Originally created 03/31/04

Cox still working on relief pitchers' roles



KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves' starting rotation and closer appear set, but what happens in between remains uncertain with less than a week to go before the start of the season.

"We're not even talking about it yet," manager Bobby Cox said.

"There are still a lot of roles to be determined and we might not get everyone settled until we get into the regular season," said John Smoltz, whose role as closer is one of the few certainties on the staff.

"We've had some years where we put together a bullpen at the last minute and things worked out fine, and hopefully that's the case this season."

New acquisitions Chris Reitsma and Juan Cruz are being auditioned for the setup role. Reitsma gave up a walk and a hit but no runs in his one-inning debut after coming over from the Reds. Cruz, obtained last week from the Cubs, pitched two innings in his debut. He gave up five hits, three earned runs and walked one.

For middle relief, Cox can choose among C.J. Nitkowski, Trey Hodges, Will Cunnane, Antonio Alfonseca and Armando Almanza.

Alfonseca failed in his bid to become the setup man for Smoltz, giving up at least one hit in all seven spring appearances and has a 9.00 ERA.

The Braves already have named Russ Ortiz, the only 20-game winner in the National League last season, as their Opening Day starter with Mike Hampton, John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez and Jaret Wright penciled in behind him.

That group has had an inconsistent spring, starting with Ortiz at the top of the rotation. The veteran righthander is 1-3 with a 6.16 ERA in the exhibition season. He has given up 16 hits and nine walks in 19 innings, but also has 15 strikeouts.

Ortiz insists he has been experimenting much of the spring so that he can be comfortable with all his pitches on opening day. That has led to some very poor performances (12 hits and seven earned runs in five innings against the Astros), followed by an excellent one (two hits, five strikeouts in seven innings against the New York Mets).

"I might be thinking too much about what I'm doing," Ortiz said. "I want to get comfortable with all my pitches and I think I've accomplished that, but on some occasions, I don't want to throw a hitter the same thing in the spring that I would throw him in a regular season game, so it's throwing me off."

On the plus side, Ramirez drew rave reviews from Cox after giving up only one run in six innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday.

"He's looks really good right now," Cox said. "He could have a big, big year for us."

The Braves think that once they settle into roles, pitching will remain a formidable part of the team's makeup, just as it has been throughout the 12-year run of success.

"There is a lot to be said for being able to define everyone's role and let them get comfortable with that," Smoltz said. "When that happens, you can hand the guy the ball in a situation and know he'll go out and do the job. There is a real comfort level for a team when that happens."'