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It may seem strange that a man who goes by the name Chipper and still calls his father for advice on his swing could be considered an elder statesman, but that's exactly what Larry Wayne Jones, who turns 39 in April, has become. Over 16 mostly excellent seasons with the Braves, Jones has morphed from a smooth-faced rookie whose socks went almost to his knees to a stubbled veteran whose knees are an almost constant source of pain. Along the way he has become intimately familiar with what the NL East once was and what it is again: a pitching-dominated division that features an overwhelming favorite with a stellar rotation and a Braves team that's a strong contender to play in October.
What makes this season different is that those truths speak to two teams, not just Atlanta. "I've heard other comparisons to our staffs of the '90s over the years," Jones said when asked how the Phillies' Phab Phour starters of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels (page 66) stack up against the Braves units fronted by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. "This is the first one that's deserving of that."
But the formidable Philadelphia staff isn't the only thing that reminds Jones of days gone by. "The last four or five years we came to camp hoping to win," he says of his own club. "Now we come expecting to win. That's exactly how we used to be."
Since Dec. 15, the day Lee signed, the central question in the NL East has been, Can anyone beat the Phillies? There is reason for Jones to be optimistic, and not only because the Braves very nearly beat them last year. (Atlanta held a seven-game division lead as late as July 22 before injuries and a Philadelphia rotation fortified by the addition of Oswalt forced the Braves to settle for the wild card.) Slugging second baseman Dan Uggla, who has hit at least 27 home runs in each of his five major league seasons, was acquired from the Marlins to provide some much-needed righthanded pop. Uggla and a healthy Jones, who missed the last six weeks of 2010 with a torn left ACL, will make an offense that was fifth in the NL in scoring (4.6 runs per game) even more dangerous. The lineup will also benefit from the addition of Freddie Freeman, the 21-year-old first base prospect whose arrival was almost as anticipated as that of rightfielder Jason Heyward last year. Says manager Fredi Gonzalez, who takes over for the retired Bobby Cox, "There's nothing broke here."
Two days after losing to the Giants in the Division Series last October, the Braves hired Gonzalez to replace their managerial icon, who had led Atlanta since 1990 and guided them to 15 postseason appearances. Gonzalez had a 276--279 record in 31/2 seasons as the Marlins' manager from 2007 to '10, but dugout track record wasn't the main criteria G.M. Frank Wren used to judge candidates. Gonzalez, who was a Braves coach under Cox from '03 to '06, is familiar with the organization's culture and player-development philosophy and likely to create a smooth transition out of the Cox era. (Jones began urging Wren to hire Gonzalez as soon as the Marlins fired him last June.) "We feel like we've hired the next great manager," says Wren.
The Braves' effort to reclaim the NL East crown starts with the rotation. "We feel like our top four can match up with anybody," says Wren. "Anybody. Including... ."
He didn't finish that thought, but there is no doubt which club he meant. In Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens the Braves do indeed have a staff capable of striking fear into the hearts of opposing hitters. Last year Braves starters finished sixth in the majors in ERA, and that was with Jurrjens making just 20 starts due to hamstring and knee injuries. It was also Hanson's first full season in the majors and Hudson's first full season after Tommy John surgery.
Gonzalez's former club boasts a strong stable of starters as well. Young, deep and underrated, the Fish's rotation has not escaped the notice of opponents. "It was the kind of staff you'd sit around the clubhouse talking about with your teammates and say, Those guys are really good," says catcher John Buck, who says he chose the Marlins in free agency over other suitors largely based on the pitchers. "I worked with a young staff in Toronto and the ceiling is higher with these guys."
Josh Johnson, 27, who led the NL in ERA (2.30), is the unquestioned ace, but he is complemented by impressive youngsters Chris Volstad, 24, Anibal Sanchez, 27, and Ricky Nolasco, 28. "Sanchez has cartoon movement, Volstad's slider spreads the plate and Nolasco can paint the corners," Buck says.
There is young talent in the lineup too—especially 21-year-old rightfielder Mike Stanton, who hit 22 homers in 100 games as a rookie in 2010—but the Marlins may have to wait until revenue from their new ballpark (scheduled opening: '12) rolls in before they're ready to make a splash in the East.