THE BRAVES' newslugger stepped to the plate in the first batting practice of spring training,when players typically do little more than swat lazy fly balls as they work offthe rust. He began as most do, with a few bunts. Next he peppered the fieldwith some line drives. Then the show started: He sent ball after ball soaringout of the park. One landed 30 feet beyond the leftfield wall. Another slammedhalfway up the scoreboard in center. "The ball even sounded different offthe bat," recalls third baseman Chipper Jones. "Guys were shaking theirheads, wondering, Is that really Frenchy?"
The new sluggerwas actually a familiar face, fourth-year rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, thoughhis body wasn't so recognizable. After raising his average from .260 in 2006 to.293 last season, nearly doubling his walk total (from 23 to 42) and driving in100 runs for the second straight year, Francoeur was still bothered by onestat: his 19 home runs, a drop from the 29 he smacked in '06. So in theoff-season Francoeur trained alongside college football players who weregetting in shape for the NFL combine, and he added 17 pounds of muscle.
"I gave up onbeing a guy who steals 30 bases, but there's no reason I can't hit 35 homeruns," says Francoeur, 24, who was swinging a bigger stick (a 34-inch34-ouncer) in exhibition games. "I feel a lot stronger, and I feel the balljumping off my bat differently."
Since thebeginning of last season Atlanta has been largely overshadowed in the NL Eastby the yapping Mets and Phillies, but a big year from Francoeur and a fullseason from first baseman Mark Teixeira, acquired at last year's trade deadlinefrom the Rangers, will give the Braves one of the league's three most explosiveoffenses—even without centerfielder Andruw Jones, who signed a free-agent dealwith the Dodgers.
"Peoplealways talk about the Phillies' and the Mets' lineups," says an NL generalmanager, "but I'll take the Braves' middle of the order of Chipper,Teixeira and Francoeur."
Unlike last year,the Braves have the depth in the rotation to take advantage of that offensivefirepower and close the gap in the division. Many dismissed the signing offormer Cy Young winner Tom Glavine as a lame attempt to reclaim their goldenyears, but the 42-year-old lefthander, whose final year with the Mets wastainted by three bad September starts that contributed to New York's historiccollapse, was for most of last season exactly what the Braves needed: a steadyNo. 3 starter. The two guys behind him weren't in the 2007 rotation either:Mike Hampton, 35, who hasn't pitched since August '05 (left elbow), and rookieJair Jurrjens, 22, who was acquired in a trade with the Tigers. During acritical stretch in August and September, when Atlanta lost 13 of 19 afterinching to within three games of first place, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson hadall but three of the Braves' wins.
Smoltz, 40, heldhis own at the front of the rotation, with the second-most quality starts inthe league (26) and his best strikeout rate (8.6 per nine innings) as a startersince 1998. But like Francoeur, he wasn't satisfied. Smoltz spent the openingmonth of camp throwing on back diamonds in simulated games, focusing onlocating his off-speed pitches. Not until the second week of March did he pitchin a Grapefruit League game. "Last year the results were great, but I washolding my breath a lot of the time," he says.
On March 3 Smoltztook Glavine and Francoeur to the Orlando community of Isleworth for a round ofgolf with his friend Tiger Woods. The foursome didn't keep score, but Francoeurwas so intent on seeing how his new home run stroke translated to the tee boxthat, according to Smoltz, "he very foolishly tried to outdrive TigerWoods."
Says Francoeur,"Just for the first few holes. Then I realized I sucked. But, hey, I wasfired up."
His team hasreason to be fired up as well.
a modest proposal...
The Bravesobtained 32-year-old centerfielder Mark Kotsay from the A's to be the bridgebetween the departed Andruw Jones and top prospect Jordan Schaefer, who lookedgood this spring but has yet to play higher than Class A. Problem is, Kotsaymissed 106 games last year with a bad back and since 2004 has had steepdeclines in power and batting average. What the slugging Atlanta lineup coulduse is a centerfielder who has young legs and can hit leadoff—and they havethat in Gregor Blanco. The 23-year-old Blanco (left) has a career on-basepercentage of .371 in the minors, including a .369 mark in Triple A last year,and has plenty of speed (though he needs work on his basestealing). Blanco is abetter fit at the plate and in the field than Kotsay and would score a lot ofruns in front of the Braves' power hitters.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
19TH SEASON WITH ATLANTA
Will Ohman (New acquisition)
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
*Triple A stats
‚Ä† 2005 stats WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
Total home runshit in 2007 by Mark Teixeira (30) and Chipper Jones (29), who this season couldbecome the first switch-hitting teammates to each hit 30 in the same year.Teixeira, who was acquired by Atlanta last July, reached the 30-homer mark ineach of the last four seasons; the oft-injured Jones hit 35 dingers per 162games during the same period, while missing an average of 40 games aseason.
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JULY 4, 1983
HERE'S A GUY who,after almost every home run, says something like, "Well, I just happened toget good wood on the ball, and the wind was blowing out to rightfieldtonight...." When asked if he feels he has improved on his MVP play of ayear ago, Dale Murphy will say, "I can't say for sure, I've been a littlelucky this year. I hope I'm progressing." Here's a guy who is JimmyStewart—the actor, not the former utility player.
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DIGS THE LONG BALL Francouer hit the ground running this winter, adding 17 pounds and foolishly trying to outdrive Tiger Woods.
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ANDY HAYT (COVER)