By Michael Farber, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked Andruw Jones, CF. Baseball isn't football, and nobody pays to watch anybody play defense. But in Jones' case, they should. He has done to centerfield play what Ozzie Smith did to the shortstop position two decades ago. There is a preternatural grace to Jones, a regal quality that truly is an ornament to the game. There might be more spectacular outfielders (think Torii Hunter or Jim Edmonds), but no one has the grace and instincts Jones does. Leading off the second inning Thursday, Pittsburgh's Brad Eldred hit a fly to deep center. Jones broke instantly from his shallow spot, sprinted to the warning track in front of the 400-foot sign and waited a full second before catching the ball nonchalantly.
Team's biggest strengths
The 2005 Braves rotation is a lot like the power-packed 1995 Braves rotation, only better, in the opinion of GM John Schuerholz. Even if it isn't, Schuerholz has re-tooled Atlanta in the classic Braves mold by acquiring two No. 1 starters, Tim Hudson from Oakland (whom he signed to a four-year extension) and John Smoltz (reacquired from the bullpen). Behind them, manager Bobby Cox has the equivalent of three starters who would be considered at least No. 2 or 3 guys on most staffs: Mike Hampton, John Thomson (8-1 with a 2.45 ERA in his last eight starts) and dandy lefty Horacio Ramirez, who had a 2.28 ERA in eight starts last year before missing most of the rest of the season with a shoulder problem. If sinkerballer Dan Kolb can close as well as he did in Milwaukee -- and there is a qualitative difference in picking up saves for the nowhere Brewers and a Braves team that plays more meaningful games -- the bullpen should hold.
Team's biggest weakness
Pick any of Atlanta's 13-straight division winners and you probably can find a more potent lineup somewhere in the league. This year, even in the NL East, both the Marlins and Phillies appear more formidable from hitters one through eight. "I think [we have] a pretty good one," Chipper Jones says of the lineup, "but no question it's the big two starters that should put us over the top." Indeed, the Braves always seem to find enough offense and should again, even with Chipper in apparent decline. His OPS has slipped for three straight seasons, from 1.032 in 2001 to .847 last year. He also had a career-worst .248 batting average, which perhaps isn't so glum considering he was stuck at .207 on July 3. The Braves will miss J.D. Drew, who was productive in his one season with the team. That puts even more pressure on Andruw Jones, who has averaged 32 home runs and 98 RBIs since 1998, yet still looks capable of more, and second baseman Marcus Giles, who is returning from a broken collarbone.
With three scoreless innings thrown by Thomson and another two by Ramirez against the Pirates, the Braves' projected starters have yet to allow a run this spring (17 innings, eight hits and three walks). ... Smoltz was trumpeting his record of prognosticating NCAA basketball tournaments, claiming the only time he picked his alma mater, Michigan State, was in 2000, when the Spartans won the title. ... Chipper Jones, who moved back to third base last June from a not-always happy stay in left field, says he is pleased with how he has been hitting during the first part of camp. "I'm healthy, I'm back home [at third] and I'm swinging the bat good," he says. "I'm looking forward to a monster year." ... Adam LaRoche had a team-leading .576 slugging percentage after the All-Star break, but he will still start the year in a fairly strict platoon with the 46-year-old Julio Franco at first base. LaRoche, who has a sweet left-handed swing, is eager to become an everyday player -- "I'm waiting for [Cox] to give me the word," he says -- but no one seemed more please than LaRoche when Franco re-signed with the Braves. LaRoche says Franco is an extraordinary teammate and teacher. "If it's this year or three years from now, that'll be fine," LaRoche says. "I like having Julio here." ... Franco has said he wants to play until he's 50, and with the best body on the team, he just might. Even if he loses a little bat speed, it hardly matters. He already takes almost everything to the right side, usually hard. ... Kolb is working on a changeup to go with his sinker, which he throws 90 to 95 percent of the time. ... The Braves made their first round of cuts Thursday with no surprises, except perhaps for outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who was considered the next Golden Boy in Atlanta and heir-apparent to Chipper Jones. Francoeur is a five-tool prospect from suburban Atlanta who declined a Clemson football scholarship to sign with the Braves for a $2.2 million bonus. But the Braves had 11 outfielders in camps and Francoeur had played just 18 games above Class-A ball. "One of the best prospects I've seen," Cox says. ... As if the Braves didn't have enough quality arms in camp, they trotted out the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, who can hurl spirals if not sliders, to throw out the ceremonial first pitches against Pittsburgh.