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Braves quick hits

Braves quick hits

Coming off their first losing season since 1990, the Braves are still bitter about the fact that their unprecedented streak of 14 consecutive division titles was snapped. With a dramatically improved bullpen, they enter the 2007 season feeling confident about their chances to once again win the National League East.

With enviable depth in the bullpen, the Braves feel even better about their starting rotation, which will once again be headed by John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. If they can keep Chipper Jones healthy, the lineup should provide the firepower necessary to complement what appears to be a strong pitching staff.

Team strength: While blowing 29 save opportunities last year, the bullpen was by far the club's weakest link. But by keeping Bob Wickman and acquiring Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, the Braves have put themselves in position to have the game's best bullpen.

Wickman will primarily fill the closer role, but the left-handed Gonzalez and the right-handed Soriano are also both quite capable of serving as closers. And the maturation experienced by Macay McBride and Tyler Yates last year will prove to be valuable as they add depth to the relief corps in middle-relief roles.

Achilles' heel: With all the power the Braves have in their lineup, the club's lack of speed could at times be a problem. The bullpen was a primary reason the club lost 33 of its 52 one-run games last year. But with more speed, the Braves might have been able to manufacture the runs necessary to win a few more of those close games.

Top newcomer: It's currently impossible to determine whether Gonzalez or Soriano will be the most valuable newcomer. Statistically, they are mirror images of each other, and the only true difference between them is the arms with which they throw the ball. Together, they'll provide the Braves with a solid late-inning combination for many years to come.

Ready to make The Leap: Yunel Escobar's mediocre stats at Double-A Mississippi last year may have been a product of the difficulties he faced while adapting to a new environment. The 24-year-old shortstop seems to have gained maturity, and there's now reason to believe he could be a valuable everyday player at the Major League level.

If Chipper Jones goes on the disabled list again, Escobar will be promoted to serve as the club's starting third baseman. He has a tremendous arm, and his broad shoulders indicate that he'll continue to develop his power.

On the hot seat: Jones says that he'd like to play in at least 150 games this year. But he hasn't played in more than 110 games in either of the past two years, and the oblique soreness he felt during the final weeks of Spring Training increased the chance that he's destined to endure another injury-depleted season.

When healthy, Jones is still one of the game's top offensive threats. But as he nears his 35th birthday, there's reason to believe he'll never again have the opportunity to optimize his talents over the course of an entire season.

You can bank on: As they enter the final years in their contracts, John Smoltz and Andruw Jones are headed toward big paydays.

Smoltz, who will turn 40 in May, has been as durable and successful as most any other National League pitcher over the past two years, and with the revamped bullpen, he certainly could compete for his second Cy Young Award.

The slimmed-down version of Jones will once again hit 40-plus homers and quite possibly add some consistency to his swing.

Litmus test: If Tim Hudson regains his successful form and Chuck James builds upon his successful rookie season, the starting rotation will maximize the benefits this strong bullpen can provide. And if Mike Hampton can at least round into form by the middle of June, this should be a club that can do some damage with its pitching staff in the postseason.

Games you don't want to miss:

Tigers, June 22-24 -- A potential World Series preview?

Giants, Aug. 14-16 -- Barry Bonds may still be chasing Hank Aaron's all-time home run record when San Francisco visits Atlanta.

Phillies, Sept. 3-5 -- A potential battle for final-stretch momentum in the NL East race.

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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