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2. ATLANTA BRAVES

Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H13

Welcome to baseball's version of Groundhog Day. Every year, it seems, people figure the Braves' run of division titles -- it's at 13 now, but who's counting -- will end. But will it?

"The Braves are the team that everybody has to go through in this division," Washington Manager Frank Robinson said. "I don't care what the rest of us do."


"This is what I want to do," says Atlanta's John Smoltz, who is moving back into the starting rotation after saving 144 games over the past three seasons. (Todd Anderson -- AP)

_____ Breakdown _____
 baseball
Lineup
SS Rafael Furcal
2B Marcus Giles
3B Chipper Jones
CF Andruw Jones
1B Adam LaRoche
RF Raul Mondesi
C Johnny Estrada
LF Brian Jordan
Rotation
RHP John Smoltz
RHP Tim Hudson
LHP Mike Hampton
RHP John Thomson
LHP Horacio Ramirez
Closer
RHP Danny Kolb

Best move: Maddux? Glavine? The Braves just move on. Hudson is 92-39 in his six-year career and is poised to continue on the Braves' pitching tradition.
Biggest loss: OF J.D. Drew had his breakout year with the Braves (.305, 31 HR, 93 RBI), but signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Top rival: Florida Marlins.

___ Team Capsules ___
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
NL East
NL Central
NL West
1. Cubs
4. Mets
4. Reds
   
 
AL East
AL Central
AL West
 


But there is a sense that the Braves won the division with smoke and mirrors last year, and can't do it again.

"Everyone knew we weren't the best team," right-hander John Smoltz said.

Now, in an effort to continue the streak, some serious tinkering. Smoltz saved 144 games over the last three years. So what did Braves General Manager John Schuerholz -- perhaps the craftiest front-office man in any pro sport -- do? He traded for Milwaukee closer Danny Kolb, who saved 39 games a year ago. That moved Smoltz back into the rotation, where he was stellar this spring. Once Schuerholz pulled off a trade for Oakland's Tim Hudson, the Braves had effectively landed two new starters.

"This is what I want to do," Smoltz said of his starting role.

The most significant potential pitfall, however, is the corner outfield spots. Can Brian Jordan, 38, and Raul Mondesi, 34, provide the necessary pop? They combined for nine homers last year. Chipper Jones hit only .248 in 2004. Could the road end?


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