A whole new ball game

Spring training for the Atlanta Braves has begun.

By now, the bitter taste of the Game 4 loss to the Astros in the playoffs has been erased by a full season of college and pro football, and the sweet taste of unbridled optimism that comes from a clean slate is swirling around the tongues of the baseball fan.

There are a lot of things that I will be looking forward to in this year’s spring training. I will be very interested in how Oscar Villareal, a potential candidate for closer, pitches, while also keeping an eye on Chris Reitsma, the front runner for that position at this time. I also hope that Mike Remlinger does well enough to earn a spot as the set-up man for the Braves. He was a reliable Brave in the past and I think he has at least one more good year left in his arm. It will also be fun to see how Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a potential back-up catcher does. If he brings a hot bat to camp, he may earn a spot on the bench behind Brian McCann. It will also be interesting to see how Brian Jordan does after what can only be considered a disappointing season last year. B.J. is a fan favorite and having him healthy and productive would be huge for the Braves this year.

Can this Braves team go all the way this year, absolutely. Why not? Sure, the Mets have gotten stronger, as have the Cardinals and the Dodgers, but the Braves always seem to be in a position to do well and with all of last year’s rookies now having a year in the bigs under their belt, anything is possible.

Look at it this way.

Pitching - John Smoltz is your number one and barring any injuries, he gets 15 wins and maybe keeps the team close enough for four or five more. Let’s say five. Tim Hudson is your number two and, once again, barring any injuries, he bounces back from a 14-9 year and wins at least 18 and then keeps it close for the bullpen to snag at least three more. That’s 41 wins right there, if you’re keeping count. Jorge Sosa is number three and, even if he doesn’t match last year’s output, he should still be good enough for 12 wins. Horacio Ramirez, John Thomson and Kyle Davies should be able to combine for at least 30 wins. If you then scatter 10 wins around the bullpen and you’ve got an estimate of 93 wins. That should be good enough to make the playoffs and I have a feeling that I am lowballing what the production of Smoltz and Sosa will be this year.

Hitting - While it may be doubtful that Andruw Jones will have another MVP caliber year, he should still hit 30 home runs and you just know that Chipper is going to get back to the 100 RBI and close to 30 home run totals himself. Francouer may not be clicking like he did when he first arrived last year, but then again, he could be ready to live up to the hype for an entire season and show the world that he is ready to be a perennial All-Star. If he is and he hits around .300 with between 20-30 home runs, look out.

I think the key to the lineup will be the production of Marcus Giles and Edgar Renteria, neither of them a true leadoff hitter but both great contact hitters with decent on base percentages. If they are successful at setting the table, this could be the Braves most potent line-up in years. Renteria will definitely bounce back from an O.K. year in Boston and I think his defense will also be much better as well. As for the rest of the lineup, I hope that Adam Laroche, Ryan Langerhans, McCann, Pete Orr and Kelly Johnson can come up with some clutch hits and have decent averages. None of those guys appear to be all-stars but teams don’t need an all star at every position and having them doesn’t guarantee a title (see the Yankees). What they need are role players that make few mistakes and play hard in every game.

People have aleady talked about the tough start to the season for the Braves with a big west coast trip and very few home games to start things off. The baseball season is a marathon though, not a sprint, and as long as they hang in there, play good ball and get the bats going, the Braves should be just fine.

Mike Boylan

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