Originally created 02/08/98

Atlanta players going to Disney camp



ATLANTA -- The spring training scenario remains the same -- sunshine, baseball, a round or two of golf -- but the site has changed.

After three decades in sleepy West Palm Beach, Fla., the Atlanta Braves have shifted three hours north to the new Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World near Orlando, which is akin to moving from Mayberry to New York City and setting up camp in Times Square.

"It's going to be a great situation and atmosphere, not only for the players, but their families," said John Smoltz, who will report to camp with pitchers and catchers Friday. "Spring training is typically real long, but there's enough things to do at Disney to keep your interest. With everything Disney has to offer, it's going to be neat."

Besides adjusting to a new facility, the Braves also have changed three-quarters of their infield, opened up center field to a second-year player, and have jobs available on the bench. And, as if all that isn't enough, the club will open camp at Lake Buena Vista without a fifth starter.

But, it could be worse. Just ask the Florida Marlins.

If money buys happiness, then the Braves should be ecstatic after spending $33 million to sign first baseman Andres Galarraga and shortstop Walt Weiss -- deals that will help push the club's payroll past $60 million for the first time.

GENERAL MANAGER

John Schuerholz made several important decisions following the Braves' loss to the Marlins in the National League Championship Series last October. After watching the defense implode, he traded popular first baseman Fred McGriff to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, then allowed longtime shortstop Jeff Blauser and center fielder Kenny Lofton to leave as free agents.

The addition of Galarraga and Weiss improves the infield defense, while Lofton's departure allows talented youngster Andruw Jones to become the regular center fielder and leadoff hitter.

Galarraga's bat -- he's led the league in RBI the past two years -- also will help balance a lineup that was predominantly left-handed, though he can't do it alone. The trio of McGriff, Blauser and Lofton accounted for 215 RBI last season, which means Galarraga will need some help from Ryan Klesko, Javier Lopez and the Jones' boys -- Chipper and Andruw -- to make up the deficit.

"We think we have as much offense as we ever have had," Schuerholz said. "Part of that assumption is that guys like Klesko continue to grow and get better with experience. We have more than an adequate offense for the pitching and defense we have."

THE BRAVES HAVE PLAYED

in every postseason since 1990 because of their starting rotation, and it's a cinch they will close out the century with the same success. With $140 million committed to Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Denny Neagle and Smoltz in long-term contracts, it's easy to understand where the club's priorities lie.

However, Smoltz underwent elbow surgery in December and probably won't join the rotation until mid-April, forcing young right-hander Kevin Millwood, with eight big league starts under his belt, into the No. 4 slot. Smoltz isn't the only member of the Fab Four to have undergone winter surgery. Glavine had both knees scoped and a bone chip removed from his right ankle, while Neagle had repairs done to his nonthrowing shoulder.

The Braves are looking for a fifth starter, signing Tommy Greene and Dennis Martinez, but it's not a dire circumstance. Smoltz only should miss two starts and Glavine, who has limited his running for several years because of knee and ankle problems, will be ready to take his turn in the rotation by the start of the season.

The bullpen has been a volatile area for several years, and Cox's frustration climaxed last July when he swept out three relievers and called up a trio of youngsters with no major-league experience. It was a bold decision and it worked. Mike Cather arrived and claimed the setup job in front of closer Mark Wohlers, while Kerry Ligtenberg was recalled in August and was so impressive the club protected him during the expansion draft.

The problem with the relief corps is the lack of left-handers. Alan Embree posted solid numbers last year, but he was used mostly to get out one or two hitters, and ended up pitching only 46 innings. Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone are keeping their fingers crossed that left-hander Pedro Borbon can return from elbow surgery that forced him to miss all of last season, or rookie John Rocker has matured enough to make the jump from Class AA Greenville to the major leagues.

"There's a lot of young kids coming to camp and they make it more interesting," Cox said. "Somebody is going to stand out and I'm not counting anybody out. It should be a good and interesting spring."

LAST SPRING

Schuerholz stunned the team by trading away two-thirds of the outfield for Lofton and Embree. Nothing so drastic likely is to occur this year, though Lofton is no longer around, clearing the way for Andruw Jones, who won't turn 21 until April 23, to become the regular center fielder.

Last year Jones showed he can play defense. Now all he has to prove is that he can hit. Though he had 18 homers and 70 RBI in 399 at-bats, he batted only .231 and struck out 107 times. The youngster wasn't the only disappointment. Klesko saw his numbers fall off significantly; His average decreased by 21 points, his home runs fell by 10, and he had nine fewer RBI than in '96. Also, he still hasn't proven he can hit left-handers (.198 in '97), which prompted Schuerholz to trade reliever Chad Fox to Milwaukee for veteran outfielder Gerald Williams.

The infield won't seem the same without longtime double-play partners Blauser and second baseman Mark Lemke. The pair weren't re-signed after declaring their free agency, which means Weiss will team with a pair of unfamiliar faces, Tony Graffanino and Keith Lockhart, at second base.

Galarraga, whose 290 RBI over the past two years are the most in consecutive seasons in the majors since 1949-50, will provide the powerful right-handed bat the Braves have been missing since Ron Gant left, though his power and production are significantly reduced away from Denver's thin air. Still, he should be a 35-homer, 120-RBI cleanup hitter, far better numbers than McGriff produced the past few years.

Having Galarraga hitting behind him will be a boon to third baseman Chipper Jones, who is assured of a third straight season of scoring at least 100 runs. Though his home run total fell from 30 to 21 last year, he set an Atlanta record with 40 doubles and drove in a career-high 111 runs.

AS USUAL, THE BENCH

is suspect. The Braves made no effort to re-sign valuable backup first baseman and pinch hitter Greg Colbrunn, allowed Greg Myers to leave as a free agent, and watched Mike Mordecai sign with the Expos, leaving nonroster invitee Rafael Belliard, rookie first baseman Randall Simon, and outfielders Williams and Danny Bautista on the bench.

Lockhart, the club's best pinch hitter last year, also will be on the bench, but not regularly. Cox plans to platoon Lockhart and Graffanino at second base, which means the bench only will have one left-handed hitter (Simon) available on days that Lockhart and outfielder Michael Tucker are in the lineup.

Even without Lofton, Blauser, Lemke and Colbrunn, the Braves easily are the strongest team in the East. Winning the division won't be a problem. Advancing to another World Series is their goal, and it remains to be seen whether the club has enough offense to challenge for a championship.

Braves spring schedule

Thursday, Feb. 26 --

University of Georgia at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Friday, Feb. 27 --

Kansas City Royals at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 28 --

New York Mets at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Sunday, March 1 --

Los Angeles Dodgers at Vero Beach, 1:05 p.m.

Monday, March 2 --

Houston Astros at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Tuesday, March 3 --

Florida Marlins at Viera. 1:05 p.m.

Wednesday, March 4 --

Boston Red Sox at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Thursday, March 5 --

New York Yankees at Tampa, 7:05 p.m.

Friday, March 6 --

Cleveland Indians at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Saturday, March 7 --

(ss) Kansas City Royals at Baseball City, 1:05 p.m.

Saturday, March 7 --

(ss) Houston Astros at Kissimmee, 1:05 p.m.

Sunday, March 8 --

Florida Marlins at Disney,1:05 p.m.

Monday, March 9 --

St. Louis Cardinals at Jupiter, 1:05 p.m.

Tuesday, March 10 --

New York Mets at Port St. Lucie, 1:10 p.m.

Wednesday, March 11 --

Cleveland Indians at Disney,1:05 p.m.

Thursday, March 12 --

New York Yankees at Disney, 7:05 p.m.

Friday, March 13 --

(ss) Florida Marlins at Viera, 1:05 p.m.

Friday, March 13 --

(ss) Kansas City Royals at Baseball City, 1:05 p.m.

Saturday, March 14 --

Kansas City Royals at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Sunday, March 15 --

Cleveland Indians at Winter Haven, 1:05 p.m.

Monday, March 16 --

Off Day

Tuesday, March 17 --

(ss) Philadelphia Phillies at Clearwater, 1:35 p.m.

Tuesday, March 17 -- (ss) Tampa Bay at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Wednesday, March 18 -- Cleveland Indians at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Thursday, March 19 -- Florida Marlins at Disney, 7:05 p.m.

Friday, March 20 -- Cleveland Indians at Winter Haven, 1:05 p.m.

Saturday, March 21 -- Houston Astros at Kissimmee, 1:05 p.m.

Sunday, March 22 -- Detroit Tigers at Disney, 1:05 p.m. (TBS)

Monday, March 23 -- Los Angeles Dodgers at Disney, 1:05 p.m.

Tuesday, March 24 -- Detroit Tigers at Lakeland, 1:05 p.m.

Wednesday, March 25 -- Houston Astros at Disney, 7:05 p.m.

Thursday, March 26 -- New York Mets at Port St. Lucie 1:10 p.m.

Friday, March 27 -- Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field, 7:05 p.m.

Saturday, March 28 -- TBA at Turner Field, 1:10 p.m. (TBS)

Sunday, March 29 -- TBA at Turner Field, 1:10 p.m. (TBS)

(ss-Split Squad)