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Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Braves confident new vets ready to go

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It was the kind of scene you could have witnessed at any spring training camp on baseball earth.

Pitcher versus hitter. Live BP. Sun shining. Palm trees swaying.

Billy Wagner
Billy Wagner, 38, will be the Braves' closer in 2010, joining his fifth team in the big leagues.

But sometimes, these scenes aren't just another slice of spring training life. Sometimes, they're more than that.

So on this perfect spring training morning, as the cleanup hitter for the Atlanta Braves stepped in to take some hacks against the closer for the Atlanta Braves, you stopped what you were doing. This, in many ways, was a scene that could define this team's whole season.

The cleanup hitter was Troy Glaus. The closer was Billy Wagner. Their team has $8.75 million invested in them. But in reality, way more than money is riding on them.

Try to find another team in baseball whose prospective cleanup hitter didn't play 20 games last season and whose prospective closer didn't pitch in 20 games last season. Go ahead. Do all the research you'd like. Take all day. Take all week. You'll find only one:

The Braves.

So there's probably no other team in the sport, maybe aside from the Mets, whose season is so dependent on health. But it's a funny thing. If you thought you'd see these guys running around the field this spring trailed by a bunch of medics with lab coats, stethoscopes and MRI machines, you've got the wrong spring training camp.

"All I know," Glaus laughed after his epic BP session was over, "is that I faced Billy today, and he looked pretty damned good to me."

Then again, Glaus doesn't look like he just climbed out of traction, either. And the GM who signed them both, Frank Wren, has so much faith in the upbeat medical reports he's been reading on Wagner's elbow and Glaus' shoulder that he won't agree these two guys even constitute an official "roll of the dice."

"I really don't [think so]," Wren said. "I think that if you do your due diligence and you have enough confidence in the people who have seen them, then you have a better feel for what the outcome will be. You know, you could sign a guy who's never been on the disabled list in his life and have him blow out in spring training. So you can't be gun-shy, worrying about every injury risk. If you want to red-flag players, you could red-flag every player on the roster."

So no red flags in this camp. Heck, you can hardly even find a yellow.

"Really, with both guys, we look at [their injury history] as just a minor factor," Wren said. "Both guys returned at the end of the year last year, and the medicals that followed them were very good. So I think we looked at it like, these are two guys that have a track record. So you have a sense of what they can do and what they can bring to your team if they're healthy. I know that's a big 'if' question. But our due diligence told us they were healthy."

And now that they've banked pretty much their entire season on that due diligence, life is good.

As long as they're right.

They need to be right, first off, about their new 38-year-old closer, a fellow who has spent his entire career as one of the great freaks of nature of modern times.

It has never made any sense that a human being who is 5-foot-11 and naturally right-handed could be physiologically capable of throwing a baseball 100 miles an hour left-handed. But it's that unique ability that has enabled Billy Wagner to hang around the big leagues for a decade and a half, where he has been one of the most dominating closers who ever lived.

So if he can do all that, we don't advise betting against his ability to come back from Tommy John surgery and dominate again.

It was only a year ago, Wagner reminded us, that people were telling him his career was over, five months after surgery to address ligament, tendon, ulna nerve and bone-chip issues in his elbow.

"Then I came back and they [the Red Sox] traded three guys for me after I pitched one game," Wagner chuckled. "How many people could have pulled that off?"

All right, to be technical, the Red Sox didn't trade for him until after he'd pitched in two games for the Mets last August. But whatever. It was still pretty incomprehensible that this man could stomp to the mound after 11 months off and throw 96 mph with a reconstructed elbow.

And it was one of those games -- the first one -- that probably explains, more than anything else, what Wagner is doing in a Braves uniform this spring. Last Aug. 20, he came marching in for his first appearance of the season and needed just 12 pitches to buzz right through the 2-3-4 hitters -- of the Atlanta Braves.

Afterward, Wren remembers walking down the aisle of the plane out of New York and catching the eye of his esteemed manager, Bobby Cox.

Frank Wren Really, with both guys, we look at [their injury history] as just a minor factor. Both guys returned at the end of the year last year, and the medicals that followed them were very good. … Our due diligence told us they were healthy.

-- Braves general manager Frank Wren on Billy Wagner and Troy Glaus

"Wow," Cox told him. "Wagner looked great."

"And then," Wren recalled, "Bobby got that little glimmer in his eye and said, 'And he's always wanted to come here.'"

Well, Bobby Cox definitely got that part right. Wagner grew up in Virginia as a Braves fan in a family full of Braves fans. His father was a Braves fan. And his grandfather was such a hard-core Braves fan that "he hoped I lost every game I ever played against the Braves," Wagner reported, with total sincerity.

Early in his career, in fact, when Wagner was an Astro, he saved a game against the Braves and "gave it one of these little fist pumps." Uh-oh.

"Then I got back in the locker room and they said, 'You've got a telephone call,'" Wagner said. "It was my grandfather. He called the clubhouse. How he got the number, I have no idea. But he calls and says, 'I don't know who you think you are. But you didn't do nothing.' … He said, 'You're just doing what you're supposed to do. You don't need to go jumping around and acting like you're somebody special.' And I just said, 'Yessir.'"

Coincidentally, that's almost exactly what Wagner said this offseason when he answered the door one day and found Cox, Wren and pitching coach Roger McDowell standing there.

"We sat and talked for I guess about three hours," Wagner said. "And I remember looking at Bobby and saying, 'Bobby, I'm healthy.' … And Bobby said, 'You know, I'm not here for you to win me over. I'm here to win you over. I saw all I needed to see.'

"Let me tell you," Wagner went on. "It was pretty neat to always be a Braves fan growing up and then to have Bobby Cox come up and say, 'Hey, I want you; I've wanted you to be here for the last 16 years.' I mean, wow. That was pretty cool."

If this were anybody else uttering these words, they might have sounded phony -- because face it, Wren said, "every time a free agent signs, it seems like you always hear what a fan he is of that team. But with Billy, it's legit."

And so, from all accounts, is his medical prognosis. Wagner had one of those operations where the track record has proven to be off-the-charts successful, if nothing goes wrong along the rehab trail. And since Wagner did everything right, then came back and pitched great down the stretch (15 2/3 innings, eight hits, 26 strikeouts), this is one experiment with less risk than you'd think. Or at least the Braves are banking $7 million on that.

But, of course, the closer isn't the only guy on this team who needs to turn himself into a comeback-player-of-the-year candidate.

The new cleanup hitter in town is every bit as important -- and then some.

Where does Troy Glaus fit? Well, a year ago, the Braves ranked 20th in the big leagues in OPS out of the cleanup hole and 18th against left-handed pitching. Does that give you any idea? So their game plan from Day 1 of the offseason was to plug a right-handed thumper with middle-of-the-order presence into the slot behind Chipper Jones.

The big question is: Is Troy Glaus still that guy?

Well, he's a fellow who has never failed to put up at least 27 homers and an .800 OPS in any season in which he played more than 115 games. The Braves sure noticed that. And, believe it or not, he's only 33. They noticed that, too.

So Atlanta -- and quite a few other teams -- convinced themselves this winter that Glaus was possibly the best buy out there in the always-attractive free-agent bargain bin. Eventually, the Braves were able to sign him for a mere $1.75 million guarantee -- which is the same money, for a cleanup hitter, that the Rockies will pay Jason Giambi to be a backup first baseman and pinch hitter.

"Poring over medicals and what he has always been," Wren said, "we didn't think there was any reason why he couldn't at least give us his normal year. And for the market and what was out there, the way we looked at it, there were very few guys who could give you 25 to 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in their normal year, and also be a right-handed bat in the middle of our lineup. So a lot of things fit. Sure, there was some risk. But we thought it was well worth taking."

A year ago, on the other hand, no one would have been too sure of that. Glaus was, theoretically, the Cardinals' prospective starting third baseman last spring. But he was coming off shoulder surgery in January 2009, hit the gas pedal on his comeback too hard too soon, and found out the hard way he had no shot of making it back by Opening Day.

"Unfortunately," he said, "Opening Day came four months later -- and not in St. Louis."

It came, instead, in July, in the Florida State League, following a long, frustrating rehab in which Glaus learned something he never knew about himself:

Troy Glaus
Troy Glaus will be the Braves' first baseman this season despite having played only six games at the position in his 12 years in the majors.

"It turns out," he said, "I'm not a real good spectator. I love baseball. And I love playing baseball. But it turns out I don't really care to watch it. … The funny thing was, I could watch other games. I just had a hard time watching our own games, because I would get too enthralled with it, too into what was going on. It was frustrating to watch."

You hear that word, "frustrating," a lot when this man talks about last year, because his comeback was filled with stops, starts, visits to Palm Beach and Springfield and Memphis, and even trade rumors. But finally, by September, he made it back to St. Louis, which at least got him back on the big league radar screen.

"I could play then," he said. "I was healthy. No limitations. Just the position wasn't there anymore."

It wasn't there anymore because the Cardinals had given up on waiting for him and traded for Mark DeRosa. But Glaus sneaked into 14 games down the stretch, all but five of them as a pinch hitter, and even made it onto the Cardinals' postseason roster.

He hit just .172, with no homers, in the regular season. But he showed just enough to the scouts following him around that he became quite the hot low-budget commodity this winter.

"I think the big plus for me was that Tony [La Russa] put me on the playoff roster," Glaus said. "If I wasn't healthy, I wouldn't have been on the playoff roster. … I think that eased a lot of people's minds, that I was healthy and ready to play."

When he started mulling his offseason options, the Braves weren't the team offering the most money. But Glaus was another guy who grew up watching the Braves on the late, great Superstation, and he had played for Cox on an all-star Japan tour in 2000 and had always thought Atlanta would be a cool place to play. So when they made an offer, "I jumped at it," he said.

"I had a great experience with Bobby on the Japan tour, and he was somebody I'd wanted to play for, for a long time," Glaus said. "Unfortunately, the situation never really presented itself, because, you know, their third baseman [some guy named Chipper] is pretty good."

But once Glaus decided it was time to cross the diamond to play first base, he found the "Vacancy" sign was finally lit. And even though he has actually played fewer career games at first base in the big leagues (six) than shortstop (18), early reviews suggest that his footwork and instincts are so good that the position switch doesn't look as if it will be a big issue.

If it is, well, the Braves have hot prospect Freddie Freeman looming not far beyond the horizon. But in Bobby Cox's final spring training camp, this isn't the time to dream about the future. This is the time for this team to make one last run for its legendary manager.

So the way this roster is constructed, the cleanup hitter has to be healthy. So does the closer … and another Tommy John comebacker, Tim Hudson … and 40-year-old set-up man Takashi Saito … and starter Jair Jurrjens, who arrived in camp with a tender shoulder.

But here, said Glaus, is the difference between the Braves and some of these other teams built around the formerly walking wounded:

"Huddy [Hudson] pitched at the end of last year. Billy pitched at the end of last year. I played at the end of last year. We've been healthy for a long time -- well, relatively speaking. We've been healthy for the entire offseason. It would be different if we were doing what I tried to do last spring. That would be a question. Where we are this year -- this is not a question."

That won't stop the world from asking that question, of course. But so far at least, the answer is this:

One thing the 2010 Braves don't look like at the moment is a "Grey's Anatomy" plotline waiting to happen.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.