Notes: Jones confident about 2007
Smoltz tees off with Tiger; Saltalamacchia making strides
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- This isn't the first time the Braves have entered Spring Training and found themselves to be considered underdogs in the National League East race. But it's the first time in more than a decade that they've had to do so without a sense of invincibility on their side.
Since seeing their record streak of 14 consecutive division titles come to an end last season, the Braves have made significant bullpen alterations and seemingly created reason for great optimism.
But there are still many who doubt their chances of winning the NL East again. And to those people, Chipper Jones offers a word of caution.
"That's going to be a mistake before it's all said and done," he said, confidently, when he arrived at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex on Saturday, three days before Braves position players are required to report.
Jones is excited about the addition of setup men Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano. But at the same time, he understands that last season's woes were significant enough to prevent people from jumping back on the Braves' bandwagon.
"We stunk it up last year," Jones said in reference to the team's first losing season since 1990. "So we've got to go back out and prove to everybody that we're the best team in this division. I don't know that we are. I think we are, and you're not going to get me to feel any other way about it."
While Jones is highly optimistic, he realizes that there is still much to prove. Injuries play a large role in any season and unfortunately, the Braves third baseman is well aware of the fact that he has become a resident expert in this department.
Jones, who had three stints on the disabled list last year, has been unable to play more than 110 games either of the past two seasons. Bunions in his feet continue to provide some discomfort, and there is little that doctors can do to alleviate the problem.
Mizuno is attempting to construct a shoe that would provide added comfort. But according to Jones, it's not as if he's receiving a new pair to try on a weekly basis.
"I'm not Michael Jordan," said Jones, who hit .324 with 26 homers in 110 games last year. "They aren't spitting them out at will. We try something a little different quite often.
"These shoes [Mizuno is providing] are quite comfortable. I don't even know if there is anything that they can do. You might be able to put me in a pillow and it's still going to hurt."
Getting an early jump: Because he missed most of last season while rehabbing from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, Kelly Johnson is permitted to participate in workouts with the pitchers and catchers. This will provide him an opportunity to further acquaint himself with his new second-base position.
Johnson, who was converted from shortstop to an outfielder in 2004, has made a positive impression with his glove and bat. But until games begin, the Braves won't get a true sense of his abilities at second base.
"He's looked good so far," said manager Bobby Cox of Johnson, whose chief competitor in the battle at second base will be Martin Prado.
Because he seems to be the better option as a leadoff hitter, Johnson seems to be the favorite in the position battle against Prado, who is considered to be the better defender.
Jones is quite confident in Johnson's ability to replace Marcus Giles as the team's leadoff hitter. Jones became even more confident when told that Giles had hit .262 during the 2006 season.
"Kelly will blow that out of the water and he'll probably hit more home runs," said Jones, without being told that Giles hit 11 homers last year.
Teeing it up with Tiger: As the ace of the staff, John Smoltz always is given the opportunity to complete his daily workout before the rest of the team's pitchers. By doing so on Saturday morning, he gave himself plenty of time to head to Isleworth to complete a round of golf with his good friend Tiger Woods.
Joining Smoltz and Woods in the foursome were Jeff Francoeur and Adam LaRoche, who was traded by the Braves to the Pirates in January. The former Brave will be training with his new team in Bradenton, Fla., which is about two hours from Disney.
Salty update: While hitting a couple of balls on top of the beam that is located beyond the left-field wall on Saturday, Jarrod Saltalamacchia showed why he's still considered by many to be the game's top catching prospect.
Saltalamacchia's rapid rise toward the Majors hit a stumbling block last year, when he hit .230 with just nine homers in 313 at-bats at Double-A Mississippi. But he righted himself with 13 hits, including three homers, in 26 at-bats in the Arizona Fall League.
With Brian McCann in place, Saltalamacchia may need to change positions in order to find an available spot in Atlanta. But Cox says he still hasn't heard of any plans to get the 21-year-old prospect any work at first base or any other position besides catcher.
There may be a few occasions during the Grapefruit League season when Saltalamacchia does spend some time at first base. These instances may come on days when the club is playing a split-squad game or when Craig Wilson is unavailable to play.
The Braves want Wilson to get plenty of time in left field and they have few other options to use as a backup for Scott Thorman, who will get a healthy number of at-bats as he attempts to prepare himself to be the club's everyday first baseman.
Braves bits: Top left-handed pitching prospect Matt Harrison received a brief scare on Saturday when he was hit on his pitching arm with a batted ball. But Cox said the injury wasn't serious and was likely just a bruise ... Andruw Jones is usually an early arrival to camp. But he's attending this weekend's NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas ... Mike Hampton and Chipper Jones are both expected to attend Sunday's Daytona 500. After Sunday's workout, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET, they should still have plenty of time to get to the race.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.