Improved 'pen bolsters Cox's spirits

Improved bullpen bolsters Cox's spirits

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Even though he never stepped on the baseball field at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, Braves manager Bobby Cox spent the past two days walking around the clubhouse wearing his uniform pants.

While a pair of shorts or loose-fitting pants might have provided more comfort, it is actually in these uniform pants that Cox feels most relaxed.

"I just love to put these on," Cox said as he prepared for his 48th consecutive professional baseball season.

With his 66th birthday approaching in May, Cox's passion for the game remains as great as it was when he signed his first professional contract with the Dodgers in 1959. It remained evident throughout last year's disappointing season, during which the Braves saw their amazing streak of 14 consecutive division titles snapped.

And it was on display Thursday, when Cox welcomed a new season. As his pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training, he found himself unable to contain an excitement that is certainly fueled by the offseason improvements the Braves have made to their bullpen.

"Last spring, looking at our bullpen was nothing like looking at it now," Cox said. "There's a world of difference out there."

When Spring Training began last year, Cox found it difficult to even declare Chris Reitsma to be his projected closer. Now with Bob Wickman, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, Cox has the luxury of having a roster that includes three potential closers.

"I think we're looking pretty good now," Braves right-handed reliever Chad Paronto said. "I think if everybody pitches like they can, we can easily compete with anybody."

These confident words weren't possible last year, when the Braves' bullpen blew 29 save opportunities and never found any sense of salvation until Wickman was acquired on July 20.

Wickman's dominance, combined with the progression of Paronto, Macay McBride, Oscar Villarreal and Tyler Yates, gave the Braves hope heading into the offseason.

But that hope was replaced with the overwhelming sense of confidence that has been provided by the offseason acquisitions of Soriano and Gonzalez. Slated to serve as Wickman's primary setup men, this duo could prove to be the key to the Braves return to the postseason.

"People ask you all the time, 'How are you going to be?" McBride said. "It's hard not to just go, 'We're going to be great.' You don't want to say something that's not going to be true. So you just say, 'We're going to be good,' and be humble about it."

During his previous four seasons in Pittsburgh, Gonzalez never had the opportunity to enter Spring Training feeling this confident about the chance to compete in the postseason.

But having grown up as a Braves fan, Gonzalez is quite aware of the organization's winning attitude. He gained a greater appreciation for it a couple of weeks ago when he had the opportunity to talk to veterans like Chipper Jones and John Smoltz in Atlanta.

"You're talking about the playoffs now," Gonzalez said. "You're not talking about being a .500 team. You're talking about getting there. It's a whole different mentality here and it feels like it's my first big-league Spring Training again. I'm excited and ready to get going."

After spending the two previous seasons with Kansas City and Tampa Bay, Matt Diaz joined the Braves last year and experienced something similar to what is currently presenting itself to Gonzalez.

As the Braves were slipping further and further out of the postseason picture last year, Diaz never got the sense that his teammates had given up. Unfortunately, he couldn't have said the same wthing hen talking about the days he spent with the Royals and Devil Rays.

"It was great last year to see that [losing] wasn't accepted," Diaz said. "The two years prior for me, when I was in Tampa and Kansas City, everybody had their offseason travel plans set at the All-Star break. Last year, even after we were mathematically eliminated, people were tip-toeing around saying, 'Do we send stuff home or how does this work?'

"It was awesome to see that [losing] isn't accepted here and to know that everybody was going to do everything in their power to make sure that we don't know when the season is going to end this year."

When pitchers and catchers hold their first workout on Friday, Diaz and Ryan Langerhans will be among the position players who will voluntarily take time to make their own preparations for the upcoming season.

Along with spending the upcoming weeks determining who will play left field, Cox will also be closely monitoring the battles to win the second-base job, the fifth spot in the starting rotation and the final two bullpen spots.

"Competition is going to help out the team in the long run," said Lance Cormier, who will be battling Kyle Davies to be the fifth starter. "I think we do have a lot of competition in this camp right now. I think that will help out the whole team and eventually put us back in the playoffs."

Ever since they were mathematically eliminated from the postseason last year, the Braves have been looking toward this upcoming season. And nothing short of a return to the postseason will provide them satisfaction.

While watching his good friend and former Minor League teammate Adam Wainwright close out the World Series for the Cardinals in October, McBride gained confidence that he, too, could succeed if pushed into such an enviable situation.

"The offseason was slow for me, because you can't wait for the season to start again," McBride said. "If you had gotten to the playoffs and did well, you probably would have wanted a longer offseason. But it took a while for this day to get here."

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