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Braves not into predictions, just wins

ATLANTA - Carlos Beltran started spring training by proclaiming that the New York Mets would win the National League East this season. Then Jimmy Rollins did a repeat from last year, claiming that the Phillies would once again finish first.

What about the Atlanta Braves, who ruled their division for a record 14 consecutive seasons until falling short the past two seasons?

"It isn't the Braves' style to make predictions," right fielder Jeff Francoeur said.

That doesn't mean, however, that the Braves don't think that they are every bit as good as the Phillies and Mets if they can avoid the injuries of the past two seasons.

"It will be a dogfight," Francoeur said. "But I think we can come out on top if things go right."

"I really like this club," Braves manager Bobby Cox said on the eve of tonight's season opener at Washington. "We're healthy, knock on wood. Hopefully we can stay that way."

The Braves have question marks, but so do the Phillies and Mets, who have already been hit by a rash of injuries.

"We've had nothing but bad luck the last two years," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said. "It's time for things to even out."

New general manager Frank Wren wasn't going to trust a return to good fortune, however.

He had a very active winter, concentrating on upgrading the pitching depth.

Tom Glavine, who won his 300th game last season with the Mets, is back after five years in New York. The veteran is joined in the starting rotation by young Jair Jurrjens, the prime return in the trade of shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit, and Mike Hampton, finally healthy after missing the past two seasons.

"We have depth in our pitching again," Cox said. "We didn't have that last year."

"In 2006 it was the bullpen. Last year it was the backend of the rotation," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "This season we're covered. Our pitching looks much better and I know that we'll score runs."

Of course, the Braves lineup needs Jones to be in there almost every day. He hasn't played in more than 137 games since 2003.

"My magic number is 150," Jones said. "If I can do that, I really feel good about this season."

Jones and Mark Teixeira, who was acquired at the trade deadline last year, give the Braves potent switch-hitters in the middle of the lineup, followed by Francoeur, Brian McCann and Matt Diaz.

The key is the top of the order, with Kelly Johnson leading off and Yunel Escobar batting second. Renteria, who hit .333 last season, will be missed for his steadiness, but Cox calls Escobar a "future all-star."

Braves players agree. "He's a rare talent," Jones said. "The sky is the limit for him."

Cox admits that the Braves won't be able to replace Andruw Jones' defense in center field, but the team appears to have come reasonably close with the acquisition of veteran Mark Kotsay from Oakland.

If Kotsay's back acts up, they also have young talent available to fill in.

"I think this is the best lineup I've been a part of," Francoeur said

But if the Braves are to edge out the Phillies and Mets, pitching will be the key. That is what the team built its success on in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Hudson and John Smoltz head the rotation and this year they have help behind them. Rafael Soriano takes over as the full-time closer in what should be a deep bullpen, especially when Mike Gonzalez (elbow surgery last year) returns at midseason.

"I feel a lot better about this team than I did the last two years," Smoltz said. "I don't see any reason we can't compete and get back to the playoffs."

Smoltz turns 41 in May and will miss his first start because of an abbreviated spring. But he and Glavine, 42, offer a reminder of the Braves' past success while showing that they are determined not to end their careers without a return to the top.

"I want to help the Braves get back to the playoffs and hopefully win another World Series," Glavine said. "That's my goal now.

"Francoeur and McCann keep reminding me how much they used to like seeing me and Smoltzie pitch when they were kids. Well, I'd like to jump around on the mound again and celebrate a championship like when we won the World Series in 1995."

SideBar: Fearless Forecast

Staff correspondent Guy Curtright makes his predictions:

National League

· East: Atlanta Braves

· Central: Cincinnati Reds

· West: Los Angeles Dodgers

· Wild-card: New York Mets

American League

· East: New York Yankees

· Central: Detroit Tigers

· West: Seattle Mariners

· Wild-card: Boston Red Sox

Postseason

· NLCS: Braves over Mets

· ALCS: Yankees over Tigers

· World Series: Yankees over Braves