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G-Braves expected to have strong pitching staff

Even if Tommy Hanson sticks with Atlanta, the Gwinnett Braves should have a a very solid pitching staff in their first Class AAA season.

n Jo-Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton and James Parr made a combined 42 starts for Atlanta last year after being rushed to the majors.

n Todd Redmond was pitcher of the year in the Class AA Southern League, where Kris Medlen, Stephen Marek and Luis Valdez were also outstanding as Mississippi won the championship.

n Atlanta signed four free agents to minor league contracts, assuring plenty of bullpen depth in the organization.

Of course, the prime prospect that everyone is talking about is Hanson, who has dazzled in major league spring training.

With him, Gwinnett could have the best pitching staff in the International League - if not all of minor league baseball.

"He's pretty special," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said of Hanson.

The 22-year-old right-hander struck out seven in a four-inning outing against World Series champion Philadelphia and is 1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in four Grapefruit League games. He also recorded a 99-mph pitch on the scoreboard at Champion Stadium.

Because Hanson has made only 18 starts above Class A, Atlanta would prefer that he start the season at Gwinnett to gain experience before a likely midseason promotion. But Hanson may force Atlanta's hand.

"He's close. Real close," Cox said.

Hanson's fastball has consistently reached the high 90s during spring games and his slider can be even more difficult to hit. He pitched a no-hitter at Mississippi after being moved up from Class A Myrtle Beach last year and dazzled again in the Arizona Fall League.

The Californian, listed as the game's No. 4 prospect by Baseball America, went 5-0 with a 0.63 ERA in Arizona and struck out 49 in 282/3 innings en route to being named MVP - a first for a pitcher.

"He's one of the best prospects I've seen come through here," Cox said. "He's got a chance to be an ace."

Atlanta outfield prospect Jordan Shafer, who played behind Hanson at Mississippi, has watched him mow down minor league hitters. "From center field, I get to see how his ball moves," Shafer said. "He definitely is the real deal."

The 6-foot-6 Hanson went to spring training determined to show that he was ready to get big league hitters out, too.

"It's their call where I start the season," he said. "But I want to make it a tough decision for them."

A lot of talented young pitchers will have to be content to start the season in Gwinnett, which won't be good news for opposing International League hitters.

Reyes and Morton - sidelined by a strained side muscle this spring - are likely headed back to AAA with Parr and it was pitching that carried Mississippi to the Southern League championship. It may be just as hard to make the AAA pitching staff as the major league one.

"We should have a very strong pitching staff at Gwinnett," Atlanta director of player development Kurt Kemp.

There are not many open spots on the Atlanta pitching staff with the addition of starters Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami, the re-signing of Tom Glavine, and the return from injuries by relievers Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan.

"We will likely have a number of pitchers who got big league time under their belts last year (back) in AAA," Kemp said. "There shouldn't be a need to rush anyone along this year.

"Our pitchers will have time to learn and grow, and really be ready to make that jump to the majors and not bounce back and forth. We want them in Atlanta for the long haul."

In addition to Hanson, Medlen, Parr and Marek all have looked good this spring. So has Reyes and Francisley Bueno, a left-hander from Cuba.

Medlen, who like Hanson pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, could reach Atlanta quickly because he can relieve as well as start. He is rated as Atlanta's No. 9 prospect by Baseball America.

Even if Hanson opens the season in Atlanta, Gwinnett could have a rotation of Reyes, Morton, Parr, Redmond and Medlen, with Bueno in reserve. There is also plenty of bullpen candidates, with former major leaguers like Vladimir Nunez, Eric O'Flaherty, Jeff Ridgeway and Manny Acosta possibly joining Marek and closer Valdez.

Reyes is 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA this spring for Atlanta. Marek, acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in the Mark Teixeira trade last July, didn't allow an earned run in four spring outings before being sent to the G-Braves on Monday.

"Gwinnett should not only have a very good starting rotation, but also a very solid bullpen," Kemp said. "It won't be easy to win a spot. We have a lot of candidates."

SideBar: Gwinnett Braves

First exhibition: Saturday vs. Syracuse at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Season opener: April 9 at Charlotte, 11:15 a.m.

Home opener: April 17 vs. Norfolk, 7 p.m.