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Braves look to get on winning track

Braves look to get back on winning track in '07

If time hasn't healed the wounds created from last season's disappointments, then the Florida sun might prove to do the trick for the new-look Braves.

Still stinging from their first losing season since 1990, the Braves will head back to Disney's Wide World of Sports complex this week to begin their 2007 journey. Pitchers and catchers will report to the Spring Training headquarters on Thursday and then hold their first workout on Friday.

While many position players will make early arrivals, they aren't required to report to camp until Feb. 20. The following day, Braves manager Bobby Cox will hold his first-full squad workout with a group that has been bolstered by the additions of Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez and Craig Wilson.

Because they are looked at as the pieces that will prevent a repeat of last year's bullpen disasters, Gonzalez and Soriano have received most of this offseason's attention. But Wilson's powerful bat and versatility will also be key to the team's success.

Having seen their run of 14 consecutive division titles end in 2006, the Braves entered this offseason with a chip on their shoulder. Now with a much improved bullpen to support a starting rotation that is headed by John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton, they are confident that they can dethrone the Mets as National League East champs.

Hampton, who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery, will be the focus of a lot of attention during Spring Training. But so, too, will be Kelly Johnson and Scott Thorman, who are targeted as the men who will fill the voids created by the departures of second baseman Marcus Giles and first baseman Adam LaRoche.

While Johnson learns the second-base position and Thorman attempts to prove himself as a capable everyday first baseman, Chipper Jones will be preparing for a season that he hopes won't include yet another trip to the disabled list. Having not played in more than 110 games either of the past two years, the veteran third baseman knows the importance of keeping his potent bat in the lineup on a regular basis.

This year's Braves bunch also provides some familiarity. For the 10th straight year, Andruw Jones heads to Spring Training to prepare for his duties as the starting center fielder. Joining him once again in right field will be Jeff Francoeur, who is hoping to find further consistency in what will be his second full big-league season.

Francoeur and catcher Brian McCann, who is coming off a splendid All-Star season that was rewarded with a Silver Slugger Award, represent the bright future of the organization. Also falling into that category are Chuck James and Kyle Davies, who will likely fill out the final two spots in the starting rotation.

The Braves will open their exhibition season on Feb. 28 against Georgia Tech. Their Grapefruit League season will begin the following afternoon with a home game against the Dodgers.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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