Braves optimistic about pitching staff

ATLANTA - They lost the top starter and both closers from their 2009 pitching staff, yet many in the Braves organization insist the 2010 staff can be as good or better.

They say that while keeping straight faces. And in Tim Hudson's case, he says it with an edge that emphasizes how eager he is to silence skeptics.

Javier Vazquez, Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano are gone, but optimism abounds as Hudson and other Braves pitchers and catchers get ready to report to spring training Friday at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

"The starting rotation is solid, and the bullpen should be very good," said manager Bobby Cox, 68, who plans to retire after this season, his 29th as a big-league manager and 25th with the Braves.

Cox said he has not done any second-guessing - about his retirement or about the offseason changes to a pitching staff that led the majors in starters' ERA (3.52) and was third overall (3.57).

"We have a lot of options to choose from, a lot of depth in our pitching department," he said. "Especially in the bullpen."

The Braves lost Gonzalez (2.42 ERA in 80 appearances) to free agency and traded Soriano (2.97 ERA in 77 appearances) after he accepted their arbitration offer. Those two accounted for 37 saves and 192 strikeouts in 150 innings.

That duo also totaled 11 blown saves and 60 walks. There were wild streaks from Gonzalez, and a few too many nights when a sore Soriano said he couldn't pitch.

The Braves replaced them by signing a couple of aging fireballers: closer Billy Wagner, who needs 15 saves to reach 400, and 40-year-old Takashi Saito, who has a 2.05 ERA with 297 strikeouts in 245 innings over four seasons.

Wagner is a potential Hall of Famer, but the left-hander is 38 and missed most of the 2009 season recovering from elbow surgery. Saito had 81 saves in three seasons with the Dodgers before moving to a setup role with Boston last season.

"We feel like we've improved with Wagner and Saito as an upgrade over the two guys we had," general manager Frank Wren said. "Because of their experience and being established in those roles and just the nature of their stuff, the consistency of throwing strikes."

The Braves return sidearmer Peter Moylan, lefty Eric O'Flaherty and swing man Kris Medlen, and they traded for hard-throwing relievers Jesse Chavez from Tampa Bay and lefty Mike Dunn from the New York Yankees. They also signed veteran setup man Scott Proctor, who is recovering from elbow surgery and expected to be ready by May.

"We've got depth out the ying-yang," said Moylan, who had a 2.84 ERA in a franchise-record 87 appearances in his first season after elbow-ligament reconstruction. "I've met Wagner a couple of times, before and after our surgeries. He's a great guy on and off the field. It's going to be awesome."

Wren said, "We think overall our bullpen is better than it was a year ago, and our starting pitching is at least as good."

The Braves traded Vazquez after a career-best season (15-10, 2.87 ERA, 238 strikeouts) and fourth-place finish in the Cy Young Award vote.

They return four other starters - Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami - along with Hudson, who went 2-1 with a 3.61 ERA in seven late-season starts after returning from reconstructive elbow surgery.

Hudson's strong comeback and previous career performance convinced the Braves to give him a three-year, $28 million extension in November, after which they set out to trade Lowe or Vazquez to open a spot and free some payroll.

The Braves found they couldn't move Lowe (15-10, 4.67 ERA) without paying a big chunk of the $45 million he was owed. So they traded Vazquez.

"We felt all winter that getting Tim Hudson full time would make a big difference for our club," Wren said. "Along with having Tommy Hanson full time (Hanson was 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts after arriving from Class AAA), and Jair (14-10, 2.60 ERA) has obviously established himself."

Wren believes Lowe, 36, will be more consistent - as he was while posting a 3.59 ERA from 2005-08 with the Dodgers. He allowed 21 earned runs in nine innings of three starts in 2009, and was 15-7 with a 3.88 ERA in his other 31.

Braves officials were pleased with Kawakami's first season in the United States, when he was 7-10 with a 3.97 ERA in 25 starts before moving to the bullpen when Hudson returned from the disabled list.

Hudson is appreciative of the confidence the Braves showed in him, and he possibly is motivated by those who question the wisdom of signing him and trading Vazquez. Hudson, who will be 35 in July, has a 148-78 career record and 3.49 ERA.

"If you want to see how good somebody is, look at the back of their baseball card, what he did over a span of six or seven years. That'll give you a good idea of what you can expect year in and year out. There may be a year or two where it's worse, and may be a year or two where it's a lot better. But if you look at the consistency of a career, that's normally what you're going to get."