New manager, same expectations for Braves

The clickety-clack of spikes has been replaced by nice, quiet

sneakers. Otherwise, it’s hard to detect much of a difference

between Fredi Gonzalez and the guy he replaced in the Atlanta

Braves dugout.

The expectations certainly haven’t changed.

The Braves were used to winning with Bobby Cox as their manager.

They don’t expect anything to change with Gonzalez running the

team.

”It’s an easy transition,” the new manager said.

Indeed, it’s hard to remember such a significant changing of the

guard going as smoothly as this. Cox retired after leading the team

to 15 playoff appearances in his two decades as manager, a record

that will surely land him a spot in Cooperstown. He was quickly

replaced by Gonzalez, a former Braves third-base coach who comes

with the Cox seal of approval.

”Obviously, Bobby made a big impact in my baseball thinking,”

Gonzalez said.

While there were a few changes in spring training – most

notably, early workouts were held on back fields instead of the

main stadium – Gonzalez has chosen to keep things largely the way

they were under Cox.

They do have differing preferences in footwear. Cox was one of

those old-school managers who insisted on wearing spikes, just like

his players. The 47-year-old Gonzalez is a little more modern in

his thinking.

”No spikes for me,” he said. ”I have enough trouble walking

without any spikes.”

Otherwise, no need to shake up a good thing.

The Braves are coming off a 91-win season and their first

postseason appearance since 2005, claiming the wild card despite a

rash of injuries down the stretch. They lost to eventual World

Series champion San Francisco in a a thrilling four-game playoff

series, each contest decided by one run.

Having reclaimed their once-customary spot in October, Atlanta

is intent on going even farther this season.

”On paper, we’ve improved a lot,” said outfielder Jason

Heyward, the team’s breakout star of 2010. ”I feel like we can

build off last year. We had a great year. Guys are coming back with

that same feeling.”

Perhaps the most notable guy returning is the one who’s been

around the longest: Chipper Jones.

The 38-year-old third baseman was mired in such a dreadful slump

early last season that he had decided to retire. Then, after

changing his mind and regaining his stroke, he went down with the

second major knee injury of his career, missing out on the

playoffs.

That motivated Jones to return for another season, and he looked

like the Chipper of old in spring training, hitting .407 with a

team-leading four homers and 15 RBIs.

”This club has got me excited,” he said. ”I think we’ve got a

great opportunity this year to get back. I would love to experience

what I missed at the end of last year.”

If Jones can get through the season in relatively good health –

no guarantee, considering he’s been plagued by injuries since 2004

– and hold down his customary third spot in the batting order,

there should be plenty of pop behind him.

The most significant acquisition of the winter was slugging

second baseman Dan Uggla, who brings some much-needed right-handed

power to a lineup that leaned heavily to the left with Heyward and

catcher Brian McCann. Landing Uggla also allowed the Braves to fill

another major hole by moving All-Star Martin Prado from second base

to left field.

If rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman comes anywhere close to

matching what Heyward did in his rookie season (.277 with 18

homers, 72 RBIs and a .393 on-base percentage) and centerfielder

Nate McLouth can regain the form he showed in Pittsburgh, the

Braves lineup looks pretty stacked.

The biggest concern is a lack of speed. Heyward is the lone

projected starter who had double-figure stolen bases (11) last

season, so the Braves will have to maximize their chances with

smart baserunning and probably a lot of hit-and-runs.

That said, pitching will likely play the biggest factor in

Atlanta’s success, especially in the same division as four-time

defending NL East champion Philadelphia. The Phillies made the

biggest splash of the offseason, adding left-hander Cliff Lee to a

rotation that already included Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole

Hamels.

Hard to match the Four Aces, but the Braves aren’t complaining

about their own rotation of Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson

and Jair Jurrjens.

Hudson was a 17-game winner coming off Tommy John surgery, Lowe

added 16 wins and the other two are young right-handers with

tremendous upside.

The 24-year-old Hanson (10-11, 3.33 ERA) was plagued by a lack

of run support but has all the makings of a staff ace. The

25-year-old Jurrjens won 14 games with a 2.60 ERA two years ago,

then struggled through a series of injuries last season. He hopes

all that misery is behind him, though a ribcage injury late in

spring training raised doubts about whether he’ll be ready for

opening day.

While the starters look solid, the bullpen is more of a question

mark after Billy Wagner followed through on his pledge to retire

despite a brilliant season (37 saves, 1.43 ERA). Rookie Craig

Kimbrel and second-year pitcher Jonny Venters are expected to share

the role, at least in the early going.

Both have closer-like stuff. While Kimbrel spent most of the

season in the minors, he had 40 strikeouts in 20 2-3 innings during

two separate stints with the Braves, claiming a key role by the

time the playoffs started. Venters was the primary setup man for

Wagner, going 4-4 with a 1.95 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 83

innings.

”In a perfect world, you want it to be one guy,” Gonzalez

said. ”But sometimes, it’s not so perfect.”

At least the Braves feel they have the perfect replacement for

Cox.

”It been as seamless,” general manager Frank Wren said, ”as

any transition I’ve ever seen.”