A Brave new world

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. – It's late morning Thursday, and John Smoltz is adjusting the L-screen in front of the mound at The Ballpark, primping for batting practice.

This is one of the few times of the year he'll throw pitches he expects to get hit a long way, which was just what he'd fed Chipper Jones a couple days before. So, as the sun beats hard on his neck, he's hearing about it from Jones, who is scheduled to hit long after Smoltz is through.

"You're lucky, Smoltz!" Jones shouts from the dugout shade. "Very, very lucky! Wind's blowing out!"

Smoltz shakes his head and points to the batters' box. "Bring it on!" he finally musters, but Jones only laughs harder.

Fifteen minutes later, Smoltz is drenched in sweat, his day done. Jones, conveniently, has moved to the other end of the dugout.

"I was really looking forward to facing him again," Smoltz says on his way to packing his shoulder in ice, his voice rising so Jones wouldn't miss it, "but he chickened out."

An hour later, the ice is gone and Smoltz's T-shirt is soaked.

He looks around a quiet clubhouse, to the plaques above the lockers. So many of the Atlanta Braves from those winning seasons are gone, replaced by FRANCOEUR, McCANN, LANGERHANS, JOHNSON, THORMAN, RENTERIA, JAMES and the clothing that hangs beneath them.

"Names don't mean anything to me anymore," Smoltz says. "Production does."

These are interesting days for the Braves, and this is an interesting camp, as the organization attempts to remake itself in the image of the rotation-rich teams that, until October, won so often for 15 years. They lost 83 games last season and were basically done by July, having been overrun by the New York Mets, and in the offseason rebuilt their bullpen (costing a decent chunk of their offense) and rehabbed Mike Hampton.

They've still got Smoltz, who went end-to-end on the 14 consecutive division titles, and Chipper Jones, who played through most of them, and Andruw Jones, who jumped in with two home runs off Andy Pettitte in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. But, even the most optimistic Braves establish Andruw (who's Alfonso Soriano without the stolen bases, but with a glove) as a near certainty to leave after the season, and Smoltz, nearing 40, has free agency coming, too, if he wants it.

"Every year is exciting," Andruw says. "I'm looking forward to this year. But, I'm not going to say it's not a big year for me. It's a big year."

Soriano, disguised as a center fielder, just got $136 million over eight years. If Jones doesn't know, then his agent, Scott Boras, has certainly told him: He is younger than Soriano, and his game is broader than Soriano's.

"I really want to be fair and square," Jones says. "I'm not a greedy guy."

He does grant, however, "Now the market is different."

So, in a camp where Smoltz and Chipper Jones are still feisty and productive, and the division streak is dead, and the right side of the infield is overhauled, the finest line has been drawn between uncertainty and optimism.

If Hampton is recovered from Tommy John surgery and can win 17-20 games again, then the Braves could stay with the Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.

If Kelly Johnson can come back from Tommy John surgery and can transition from the outfield to second base and can be an effective leadoff hitter, then the Braves could surprise people.

If Scott Thorman can replace even a little of Adam LaRoche's 32 home runs and 90 RBI, then maybe Johnson has time to settle into his elbow and his position and his place in the order.

They've got a bullpen (assuming Rafael Soriano can ever get out of the Dominican Republic), and they've got the ageless Smoltz and Jones, and they've got, for another season, the dynamic other Jones, along with the developing players of the past couple years: Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Chuck James.

What they don't have, anymore, is momentum.

"I like – and I know people don't put stock in this – but I like this group of guys," Smoltz says. "I like the attitude. And, basically, I like their character. There's something that makes me feel good about the effort we're going to get.

"There's been a lot of pressure on a few guys who constantly have to deliver. That's a tough gig when Andruw and Chipper always have to carry the load, when certain pitchers have to carry the load. We're getting closer to relieving that."

Closer, he said.

He smiles.

"That doesn't mean we can't win."

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