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Braves' bid to repeat in NL East won't be easy

Gonzalez looks for younger roster to stave off Nationals and Co. @HalBodley

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- In a sense, it's been a long winter for the Atlanta Braves.

The veteran battery of catcher Brian McCann and pitcher Tim Hudson is gone. And lingering is the hangover from the Braves' loss to the Dodgers in the 2013 National League Division Series.

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- In a sense, it's been a long winter for the Atlanta Braves.

The veteran battery of catcher Brian McCann and pitcher Tim Hudson is gone. And lingering is the hangover from the Braves' loss to the Dodgers in the 2013 National League Division Series.

Despite a great summer when they returned to the top spot in the NL East, the excruciating loss in the postseason is troubling. After winning its first division title in three years, Atlanta lasted just four games against Los Angeles in the best-of-five series.

With three weeks of Spring Training under their belts, there's an air of confidence in Braves camp.

Early predictions favor the Washington Nationals as the team that will deprive the Braves of a second consecutive division title. Mention this to manager Fredi Gonzalez and his answer is what you'd expect at this stage of the spring.

"I don't even know; I don't even know," Gonzalez said. "I think Washington got better, the Mets got better, the Marlins got better. The Phillies are always a team that scares me, because they've got veteran guys who are championship caliber."

In 2012, the Nationals breezed to the NL East title, but they faltered last year. They have a new manager in Matt Williams. The Nats improved their already strong starting pitching with the addition of Doug Fister, and they added Jerry Blevins to their bullpen.

"They had a good offseason," Braves outfielder Justin Upton said of the Nationals. "They definitely got better. You never expect to run away with it. They obviously got better, so we're going to have to play better."

Gonzalez is now firmly established as Atlanta's manager. He's beginning his fourth season at the helm. The transition from Hall of Fame skipper Bobby Cox is more than complete. Comparisons with the icon are long gone.

Gonzalez spoke the other day before a Grapefruit League game against the Phillies that would end in a 2-2 tie. When they played the Nats on Thursday night, they had just one win.

"But this is still my favorite part of the spring," said Gonzalez. "The first couple of weeks is always fun. The next couple of weeks when you start making cuts and the last couple of weeks are different. Near the end, when your team is ready to go and you have three or four games left, you worry about injuries and the little nagging soreness players have.

"But it's another year, and we're primed for another long championship season."

General manager Frank Wren has done a superb job of signing his five core players -- outfielder Jason Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, starting pitcher Julio Teheran and closer Craig Kimbrel -- to contract extensions that range from two to eight years. It was a commitment of $280.7 million.

During the past two decades, including their record 14 consecutive division titles (1991-2005), the Braves have had stability second to none in Major League Baseball. Under former GM John Schuerholz, now the team president, there was constant tweaking of personnel. Atlanta's club was recast more times than I can remember, but each year Cox would meld the parts and produce a winner.

Schuerholz, and now Wren, have refused to sit back and let the team get old.

"We adjust," said Gonzalez. "There's been a lot of tinkering for years. Usually the MO is pitching. If you look at all those division championships that Bobby and John won, the common denominator was pitching.

"We've got a chance to break camp this year with five young homegrown starters. The oldest is Kris Medlen at 28.

"We just don't seem to get old. We always inject some kind of youth. You can go back to Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Javier Lopez, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, and I'm forgetting some of the pitchers. It's a good formula."

Chipper retired after the 2012, but Chris Johnson took over, batted .321, and finished second to Colorado's Michael Cuddyer last year for the NL batting title.

In first baseman Freeman's first All-Star season, he batted .319, drove in 109 runs and hit 23 homers. In being moved to the leadoff spot, Heyward batted .322 and scored 31 runs in 29 games.

And Kimbrel is coming off a career-high 50-save season.

Repeating as division champion is often more difficult than winning the first time. And the NL East hasn't produced a World Series champion since the 2008 Phillies.

Gonzalez's quick take on that: "The Braves did it 14 straight times not too long ago. But it's not easy. You have to have a lot of breaks and guys must stay healthy. Everybody gets better, including ourselves, but you have to play out the schedule.

"Yes, we won 96 games last year. The fact is there are some games you win that you probably shouldn't win. You have great seasons because of that."

Brandon Beachy pitched three no-hit innings against the Phillies in his second start since having shoulder surgery in September. If he comes back strong, Atlanta's pitching will be a notch better.

"Not that the results matter, but I felt better," said Beachy after his three-inning stint. "I feel like I'm in a pretty good spot right now."

It won't be easy to fill the void of Hudson and McCann, but the Braves have a history of doing that when they lose big-name players.

"You never get too comfortable," said Gonzalez. "Maybe I give that appearance, but you never get too comfortable. There's always a five- or six-game losing streak someplace when you're on the hot seat."

Gonzalez didn't say it, but after winning a division title and failing in the postseason, the seat does get hotter.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for

Atlanta Braves