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COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY: Atlanta Braves

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Meet the Braves
Projected lineup:
SS Rafael Furcal
2B Marcus Giles
LF Chipper Jones
RF Gary Sheffield
CF Andruw Jones
3B Vinny Castilla
C Javy Lopez
1B Julio Franco Projected rotation:
1. Greg Maddux, RHP
2. Tom Glavine, LHP
3. Kevin Millwood, RHP
4. Jason Marquis, RHP
5. Albie Lopez, RHP Bullpen:
RH: Kerry Ligtenberg, Jose Cabrera, Tim Spooneybarger
LH: Mike Remlinger, Rich Rodriguez
Closer: John Smoltz

2002 Atlanta Braves

Last Year's Record: 88-74, 1st place in NL East Last Year's Headline: HANGING ONTO THE PAST The Braves finished 2001 with their worst record since 1990 (the season before they began their run of 10 straight division titles) but still managed to squeak into the playoffs because of a weaker-than-expected NL East. After breezing past Houston, thoughts turned to another possible showdown in the Series with the Yankees. They played the Diamondbacks tight in the NLCS, but in the end, like everyone else, were no match for Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. The reason the Braves struggled so much, trailing the Phillies in the East for most of the year, was the offense's lack of production. They finished 13th in runs scored in the National League. The runs were scarce because of a laundry list of issues: almost no production from their catchers, first basemen and left fielders; injuries to Rafael Furcal, John Smoltz and Kevin Millwood; and a subpar year from Andruw Jones. With the exception of solid Chipper Jones, occasional pop from Brian Jordan and the surprising hitting of Marcus Giles, the offense floundered. The pitching was again the bright spot of the team, even with a shake-up in the bullpen. Once John Rocker was jettisoned, John Smoltz emerged as a premier closer. Jason Marquis developed into a solid young complement to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, while Kevin Millwood was up and down while battling various ailments. This Year's Question: Can the offense support the pitching staff? With the Braves, you know Maddux and Glavine are rocks. Smoltz looks to be making the transition from starter to closer as easily as Dennis Eckersely. It looks like they may have answered the question with the pick up of Gary Sheffield. A middle order of Chipper and Andruw Jones sandwiching Sheff gives the Braves one of the most potent lineups in the NL. Furcal's return from injury and Giles' bat should put plenty of ducks on the pond for the big guns. The bottom of the order is a question mark with Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla and whoever wins the first base job. The Braves will need to get something from those three or it will negate the production at the top of the order. Why This Team Could Be a Contender: Ten straight division titles since 1991 have all hinged on the same thing... the arms. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz continue to be near the top of their games, despite the wear and tear. The offense's increased potency will give them more leeway. There is no doubt the competition will be better with all the strides the Mets made in the offseason, but the Braves in the East should be considered the favorites until someone else takes their crown. Why This Team Could Be Contracted: We all jump aboard the Time Machine and head back to 1986. Is that Chuck Tanner in the dugout? Hello My Name Is ... Otis Nixon. I'm the former speedster who's been been perhaps the biggest presence in camp so far. I'm here for the first couple weeks to work with the Braves on the bases. In addition to teaching Rafael Furcal there's more to stealing bases than pure speed, I'm working with other guys (Andruw Jones especially) on developing better base-running techniques. Of course the Braves will hit a lot of home runs, but swiping a few more bags to set up scoring-position chances will help a great deal in close games. A Moment of Silence For ... Dave Martinez. The loss of Brian Jordan's leadership definitely hurts, but the "old pros" in the Braves clubhouse have dealt with those kinds of things in the past decade. Martinez, though, was being counted on to provide depth and experience off the bench but will miss the upcoming season with a chronic knee problem. He is a huge loss when you consider the importance of having a left-handed pinch-hitter and a guy who can play all three outfield positions and first base. Add It to Your Palm Pilot... New York Mets at Atlanta, April 5-7. Every game with the Mets for the past four years has meant something special, and this year will be no different. The teams get it started earlier than usual with three in Atlanta the first weekend of the year. But it should come down to the wire for the NL East title meaning the three-game set at Shea that ends the year will be a can't-miss.
Tagged: Braves, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Kevin Millwood, Rafael Furcal

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