Originally created 04/03/00

Braves set for opener



ATLANTA -- In the five months since the Atlanta Braves lost another World Series, they've made more changes than a Fox TV programmer.

Gone are Ryan Klesko, Bret Boone, Ozzie Guillen, Randall Simon, Russ Springer, Otis Nixon and Brian Hunter. On board are Quilvio Veras, Reggie Sanders, Rafael Furcal, John Burkett, Greg McMichael, Luis Rivera, Wally Joyner, Bobby Bonilla and Trenidad Hubbard.

Like the man says, you can't tell the players without a program.

"It's like every team we've had here for the last nine years," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "It has a chance to win. Offensively, we're a little better balanced, the bench is better, the bullpen is better, so potentially that makes us a better club.

"Do we have what we need to get over the hump and win another championship? Who knows? But I think our chances are as good as any team we've had here."

Greg Maddux gets the Opening Day start this afternoon at Turner Field against Colorado's Pedro Astacio, his sixth season-opening assignment in eight years with the Braves. The four-time Cy Young winner has won eight of 10 career decisions against the Rockies, including a 2-0 mark in three starts last season, but this is a revamped Colorado club.

Only six players remain from last year's Opening Day roster, and just eight were in the organization to see the Rockies finish the season in last place with a 72-90 record. Colorado opens the season without a single rookie, missing some familiar faces like Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla and Darryl Kile and with a new manager (Buddy Bell) at the helm.

"We're not starting from scratch," right fielder Larry Walker said. "We have a lot of talented guys here. This is more restructuring than rebuilding."

This afternoon's spotlight will shine most brightly on Braves first baseman Andres Galarraga, who undoubtedly will receive a standing ovation during pregame introductions for his courageous battle against cancer. His last game in a Braves uniform was in the 1998 National League Championship Series, and he admitted he'll feel some chills when his name is called.

"I've been looking forward to it for a year," he said. "I'll be so happy and excited to be there. I feel good and confident. I feel like nothing happened to me. I don't think I have to prove anything. I think I just have to do what I did before."

Though the Braves are favored by most observers to capture a ninth straight division championship, odds are it won't be easy. It has been a decade since they last opened a season with so many questions in their rotation and bullpen, leading many observers to believe they are vulnerable to a host of improved clubs, primarily last year's wild-card team, the Mets, and the hungry Phillies.

Writes ESPN's Peter Gammons, "One National League general manager suggests that every team in that league except the Brewers and Marlins hopes it can be .500 or better, which means the days of the Braves and Mets running over hapless clubs are past."

Perhaps so, but this is potentially the best team the Braves have had since their streak of excellence started in 1991. The lineup doesn't have a soft spot until Walt Weiss, the eighth-place hitter, and the defense, particularly in the outfield, is outstanding. The bench, with Bobby Bonilla, Trenidad Hubbard, Wally Joyner, Keith Lockhart and Rafael Furcal, is deeper than it's ever been, and when Rudy Seanez and John Rocker return, the bullpen will be the equal of last season's outstanding relief corps.

"It's a talented team, no doubt about that," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "Do we have some weaknesses? That remains to be seen. Last year we lacked a lot of power in the lineup, but we picked it up with a great bullpen. This year we picked up the power, and it remains to be seen how our pitching turns out."

For the first time in a decade, the Braves have questions beyond their front three starters. Terry Mulholland pitched extremely well in his last two spring outings, but he'll be asked to shoulder a considerable load as the No. 4 starter. The question of who's the No. 5 starter is still unsettled, and Bobby Cox won't make a choice between Bruce Chen and John Burkett until April 22.

"Our pitching will be fine and I know we're going to hit," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "If those guys (Mulholland and Burkett) step up, wow, we're going to be pretty good."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.