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1 Atlanta Braves With Atlanta's Mr. October back on the mound, who needs free agents?

John Smoltz is whole again. There is a smile on his face, a
bounce in his step, a killer snap to his slider and a glint in
his eyes that could belong only to a pitcher who, Tom
Sawyer-like, had witnessed the funeral for his own career. The
Braves righthander always did bring hot-wired intensity to the
mound, famously so in the postseason. Now, after three years of
pitching with pain in his elbow and another year of not pitching
at all because of reconstructive surgery, Smoltz is more
dangerous than ever.

It is not just that Smoltz, only one year removed from surgery,
has already regained the same wicked arsenal of pitches he had in
1996, when he won the NL Cy Young Award. It is also that, at age
33, he can deliver them with the wisdom that comes from having
thrown almost 2,500 innings--even if he equates his most recent,
pain-riddled time on the mound to "being miserable every five

Aside from some predictable postsurgical soreness, which caused
him to back off his throwing program, Smoltz's recovery has been
"amazingly uneventful," according to assistant G.M. Frank Wren.
"I know people looked at me like I was on the way out," Smoltz
says. "I'm convinced I have the capacity to be better than I ever
was. Ever. Now I have the stuff, and I have the ability to make
in-game changes. Before I had no chance to stay in a game by
doing that."

Smoltz's return makes Atlanta whole again too. The Braves won 95
games in 2000 and a division title for the ninth straight season,
but righthander Kevin Millwood fell to 10-13 after going 40-18
during three seasons learning at Smoltz's side. "He'll be better
with Smoltzie back," pitching coach Leo Mazzone says. Without
Smoltz, Atlanta also suffered its most embarrassing postseason
defeat. It lost three straight games to the Cardinals in a
Division Series in which Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Millwood
were simonized for 16 earned runs in 11 innings.

Smoltz is one of the premier October pitchers of his generation.
The Braves are 16-10 when he starts a postseason game and 36-36
behind anyone else, including 14-13 with Glavine and 11-11 with
Maddux. Including five regular-season starts, Smoltz has pitched
in 32 October games and lost just four of them--and then only by
scores of 2-1, 1-0, 5-2 and 4-1. He has 14 wins and a 2.62 ERA in

This winter the Braves lost out on free agents Mike Hampton and
Alex Rodriguez and succeeded only in getting first baseman Rico
Brogna, an injury-plagued, .232 hitter for the Phillies and the
Red Sox last year, and reserve outfielder Dave Martinez, a
carrier of bad karma. (Not one of the eight teams for which he
has played a combined 1,799 games has reached the postseason.)
Yet for all that, Atlanta is one of the most-improved teams in
baseball. That's not only because of Smoltz but also thanks to a
return to health of three other key players: Odalis Perez, the
22-year-old lefty with a 95-mph fastball who missed last season
because of elbow surgery; second baseman Quilvio Veras, who had
25 steals and a .413 on-base percentage before he tore up a knee
in mid-July; and rightfielder Brian Jordan, who hit only .264
while suffering soreness in both shoulders that required
off-season surgery.

Jordan dropped 15 pounds over the winter to become more flexible.
Centerfielder Andruw Jones, on the other hand, added the same
amount of upper-body muscle. He, too, figures to be a better
Brave. After piling up 36 home runs and 104 RBIs while mostly
batting second, Jones, 23, has graduated into a
middle-of-the-order thumper whose physical and professional
growth mirror that of Barry Bonds. Jones has 116 homers and 361
RBIs after five seasons. Bonds, who began his career as a leadoff
hitter, had 117 home runs and 337 RBIs at the same checkpoint.

"Andruw had great numbers last year without having a great year,"
Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund says. "He's not close to
what he can be yet."

Says G.M. John Schuerholz, "People got excited about the sizzle
of some of the names on the free-agent market. We may not have
gotten the sizzle, but we think we've got plenty of steak right

The analogy fits, especially with Smoltz back on the mound. The
Braves have the familiar look of the team to beat in the National
League. They are the meat and potatoes of baseball.


COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A return to form by Smoltz would soothe a rotation still stinging from a disastrous 2000 postseason.


an opposing team's scout sizes up the Braves

"This is the NL's best team, especially after some of the moves
the Mets have made....It starts with the starters, Greg Maddux,
Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Kevin Millwood. Millwood has been
just so-so this spring, but he'll bounce back with a better
year....To me the No. 5 guy has to be Odalis Perez. He looks
great. He's hitting low- to mid-90s, and his breaking ball is
just deadly. He's a gamer, too--a high-spirited player who loves
the game....The bullpen is fine, with veterans where the Braves
need them. John Rocker has got to be good because they will give
the ball to him....The next young guy to really help them is
righthander Jason Marquis. He has a good arm with long arm
action and an exploding fastball. He has a little bit of a
slider. If he can master the strike zone, he will come real
quick....At first base they'll use Rico Brogna and Wes Helms.
Brogna is a professional hitter, but he doesn't have the power
you'd like to see at the corners. Helms does have power, and
he's out of options, so he'll play....Andruw Jones is the best
centerfielder in the game defensively, without question. You can
go back to Dale Murphy, Marquis Grissom when he was young, and
Jones is better than them. He goes side to side better than
anybody....The Braves have been looking all spring for utility
players to improve their bench. They've been looking for a
catcher they can park in Triple A for an emergency, a backup
shortstop and a reserve outfielder. Marcus Giles looks like a
good infielder who's coming, but he doesn't have the hands to
play short."

projected roster with 2000 statistics

2000 record: 95-67 (first in NL East)
Manager: Bobby Cox (12th season with Atlanta)


SS Rafael Furcal S-R 73 .295 4 37 40
2B Quilvio Veras S-R 76 .309 5 37 25
CF Andruw Jones R 20 .303 36 104 21
3B Chipper Jones S-R 17 .311 36 111 14
RF Brian Jordan R 137 .264 17 77 10
C Javy Lopez R 192 .287 24 89 0
LF B.J. Surhoff* L-R 130 .291 14 68 10
1B Rico Brogna*[1] L 195 .232 2 21 1


OF Dave Martinez*[1] L 258 .274 5 47 8
IF Wes Helms(R)[2] R 339 .288 20 88 0
IF Kurt Abbott[1] R 348 .217 6 12 1
IF Keith Lockhart L-R 357 .265 2 32 4
C Paul Bako L-R 361 .226 2 20 0


RH Greg Maddux 3 19 9 7.1 1.07 3.00
LH Tom Glavine 5 21 9 6.9 1.19 3.40
RH John Smoltz[3] 29 11 8 6.4 1.12 3.19
RH Kevin Millwood 122 10 13 6.0 1.29 4.66
RH John Burkett 311 10 6 5.4 1.59 4.89


LH John Rocker 38 1 2 24 1.70 2.89
LH Mike Remlinger 164 5 3 12 1.27 3.47
RH Kerry Ligtenberg 254 2 3 12 1.28 3.61
RH Jason Marquis 299 1 0 0 1.50 5.01
RH Marc Valdes[1] 328 5 5 2 1.66 5.08
RH Joe Slusarski[1] 359 2 7 3 1.32 4.21
LH Odalis Perez[3] 189 4 6 0 1.65 6.00

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 156)
*Combined AL and NL stats
[2]Triple A stats
[3]1999 stats

"Perez looks great. He's hitting low- to mid-90s, and his
breaking ball is just deadly."