Braves hope to send Cox out a winner
Atlanta manager enters final spring with several new faces
ATLANTA -- As this offseason has evolved, there has been a lot of talk about how the Braves need to do whatever it takes to help manager Bobby Cox's final season a memorable one.
How all of these new pieces mesh together will be better understood over the course of the next week, when the Braves gather yet again at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for the start of Spring Training.
Pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout on Saturday, and the first full-squad workout will be staged on Feb. 23. But Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Peter Moylan are expected to once again be among those players who choose to arrive in camp a few days before the formal workouts begin.
"Last year, we gained confidence and came up short of where we wanted to be," McCann said. "I think everybody is excited to get going this year and looking forward to making this season a memorable one for Bobby."
This will mark Cox's 29th season as a Major League manager and 25th with the Braves. As he looks toward the finale of his highly successful career, the 68-year-old skipper finds himself heading to camp excited to see how the new-look roster might fare.
The most scrutinized offseason move occurred on Dec. 22, when the Braves traded Javier Vazquez to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera and two highly regarded Minor League pitchers. This move was necessitated when the club re-signed Hudson and proved unsuccessful in attempts to trade Derek Lowe.
Lowe's ability to overcome the struggles that plagued him during the final two months last season will prove influential in the club's attempts to return to the postseason for the first time since 2005. But drawing equal focus during Spring Training will be Hudson, another sinkerballer who will attempt to prove that he can once again be the ace he was targeted to be before he underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2008.
"If we weren't sold on Huddy, we wouldn't have signed him," Cox said of the 34-year-old right-hander who made seven starts after returning from Tommy John surgery last year. "He's still young and we believe he's still a top-of-the-rotation guy."
The rotation appears to be set with Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Kenshin Kawakami filling out the final three available spots. But the club will evaluate the likes of Jose Ortegano and Mike Minor, last year's top Draft pick, to see what kind of depth exists in this department.
The Braves will also want to get a better sense about the health of Wagner, who was signed to serve as the club's closer after providing a solid impression during the 15 appearances he made with the Mets and Red Sox after returning from Tommy John surgery.
There are also some questions about the durability of the 40-year-old Saito, who will serve as Wagner's primary setup man. During Spring Training, Cox will gain a better sense about how often he can utilize these relievers.
"I don't know if you can pitch them four days in a row," Cox said. "But at times, I think you can go three. It depends on the number of pitches they throw and how clean the inning is. The good thing about our staff is that Peter Moylan can pitch the ninth. I don't think that is going to be a problem."
It will be interesting to see how Cox fills out the final available spots in his bullpen. Wagner, Saito, Moylan and left-hander Eric O'Flaherty appear set to account for four of the seven available spots. Kris Medlen will also likely begin the year in the Atlanta bullpen, as long as the club doesn't want him to stretch out to serve as a starter.
Battling for the final spots in the bullpen will be right-handers Jesse Chavez, Chris Resop, Luis Valdez, Craig Kimbrell and left-handers Mariano Gomez and Mike Dunn, who was one of the Minor Leaguers gained in exchange for Vazquez.
"The bullpen is where we're going to have to make choices," said Cox, who is expecting to welcome Scott Proctor to his bullpen in May after he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
The primary storyline during Spring Training will be Heyward's bid to earn the opportunity to serve as the club's starting right fielder. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound outfielder has the potential to be an immediate difference maker with his power and athleticism.
But the Braves will also be interested to see what they have with Cabrera, who didn't create a lot of excitement from Atlanta fans following the Vazquez trade. But the Braves like the versatility of this switch-hitter who can capably play each of the three outfield positions.
"We're getting a pretty good ballplayer," Cox said. "He throws good. He's solid. He's not going to be a big-time home run hitter. But he's a good player and you can win with those types of guys."
Cox has won with a variety of different players throughout his successful career. Now as it winds to a close, he's heading to Spring Training with the optimistic approach that this latest Braves club can prove to be successful like so many others that he's skippered in the past.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.