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Braves won’t let shaky bullpen hold them back in 2007

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ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves used to flop in the playoffs because of a shaky bullpen. Last season, a ghastly group of relievers was a big reason the team didn’t even make it to the postseason after 14 straight division titles.
    Stung by the end of their record streak, the Braves made an improved bullpen their No. 1 priority during this offseason.
    Mission accomplished, though their latest move came with a hefty price.
    The Braves spent Thursday working out the fine print on a long-expected deal with Pittsburgh, giving up first baseman Adam LaRoche — one of baseball’s rising young sluggers — in exchange for Pirates closer Mike Gonzales. The teams also swapped a couple of minors leaguers in the trade.
    Now, with the start of spring training less than a month away, Atlanta appears to have one of baseball’s strongest group of relievers — a striking change for a team that went into last season hoping to get by with unproven youngsters and obscure castoffs.
    Bob Wickman is set for a full season as the Braves’ closer, while Gonzalez and winter meetings acquisition Rafael Soriano should be a devastating 1-2 punch in the setup roles.
    Braves general manager John Schuerholz isn’t commenting on the latest acquisition until the deal is finalized, which won’t happen until everyone passes a physical. An official announcement was expected Friday or Saturday.
    Assuming everything goes through, the Braves should be able to lock down games in the late innings, a major weakness in 2006. With 21 relievers getting a chance, Atlanta’s bullpen was 25-23 with a 4.39 ERA and squandered an NL-worst 29 save chances.
    Those numbers would have been even grimmer without Wickman, who was acquired from Cleveland before the trade deadline and converted 18 of 19 save opportunities with a 1.04 ERA.
    The 37-year-old right-hander re-signed with the Braves for another year rather than test free agency, solving the first piece of the puzzle. Last month, Schuerholz sent injury-plagued starter Horacio Ramirez to Seattle for Soriano, a hard-throwing right-hander who had a 2.25 ERA, allowed opponents to hit just .204, and posted 65 strikeouts in 60 innings.
    During the winter meetings, the Braves also talked extensively with the Pirates about a deal for Gonzalez. Pittsburgh was desperate to add a big bat to its woeful offense, while the Braves relished the idea of adding a dominating lefty to their bullpen. It took another month, but the deal was finally completed Wednesday.
    Gonzalez had a 2.17 ERA and was perfect for the Pirates in 24 save chances. He’s a bit wild, walking 31 in 54 innings, but allowed just 42 hits and struck out 64.
    The only questions surrounding the Braves’ new relievers: Are they healthy?
    Soriano missed the final month of the season with a concussion after being struck in the head by a line drive. Gonzalez shut it down before September because of tendinitis, though he’s been throwing well during the offseason and the Braves are convinced that he’ll be just fine.
    To bolster their bullpen depth, the Braves also signed right-hander Tanyon Sturtze, who is recovering from shoulder surgery but expects to be ready in May. Then there’s Blaine Boyer, back throwing after a shoulder injury cost him nearly all of last season, and promising left-hander Macay McBride (71 games, 4-1, 3.65 ERA).
    Journeymen such as Chad Paronto and Tyler Yates, who played prominent roles last season, will likely find themselves fighting for fringe spots on manager Bobby Cox’s 12-man staff.
    The Braves had no trouble putting up offense last season, ranking second in the league in both average (.270) and runs scored (5.2 per game). Emboldened by those numbers, Schuerholz felt he could give up LaRoche, who had 32 homers and 90 RBIs in a breakout season.
    But there will be a couple of major holes to fill in the batting order. In addition to trading LaRoche, the Braves gave up second baseman Marcus Giles (.262, 11 homers, 60 RBIs) for nothing, a budget casualty on a team that is determined to keep its payroll at around $80 million in 2007.
    Much of the attention during spring training will be on 6-foot-3, 235-pound Scott Thorman, who’s projected to take over for LaRoche.
    The Canadian native won’t be as good in the field and he’ll certainly he hard-pressed to match his predecessor’s hitting numbers. Still, the Braves are hopeful that Thorman could hit close to 20 homers with regular playing time; he had 20 last year while splitting time between Atlanta and Triple-A Richmond, 21 the year before with two minor-league teams.
    If Gonzalez is healthy and Thorman shows he can handle first, the Braves should be in much better position to contend for a division title than they were a year ago.
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