ATLANTA - Any way you look at it, this was a Shakespearean winter for the Atlanta Braves.
Much ado about nothing.
A team that has landed every free agent it has pursued for the past decade heads to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., its spring training home, like a child with an empty Halloween sack.
When pitchers and catchers report to Disney's Wide World of Sports on Thursday, Mike Hampton will be 2,052 miles away in Tucson, Ariz.
When position players report Feb. 20, Alex Rodriguez will be taking ground balls in Port Charlotte, Fla.
This was a winter of subtraction for the Braves. Gone are Andres Galarraga, Terry Mulholland, Reggie Sanders, Bobby Bonilla, Wally Joyner, Walt Weiss, Andy Ashby and Scott Kamieniecki. Their departures cleared enough payroll to afford Chipper Jones' $15 million salary and make the team younger, but they also leave sizable question marks on the infield, bench and bullpen.
A club that was booted from last October's playoffs faster than Gone In 60 Seconds went to video is counting heavily on modern medicine to return it to postseason prominence. Toss a syringe at Atlanta's roster and you likely will hit a player rehabbing an injury. The daily report from the trainer's room will land like a telephone book on manager Bobby Cox's desk.
John Smoltz's elbow. Quilvio Veras' knee. Brian Jordan's shoulders. Rico Brogna's wrist. B.J. Surhoff's quadriceps. Odalis Perez's elbow.
Nearly 11 months after ligament replacement surgery, Smoltz will be watched closely. A successful comeback by the former Cy Young winner will return the rotation to best-in-league status, though the Braves are tempering their enthusiasm about his return with a wait-and-see attitude.
"I think it would be unfair toward John and unwise of anybody to think from day one that he'll be at his best," general manager John Schuerholz said. "I think he will build up to his best. And, I think he'll build up to it more quickly than most because of his athleticism, his strong will and his great adaptability."
Perez's comeback will be watched as closely as Smoltz's. He had the same Tommy John surgery in August 1999, and after watching him throw in his native Dominican Republic this winter, scouts say his fastball is in the mid-90s, and he looks ready to go.
A healthy Perez would bolster the bullpen significantly and greatly lessen the impact of Mulholland's departure. It also would reduce the burden on Cox to find three relievers to fill out the pen. He has a large group from which to choose, but with the exception of Kevin McGlinchy and some youngsters attempting to make the jump from Class AA Greenville (S.C) and Class A Myrtle Beach (S.C.), most are journeymen.
There's 33-year-old Matt Whiteside, who posted a 4.14 ERA in 28 games with the Padres last year, and 28-year-old Trey Moore, who was cut loose by the Expos. And, don't forget Joe Slusarski and Marc Valdes, dumped by an Astros club that was last in the National League with a 5.42 ERA.
If Cox can uncover a gem from that group, he could fill the last bullpen spot with McGlinchy, who is recovering from biceps tendinitis; 22-year-old Jason Marquis; or choose from a group of promising youngsters that includes Matt McClendon, Billy Sylvester, Damian Moss and Chris Cumberland.
Though Smoltz's comeback will be the primary topic in camp, the return of Veras, Jordan and Surhoff are equally important. Veras was among the best leadoff men in the game when he went down with a knee injury in July. Jordan's numbers spiraled because of sore shoulders, and Surhoff never was a factor after injuring his quadriceps soon after his July 31 trade.
The health of Jordan and Surhoff, who are 33 and 36, respectively, concerns the Braves. Dave Martinez, a left-handed hitter signed as a free agent, is a capable backup, but the Braves will trade for a right-handed-hitting outfielder who can replace either Surhoff or Jordan before the end of spring training.
The Braves are counting on Brogna, who was a one-armed first baseman after breaking his wrist last May, to replace Galarraga's 100 RBI. Though he's a superb defensive first baseman, he's reached 100 RBI just twice in his seven-year career, and he won't be hitting in the middle of the lineup.
After significantly upgrading the bench last season, Schuerholz allowed its two most important members to walk away this winter. Bonilla and Joyner led the club in pinch-hits and pinch-hit RBI, and they've been replaced by Martinez and Kurt Abbott, not an equal swap by any definition.
Don't make the mistake of underestimating Schuerholz, who isn't afraid to wheel and deal in the "Trader Jack" McKeon tradition. It was four years ago, with spring training winding down, that he pulled off the biggest deal in club history, swapping David Justice and Marquis Grissom to the Indians for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree.
Schuerholz discussed trading Jordan with at least one National League club in November. If Jordan demonstrates he's healthy, and rookie Wes Helms has a big spring, it wouldn't be surprising to see Jordan go, Helms installed at third base and Chipper Jones shifted to right field.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, but after a quiet winter, Schuerholz's trigger finger is getting itchy.
Manager: Bobby Cox (12th season).
2000: 95-67, 1st place.
Training Town: Kissimmee, Fla.
Park: Disney Wide World of Sports Stadium: (407) 939-4263.
Reporting Dates: Feb. 15/Feb. 20.
He's Here: 1B Rico Brogna, OF Dave Martinez, INF Kurt Abbott.
He's Outta Here: 1B Andres Galarraga, 1B Wally Joyner, RHP Andy Ashby, LHP Terry Mulholland, OF Bobby Bonilla, OF Reggie Sanders.
Spring Chicken: Marcus Giles. Smaller than his All-Star brother, Brian, the 5-foot-8 Marcus is a power-hitting second base prospect. Hit 17 homers and stole 25 bases in first season in Double-A. Steady, yet not spectacular in field.
Outlook: After not making the NLCS for the first time since 1990, the Braves had a surprisingly quiet offseason. GM John Schuerholz didn't make big plays for either Alex Rodriguez or Mike Hampton. John Smoltz will be back from an elbow injury to fill out the strong rotation. Chipper Jones, 28, and Andruw Jones, 23, are two of the best young players in the game. The controversy surrounding John Rocker should ease this season.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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