Originally created 02/20/00

Braves notebook: Bonilla is ready to be a role player



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The figure trudging across the outfield dragging a bat will spend the next half-hour with hitting coach Merv Rettenmund dissecting his approach and swing.

Bobby Bonilla figures he has a lot to prove, to himself and the Braves, so he's hard at work each morning before most of his new teammates are even dressed.

"I hit all the time," he said. "It's nice for me to be healthy. I feel great."

It's hard to wipe the smile off Bonilla's face, but Mets manager Bobby Valentine managed it last year. The two were at odds most of the season and Bonilla's playing time was reduced to almost nothing. The result was a career-worst .160 batting average, four home runs in 60 games and a relationship with the manager that hastened his exit.

When he settled his contract with the Mets and became a free agent last month, the Braves were delighted to sign him to a minor league contract. The switch-hitting Bonilla adds a powerful bat to the bench, in addition to giving the club a veteran backup at third base, first base and the outfield.

The only question is, how will Bonilla handle a role off the bench?

"Bobby Cox told me what my role is and I'm comfortable with that," he said. "He told me I could play a lot or a little. I was told I could play anywhere. They know I have no experience coming off the bench, but I could be valuable if somebody goes down."

ONE MORE SHOT: The last time Paul Assenmacher wore a Braves uniform the team lost 97 games and finished in sixth place. The veteran left-handed reliever, who contemplated retirement this winter before deciding he didn't want to leave the game on a sour note, is trying to prove last year's 8.18 ERA with the Indians was an aberration.

"I was leaning toward (retirement), but I wasn't sure I wanted to walk away when I feel fine," he said. "I questioned how could I be that bad? I questioned if I'd lost it. It was just a weird year."

That's an apt description because Assenmacher, who made his major league debut with the Braves in 1986 and pitched 3' years in Atlanta before being traded to the Cubs, saw his ERA rise by almost five runs. He won't criticize Indians manager Mike Hargrove for how he was used last season, but he makes it clear the lack of work played a major role in his miserable performance.

Assenmacher, a 14-year major league veteran, pitched only 33 innings last year, his lowest total since a 33-inning season in 1994, and if he makes the Braves bullpen he'll probably be used in a similar fashion. He'll make spot appearances against left-handed hitters, facing one or two hitters per game.

Assenmacher's future with the Braves depends largely on how Terry Mulholland is used. If Mulholland is the fifth starter, the Braves will need another left-hander in the bullpen. But if Mulholland is in the bullpen, the club probably won't carry three left-handed relievers.

"It's the same situation as my first big league camp," Assenmacher said. "I haven't proved anything. When you come out after an 8.00 ERA, you're not guaranteed a job. I'm starting all over."

NO LETDOWN: Andres Galarraga's second day was just as impressive as his first. He cranked out numerous home runs on a back field Saturday morning, leaving manager Bobby Cox smiling afterward.

"He still has that super strength," Cox said. "He's had two great days. I'm impressed and he's happy."

CLEANUP OPERATION: The Braves signed five young players to contracts Saturday, leaving them with 12 unsigned players, including John Rocker, Kevin McGlinchy and Kerry Ligtenberg.