Braves have new questions to answer in '07

ATLANTA - For the first time in 15 years, the Atlanta Braves face a different overriding question this spring.

It's no longer whether the Braves, who open spring training this weekend in Florida, can repeat as division champions. Now the question is whether Atlanta can get back on top in the National League East.

General manager John Schuerholz spent the offseason addressing the team's major 2006 weakness - the bullpen. That came with a price, though, as the Braves had to keep to a payroll of about $80 million.

Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox think the Braves now have the pitching to bounce back. John Smoltz and Chipper Jones, the remaining mainstays of the title run that reached 14 seasons, also are encouraged.

No one, though, is making a bold prediction. If the Braves are to catch the New York Mets and beat out the improved Philadelphia Phillies, a lot of things have to go right.

"Since the streak is no longer a topic, a lot of people will undervalue this team," Smoltz said after a recent workout at Turner Field. "But we're not back to square one. I feel much better about the pitching staff."

"There is no telling how many ballgames we would have won last year with this year's bullpen," added Jones. "I feel excited about the season. We're a much better-rounded ball club."

Can the team make up for the loss of players like Adam LaRoche and Marcus Giles, though?

"To get something, you have to lose something," Jones said. "We've lost some offense, but I think we'll score enough runs."

"Every year you go in with question marks," Smoltz said. "That's what spring training is for."

Here are the Braves, top five questions for 2007:

1. Who will play second base and lead off?

Instead of going out and getting someone to replace Giles, the Braves decided to try to fill the opening from within. That means that Kelly Johnson, who missed all of last season because of elbow surgery, will get the first crack. Johnson, though, is just learning second base and doesn't have the speed of most leadoff men. He is, however, a good contact hitter and that is an area where Giles struggled last season trying to adjust to the leadoff spot.

2. Is Scott Thorman ready to be a regular at first base?

The left-handed hitting Canadian batted just .234 in limited at-bats as a rookie, but he put up good power numbers in the minors. He won't, however, match the 30 homers and 90 RBIs supplied last season by LaRoche, who was traded to Pittsburgh for reliever Mike Gonzalez. To take some of the burden off Thorman, the Braves signed veteran right-hander hitter Craig Wilson.

3. Is Mike Hampton healthy and ready to have a big season?

Hampton, who missed all of 2006 after elbow surgery, says he isn't 100 percent yet but will be by the end of spring training. If Smoltz can keep pitching well despite turning 40 and Tim Hudson bounces back from a mediocre season, the Braves have two pieces of a top rotation. But they also need 15 wins or so from Hampton if they are to challenge the Mets. The other two starters are likely to be youngsters Chuck James and Kyle Davies.

4. Just how good is the rebuilt bullpen?

Bob Wickman cured the Braves' closer ills during the final two months of last season, but Schuerholz knew that he wasn't the complete answer to fixing the bullpen. That's why the GM acquired left-hander Gonzalez from the Pirates and hard-throwing right-hander Rafael Soriano from Seattle. The pair will start out as set-up men, but each has the ability to step in for Wickman. Gonzalez was 24-for-24 in save opportunities last year with Pittsburgh.

5. Will Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur be able to protect Chipper and Andruw Jones in the middle of the order?

With LaRoche gone, McCann will need to have another banner season and Francoeur must step up his production from his sophomore year. So that he can alternate left- and right-handed hitters, Cox is likely to bat McCann fifth and Francoeur sixth behind Chipper and Andruw, who will have plenty of pressure on them even if the hitters following are producing.

Chipper has battled injuries the last three seasons and Andruw is in the final year of his contract. With a big payday looming, this could be the center fielder's last season in Atlanta.