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1 Atlanta Braves
Bill Syken
April 03, 2006
Young arms will decide whether a 15-peat (!) becomes a reality
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April 03, 2006

1 Atlanta Braves

Young arms will decide whether a 15-peat (!) becomes a reality

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RH John Smoltz 23 14 7 169 1.15 3.06
RH Tim Hudson 38 14 9 115 1.35 3.52
LH Horacio Ramirez 142 11 9 80 1.39 4.63
RH Jorge Sosa 82 13 3 85 1.39 2.55
RH Kyle Davies 117 7 6 62 1.68 4.93

The Braves won their 14th consecutive division title last year, and they had rookies like catcher Brian McCann, third baseman Wilson Betemit and outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Ryan Langerhans to thank. "They saved our bacon," says John Schuerholz, Atlanta's general manager since 1990. "We would have finished third or fourth were it not for their contributions and the remarkable year that Andruw Jones had."

What's it going to take to keep the streak going in 2006? "It's really just one thing: for us to settle on a closer," says Schuerholz. "Once we get that decided, the rest of our club will be in good shape."

In 2005 the bullpen was a glaring weakness. Atlanta relievers blew 24 saves, fourth most in the majors. Making matters worse this season, the club's most effective closer, Kyle Farnsworth, bolted for the Yankees as a free agent in December. So a year after they were bailed out by their rookies, the Braves will once more rely on unproven quantities in a key role, because none of the pitchers who might get the ball in the late innings has ever been a top-of-the-line closer.

The best bet for the job is righthander Chris Reitsma, the only Atlanta reliever from the 2005 Opening Day roster who's still with the club. He took over after Dan Kolb flamed out early (in over one seven-game stretch in April, Kolb's ERA was 10.50), and Reitsma performed ably for a while. But after converting nine straight save tries in July and early August, Reitsma hyperextended his knee, blew his next three opportunities and was relegated to middle relief. The Canada native spent the winter at his ranch in Calgary, doing weight work to strengthen his injured leg, and he has declared himself ready. "We feel the kind of success he had in July is the kind of success he'll have this year," says Roger McDowell, who replaces longtime Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

Should Reitsma stumble, other candidates include 24-year-old righty Oscar Villarreal, obtained from the Diamondbacks with setup man Lance Cormier in exchange for catcher Johnny Estrada. Villarreal had a 2.57 ERA as a setup man with Arizona in 2003, but he burned out his arm while making an NL-rookie-record 86 appearances that year and over the last two seasons elbow and rotator-cuff injuries limited him to 28 appearances for Arizona. Still, Schuerholz says he saw signs last year that Villarreal's arm "was beginning to rejuvenate," and Villarreal has looked strong this spring.

The most intriguing possibility is 22-year-old righthander Joey Devine, the former N.C. State closer whom the Braves selected in the first round in last June's draft. He was promoted to the big club in August--the quickest call-up for any Brave since Bob Horner in 1978. It was an inauspicious debut, however, as Devine became the first major league pitcher to give up grand slams in his first two appearances. To cap his first year, Devine served up the 18th-inning home run ball to Houston's Chris Burke that brought yet another Braves postseason to an unhappy end. Though Devine's beginning was as rocky as a reliever could have, Schuerholz says, "I'm not at all concerned. He's a tough young man."

Devine sees last season's experiences as opportunities to learn. "Adversity is everywhere," he says, "not just in baseball but in life. The better you handle it, the better off you will be." This spring he has had long conversations with such veterans as Chipper Jones and John Smoltz, seeking knowledge from the grandmasters in the chess game between pitchers and batters.

Devine, Villarreal and Reitsma will most likely be joined in the bullpen by righthander Blaine Boyer, 24, who's recovering from shoulder inflammation but should be ready for Opening Day. Anthony Lerew, 23, a strong-armed righty who was recruited by Penn State as a quarterback, awaits in Triple A. If young bats are what kept the Braves' division-winning streak alive last year, this season the burden rests on these young arms and their ability to stabilize the bullpen.

Chipper Jones needs 41 homers to break the Braves' record for dingers (Dale Murphy, 371) since their move to Atlanta in 1966. With five, Jones will pass Hank Aaron for second place.

a modest proposal

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