Braves look forward to new season

Published 3:25 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2009

With the Atlanta Braves season opener against the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies in Philadelphia just four days away, it’s time for my annual Braves evaluation.

As a long time Braves fan, it will seem a little strange to see veteran Braves right-hander John Smoltz in a Boston Red Sox uniform this season.

Smoltz, a sure -fire future Hall of Famer, is still recovering from off-season surgery and will not be available to pitch until June. While spending his entire career up until now with the Braves, he has given back to the city through various charitable events. I wish him nothing but the best.

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The Braves did sign left-hander Tom Glavine, another long time Brave and future Hall of Femer who has apparently recovered from his surgery and rehabilitation and seems pretty well entrenched as the Braves fifth starter.

General Manager Frank Wren did some major retooling of the Braves starting pitching rotation in the off season.

At the top of the rotation is veteran right-handed sinkerballer Derek Lowe, a free agent signee who had great success during stints with the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.

I commend my dear friend Billy Simmons Jr. for drafting Lowe, who I really think is going to be an asset to the Braves, on his fantasy team.

Javier Vazquez, another veteran right-hander with solid numbers, was obtained in a trade with the Chicago White Sox and Kenshin Kawakami, a successful right-hander in the Japanese League, was signed as a free agent.

As far as the Braves bullpen is concerned, left-hander Mike Gonzalez came back strong last season after undergoing Tommy John, or ligament replacement, surgery in 2007. He greatly resembles the pitcher he was several years ago when he was one of the top closers in the game with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As far as the Braves everyday lineup is concerned, the middle of the batting order should again be solid with veteran third baseman Chipper Jones, the defending National League batting champion, and catcher Brian McCann hitting back to back.

Veteran left-handed hitting outfielder Garret Anderson, a very consistent hitter with the Los Angeles Angels for many years, was signed as a free agent and will platoon in left field with the right-handed hitting Matt Diaz.

It appears that rookie Jordan Schafer has won the starting center field position, but Gregor Blanco is still in the mix. Both are solid hitters with strong throwing arms. Jeff Francoer, who has one of the strongest arms in the game, returns in right field.

Casey Kochman, obtained in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels late last season, will be the first baseman. He is a good hitter and strong defensive performer.

Kelley Johnson and Yunel Escobar return at second base and shortstop respectively. They are strong defensively and usually hit the ball hard even when they make outs.

The Braves are in a strong division that includes the Phillies and New York Mets, but I think they have a chance to make the playoffs. Staying away from injuries will be the key.