Originally created 04/02/04

Braves confident as they leave spring training



KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- While outsiders still may be skeptical, the Atlanta Braves head home from spring training convinced they are well-stocked and prepared to win their 13th straight division title this season.

"I liked this team before spring training began, and now that I've seen them play, I really like them," said Braves manager Bobby Cox.

The team plans on not only winning its division again, but also bringing home a championship, said All-Star left fielder Chipper Jones.

"We know what the standard is around here and nobody on this team believes there is any reason to lower it," Jones said. "We're not the same team we were last year, but just like every other year, the organization has come up with players to fill in for what we lost and I think we're looking pretty good."

The Braves won six of the last seven games to finish the Grapefruit League season 13-16.

They play two more exhibitions Friday and Saturday against the Boston Red Sox before opening the season Tuesday at Turner Field against the New York Mets.

The newcomers in the everyday lineup - catcher Johnny Estrada, third baseman Mark DeRosa, first baseman Adam LaRoche and right fielder J.D. Drew - have been fair to excellent during spring training.

Estrada was second on the team in hitting with a .356 average, and Drew had some impressive power numbers with five home runs and 16 RBIs.

LaRoche had a long slump (15 at bats without a hit) early in the spring, but hit .444 with three home runs, including a grand slam, and two doubles his last eight games.

Only DeRosa, who hit .263 as a utility infielder during the 2003 season, struggled all spring. He hit .231 and didn't have an extra base hit in 52 at-bats in Florida.

"We all know (DeRosa) can hit, he's just in a little funk right now," Jones said. "Don't worry, he's going to hit."

As for pitching, the newcomers to the starting rotation are John Thomson and Jaret Wright, who replace Greg Maddux and Shane Reynolds.

Thomson was 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 18.2 innings. Wright was 0-2 with a 4.57 ERA, but had 17 strikeouts in 21.2 innings.

The middle relief is a little unsettled, but that isn't unusual for the Braves, who seem to find capable setup men every year.

John Smoltz is back as the closer and there were no bad signs after offseason elbow surgery.

"From top to bottom, we've got guys in our rotation who have a shot at winning a lot of games," Ortiz said. "If we all stay healthy, I think each one of us is capable of winning at least 14-15 games and pitching 200 innings."

But the key for the Braves again this season could be how well the top of the lineup hits.

Rafael Furcal will lead off again with second baseman Marcus Giles right behind him.

Giles was very good this spring, leading the team in hitting (.375) and doubles (six).

The middle of the order has Chipper and Andruw Jones, with Drew batting fourth or fifth.

"I was a little disappointed with the way we started out this spring, especially the pitching and defense," Chipper Jones said. "But that's been looking good lately. None of us wants the streak (of division titles) to end on our watch."