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BASEBALL 2006: Braves' kids sure act all grown up

Posted: Friday Mar 31, 2006 3:24 PM
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ATLANTA (AP) - The kids acted all grown up in 2005. They'll probably need to be even better this season for the Atlanta Braves to make it back to the playoffs.

At least they know what's expected.

"It would be neat if we're all here together, 15 years from now, talking about winning 29 consecutive division titles,'' said pitcher Kyle Davies, one of the homegrown Braves who helped them win their 14th in a row last season.

In what must have been a discouraging development for the rest of the NL East, the Braves unveiled their next generation en masse - 18 rookies made it to the big leagues, including the too-good-to-be-believed Jeff Francoeur - and just kept right on winning.

Granted, the playoffs were another disappointment. Atlanta was knocked out in the opening round for the fourth year in a row and still has just one World Series championship to show for its unprecedented run of division success.

Then again, how many teams could break in so many young players and still make it to the playoffs?

Francoeur was called up at midseason and quickly took over as the starter in right field. Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson shared the left field job. Catcher Brian McCann did such a good job behind the plate that the Braves traded former All-Star Johnny Estrada during the offseason. Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr were two of the top players off the bench.

There's more. Davies won seven games as a fill-in on the injury plagued rotation and was making a strong bid in spring training for a permanent job. Blaine Boyer played a valuable role in middle relief. Top draft pick Joey Devine made it to the big leagues a couple of months after leaving North Carolina State and could be the closer before this year is done.

Not surprisingly, these youngsters have drawn comparisons to the talented group that came up from the minors in the mid-1990s, which included Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko.

"These guys may not experience success right away like our group did,'' said Chipper Jones, who played on Atlanta's lone World Series-winning team as a rookie in the 1995. "But before they're said and done, they might have a bigger impact on the success of this organization.''

Even more striking: Many of these guys grew up around Atlanta as tomahawk-chopping fans of the Braves, including suburbanites Francoeur, McCann, Boyer, Davies and left-handed pitcher Chuck James. Reliever Macay McBride is from nearby Augusta.

"It helps that we all came up together,'' Davies said. "It's good to have someone who's going through the same things you're going through. You're closer to that person. You can relate to him. The majority of us are really close friends, and we're getting to go through this dream together.''

The kids can't do it all, of course - even if they avoid the sophomore slump. Some of the more familiar names will be playing key roles for the Braves in 2006.

Andruw Jones is coming off a career season, leading the NL with 51 homers and 128 RBIs and finishing a close second to St. Louis' Albert Pujols in the MVP balloting. Chipper Jones is the other big bat in the middle of the lineup, hoping to avoid the injuries that limited him to 21 homers and 72 RBIs. Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, who won 14 games apiece, are back at the top of the rotation.

There's also a familiar question: Who will come out of the bullpen to finish games?

Spurned in their offseason attempts to land a big-name closer, the Braves will likely start out with Chris Reitsma. The towering Canadian held the job for a couple of months last season, in between the season's biggest disappointment (Dan Kolb, who already has been dealt back to Milwaukee) and a trade-deadline acquisition (Kyle Farnsworth, who signed with the Yankees after blowing a big lead in the season-ending playoff loss to Houston).

Smoltz was dominating during his three years as closer, and there were other Braves (Mark Wohlers, John Rocker) who had strong seasons out of the bullpen. But for much of its postseason run, Atlanta has flailed around in the search for a reliable closer.

The search will continue this season, but the rest of the roster is set.

The lineup looks good, even though longtime leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal left as a free agent to sign with the Dodgers.

The Braves gave up top prospect Andy Marte to acquire Furcal's replacement at shortstop, Edgar Renteria, who's coming off a sub-par in Boston. Second baseman Marcus Giles will bat first, even though he is hardly a pure leadoff hitter (16 steals compared to 46 for Furcal).

Only 22, Francoeur is looking to build on a brilliant rookie season. Handsome, polite and blessed with everything needed for success, he broke in by hitting .300 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs in only 70 games. He also ranked second in the league by throwing out 13 runners.

"He's going to be the next face of this franchise,'' Chipper Jones said. "He's already been labeled everything from the Golden Child to the next Dale Murphy. He's got all the tools. It's just a matter of getting the repetitions before he takes the next step.''

While the free-swinging Francoeur (he walked only 11 times in 257 at-bats) needs to become more patient as pitchers figure out his weaknesses, he isn't concerned about falling off in Year 2.

"If you let that stuff get in your head, yeah, you'll have a sophomore slump,'' Francoeur said. "As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing. I'm stronger and more experienced than I was last year.''

No matter how much things change in Atlanta, the Braves figure to remain a contender as long as they have the same two guys at the top: general manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox. Both extended their contracts, keeping them with the team through at least 2007.

Cox was honored with his second straight NL manager of the year award, the first time someone has won it back to back. Even though he'll be 65 in May, there doesn't appear to be any generation gap between Cox and all those kids.

"There's not a better manager they could play for,'' Smoltz said. "He's patient. He's been through it all. He can explain things to them. He lets the veterans guys enforce the rules in the clubhouse, and the rest is history.''

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