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Braves Spring Training quick hits

Braves Spring Training quick hits

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2006 record
79-83, third place, National League East

Projected batting order
1. 2B Kelly Johnson:
  .241 BA, 9 HR, 40 RBI in 2005
2. SS Edgar Renteria:
  .293 BA, 14 HR, 70 RBI
3. 3B Chipper Jones:
  .324 BA, 26 HR, 86 RBI
4. CF Andruw Jones:
  .262 BA, 41 HR, 129 RBI
5. C Brian McCann:
  .323 BA, 23 HR, 93 RBI
6. RF Jeff Francoeur:
  .260 BA, 29 HR, 103 RBI
7. 1B Scott Thorman:
  .234 BA, 5 HR, 14 RBI
8. LF Ryan Langerhans:
  .241 BA, 7 HR, 28 RBI

Projected rotation
1. RHP John Smoltz, 16-9, 3.49 ERA
2. RHP Tim Hudson, 13-12, 4.86
3. LHP Mike Hampton, 5-3, 3.50 in 2005
4. LHP Chuck James , 11-4, 3.78
5. RHP Kyle Davies, 3-7, 8.38

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Bob Wickman, 33 saves, 2.67 ERA
LH setup man: Mike Gonzalez, 24 saves, 2.17 ERA
RH setup man: Rafael Soriano, 2.25 ERA

The new guys
Gonzalez: Acquired in a January trade with the Pirates, the left-hander provides the Braves a second dominant setup man and a potential closer for the future. Nit-picking critics can point to his occasional control problems. But Gonzalez's statistics prove he allows few hits and even fewer runs.

Soriano: Acquired in a December trade with the Mariners, the hard-throwing right-hander is one of the game's best unknown gems. When healthy, he's been one of the game's best middle relievers. His dominant stuff makes him a potential closer and his varying pitch selection provides him the ability to potentially be a starter in the future.

INF Chris Woodward: Acquired as a free agent in December, the veteran infielder is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2006 season that was plagued by a shoulder injury. Once the Blue Jays' starting shortstop, he'll provide Renteria a chance to get his necessary rest.

OF/1B Craig Wilson: Signed as a free agent in January, the veteran provides depth with his power and versatility. His past success against left-handed pitchers makes him a likely candidate to platoon in left field. He could also serve as Thorman's backup at first base.

RHP Tanyon Sturtze: Since signing as a free agent in December, the veteran right-hander has become the revitalized bullpen's most forgotten addition. If he's able to come back from shoulder surgery in May, he'll provide valuable depth and leadership to an already-strong bullpen.

Prospects to watch
INF Yunel Escobar: If he was willing to play second base, this Cuban defector might be destined for Atlanta. His success in the Arizona Fall League increased his stock and proved that he'll likely soon be somewhere at the Major League level.

C Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Even after his mighty struggles at Double-A Mississippi last year, there are some who still believe he's one of the game's top prospects. With LaRoche's exit, this power-hitting catcher may start getting some occasional work at first base.

INF Martin Prado: If Johnson struggles to get comfortable at second base, the job will belong to Prado. He impressed some during his brief stints in Atlanta last year and has at least proven he would be a valuable utilityman at the Major League level.

OF Gregor Blanco: Currently, there doesn't appear to be an available spot for the 23-year-old outfielder at the Major League level. But a strong Spring could change that in a hurry. He has the speed and on-base percentage that signal he could be a potential leadoff hitter.

Returning from injury
Hampton: It's been nearly two full years since Hampton's aching elbow ended his dominant stretch and forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery. A deep bullpen will allow him the luxury of pacing himself in his return. Having had the surgery in September 2005, he should be well-rested and revitalized.

Johnson: His elbow began bothering him in Spring Training last year and forced him to have Tommy John surgery in May. Having worked all offseason to learn the second-base position, this converted outfielder's value will increase if he also proves capable of handling the leadoff duties.

RHP Blaine Boyer: The 25-year-old's hope of coming back from shoulder soreness was erased in the first week of last season. Now the hard-throwing right-handed reliever must prove that shoulder surgery has allowed him to regain the promising form that he showed through much of the 2005 season.

On the rebound
Chipper Jones: The 34-year-old found himself in this same category last year, and his return to it has nothing to do with his production. His stats from 2006, when projected over a 162-game season, show that he was on pace to hit 38 homers and register 126 RBIs. But he played only 110 games and must find a way to avoid a third consecutive injury-marred season.

Hudson: When Hudson arrived in Atlanta, he ranked second among active pitchers in terms of winning percentage. During both of his first two years with the Braves, he's led the team in losses. Once known for his dominance, this right-hander is committed to avoiding the mediocrity that he displayed throughout much of last season.

Long gone
1B Adam LaRoche: His power and defensive skills will surely be missed. But his increased value allowed the Braves to send him in exchange for Gonzalez, who should make this year's bullpen one of the best in the franchise's history.

2B Marcus Giles: A fan favorite, Giles saw his drop in production and rise in salary force the Braves to release him. He'll now play alongside his brother in their hometown of San Diego.

C Todd Pratt: The veteran catcher saw little playing time in the season's final two months and now finds himself as a non-roster invitee to Yankees camp.

RHP Chris Reitsma: His short tenure as the team's closer ended miserably. Now having recovered from an elbow surgery, he finds himself looking to prove himself as a middle reliever in Seattle.

RHP Danys Baez: After being acquired from the Dodgers in late July, the right-hander's stint with the Braves lasted just 11 games. Now that his emergency appendectomy is in the past, he's counting the riches the Orioles paid him this offseason.

2006 hitting leaders (min. 200 at-bats)
Avg.: McCann, .333
OBP: C. Jones, .409
SLG: C. Jones, .596
Runs: A. Jones, 107
RBIs: A. Jones, 129
Hits: Renteria, 175
2B: Renteria, 40
3B: Francoeur, 6
HR: A. Jones, 41
SB: Renteria, 17
2006 pitching leaders (min. 30 IP)
IP: Smoltz, 232
W: Smoltz, 16
L: Hudson, 12
Win %: Villarreal, 9-1, .900
S: Wickman, 18
ERA: Chad Paronto, 3.18
K: Smoltz, 211
K/9: Tyler Yates, 8.28
WHIP: Smoltz, 1.19

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

Who will serve as the team's second baseman and leadoff hitter?
Johnson will be given every chance to win both roles, and all indications are that he has adapted well to the move to second base. Finding a comfort level turning double plays and displaying adequate range will be necessary for him to keep Prado from winning the starting job. If Prado gets the nod, the team may be forced to negate some of Renteria's run-producing opportunities by placing him in the leadoff role.

How good will Hampton be after such a long layoff?
While it's been nearly two years since a healthy Hampton stepped on the mound, this version of the left-hander will be much healthier than the one that went 15-2 during a 22-start stretch from July 2004-May 2005. Along with his elbow, he's had his troublesome left knee surgically repaired. Now, he must simply regain the feel for the sinker that has brought him success throughout the non-Colorado portion of his career.

Who should play left field?
This seems to be annual question that faces the Braves. Fortunately, this year there are no Raul Mondesi-type projects looking to fill the role. Matt Diaz's offensive performance earned him the right to win the starting role. But Langerhans' defense could prove more valuable with a team that is looking to win with the strength of their pitching staff. Wilson appears best suited to fill a platoon role that will allow him to play left in those games that opponents are throwing a left-handed pitcher.

The bottom line
Having seen their streak of 14 consecutive division titles come to an end, the Braves no longer have a sense of invincibility. Chipper Jones must play at least 140 games and the starting staff must ensure that this formidable bullpen has the opportunity to take care of late leads on a regular basis. While the offense will likely see a decline in production, this team appears to have a pitching staff that's strong enough to get the team back into the postseason.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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