LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For the last decade, the most consistent criticism leveled at the Atlanta Braves has been focused on their bench.
The carping has been aimed at general manager John Schuerholz for failing to acquire capable veteran hitters and at manager Bobby Cox for not resting his regulars more often.
The criticism goes like this: By failing to provide depth behind the starting lineup, the regulars are worn out by October. A deep bench also is essential for post-season success, yet the club had Howard Battle on its October roster last year and started Tony Graffanino and Danny Bautista in Game 6 of the 1998 National League Championship Series.
Graffanino and Bautista were released the following spring and Battle was sold to a Japanese League team this winter.
With a decade's worth of bad bench memories to draw from, Schuerholz retired to his Turner Field office last November and started addressing some obvious needs. First, he insisted first baseman Wally Joyner be included in a six-player swap with the Padres. Then, he signed outfielder Trenidad Hubbard, who hit .314 with the Dodgers last season, for the relatively paltry sum of $400,000. Finally, he added switch-hitting third baseman/outfielder Bobby Bonilla, giving the Braves their deepest bench in many years.
"Potentially, if these guys all show us what we feel they have in them, then it could be (our strongest bench)," Schuerholz said. "A bench is important all year long, but it's crystallized in the postseason because circumstances are so sharply focused into a short time span. (A bench) doesn't become more important, but it becomes more apparent during the postseason."
For the first time, Cox can plug several backup players into the lineup and not miss a beat. He can give third baseman Chipper Jones an occasional day off and play Bonilla. He can rest Andres Galarraga and still have a quality hitter at first base in Joyner. Hubbard, who will be the fourth outfielder, can play all three positions and pinch hit.
Just as importantly, the three are comfortable in their backup roles. Bonilla signed on knowing he wouldn't play everyday. Joyner says he'd be delighted to give Galarraga some time off. Hubbard, who was pursued by seven teams after the Dodgers cut him loose, took less money to come to the Braves.
"I embrace it," said Hubbard of his pinch-hitting role. "Everyone would love to be a starter, but I identify situations. My job is to step in for a starter and try not to miss a beat."
This is, potentially, one of the best benches in the National League. Add pinch-hitting specialist Keith Lockhart to the mix and the Braves can run four quality hitters off their bench in the late innings.
"If everything works out, we'll have a better bench all around," Cox said. "We like our setup right now."