01/30/2003 11:34 pm ET
Braves Spring Training rundown
Starting rotation has a new look
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Spring Training preview
MLB Radio preview
Cracker Jack Stadium
SB: Furcal, 27
101-59, first in NL East
2002 Hitting leaders
(min. 200 at-bats)
Avg: Chipper Jones, .327
OBP: C. Jones, .435
SLG: C. Jones, .536
Runs: Rafael Furcal, 95
RBIs: C. Jones, 100
Hits: C. Jones, 179
2B: C. Jones, 35
3B: Furcal, 8
HR: Andruw Jones, 35
2002 Pitching leaders
(min. 30 IP):
IP: Tom Glavine, 224.2
W: Glavine, Kevin Millwood, 18
L: Glavine, 11
Win %: Greg Maddux, 16-6, .727
S: John Smoltz, 55
ERA: Chris Hammond, 0.95
K: Millwood, 178
K/9: Smoltz, 9.50
WHIP: Darren Holmes, 0.97
Projected starting lineup
SS Rafael Furcal
2B Marcus Giles or Mark DeRosa
RF Gary Sheffield
LF Chipper Jones
CF Andruw Jones
1B Robert Fick
3B Vinny Castilla
C Javy Lopez
1. Greg Maddux
2. Mike Hampton
3. Paul Byrd
4. Russ Ortiz
5. Jason Marquis or Trey Hodges
LH setup man: Ray King and Mike Venafro
RH setup man: Roberto Hernandez and Darren Holmes
Closer: John Smoltz
Spring Cleaning: Five questions that need to be answered
1. Will the new-look starting staff be as successful as the others the Braves have recently had?
For the first time since 1988, the Braves rotation will not contain Tom Glavine. The two-time Cy Young Award winner's departure set off a series of moves that brought Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz to Atlanta to join Greg Maddux and Mike Hampton as the team's top starters. If Hampton, Byrd and Ortiz live up to expectations, the losses of Glavine, Damian Moss and Kevin Millwood will not be felt. With Maddux serving as the staff's ace, pitching guru Leo Mazzone may once again have one of the National League's best starting staff. Since 1991, the Braves pitching staff has posted the NL's best ERA in all but two seasons.
2. Will Rafael Furcal cut down on his strikeouts and perform more like a leadoff hitter?
Some of Furcal's struggles in 2002 could be a result of him missing the second half of the 2001 season with a separated left shoulder. The 2000 NL Rookie of the Year led the Braves in runs, but his 114/43 strikeout to walk ratio led to a disappointing .323 on-base-percentage. The speedy shortstop has the capability of being one of the game's best leadoff hitters if he shows more discipline at the plate.
3. Will Hampton turn his career around in Atlanta?
In 1999, Hampton finished second in balloting for the NL Cy Young Award. One year later, he won 15 games, was named NLCS MVP and helped the Mets advance to the World Series. His accomplishments helped him land a lucrative free-agent contract with the Rockies. But his career went south when he went to Colorado and after going 7-16 with a 6.15 ERA last year, the Rockies knew they had to unload the southpaw. The Braves are hoping Hampton is able to resurrect his career like Darryl Kile did after leaving Colorado and landing with the Cardinals in 2000.
4. Will Bobby Cox choose to use both Marcus Giles and Mark DeRosa as regulars in his lineup?
Both of these young infielders have burst on the scene and proved they belong in the Majors over the past two seasons. Giles is hoping to rebound from an injury-plagued season in which he was also burdened with the loss of his first child just weeks after being born in early June. DeRosa also missed significant time with an ankle injury last year. But before the setback in mid-May, he was arguably the Braves most consistent offensive performer. Both Giles and DeRosa can play second base and third base. If Vinny Castilla's offensive struggles are present again this year, the athletic DeRosa could find himself as the team's starting third baseman. This arrangement would allow Cox to bat DeRosa second and Giles eighth in the lineup.
5. Will a healthy Gary Sheffield have a breakout season during a contract year?
For most Major Leaguers, a season in which they hit .307 with 25 homers and 84 RBIs would be viewed as a success. But Sheffield will be the first to admit he can better those 2002 numbers. The Braves right fielder was hurt during much of April and May and thus failed to drive in at least 100 runs and hit at least 30 homers for the first time since 1998. This is the final year of his two-year deal with the Braves and with Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones following him in the lineup, the 34-year-old veteran could produce numbers that will enable him to land a very lucrative deal for the 2004 season.
New faces: Players aquired via trade or free agency
LHP Ray King -- This left-handed setup man is looking forward to playing for a winning team. Since being traded by the Braves before the start of the 1998 season, King has played for the Cubs and Brewers and never had an opportunity to pitch in the postseason. His arrival will help offset the losses of Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond. Left-handed hitters hit .219 against him last year.
LHP Mike Venafro -- The signing of Venafro in January gave the Braves their second left-handed reliever. After being sent to the minors midway through the 2002 season, the southpaw rebounded after Oakland promoted him back to the Majors in September. At that time, the side-arm pitcher moved his arm slot to more of a three-quarter delivery. The change helped him limit opponents to just one hit and no earned runs in his final four games. He finished the year by allowing just 10 of his 44 inherited runners to score.
RHP Roberto Hernandez -- This imposing reliever, who is a two-time All-Star with 320 career saves, may not be as dominant as he was during the 1990s. But the Braves believe this 38-year-old, who was clocked in the mid-90's last year, will still be a strong setup man for record-setting closer John Smoltz. Hernandez saved 36 games and posted a 4.33 ERA as the Royals closer last year.
RHP Russ Ortiz -- Ortiz, who beat the Braves twice in last year's Division Series, was brought to the Braves to add experience to the starting staff. The 28-year-old right-hander has won at least at least 14 games each of the past four seasons and has over 100 career starts.
RHP Paul Byrd -- This 32-year-old hurler turned down more generous offers to return to the Braves and enjoy the opportunity to pitch in his hometown. Byrd, who registered 17 of the Royals 62 wins last year, has enjoyed success since the Braves released him during the 1998 season. The right-hander, who was an All-Star in 1999, tossed seven complete games and registered two shutouts last year.
LHP Mike Hampton -- The acquisition of Hampton could prove to be a stroke of genius if the 30-year-old left-hander is able to enjoy the success he had before going to Colorado in 2001. Hampton's struggles with the Rockies have been well chronicled. While allowing opponents to hit .313 and reach base at a .390 clip against him last year, he went 7-16 and registered a 6.15 ERA. The Braves hope Leo Mazzone's influence and a change of scenery will be enough to help Hampton regain his status as one of the game's best hurlers.
1B Robert Fick -- Fick was ecstatic when he learned that the Braves wanted him to be their starting first baseman. This 29-year-old former catcher, who was the Tigers right fielder last year, is coming off a season in which he hit .270 with 17 homers and 63 RBIs. There are some Braves officials who believe he can hit at least 25 homers and bat close to .300. More importantly, the energized newcomer may provide the spark and attitude the clubhouse needs.
C Johnny Estrada -- When Estrada was acquired from the Phillies for Kevin Millwood, Schuerholz called him the "team's catcher of the future." The 26-year-old Estrada appeared in just 10 games with the Phillies last year. He spent most of the year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he hit .279 with 11 homers and 69 RBIs. He will likely start this year at Triple-A Richmond, but is more than capable of being a big-league catcher.
OF Bo Porter -- Porter, who was the Rangers' Opening Day starting center fielder in 2001, was picked up by the Braves after the Rockies released him from their Colorado Springs club last year. The 30-year-old outfielder has appeared in 89 Major League games with the A's, Rangers and Cubs. He hit .298 with eight homers and 52 RBIs at Triple-A Richmond last year and will compete for a backup outfielder's spot as a non-roster invitee in Spring Training.
Tom Glavine -- Things will definitely be a little different without Glavine. During his years with the Braves, he served as one of the team's top pitchers and clubhouse leaders. His professional approach and competitive nature made him one of the franchise's most beloved players. Braves fans will have a number of chances to see Glavine in a Mets uniform. The division rivals will meet 19 times this season.
Mike Remlinger -- When Remlinger arrived before the 1999 season, he was regarded as a pitcher who had some potential. The left-hander found his role as a setup man with the Braves and by the end of last year was regarded as one of the game's most dominating relievers. He opted to sign with the Cubs during the offseason after they offered him more money than the Braves.
Chris Hammond -- There may not have been a better story in baseball last year. Hammond, who was out of baseball from 1998-2000, came back to the Majors last year and by the end of the season had become just the third pitcher in history to throw at least 70 innings and end the season with a sub-1.00 ERA (0.95). The left-handed reliever was hoping to remain with the Braves. But he instead chose to sign a two-year, $5 million deal with the Yankees.
Keith Lockhart -- Over the past six seasons, Lockhart was one of the Braves' top left-handed pinch hitters and one of Bobby Cox's favorite players. The veteran second baseman declined the Braves arbitration offer and has still not found a new employer.
Wes Helms -- Brewers manager Ned Yost, who was a Braves coach from 1991-2002, is excited to have Helms in Milwaukee. Helms, who was in the King trade in December, has had trouble finding playing time over the last two seasons with the Braves. In Milwaukee, Yost will give him every chance possible to prove his capabilities at third base. Helms hired a personal trainer this offseason and is in the best shape of his life.
Tim Spooneybarger -- Spooneybarger's baby face and unique name made him a popular player in his rookie season last year. He endured some growing pains during the year, but was still able to prove he will be a quality reliever in this league. He was sent to the Marlins in exchange for Hampton in November. There is a chance he will be the Marlins' closer by the end of the 2003 season.
John Foster -- During Spring Training last year, the young left-hander impressed with an above average changeup. He had two short stints in the Majors before coming down with vertigo in August last year. The Brewers, who acquired him and Helms in the King trade, believe he is healthy and will immediately help their bullpen.
Returning from injury
The Braves got through the 2002 season without a major injury.
New kids on the block: Prospects to watch
RHP Trey Hodges -- This right-hander has won 15 games each of the past two seasons at Class-A Myrtle Beach and Triple-A Richmond. He will be given a chance to win the fifth spot in the rotation this year and will certainly be one of the team's best assets in the future. He went 2-0 with a 5.40 ERA in four appearances after being called up to the Majors in September of last year.
SS Wilson Betemit -- Long considered the organization's top prospect, the lanky shortstop thought he had a shot of making it out of Spring Training last year. But he started the season at Triple-A Richmond and struggled through the first half with back and ankle injuries. He hit .292 after the All-Star break and finished the season with a .245 average, eight homers and 34 RBIs. Andy Marte, a third baseman who will likely be at Class-A Myrtle Beach, is now considered the organization's top prospect. But the 21-year-old Betemit still has the potential of being a star in the Majors.
RHP Chris Spurling -- Braves scouts liked what they saw out of this 6-6, 240-pound right-hander, who pitched for the Pirates at Double-A Altoona last year. The Braves made him their only selection in December's Rule 5 Draft and believe the 22-year-old reliever has a good shot at filling one of the spots in their bullpen. He struck out 60, walked 12 and accumulated a 2.19 ERA in 70 innings last year.
LHP Horacio Ramirez -- This 22-year-old southpaw missed most of the 2001 season after having Tommy John surgery. He joined Double-A Greenville in June of this year and pitched well enough (9-6, 3.03) to be rewarded with a promotion to Atlanta for the final week of the season. He impressed the Braves with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League and should be pitching in the Majors within the next two years.
On the rebound
Javy Lopez -- Lopez admitted that his 2002 season (.233 batting average, 11 homers and 52 RBIs) was a disappointment and the worst of his career. He has lost 20-plus pounds during the offseason and has been taking regular batting practice with hitting coach Terry Pendleton since the beginning of January. The Braves are hoping the new figure will give Lopez more flexibility and improve both his bat and mobility behind the plate.
Vinny Castilla -- A sore right wrist hampered Castilla for much of the season and may have led him to his dismal offensive performance. The veteran third baseman, who saw a NL-low 3.12 pitches per plate appearance last year, hit .257 in September to raise his season average to .232. Since leaving Colorado after the 1999 season, he has never been able to match the numbers that made him one of the best power hitters in the league. His glove (6 errors in 256 attempts) kept him in the lineup last year. But he'll have to begin producing at the plate to remain in the lineup.
Jason Marquis -- Mazzone may have been critical of Marquis as he struggled down the stretch last year. But the veteran pitching coach believes this young right-hander when healthy can be a dominant pitcher in this league. After winning five of seven decisions in May and June, Marquis limped to the end of the season by winning just two of his final 11 starts and combining to post a 7.67 ERA during August and September.
The bottom line
It has been a very interesting offseason for Schuerholz and the Braves. They have said goodbye to a organizational legend (Glavine) and many other key pieces to last year's team. But through a series of key trades and free agent acquisitions, it appears the Braves GM has assembled a cast that is more than capable of capturing its unprecedented 12th consecutive division title.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its