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Starting pitching key to Braves' rebound
Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson will be patrolling the middle infield again for the Atlanta Braves this season. - photo by Terry Logan

The Atlanta Braves path back to the domination that led to 14 consecutive division titles, by their own admission, must go through their starting rotation.

Major league spring training has never been about wins and losses. Wins are not an accurate indicator of a team’s worth in spring training. Teams substitute freely, especially late in games, which often skews the final result of any given game. This season, with the advent of the talent draw required to support the World Baseball Classic by all of the major league teams, these records are especially awry. Good pitching, however, can indeed be measured.

Atlanta has the best record in the National League heading into the final week of spring training, and it is the Braves’ starting rotation that is largely responsible for their success. Atlanta’s pitching staff has a combined earned run average of 3.43, second only to the New York Yankees. Because of Atlanta’s starting rotation’s sudden stability the often maligned general manager of the Braves, Frank Wren, is now looking more like a genius.

Wren seemed to be shooting blanks early in the off season, and a lot of Braves faithful wanted his head because of it.

John Smoltz escaped to Boston after a brief and seemingly halfhearted attempt by Wren to keep him in a Braves uniform. Highly regarded Jake Peavey and AJ Burnett were both rumored to be coming to Atlanta to help fill a crater in the starting pitching rotation. Besides Smoltz, Mike Hampton departed to free agency. Tim Hudson and Tom Glavine had season ending surgeries. As the off-season progressed, expectations didn’t materialize for Wren. Rafael Furcal spurned the Braves’ overtures to further frustrate the organization while no new pitchers were materializing either. So Wren went to plan B.

Javier Vazquez came on board in a minor trade from the White Sox, where he had put up good numbers but never turned the corner as a starting pitcher. Vazquez has been more than that so far. His WBC innings for his home state of Puerto Rico and his few appearances since for the Braves have been more than good.

Derek Lowe signed as a free agent to take some of the ‘missing ace’ heat off of Wren when Peavey and Burnette fell through the cracks. He too has looked mid-season sharp and is likely Bobby Cox’s opening night starter.

Japanese all-star Kenshin Kawakami was signed and looked exceptional so far but has no major league experience, so he is still a question mark. Jair Jurrgens is back this spring and looking even better than he did last season when he led the Braves staff with 13 wins. In a recent start against the Mets, the Braves right-hander struck out six batters in six scoreless innings.

Now that Tom Glavine appears to have healed well from his surgery, he has not given up a run in his first two starts recently. Glavine makes the projected starting five.

But perhaps the most talked about hurler this spring may not break camp with the team. Non-roster invitee Tommy Hanson has turned a lot of heads, as he did in his off season domination of the Arizona Fall League where he was named MVP. Even if Hanson fails to start with Atlanta and instead goes to Triple-A Gwinnett Braves to start the season, he will just be a short ride from Turner Field if any of the other five falter.

Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton are two other veterans that are possible starters but will most likely be used out of the bullpen. The bullpen had been struggling a bit early in spring training has recently started to turn the corner. Don’t forget Tim Hudson is re-habilitating from Tommy John surgery and might be ready to join the club as early as August.

While Wren has wheeled and dealed, the Braves pitching staff has been getting stronger by the day under the quiet tutelage of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell. All this pitching gives Wren even more chances to further help the team.

While Wren has ample ammo in his pitching staff to make a trade before the end of spring, there are opportunities for improvement but no real holes in the current lineup.

And a couple areas of questions are starting to answer themselves. Chipper Jones staying healthy will be a concern all season, and he has already been hampered from a strained oblique muscle he suffered during WBC play. Jones has made a couple of recent starts and now appears to be swinging the bat pain free. The rest of the infield looks solid with Yunel Escobar and Kelley Johnson returning in the middle and Casey Kotchman hoping to prove his worth at first base in his first full year with the Braves after last year’s trade with the Angels for Mark Teixeira. If his .333 batting average provides a clue, Kotchman should be fine and the infield should be set.

The outfield is another question. Jeff Francoeur’s off-season work on his batting fundamentals has paid off so far with a .333 batting average and 12 RBI’s, if he can return to anywhere near his 100 RBI output he had a couple of years ago, that will answer the question of whether Atlanta needs another power hitting outfielder.

The other two positions look to be filled by committee. Matt Diaz returns as platoon players from last season and has shared some time with Brandon Jones but long time Angel Garrett Anderson, acquired in the off-season and just returning from injury, will likely be given the first chance at proving himself in left field. Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco have battled in center along with the wildcard newcomer, highly touted Braves prospect Jordan Schafer, who also has a chance to start.

Excess pitching and outfield gives Wren a lot of room to play. Look for him to try and strengthen the left side of the Brave infield with a power hitting bench player to help keep Chipper healthy.

Behind the plate all-star Brian McCann may have to move to the cleanup spot in the batting order but so far has shown that he will hit anywhere. He will be backed up by David Ross who signed in the off season and is having a solid spring.

Bottom line, look for the Braves to be competitive out of the gate. The only question will be how healthy they can stay, but their starting rotation looks a little more bullet proof than last season’s staff. With the returning world champion Phillies and the re-loaded New York Mets in the same division, re-taking the title will be no easy task. If the old baseball adage that says that good pitching beats good hitting holds true, then the 2009 Braves might just have a shot.

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