Baseball's struggling Braves pin optimism to new manager

Franklin P. Jones said the easiest way to refold a road map is differently. This theory, applied to a distressed baseball franchise, comes out to read: bring in a new manager.

It was no surprise, therefore, when Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner fired Bobby Cox last fall. Turner then handed the pilot's tiller to Joe Torre, who had himself been put into a lifeboat at approximately the same time by the New York Mets.

Joe's crime was finishing 181/2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League East's overall standings and failing to generate much fan excitement.

The Mets hadn't been expected to do much better, though, and Turner believes he has hired both an experienced field leader and a salesman whose outgoing disposition will create instant optimism among the fans.

This might be possible if Joe, a former big league catcher-third baseman, could turn himself into a pitcher capable of winning 20 games. Instead, his No. 1 starter will probably be 42-year-old knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who was 7-7 last year despite a 3.11 earned-run average.

However, right-hander Rick Mahler (8-6 in 1981) is expected to improve enough to win 15 games. The other three starting jobs could go to almost anybody, including two rookie left-handers, Ken Dayley and Larry McWilliams.

Dayley led the International League last year in wins (13) and strikeouts ( 162), and may be ready. McWilliams, who worked his way back to the Braves in late '81 after being sent out for more seasoning, struck out almost twice as many hitters as he walked at Richmond. There is also Bob Walk, once a highly-regarded prospect in Philadelphia, plus journmeyman Tommy Boggs.

What proven pitching strength Atlanta does have seems confined to its bullpen , where Rick Camp, Gene Garber, Larry Bradford, and Al Hrabosky have all been fairly consistent. The sinkerballing Camp had 17 saves last season to go along with a 9-3 record and the lowest ERA on the club.

The infield is expected to be the same: Chris Chambliss at first, Glenn Hubbard at second, Bob Horner at third, and Rafael Ramirez (despite 30 errors) at shortstop.

Chambliss is valuable for his consistency, his fielding, and his power. Hubbard has all of Pete Rose's aggressiveness, but only a fraction of his ability at the plate.

Horner, who is capable of 40 home runs but has never gotten along well with Turner, probably would like to be traded. Ramirez's problems stem from too many peak-and-valley performances in the field and a bat that, had it been a Christmas toy, would have carried the label: batteries not included.

If Rafael doesn't hit, Torre will probably go to Jerry Royster, who failed to make it at shortstop in two previous tries.

Dale Murphy, who has all the tools to be a great player but chased a lot of bad pitches last season, is still young enough to reclaim his future as one of the league's best young centerfielders. Flanking him will probably be Claudell Washington in right and rookie Brett Butler in left. Washington hit .291 last year, but didn't drive in many runs. Butler, the International League's MVP, batted .335 and stole 44 bases, but has little power.

The Braves have a fine young catcher in Bruce Benedict, who hit .264 last season, has a strong arm, and made the All-Star squad. Backups will be rookie Matt Sinatro and Biff Pocoroba.

The Braves finished next-to-last in the NL West last year with pretty much the same cast, and one has to wonder how much more Torre can get out of them. But for now, at least, the mood in camp is a positive one.

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