Originally created 03/15/03

Cox faces tough bullpen decision



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Atlanta manager Bobby Cox is prepared to open the season with one left-hander in his bullpen, but he'd prefer two.

If the season opened today, he would probably carry veteran Ray King and 23-year-old rookie Andy Pratt, who has moved ahead of Mike Venafro and Jung Bong in the left-handed bullpen race.

"I'm looking for two, but I've had one before," Cox said. "I think Pratt has looked good. He's been what I had heard he is."

Pratt, hailed by Class AAA Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen as the best left-hander in the Puerto Rican winter league, has been impressive this spring. He's appeared in four games, pitching six innings and allowing three hits and two runs. Opposing hitters are batting .143 against him.

Venafro, the former Texas and Oakland reliever, has not allowed a run in seven innings, but his numbers are misleading. He's been more fortunate than effective, and he will have to make a strong impression over the final two weeks of camp to win a job.

Bong, who has given up five hits and two walks in six innings, likely will start the season in Richmond. He is not as polished as fifth starter candidate Horacio Ramirez, nor is he as suited for the bullpen as the hard-throwing Pratt.

NOT ACCORDING TO PLAN: Ramon Castro was expected to make a strong bid to win a job as a utility infielder, but his spring has been a disaster.

In addition to his .188 batting average, he's committed a team-leading four errors, including two in Thursday night's 10-7 win over the Tampa Devil Rays.

Cox isn't ready to suggest Castro apply again next spring, but clearly the team is looking for a backup infielder that can play three positions. Jesse Garcia, who is not eligible to play until today because of a winter rules mix-up, is a candidate, but he's a career .179 hitter and Cox is inclined to carry an infielder with more power.

"I'm playing (Castro) so we can form a judgment," Cox said.

GOOD TO SEE YOU: John Smoltz is slow to find his fastball every spring. He spends the first month of the spring building his arm strength and smoothing his mechanics, but his fastball remains on its own schedule. It appears suddenly and stays until October. Smoltz didn't have his best fastball in his first three appearances, but it was there in the ninth inning Thursday night and he welcomed it back like an old friend.

"Mechanically, I'm slow every spring, it takes me a while to get it," he said. "The same symptoms happen every spring and I wish I knew how to prevent them. But when I get it, it's pretty good."

Smoltz gave up a hit and had a strikeout against the Devil Rays, and pocketed his first spring save.

"I was glad to work the kinks out," he said.

INJURY REPORT: Chipper Jones is hampered by a sore middle finger on his left hand, a result of a diving catch he made against Georgia Tech in the spring's first exhibition game. The knuckle is tender and he's concerned because it's not improving.

"I'd hate to fight it all year," he said. "They say elbows and fingers are the hardest to get swelling and fluid out of the joint, and I'm hoping that's all it is."

Jones took some time off to allow a sore thumb to heal, but he doesn't plan on missing any games to rest his finger.

"It's one of those things you'd have to treat every day for a couple of weeks to get it to stop hurting," he said. "I don't have that luxury. I can't take that much time off and expect to be back with everyone else."

AROUND THE HORN: Trey Hodges and Joe Dawley didn't help themselves with poor performances in Friday's 8-1 loss to the New York Yankees. Hodges started and was charged with five hits and five runs, one earned, in two innings, while Dawley gave up four hits and three runs in his two innings. "I'll think about this all night," said Dawley, the 31-year-old rookie right-hander. "Hopefully, they'll get me back out there for another two innings." ... Shortstop Rafael Furcal left the game in the fourth inning after aggravating a sore ankle. He will be evaluated this morning. ... The Braves had their worst game in front of their largest crowd of the spring, a sellout at Disney's Cracker Jack Stadium. They were charged with five errors, including third baseman Vinny Castilla's first of the spring, and collected just three hits. "When Vinny Castilla makes an error, there's something wrong with the day," Cox said. ... Paul Byrd played long toss Friday, his first throwing in several days because of a tender elbow. He will be examined by team Dr. Joe Chandler today. ... Chris Haney, who had a 9.00 ERA in three appearances and was sent to the minor-league camp Wednesday, announced his retirement Friday. The 34-year-old left-hander was 38-52 with a 5.07 ERA in 196 major-league games.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.