Originally created 04/02/04

Players wait for decision

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox has the roster set in his mind, but he hasn't shared it with the handful of players on the bubble.

That means at least two more sleepless nights for Jesse Garcia, Damon Hollins, Trey Hodges, Mike Hessman and Dewayne Wise.

"I'm anxious to see what happens," said Hessman, who is fighting for the last bench job. "It's to the point now I'd rather be told so I can know where I'm going."

Hollins, battling Wise for a job as a backup outfielder, headed into Thursday's game against the Houston Astros with a .345 average. That should be enough to win a job, except Wise is hitting .342 and has more speed and outstanding defensive skills.

"I knew coming in that I'd have to play well to be around at this time," Hollins said. "I know I'm going to be here or (Class AAA) Richmond, so it's not like I'm in the dark."

The battle for a job in the bullpen is just as intense. With Armando Almanza possibly headed for the disabled list to start the season, Hodges is competing with Will Cunnane for the 12th spot on the staff.

Hodges has a 1.59 ERA this spring, but he doesn't know where he'll start the season, in Atlanta or Richmond.

"I don't know if I have (won a job) or not, but I feel I've done all I can do," he said. "I'd be mad (if I'm cut). I'd be very upset and if I wasn't upset, there would be something wrong with me. I'd almost feel like someone is stealing something from me in a way."

Hodges' immediate future hinges on how many relievers start the season on the disabled list. If Almanza and Kevin Gryboski both open on the DL, then there's room for Hodges. If Almanza is the only DL option, then the team must make a choice between Hodges and Cunnane.

The club has two other options. It could choose to release Antonio Alfonseca and eat his $1.35 million contract or send struggling reliever Juan Cruz to Richmond.

SMILING: Cox, who always emerges from spring training with a smile on his face, was more upbeat than usual Thursday.

"One of our best springs ever," he said. "We saw a lot of great stuff down here. Knock on wood, everybody we wanted to be healthy is healthy."

Principally, right fielder J.D. Drew, whose right knee is an ongoing concern.

"He's in shape to do everything, run and hit, with no setbacks," Cox said. "I'll give him some off days like everybody else, but for the most part he'll be in there."

SHORT HOPS: Trainers say catcher Eli Marrero's strained abdominal muscle has improved and Cox is hopeful he won't have to start the season on the DL. ... Paul Byrd will remain behind in camp and continue his rehab from July's elbow ligament replacement surgery. He is expected to head out on a minor league assignment in about two weeks. ... John Smoltz pitched two innings Thursday and will work another inning in Saturday's exhibition game against the Red Sox, but won't pitch in back-to-back games this spring. "It really doesn't make any difference," he said. "This year is going to be different for me. But much like I did last year, I will communicate with Bobby (Cox) every single day."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.


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