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Heyward, Braves grabbing spotlight in Cox's farewell season

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For weeks, the Braves weren't saying whether Jason Heyward, their rookie phenom, would make the team and be their Opening Day right fielder, but they couldn't fool anyone with this bit of late-spring silence. They need another banger in a lineup where the main anchors are their sweet-swinging catcher Brian McCann, their talented shortstop Yunel Escobar and Chipper Jones, an icon heading fast to the finish line. They need a spark. They needed Jason Heyward, and they would have needed to have their heads examined if they had sent him down.

On Friday the Braves finally confirmed what almost everyone had suspected, which is that Heyward will in fact be their starting right fielder when the season begins. "He's not only been the best Brave this spring, he's been the best player this spring,'' one National League scout said.

"He's pretty good,'' iconic manager Bobby Cox said with a smile. "He's pretty darn good, let's put it that way.''

Heyward is the headline maker highlighting a very nice spring for the Braves, who have been here before. They were once known for their amazing streak of 14 straight division titles, but lately they're becoming known for excellent springs followed by so-so or slightly better seasons. Heyward has understandably grabbed all the attention down here. But the whole team has been impressive.

"The Braves look real good,'' one veteran scout said.

The Braves think so, too. Cox said he likes this team very much, though not so much that he'll reverse his announced his decision to retire after the season. When asked whether this is definitely his final season, Cox responded, "Yeah, it is.''

Assuming it really is Cox's finale, it may wind up being a fun farewell tour. Heyward and former World Series MVP Troy Glaus, who'll be productive if he stays healthy ("he's the same Glaus, big swing but good,'' said a scout), should give a needed boost to the offense while the pitching remains better than most folks realize.

"Sometimes, teams that don't have a lot of players who stand out in the media have a nice blend,'' longtime Braves honcho John Schuerholz said. "I think that's our team.''

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Who the Braves will be remains up for debate, though the reviews from the scouts are almost all positive. Their starting pitching looks still solid even after Javier Vazquez was shipped off to the Yankees, and their bullpen appears tremendous. "They have a lot of good arms in the pen, and (closer Billy Wagner) is throwing great,'' one scout said. Cox mentioned relievers Kris Medlen, Peter Moylan and Eric O'Flaherty, as well.

But while their pitching remains a strength, the Braves know they need to become more of an offensive force if they are going to compete with the stacked Phillies, the obvious NL East favorite. "Last year we had the pitching but we didn't hit,'' McCann said. "This year, I feel we are going to put up some numbers.''

The left-handed Heyward, still just 20, will be counted on to do just that. Through Thursday he had a .366 batting average and a .500 on-base percentage this spring. Scouts say there's nothing not to like about this very instinctive and smart player. "He has amazing discipline, he hangs in against lefties and he knows what he's doing out there,'' one NL scout said.

With everyone gushing, the legend is already growing beyond what's real. Word was that Heyward allegedly wanted to go to Harvard because he wanted to trump both his parents who went to Dartmouth. Not true, he says. While his parents did indeed meet at Dartmouth and he's obviously no iron head, Heyward (sorry, couldn't resist), said he was never going to the Ivy League and was in fact set to play at UCLA before the hometown Braves made the McDonough, Ga., product the No. 14 choice of the 2007 draft. It's so obvious now that he's going to be a star that 13 scouting directors have to be re-checking their notes as we speak.

While the rest of the Braves' balanced and veteran team has been largely ignored, Heyward has been the most beloved newcomer in perhaps a half century. "I've been around baseball. And I haven't seen the universality of praise like with this guy,'' Schuerholz says. "Not only about his physical abilities but about who he is.''

The new confidence in the offense is about Heyward and also import Glaus, who brings a big stick but recent history of health concerns. Glaus said he was so weak at times last year with the Cardinals because of a bad back and shoulder that he would run around the clubhouse just looking for a bat he felt strong enough to swing. This year he's back to his outsized 35-inch, 34-ounce model, or at the very least 35-33.

Glaus came on a bargain $2 million deal because he wanted a chance to start on a contender, and he may have picked wisely here. So far he looks decent manning a new position, first base, though he admits it's an adjustment from third base. "For 28 of 33 years on the planet I played on the left side of the infield," he says. "The difference is now I have to think about things.''

He also isn't making any bold predictions about his offensive output. Speaking about his career-high 47 home runs from 2000, he concedes, "That's a long time ago.''

Not everything is perfect in Braves camp. There's still something amiss with Nate McLouth's bat. McLouth has been so bad (3 or 42,.071) that he has recently been shipped to minor league games, where he hit every fourth at-bat or so, a cram session that smacks of desperation. "I'd advise McLouth to shorten up his approach and not worry about home runs,'' one AL scout said. Cox will give him an Opening Day start out of loyalty to veterans, but if things don't improve in a hurry for McLouth, who finished last year in a 12-for-73 slump that raised concerns in the first place, doesn't improve, ex-Yankee Melky Cabrera will have to be the leadoff hitter.

While some suggest that the Braves' halcyon days have passed them by, they look like they're ready for improvement. McCann says, "We need to get back on the road to being the organization that was the team of the '90s.'' That's probably a reach for any team, as 14 titles in 14 years may never be duplicated. But at the very least, the Braves look ready to be back in the playoffs this year.

• The injury to star left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee may create an opening in Seattle for Jarrod Washburn, who was very good for the Mariners last year. Washburn hasn't received an offer to his liking yet, and Seattle was said for weeks to be unwilling to pay his asking price. However, Lee is expected to begin the season on the disabled list, a big blow to the Mariners, who are strong at the top of the rotation but not very deep. Mariners people say they are hopeful that Lee, who has an injury in his ribcage area, can be ready by the third week of the season.

Phil Hughes was the logical winner of the derby to be the Yankees' No. 5 starter, and what's telling is that Joba Chamberlain didn't even come in second. In the end, the second-most support went to journeyman Sergio Mitre, who pitched very well. One advantage to making Mitre the fifth starter would have been that the Yankees could have teamed up Hughes with Chamberlain in the pen as strong seventh- and eighth-inning guys.

Jeremy Bonderman won the No. 4 spot in the Tigers' rotation. It appears that Nate Robertson may have a slight edge over Dontrelle Willis for the No. 5 job, with the loser going to the bullpen. So at least Willis has made the team.

David Herndon, the Phillies' Rule V pickup from the Angels, a sinkerballer, has a decent shot of making the team.

• According to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, contract talks for Albert Pujols have been tabled for the year.

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