The big news for the Atlanta Braves this spring is pitching depth, both for potential starting spots and in the bullpen. No one is worried about how the over-40 set -- John Smoltz and prodigal son Tom Glavine -- will hold up. That's because their teammates, manager Bobby Cox and general manager Frank Wren know those two know how to prepare and maintain themselves. Not to mention that their stubbornness on the mound is legendary. Tim Hudson, free from injury this offseason, was able to work out the way he used to. But unlike this time a year ago, no one is counting on Mike Hampton to save the day. No one knows what he will be able to do for the team coming off two seasons lost to injury. Any contribution at all, then, will be welcome, no matter what month it occurs.

A number of young pitchers and reclamation projects could fill spots in the rotation or in the bullpen. Cox is eager to try many of them in different spots, either in camp or during the season.

The team's young cornerstones, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann, have worked themselves hard in the offseason -- Francoeur broadening and strengthening his upper body; McCann trimming and toning his. They are eager to go. But what everyone is most excited about is having Mark Teixeira hitting cleanup behind Chipper Jones for an entire season. Yes, keeping Teixeira beyond this season will be the question hanging over the team until further notice, but the Braves expect to make hay while he's here. The Braves lost key elements in the infield, with the departure of shortstop Edgar Renteria and outfielder Andruw Jones. Mark Kotsay could be the answer for the Braves in the outfield and if he is half as good in center field as the 10-time Gold Glover was, the Braves defensively will be in good shape and could reclaim the NL East.

The bench components will be fluid all spring -- and possibly beyond -- but at least this season it will be because there are multiple choices, not because there are none.

Where, When:    Champion Stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. First exhibition game against a major league opponent is Feb. 28 against the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla.

Top Candidate To Surprise:    C Javy Lopez is back and he looks great, thanks to a dedicated offseason workout program with bench coach Chino Cadahia. Cadahia undertook that project as a favor to bullpen catcher Eddie Perez, Lopez's former teammate, and only because Lopez is determined to concentrate on defense.

Top Candidate To Disappoint:    It can't help but be LHP Mike Hampton, unless he wins 20 games. That is not reasonable to expect, coming off two years of injuries, surgeries and rehab. A strained right hamstring aborted his winter ball campaign, and while he is said (through pitching coach Roger McDowell) to be recovered from that, that still puts him behind. Hampton has to stay healthy if the Braves rotation has any chance.

Authority Figures:    Manager Bobby Cox (career record 2,176-1,681; Atlanta record 1,900-1,471) is entering his 27th season as a major league manager, his 19th consecutive season with the Braves. Cox also managed the Braves from 1978-81 and the Toronto Blue Jays from 1983-85.

Since musing out loud last year about possibly retiring following this season, Cox has seemed to enjoy baseball even more, if that is possible. He has certainly been chipper leading up to spring training, with the exception of an autograph signing session in the rain and chill at a minor league ballpark. His entire staff returns this season: bench coach Chino Cadahila, pitching coach Roger McDowell, hitting coach Terry Pendleton, first base coach Glenn Hubbard, third base coach Brian Snitker and bullpen coach Eddie Perez.

Projected Rotation:   

1. RHP John Smoltz

2. RHP Tim Hudson

3. LHP Tom Glavine

4. LHP Mike Hampton

5. RHP Jeff Bennett or LHP Chuck James

Projected Bullpen:   

RHP Rafael Soriano (closer)

RHP Peter Moylan

LHP Will Ohman

RHP Tyler Yates

RHP Manny Acosta

RHP Chris Resop

LHP Royce Ring

Projected Lineup:   

1. SS Yunel Escobar

2. CF Mark Kotsay

3. 3B Chipper Jones

4. 1B Mark Teixeira

5. RF Jeff Francoeur

6. C Brian McCann

7. LF Matt Diaz

8. 2B Kelly Johnson

Projected Reserves:   

OF Brandon Jones

OF Josh Anderson

INF Omar Infante

INF Scott Thorman or INF Martin Prado

C Javy Lopez or C Clint Sammons  (my money's on Lopez - more experience handling a MLB pitching staff)

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