PLAYER TO WATCH
Late last August reliever Billy Wagner, then pitching for the Mets, made his first appearance since Tommy John surgery in September 2008 and mowed down the Braves' 2-3-4 hitters on two strikeouts and a weak fly ball. "Wagner looked great, didn't he?" Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said to G.M. Frank Wren after the game. "You know," Cox added with a smile, "he's always wanted to come to Atlanta."
This winter the team's search for a closer led them to the 38-year-old lefthander, who grew up in Virginia rooting for the Braves and has 385 career saves. Says Wren, who gave Wagner a one-year, $7 million deal on Dec. 2, "All our scouts say he is all the way back. He still has the stuff to be a top closer."
The rotation, with righthanders Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens leading the way, was tops in the NL in ERA last year and figures to be strong again. But with the departure of co-closers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, the bullpen was a question mark. A day after signing Wagner, the Braves added ex--Dodgers closer Takashi Saito, 40, to set up the lefty, who was impressive (26 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings) down the stretch for the Mets and the Red Sox in 2009.
Gone are the days when Wagner hit triple digits on the radar gun, but he can still touch the mid-90s, and Atlanta needs him to help close the gap on the Phillies. "With Saito and the old Billy Wagner back," Cox says, "this might turn out to be one of the best bullpens we've ever had."
Derek Lowe's ground ball--fly ball ratio last year, the sinkerballer's worst since his rookie year. No wonder Atlanta's Opening Day starter had a 4.67 ERA, the highest in his five seasons in the NL, and the league's fourth-worst batting-average-against on balls in play (.330).
The Braves signed free agent Troy Glaus to a one-year, $1.75 million deal in January with the idea of moving the career third baseman to first. With less fanfare, and for a bit more than half the cost (one year, $1 million), they also signed Eric Hinske, who should take the job from Glaus. The 2002 AL Rookie of the Year, Hinske, 32, has become an effective four-corners player who provides OBP and power from the left side. His career marks against righties (.347 OBP, .456 slugging) look more impressive when you consider that he's spent most of his career on AL East teams, playing the toughest schedules in baseball. Glaus, the 2002 World Series MVP, is coming off a season lost to shoulder surgery, is a year older than Hinske and is four years removed from his last All-Star season. The more-famous player isn't necessarily Atlanta's best choice for first base.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Bobby Cox
21ST SEASON WITH BRAVES
*Double A stats
CHUCK SOLOMON (WAGNER)
INSTANT RELIEF Getting Wagner (left) and Saito saved a questionable bullpen.
MARK CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES (HINSKE)