Because of injury, illness and participation in the World Baseball Classic, Spring Training had a different feel than any of the others manager Bobby Cox has ever experienced. But with yet another solid rotation and hopes that Andruw Jones will build upon last year's success, he and his Braves confidently begin their quest for a 15th consecutive division title.
Cox came to camp wanting Chris Reitsma to prove he deserved the closer's role, and the right-hander responded in impressive fashion. In addition, the six weeks of camp allowed the Braves to gain confidence in a bullpen that will feature Oscar Villarreal and Blaine Boyer as its top two setup men.
Marcus Giles missed much of camp because of shoulder soreness and the premature birth of his daughter. But the Braves are confident that he'll quickly adapt to his new role as the leadoff hitter and at the same time get more acquainted with new double-play partner Edgar Renteria, who replaces Rafael Furcal as the club's shortstop.
Giles and Renteria will serve as the catalyst for a lineup that will once again be headlined by Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, who led the Majors with a career-high 51 homers last year. If the Joneses live up to expectations and Jeff Francoeur builds upon his rookie success, the Braves lineup should be potent enough to support a strong starting rotation that features Tim Hudson and John Smoltz.
1. Marcus Giles, 2B:
The Braves want Giles to maintain his aggression and at the same time find a way to reduce the career-worst strikeout total (108) he produced last year. He's had a higher on-base percentage than Furcal each of the past three seasons. His gap power will make up for his average basestealing capability and allow him to get into scoring position with regularity.
2. Edgar Renteria, SS:
Despite hitting just .276 in Boston last year, Renteria still managed to produce 76 RBIs and keep his status as one of the game's best clutch hitters. The Braves expect him to rebound in his return to the National League, where he's won three Silver Slugger Awards.
3. Chipper Jones, LF:
Injuries have forced Jones to miss significant time the past two years and slowed his march toward the Hall of Fame. Still just 34 years old, the veteran third baseman should still be considered a potent run-producer, a status he gained while recording at least 100 RBIs over eight consecutive seasons (1995-2003).
4. Andruw Jones, CF:
The Braves don't need Jones to hit 50-plus homers again. They need him to once again improve his consistency and at the same time continue providing the above-average power that he has throughout his career.
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B:
LaRoche wants a chance to be an everyday player, but he must first prove himself against left-handed pitchers. Extended slumps have plagued him in both of his first two big-league seasons. He must prove more consistent and at the same time produce at least 20 homers for a second straight season
6. Jeff Francoeur, RF:
Advanced scouting reports and the pressure of living up to the expectations he set as a rookie will serve as potential obstacles for Francoeur. If he's able to show more discipline, there's no reason he couldn't hit at least .285 and belt a minimum of 25 home runs.
7. Brian McCann, C:
Blessed with a short, compact swing, the 22-year-old left-handed hitter has the potential to one day be one of the game's best offensive catchers. As his body continues to take shape, the Braves believe his power numbers will significantly increase.
8. Ryan Langerhans, LF:
Langerhans was the Braves' most consistent offensive performer during the 2005 season's final five weeks. His confidence has grown and given him a chance to prove he can be much more than just a solid defensive outfielder.
1. Tim Hudson, RHP:
Hudson will be counted on to throw 220-plus innings and return to the highly successful form he displayed in Oakland. Another oblique injury and the transition to a new team prevented him from being his best last year.
2. John Smoltz, RHP:
The veteran right-hander is determined to pace himself and prevent the fatigue that plagued him at the end of last season. His leadership will once again be valuable to the younger members of the pitching staff and his talent should allow him to win at least 15 games again.
3. Horacio Ramirez, LHP:
Coming off the worst season of his young career, Ramirez must prove he's capable of using both sides of the plate. The 31 home runs he allowed last year were a result of his inability to aggressively attack the inside part of the plate against right-handed hitters.
4. Jorge Sosa, RHP:
After being moved into the rotation in mid-June, Sosa proved to be a masterful magician. It still remains to be seen whether he can once again escape the numerous troublesome situations he creates.
5. Kyle Davies, RHP:
A stellar Grapefruit League season only solidified the belief that Davies will be a future superstar. His advanced maturity and mental makeup are the only things more impressive than his pitching repertoire.
Reitsma has had his share of misfortune, which includes last August's left leg injury that cost him the closer's role. Having been given the job again, he's determined to prove the Braves can rely upon him. With an above-average fastball and top-notch changeup, he's got the stuff to be successful.
With Thomson, Villarreal and Boyer serving as his top setup men, Reitsma should also get a healthy supply of save opportunities. Villarreal seems to have overcome the arm injuries that have limited him to 28 games over the past two years. He and Joey Devine -- who was sent to Triple-A Richmond on Friday but could return soon -- both are capable of filling the closer's role if needed.
Southpaw Mike Remlinger's right shoulder appears strong, and the 40-year-old reliever has developed a curveball that will improve his effectiveness against left-handed hitters. Remlinger and Chuck James will begin the season as the club's left-handed relievers. When Macay McBride proves healthy, he'll take one of those spots.
John Foster (inflamed ulnar nerve) will miss at least the first month and possibly the entire season. McBride (strained left forearm) could miss at least the first two weeks. Boyer (inflamed shoulder) has made good progress and looks like he will be ready by Opening Day. Thomson started feeling discomfort in his elbow during final week of camp but has shown improvement. Outfielder Kelly Johnson (sore right elbow) will not attempt to throw for another week or two.
The Braves possess a good mix of veterans and young players. How quickly Francoeur, McCann and Langerhans are able to make necessary adjustments will heavily factor into the team's success. Entering the first full season as regulars, the trio will find that pitchers have gained an advantage with better scouting reports.
With this being Davies' first year as a full-time member of the starting rotation, he may have early season success and then also have to make the adjustments necessary to keep opponents off guard.
The youth movement paid dividends when the Braves used 18 rookies to win another division title last year. But the key members of the rookie group now must prove themselves again during a season in which they are even more important components of a team attempting to continue a winning tradition.
Along with being very talented, Francoeur, McCann and Davies are all 22-year-old players who are mentally strong enough to handle the expectations that they produced during their solid rookie campaign. But until proving themselves again, there will be many watching to see if they truly can help the Braves continue their impressive streak.
ON THE RECORD
"It's just a matter of staying healthy. If everybody does what they need to do, we'll be right there in the race again. -- Andruw Jones
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.