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THE BRAVES' new slugger stepped to the plate in the first batting practice of spring training, when players typically do little more than swat lazy fly balls as they work off the rust. He began as most do, with a few bunts. Next he peppered the field with some line drives. Then the show started: He sent ball after ball soaring out of the park. One landed 30 feet beyond the leftfield wall. Another slammed halfway up the scoreboard in center. "The ball even sounded different off the bat," recalls third baseman Chipper Jones. "Guys were shaking their heads, wondering, Is that really Frenchy?"
The new slugger was actually a familiar face, fourth-year rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, though his body wasn't so recognizable. After raising his average from .260 in 2006 to .293 last season, nearly doubling his walk total (from 23 to 42) and driving in 100 runs for the second straight year, Francoeur was still bothered by one stat: his 19 home runs, a drop from the 29 he smacked in '06. So in the off-season Francoeur trained alongside college football players who were getting in shape for the NFL combine, and he added 17 pounds of muscle.
"I gave up on being a guy who steals 30 bases, but there's no reason I can't hit 35 home runs," says Francoeur, 24, who was swinging a bigger stick (a 34-inch 34-ouncer) in exhibition games. "I feel a lot stronger, and I feel the ball jumping off my bat differently."
Since the beginning of last season Atlanta has been largely overshadowed in the NL East by the yapping Mets and Phillies, but a big year from Francoeur and a full season from first baseman Mark Teixeira, acquired at last year's trade deadline from the Rangers, will give the Braves one of the league's three most explosive offenses—even without centerfielder Andruw Jones, who signed a free-agent deal with the Dodgers.
"People always talk about the Phillies' and the Mets' lineups," says an NL general manager, "but I'll take the Braves' middle of the order of Chipper, Teixeira and Francoeur."
Unlike last year, the Braves have the depth in the rotation to take advantage of that offensive firepower and close the gap in the division. Many dismissed the signing of former Cy Young winner Tom Glavine as a lame attempt to reclaim their golden years, but the 42-year-old lefthander, whose final year with the Mets was tainted by three bad September starts that contributed to New York's historic collapse, was for most of last season exactly what the Braves needed: a steady No. 3 starter. The two guys behind him weren't in the 2007 rotation either: Mike Hampton, 35, who hasn't pitched since August '05 (left elbow), and rookie Jair Jurrjens, 22, who was acquired in a trade with the Tigers. During a critical stretch in August and September, when Atlanta lost 13 of 19 after inching to within three games of first place, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson had all but three of the Braves' wins.
Smoltz, 40, held his own at the front of the rotation, with the second-most quality starts in the league (26) and his best strikeout rate (8.6 per nine innings) as a starter since 1998. But like Francoeur, he wasn't satisfied. Smoltz spent the opening month of camp throwing on back diamonds in simulated games, focusing on locating his off-speed pitches. Not until the second week of March did he pitch in a Grapefruit League game. "Last year the results were great, but I was holding my breath a lot of the time," he says.
On March 3 Smoltz took Glavine and Francoeur to the Orlando community of Isleworth for a round of golf with his friend Tiger Woods. The foursome didn't keep score, but Francoeur was so intent on seeing how his new home run stroke translated to the tee box that, according to Smoltz, "he very foolishly tried to outdrive Tiger Woods."
Says Francoeur, "Just for the first few holes. Then I realized I sucked. But, hey, I was fired up."
His team has reason to be fired up as well.