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CNN/SI Preview: Atlanta Braves
Posted: Monday March 01, 1999 10:58 PM
By Bryan Boyle, CNN/SI
Player to Watch: Ryan Klesko, 1B
Entering spring training the Braves endured brushes with cold reality, the most chilling of which was the discovery of a cancerous tumor in the back of first baseman Andres Galarraga. At best, the Big Cat is out for the season and, again at best, the concern for Atlanta is how to fill Galarraga's adroit glove at first and explosive bat at cleanup.
Coming off career lows last season in homers (18) and RBIs (70), Ryan Klesko has been asked to move from left field to first base, where he played in the minors. Whether Klesko can approach the Cat's team-leading 44 HRs and 121 RBIs from last season is unlikely. But the Braves are counting on new hitting coach Don Baylor to help Klesko, 10 years Galarraga's junior, rediscover a powerful stroke that produced 34 HRs and 93 RBIs in 1996.
If the pressures of homering at the plate or surviving in the field compromise Klesko's new-found appreciation for the strike zone and for doubles, however, general manager John Schuerholz may look to shop around. And Klesko, in the second year of a four-year contract worth $20.5 million, is certainly no stranger to trade rumors, which he has heard nearly throughout his 10 seasons within the Braves organization.
1998 Recap (106-56, first place, NL East)
The Braves set a franchise record for victories last season while riding the offense of their corners (Chipper Jones hit .313 with a .547 slugging percentage). Lack of production from the middle infielders, however, may have cost the Braves in their '98 NLCS loss to the San Diego Padres.
At second base, the irregular rotation between Keith Lockhart and Tony Graffanino combined to bat .237 and record 105 strikeouts. Meanwhile, shortstop Walt Weiss battled through setbacks all season, including nagging injuries and one of his children's bout with E.coli.
Weiss returns to shortstop this season and Bret Boone arrives at second. The Braves shook up its venerable stable of starters to bring over Boone from Cincinnati, where he earned a Gold Glove last season while putting up 24 HRs and 95 RBIs, finishing second in each category among NL second basemen.
The other big acquisition by Atlanta this offseason was outfielder Brian Jordan, who hit .316 with 25 homers, 91 RBIs and 17 stolen bases for the St. Louis Cardinals last season. Much like Boone, Jordan will be asked to bring pop to a position that offered only occasional bursts of power in another unspectacular rotation, this one between Michael Tucker and Gerald Williams.
It's near folly to gauge the Braves' fortunes without mentioning their center of potential, Andruw Jones. Just a puppy at 21, Andruw Jones is the future of the franchise. His speed (27 stolen bases in '98), arm (20 assists, Gold Glove in '98) and bat (31 HRs, 90 RBIs in '98) are the stuff of stardom. If he can avoid last season's slow start when he tinkered with the leadoff spot, and should returnee Otis Nixon live up to his nonchalance in taking over left field and thrive at leadoff, a healthy pitching staff would carry the Braves toward a strong run at another division title.
Assuming the tremendous trio of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux stays free of injury and uncharacteristic pitching, the Braves will still need a reliable closer. Kerry Ligtenberg emerged from the Prairie League last season to convert 30 of 34 save opportunities after fireballer Mark Wohlers struggled to throw a strike. Wohlers went on to record a 20.43 ERA during a stint in Class AAA Richmond. After last season's All-Star break, Ligtenberg recorded 21 of his 30 saves with a 1.13 ERA and 0.72 pitching ratio. Should Ligtenberg start where he left off, barring his postseason performance, the Braves may not need Wohlers' speedy return.
The final piece to Atlanta's pitching puzzle this season will be No. 5 starter Bruce Chen, who went 2-0 in four starts as a September call-up last season. Chen is a left-hander with control and a fastball that teases the 90s. Should Chen find comfort in the No. 5 spot and in the wise words of his seasoned teammates, and should Kevin Millwood repeat last season's performance (17-8, 4.08 ERA, 163 Ks) having moved from fifth to fourth starter, the Braves' pitching can only worry the remainder of the division.
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