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New year, new manager, same expectations for Braves

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POSTED: March 30, 2011 11:01 a.m.

ATLANTA — The clickety-clack of spikes has been replaced by nice, quiet sneakers. Otherwise, it’s hard to detect much of a difference between Fredi Gonzalez and the guy he replaced in the Atlanta Braves dugout.

The expectations certainly haven’t changed.

The Braves were used to winning with Bobby Cox as their manager. They don’t expect anything to change with Gonzalez running the team.

"It’s an easy transition," the new manager said.

Indeed, it’s hard to remember such a significant changing of the guard going as smoothly as this. Cox retired after leading the team to 15 playoff appearances in his two decades as manager, a record that surely will land him a spot in Cooperstown. He quickly was replaced by Gonzalez, a former Braves third-base coach who comes with the Cox seal of approval.

"Obviously, Bobby made a big impact in my baseball thinking," Gonzalez said.

While there were a few changes in spring training — most notably, early workouts were held on back fields instead of the main stadium — Gonzalez has chosen to keep things largely the way they were under Cox.

They do have differing preferences in footwear. Cox was one of those old-school managers who insisted on wearing spikes, just like his players. The 47-year-old Gonzalez is a little more modern in his thinking.

"No spikes for me," he said. "I have enough trouble walking without any spikes."

Otherwise, no need to shake up a good thing.

The Braves are coming off a 91-win season and their first postseason appearance since 2005, claiming the wild card despite a rash of injuries down the stretch. They lost to eventual World Series champion San Francisco in a a thrilling four-game playoff series, each contest decided by one run.

Having reclaimed their once-customary spot in October, Atlanta is intent on going even farther this season.

"On paper, we’ve improved a lot," said outfielder Jason Heyward, the team’s breakout star of 2010. "I feel like we can build off last year. We had a great year. Guys are coming back with that same feeling."

Perhaps the most notable guy returning is the one who’s been around the longest: Chipper Jones.

The 38-year-old third baseman was mired in such a dreadful slump early last season that he had decided to retire. Then, after changing his mind and regaining his stroke, he went down with the second major knee injury of his career, missing out on the playoffs.

That motivated Jones to return for another season, and he looked like the Chipper of old in spring training, hitting .407 with a team-leading four homers and
15 RBIs.

"This club has got me excited," he said. "I think we’ve got a great opportunity this year to get back. I would love to experience what I missed at the end of last year."

If Jones can get through the season in relatively good health — no guarantee, considering he’s been plagued by injuries since 2004 — and hold down his customary third spot in the batting order, there should be plenty of pop behind him.

The most significant acquisition of the winter was slugging second baseman Dan Uggla, who brings some much-needed right-handed power to a lineup that leaned heavily to the left with Heyward and catcher Brian McCann. Landing Uggla also allowed the Braves to fill another major hole by moving All-Star Martin Prado from second base to left field.

If rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman comes anywhere close to matching what Heyward did in his rookie season (.277 with
18 homers, 72 RBIs and a .393 on-base percentage) and centerfielder Nate McLouth can regain the form he showed in Pittsburgh, the Braves’ lineup looks pretty stacked.

The biggest concern is a lack of speed. Heyward is the lone projected starter who had double-figure stolen bases (11) last season, so the Braves will have to maximize their chances with smart baserunning and probably a lot of hit-and-runs.

That said, pitching likely will play the biggest factor in Atlanta’s success, especially in the same division as four-time defending NL East champion Philadelphia. The Phillies made the biggest splash of the offseason, adding left-hander Cliff Lee to a rotation that already included Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

Hard to match the Four Aces, but the Braves aren’t complaining about their own rotation of Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.

Hudson was a 17-game winner coming off Tommy John surgery, Lowe added 16 wins and the other two are young right-handers with tremendous upside.

The 24-year-old Hanson (10-11, 3.33 ERA) was plagued by a lack of run support but has all the makings of a staff ace. The 25-year-old Jurrjens won 14 games with a 2.60 ERA two years ago, then struggled through a series of injuries last season. He hopes all that misery is behind him, though a ribcage injury late in spring training raised doubts about whether he’ll be ready for opening day.

While the starters look solid, the bullpen is more of a question mark after Billy Wagner followed through on his pledge to retire despite a brilliant season (37 saves, 1.43 ERA). Rookie Craig Kimbrel and second-year pitcher Jonny Venters are expected to share the role, at least in the early going.

Both have closer-like stuff. While Kimbrel spent most of the season in the minors, he had 40 strikeouts in 20 2⁄3 innings during two separate stints with the Braves, claiming a key role by the time the playoffs started. Venters was the primary setup man for Wagner, going 4-4 with a 1.95 ERA and
93 strikeouts in 83 innings.

"In a perfect world, you want it to be one guy," Gonzalez said. "But sometimes, it’s not so perfect."

At least the Braves feel they have the perfect replacement for Cox.

"It been as seamless," general manager Frank Wren said, "as any transition I’ve ever seen."

 

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