LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If you want to know how important bullpen depth has become over the course of the past 10 seasons, simply look at the amount of innings that the Braves' top four starters logged in 1997.

By the time that season was complete, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Denny Neagle all had completed at least 232 2/3 innings. In 2006, there were only three pitchers in all of the National League that had exceeded that total.

Because that was a unique starting rotation that included three potential Hall of Famers, it may be more appropriate to look at the fact that from 1962-80 there was just one season in which at least one NL pitcher didn't complete 300 innings.

Since 1990, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson are the only NL pitchers to have logged as many as 260 innings in a season. Back in 1985, the late Rick Mahler completed 266 2/3 innings for the Braves and still ranked fifth in the Senior Circuit.

"Back in the old days, starting pitchers were throwing 150 pitches," Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "That doesn't happen today."

Since starters now see it as an accomplishment to simply complete 200 innings over the course of a season that usually consists of at least 34 starts, it has become vital for general managers to put more emphasis on the construction of their bullpens.

And the change doesn't simply apply to the way starting pitchers are utilized.

When Dan Quisenberry helped the Royals win a World Series championship in 1985, the submariner made 84 appearances and logged 129 innings (two fewer than he'd completed two years earlier). Eleven years later, Braves general manager John Schuerholz's closer in Atlanta was Mark Wohlers, who made 77 appearances and logged 77 2/3 innings during the 1996 season.

Over the course of the past 20 years, the game has seen the evolution of one-inning closers. Those days when Quisenberry, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage came out of the bullpen to work multiple innings on a regular basis seem like ancient history.

With starting pitchers and closers working fewer innings than they did 20 years ago, it became necessary to find more reliable arms to take care of the middle innings. No longer would it suffice to have 10-man pitching staffs. Now it's all but assumed that a team is going to have at least 12 pitchers on its roster at all times.

"I think the biggest thing that has changed is the luxury of lineups," said Smoltz, who has acquired first-hand knowledge as both a starter and a reliever. "Now you have more switch-hitters, left-handed lineups and right-handed lineups. The influx of power hitting has made it to a manager's advantage to counteract that late in the game with favorable matchups."

In other words, the game has become much more specialized than it was back when closers might have been sent to the mound to record the final nine outs. Based on tendencies and strengths, managers are now more apt to mix and match their middle relievers until getting the outs required to hand the ball over to their closer.

While doing so, they are looking to obtain whatever advantage necessary to gain the ever-important victory on a nightly basis.

"You'd think in 162 games, you could get away with a 10-15 games where you wouldn't have to play it like the seventh game of the World Series," Smoltz said. "But baseball has its ways. Everybody is pretty much going to lose 60 games. And pretty much everybody is going to win 60 games. What you can do with those middle 40 games really determines your champions and not your champions."

Fortunately for Braves manager Bobby Cox, he enters this year with the luxury of being able to mix and match his middle innings with two potential closers. With Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez in place, he can feel confident about the prospect of providing Bob Wickman regular opportunities to collect saves.

"I think this is one of the best bullpens I've ever seen," new Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez said. "I'll take my chances with this bullpen any day."

Obviously a lot has changed for the Braves over the past year. At this time last year, they were so worried about their bullpen that Cox didn't even name Chris Reitsma as his closer until mid-March. The preseason trepidations proved warranted during the course of a season in which the Braves blew 29 of their 67 save opportunities.

Schuerholz partially alleviated his team's late-inning woes with the July acquisition of Wickman. But his crowning achievement in this bullpen reconstruction process came when he was able to make the trades that brought Gonzalez from Pittsburgh and Soriano from Seattle into the mix.

The left-handed Gonzalez successfully converted each of his 24 save opportunities for the Pirates in '06. During the 155 2/3 innings he's completed as a Major Leaguer, Gonzalez has limited opponents to a .206 batting average. Equally impressive is the fact that opponents hit just .204 in the 60 innings that Soriano completed for the Mariners last season.

"We think we have three guys who are capable of closing," Schuerholz said. "Two of them are going to happen to be setup men in the roles that they play for us. It does two things; it strengthens the end of our bullpen, and it also protects us in the event of an injury."

Just as importantly, it adds the ever-important aspect of bullpen depth. Guys like Macay McBride and Tyler Yates will no longer have to be thrown into pressure-packed situations that they encountered last season. Instead, they'll likely join Oscar Villarreal to primarily work the sixth and seventh innings, during which an outcome can also still be determined.

If they are able to gain confidence in the middle-relief staff, Braves starters will find it much easier to turn the game over to the bullpen much earlier than they might have done last season.

This will prove to be an early asset to Mike Hampton as he attempts to come back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. And it should help Smoltz, who at the age of 40, admits he must be more intelligent about his workload.

"The more sharing of the load that you have, the less vulnerable that you become late in the year," Smoltz said. "I don't know if it's possible to be fresh at the end of the year, but to be a little bit more fresh will be nice."

Smoltz has the luxury of this new approach only because of the bullpen's massive reconstruction, which has some in Atlanta once again dreaming of the postseason, and has others even wondering if this will turn out to be the most complete staff this pitching-rich organization has ever had.

The blueprint provides an indication that it might prove to be. But for now, the architect is choosing not to comment on the latter thought.

"We'll see how they pitch this spring," Schuerholz said. "I can answer that in another month."