Originally created 02/23/03

Braves' notebook

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Jason Marquis' demise has been greatly exaggerated.

The right-hander, whose shoulder problems have been misidentified in some corners of the sporting press as winter surgery, mixed in a few curves and changeups during Saturday's workout for the first time since camp opened nine days ago.

Marquis, whose debut from a mound this spring was pushed back after last fall's shoulder stiffness, is throwing without pain and is on schedule to make his first spring start against the Houston Astros on March 3.

"He threw free and easy," said manager Bobby Cox, who watched Marquis in Saturday's bullpen workout. "There were no problems. I wouldn't say he's very far behind the other pitchers."

Marquis is scheduled to face hitters for the first time Tuesday or Wednesday.

EXCUSED ABSENCE: Catcher Johnny Estrada was still limping Saturday after being hit in the left knee by a Greg Maddux cutter Friday. He was excused from the workout and might miss the next day or two.

"He can't squat," Cox said. "He was hobbling pretty good. If he misses a few days, it's OK."

IMPRESSIVE SHOWING: Cox's biggest challenge every spring is piecing together a bullpen, and he's liked what he's seen so far from a mixed bag of relievers.

"I've really been impressed," he said. "All the new guys I didn't know have been impressive."

Veteran reliever Roberto Hernandez, the former USC Aiken pitcher who signed as a free agent to work as a setup man in front of closer John Smoltz, has shown a live fastball and a wicked split-finger.

"He has really opened a lot of eyes out there," Cox said.

BEG TO DIFFER: Cox has become third baseman Vinny Castilla's staunchest defender. Suggest to him that Castilla was a disappointment last year and Cox fairly bristles.

"We won 101 games with him," Cox said. "Without him, we would have been around 91 or 92."

Cox was alluding to Castilla's excellent defense, not his sagging offensive production. Cox made it clear that Castilla will be his third baseman again this season, though he plans to give Mark DeRosa some time at third, as well as shortstop and second.

"It's time that he plays a little more," Cox said of DeRosa. "I'll move him around. He's capable of doing that. Vinny is going to play a lot, but DeRosa is going to play too. There's room for all of them."

IN THE BIG LEAGUES: One week into his all-expenses-paid audition with the Braves, Jeff Francoeur, the team's No. 1 pick in last June's draft, can't get over being in big league camp. He was on a back field the other day when Cox dropped around to watch him hit and Francoeur almost hyperventilated.

"I was pretty nervous," he admitted. "It's not every day you can get Skip (Cox) to watch you."

Cox was impressed with the 19-year-old outfielder's swing.

"He's been about as impressive as anybody hitting live pitching," Cox said.

Francoeur, a defensive back who turned down a football scholarship to Clemson to sign with the Braves, will start the season at Class A Rome. He added 10 to 12 pounds this winter with a regimen of weight lifting and running, which he figures will add to his power and stamina.

There will be days when he misses playing football, Francoeur suggested, but he's happy hitting fastballs, rather than chasing wide receivers.

"This is what I want to do, and I'm not going to look back and second-guess myself," he said. "Baseball is really what I wanted to do."

SPECIAL GUESTS: Former Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser, in uniform for the first time since he retired after the 1999 season, has rejoined the club as a guest instructor. He and former Braves center fielder Otis Nixon will be in Florida for the next week or so to work with minor league players invited to early camp.


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