The Braves wontheir 14th consecutive division title last year, and they had rookies likecatcher Brian McCann, third baseman Wilson Betemit and outfielders JeffFrancoeur and Ryan Langerhans to thank. "They saved our bacon," saysJohn Schuerholz, Atlanta's general manager since 1990. "We would havefinished third or fourth were it not for their contributions and the remarkableyear that Andruw Jones had."
What's it goingto take to keep the streak going in 2006? "It's really just one thing: forus to settle on a closer," says Schuerholz. "Once we get that decided,the rest of our club will be in good shape."
In 2005 thebullpen was a glaring weakness. Atlanta relievers blew 24 saves, fourth most inthe majors. Making matters worse this season, the club's most effective closer,Kyle Farnsworth, bolted for the Yankees as a free agent in December. So a yearafter they were bailed out by their rookies, the Braves will once more rely onunproven quantities in a key role, because none of the pitchers who might getthe ball in the late innings has ever been a top-of-the-line closer.
The best bet forthe job is righthander Chris Reitsma, the only Atlanta reliever from the 2005Opening Day roster who's still with the club. He took over after Dan Kolbflamed out early (in over one seven-game stretch in April, Kolb's ERA was10.50), and Reitsma performed ably for a while. But after converting ninestraight save tries in July and early August, Reitsma hyperextended his knee,blew his next three opportunities and was relegated to middle relief. TheCanada native spent the winter at his ranch in Calgary, doing weight work tostrengthen his injured leg, and he has declared himself ready. "We feel thekind of success he had in July is the kind of success he'll have thisyear," says Roger McDowell, who replaces longtime Atlanta pitching coachLeo Mazzone.
Should Reitsmastumble, other candidates include 24-year-old righty Oscar Villarreal, obtainedfrom the Diamondbacks with setup man Lance Cormier in exchange for catcherJohnny Estrada. Villarreal had a 2.57 ERA as a setup man with Arizona in 2003,but he burned out his arm while making an NL-rookie-record 86 appearances thatyear and over the last two seasons elbow and rotator-cuff injuries limited himto 28 appearances for Arizona. Still, Schuerholz says he saw signs last yearthat Villarreal's arm "was beginning to rejuvenate," and Villarreal haslooked strong this spring.
The mostintriguing possibility is 22-year-old righthander Joey Devine, the former N.C.State closer whom the Braves selected in the first round in last June's draft.He was promoted to the big club in August--the quickest call-up for any Bravesince Bob Horner in 1978. It was an inauspicious debut, however, as Devinebecame the first major league pitcher to give up grand slams in his first twoappearances. To cap his first year, Devine served up the 18th-inning home runball to Houston's Chris Burke that brought yet another Braves postseason to anunhappy end. Though Devine's beginning was as rocky as a reliever could have,Schuerholz says, "I'm not at all concerned. He's a tough youngman."
Devine sees lastseason's experiences as opportunities to learn. "Adversity iseverywhere," he says, "not just in baseball but in life. The better youhandle it, the better off you will be." This spring he has had longconversations with such veterans as Chipper Jones and John Smoltz, seekingknowledge from the grandmasters in the chess game between pitchers andbatters.
Devine,Villarreal and Reitsma will most likely be joined in the bullpen by righthanderBlaine Boyer, 24, who's recovering from shoulder inflammation but should beready for Opening Day. Anthony Lerew, 23, a strong-armed righty who wasrecruited by Penn State as a quarterback, awaits in Triple A. If young bats arewhat kept the Braves' division-winning streak alive last year, this season theburden rests on these young arms and their ability to stabilize thebullpen.
Chipper Jones needs 41 homers to break the Braves' record for dingers (DaleMurphy, 371) since their move to Atlanta in 1966. With five, Jones will passHank Aaron for second place.
a modest proposal
The Braves wouldlike to think they're set in rightfield with Jeff Francoeur (right), whofinished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting in '05. But the 22-year-old'simpressive season stats (.300 BA, .336 OBP, .549 SLG) hide some disturbingsigns, such as a .235/.278/.422 final month and a terrible strikeout-to-walkratio (5.3 to 1), which often indicates that a hitter is overmatched. Atlantawould be wise to keep in the mix lefthanded-swinging Kelly Johnson, 24, who hit.241/.334/.397 as a rookie and showed better strike-zone judgment (75strikeouts, 40 walks; 1.9 to 1), in case Francoeur starts this season as heended last year.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
first in NL East
17th season with Atlanta
3B C. Jones
CF A. Jones
EDGAR RENTERIA[New acquisition]
MATT DIAZ [Newacquisition]
[This articlecontains tables. Please see hard copy or pdf.]
Oscar Villarreal [New acquisition]
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Double A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
JarrodSaltalamacchia, a 6'4" switch-hitter, is the best batting prospect in theBraves' farm system--in 2005 he hit .314 with 19 homers and 35 doubles at ClassA Myrtle Beach. Atlanta is developing him as a catcher, but with Brian McCannalready in the majors, Saltalamacchia may move to first base. He'll start theseason in Double A, and when he does get called up, Saltalamacchia will set therecord for the longest last name in big league history.
BULLISH Stronger after off-season workouts, Reitsma is the top candidate for the closer's job in an unsettled pen.
AL TIELEMANS (FRANCOEUR)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (SALTALAMACCHIA)