pieces have a chance to make a big impact this year.

Jordan Schafer enjoyed a breakout spring and earned the starting spot in centerfield. The former third-round pick led the team in stolen bases in the spring and carried a .380 batting average deep into March.

The team’s top prospect, 6-foot-6 flamethrower Tommy Hanson will start the season in Gwinnett, but could get his chance in the big leagues before the season’s done.

Rookie relief pitcher Kris Medlen could also find a spot in the bullpen this summer.

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