A two-year absence from the playoffs has the Atlanta Braves itching for a postseason return in ’08.  Is there another hurrah left for John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox?

With the return of Tom Glavine through free agency and non-roster invitee Javy Lopez, there might be times this spring and summer that Braves fans look out on the field and have flashbacks to the days of old when the franchise was in the middle of a 15 year run of glory.  No, you won’t see David Justice, Andres Galarraga or Greg Maddux in Atlanta jerseys, but plenty of the old gang is still around, and veteran field boss Bobby Cox is primed for a strong run towards the postseason, a place the club hasn’t been since 2005.

From 1991-2005, the Braves won 14-straight division titles, five NL Pennants and one Word Series Championship, all with Cox in the dugout and John Schuerholz as the general manager.  In those 15 seasons, counting the infamous 1994 strike-shortened campaign, Atlanta won 1,431 regular season games, ripping off wins at a .605 clip.

Cox is still on the top step, but Schuerholz stepped up to club president during the winter and Frank Wren takes over as GM. Schuerholz’ thumb will still be heavy on the franchise whose formula for success certainly doesn’t need to be tinkered with despite two missed Octobers.  The club has consistently brought minor leaguers, many from the Atlanta area, up through the ranks and managed to pick up the occasional free agent without damaging their farm system.  Players like Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Chuck James are three local boys who epitomize the success of the farm system and represent the future of this team.  And they’ll be teamed with veterans like Glavine, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones and Lopez, assuming he makes the club, to win in the present.

But you almost get the feeling that it’s now or never for the veterans, including Cox, competing with the Mets and Phillies in what promises to be a three-team race in the NL East.  All three are solid squads, but only two – at most – will play on past Sep 28.

PITCHING
Smoltz is still the undisputed staff ace as he heads towards his 41st birthday this May.  Off a nice 14-8, 3.11 season a year ago, the right-hander will presumably get the ball Opening Day in what will be his 703 major league appearance, all with the Braves.  Atlanta will be expecting more from him than they will from lefty Glavine, who turns 42 in March and returns to the Braves after a five-year run Off Broadway with the Mets.

While both will be critical to the rotation and the team’s fortunes this year, another righty-lefty combination is just as crucial if not more to Atlanta’s postseason hopes. Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton will slide in behind or between Smoltz and Glavine in the rotation, and could help form a fantastic foursome.  Hudson got off to a great start last year following up a disappointing 2005.  Through his first nine starts the right-hander was 6-1 with a sub-2.00 ERA before finishing the season 16-10, 3.33.

Hampton is attempting to come back and pitch at the big league level for the first time since mid-August 2005.  Though health issues have played a key role in his misfortunes since signing an incredibly inflated long term deal with the Rockies before the 2001 season, including coming into camp this February with a tender hammy, the Braves hope Hampton can crack the rotation again and give them time for a couple of youngsters to get in a little more minor league development.

James would give the rotation a third southpaw, assuming Hampton is ready to go.  On the outside looking in right now are several young hurlers, including Jair Jurrjens who came over from Detroit in the offseason deal for shortstop Edgar Renteria.  Jo-Jo Reyes, yet another left-hander, and Buddy Carlyle also provide backup if things go awry with the initial starting mix.

If there’s been an inconsistency with the club over the years, it’s been the bullpen.  I don’t mean inconsistent in terms of performance, just personnel. While most clubs try to find a steady closer they can count on year after year, Cox and the Braves have worked in a bushel of names at the spot from Juan Berenguer to Alejandro Peña to Mike Stanton to John Rocker to even handing the ball to Smoltz in the ninth for a few seasons.  Since 1991, 10 different pitchers have led the club in saves for a given year.  Compare that to the Astros who have had about half that many in the same span, or the Yankees who have had just one closer the last 11 seasons.

Looking to become the 11th different pitcher to lead Atlanta in saves since 1991 is Rafael Soriano, freshly inked to two-year contract.  Lefty Mike Gonzalez, who could step in should Soriano falter, and Peter Moylan will serve as primary setup arms.  And keep an eye on Manny Acosta who has some excellent stuff and only needs to gain some control. Blaine Boyer, Will Ohman, Jeff Ridgway, Tyler Yates and Royce Ring are the remaining viable middle-to-long relief candidates.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE
One veteran from the glory years that won’t be back this year is Andruw Jones who flew the coop via free agency to the Dodgers after 12 seasons in Atlanta.  Since bursting onto the scene with home runs in his first two World Series at bats as a rookie in 1996, Jones has established himself as a deft fielder and feared slugger.  But Jones picked the wrong year to struggle, hitting just .222 and batting under .200 on the season as late as July 6.

Even if Jones had a strong 2007, chances are the Braves would’ve let him walk and chosen, wisely, in my opinion, to spend their money elsewhere.  Like on Mark Teixeira who came over in a deadline swap with the Rangers last July.  The switch-hitting Tex did his part after his arrival with a 17-HR, 56-RBI output in 54 games, and signed a one-year deal with Atlanta as Wren and Teixeira’s agent, Scott Boras, discuss a possible long term contract beyond 2008.

With Chipper back at third base, the Braves’ infield corners are a strong point.  The club is strong up the middle of the diamond as well with youngsters Kelly Johnson at second and Yunel Escobar at short, both of whom made a nice entry in their rookie seasons and should be even better in ’08.  McCann is back wearing the tools of ignorance following a bit of a falloff from his outstanding ’06 season.  All in all, this will be one of the top infield/catching quintets in the National League.

Francoeur anchors the outfield in right with Mark Kotsay over from Oakland to take Andruw Jones’ place in center.  Kotsay is a bit of a gamble, to say the least, coming off back surgery.  Matt Diaz is off a couple of solid years hitting .333 in 655 at bats over the course of 2006-07.  He’s currently listed as the No. 1 left fielder, but there is another Jones on the horizon, Brandon Jones, who could move into the starting role eventually this season.

Infield backups should include Scott Thorman and Omar Infante, with Josh Anderson and non-roster invitee Joe Borchard the best bets for outfield reserves along with the projected Diaz-Brandon Jones possible platoon in left.

Key Player(s): For my money, the keys on the mound are Hudson and Soriano.  We sort of know what to expect from Smoltz and Glavine in the rotation, so Hudson has to prove that ’07 was his true form instead of his 4.86 ERA in 2006.  With Chipper Jones, Teixeira, Francoeur and McCann, in some order or another, presumably holding down the 3-6 slots in the batting order, it will be essential for Cox to find table setters for the top of the mix.

Futures: Win totals are slowly filtering in, with BetCris offering the O/U break at 86 on the Braves currently.  The Greek really doesn’t think too much of Atlanta this season, listing them right now as part of the NL East ‘field’ at +685 and at +2850 to win the World Series.  My five sims averaged out to make the Braves a good bet to go Over 86 wins, ranging from a low of 79 to a high of 91. I believe they’ll definitely be part of at least the NL Wildcard chase this season.

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