Braves are well-armed for title run

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ATLANTA --- Seeing Tom Glavine in the clubhouse made Bobby Cox believe little had changed from the days when the Atlanta Braves always won their division and finished at or near the league lead in ERA.

"I saw him, and my first thought was that it was the fastest five years that I can remember," Cox said. "It felt like old times."

But those five years Glavine spent with the New York Mets changed the Braves and their once-dominant pitching.

After 14 consecutive division titles, the Braves have finished third in the NL East two years in a row. The bottom of the starting rotation -- including Mark Redman, Kyle Davies, Buddy Carlyle, Chuck James and Jo-Jo Reyes -- was the team's weak spot last year.

Another sign of a new era in Atlanta: John Schuerholz has moved from general manager to team president, and his successor, Frank Wren, spent the off-season trying to boost the team's starting pitching.

Eager to spend more time with his family in Atlanta, Glavine signed a one-year deal to return to Atlanta, where he posted five 20-win seasons from 1987-2002. Wren traded shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit for highly regarded right-hander Jair Jurrjens. Mike Hampton, who hasn't pitched in the major leagues since 2005, appears ready to open the season.

The Braves never recovered from the losses of Lance Cormier and Hampton to injuries last spring. Cox says the rotation won't be as vulnerable to an injury and won't have to stick with a struggling pitcher this season.

"Last year we went into camp, we didn't have a lot of depth and we lost two pitchers just like that and had a hard time replacing them," Cox said. "If that's the case this year, we've got guys to come in and take right over and get right in the rotation."

James, coming off back-to-back, 11-win seasons, isn't a lock to open the season in Atlanta. James, Jurrjens, Jeff Bennett and others could be competing for one spot behind Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Glavine and Hampton -- assuming Hampton is ready for the start of the season. Reyes was optioned to Triple-A Richmond last week.

"We've got some depth, and that's something we didn't have last year," Chipper Jones said. "We're going to probably send down some guys who could pitch in the big leagues, no doubt.

"It affords us the luxury so that if somebody does go down, we have guys we can step in who have had some big league time."

But with the renewed depth come questions about the age and health of the starters:

- Glavine turned 42 last Tuesday.

- Smoltz will be 41 in May.

- Hampton's health is a major concern; he hurt his hamstring in the first inning of a Mexican Winter League start as he tries to return from two elbow surgeries.

- James was found to have a slight tear in his rotator cuff after last season.

The Braves' lineup should be strong, but no one suggests that the bats of Jones, Mark Teixeira, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann can carry the team back to the top of the NL East if the starters falter.

"That was our big problem last year," Jones said. "We couldn't get enough quality innings out of the bottom of our rotation."

Hudson and Smoltz were a combined 30-18 last year. The other starters were 28-40.

Teixeira could be a free agent after the season. He hit .317 with 17 homers and 56 RBI in 54 games after his July 31 trade to Atlanta last season. He may be difficult to re-sign.

The concern about Teixeira, combined with the age and injury worries in the rotation, makes many believe there is added urgency for this mix of players to win this year.

"We don't know how long Smoltz and Glavine are going to be around," Jones said.

A key to the Braves' hopes is hard-throwing right-hander Rafael Soriano, who moves into the full-time closer's role. Soriano was 3-3 with a 3.00 ERA and nine saves last year.

Soriano has been upbeat after experiencing discomfort above his right elbow earlier this spring. Cox said there's no concern about Soriano's status for the start of the season.


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