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Braves turn to Lowe to replace Smoltz

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

By PAUL NEWBERRY

AP Sports Writer

ATLANTA -- The Braves bounced right back from the disappointment of losing John Smoltz.

Determined to rebuild a once-proud pitching staff that fell into disarray, Atlanta reached a preliminary agreement Tuesday on a $60 million, four-year contract with Derek Lowe and finalized a deal with Japanese all-star pitcher Kenshin Kawakami.

Just like that, the Braves' rotation -- once the most dominant in baseball -- suddenly looks a whole lot stronger with spring training just a month away.

"You've got to have pitching," manager Bobby Cox said. "You could have the best hitting team in the history of baseball and you still may not get it done. We will feel confident now that whoever toes the mound on any particular night, we've got a good chance of winning."

The Braves would not comment on the preliminary agreement with Lowe, which was subject to the pitcher passing a physical, according a person familiar with the negotiations. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the contract had not been completed.

General manager Frank Wren did say Lowe would be a welcome addition to a rotation devastated by injuries last year. As an added bonus, Atlanta would be landing a pitcher who also was being sought by the rival New York Mets.

"We wanted get back to being a pitching team," Wren said. "If we can do another couple of moves, we can get back to that point."

Last season, Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Tom Glavine all went down with season-ending surgeries, and the Braves slumped to fourth in the NL East with a 72-90 record -- their worst since 1990. Glavine has yet to resume throwing off a mound, while Hudson isn't expected back until August.

The 35-year-old Lowe becomes the new ace of the staff.

He was a 21-game winner for the Red Sox in 2002 and spent the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He went 54-48, never had an ERA higher than 3.88 and averaged more than 200 innings a season. Last year, the right-hander was 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings.

"Derek is a guy we would love to have," Wren said coyly. "We visited with him last week and would love to see that come true."

The Braves had hoped to re-sign Smoltz for a 22nd season in Atlanta, but he took a $5 million, one-year deal from the Red Sox.

"It different, it's hard, but the game goes on," Cox said.

In an interesting twist, Smoltz was introduced in Boston on the same day the Braves wrapped up negotiations with Lowe and held a news conference of their own at Turner Field to announce the three-year contract with Kawakami.

The 33-year-old right-hander becomes the first Japanese-born player in the franchise's history. He held up a picture he drew with the symbol for "soul" in his native language.

"My pitching style is all about putting my soul into my pitches," Kawakami said through a translator. "I hope to show that in America as well."

The 2004 Central League MVP won 112 games in 11 seasons in Japan and was regarded as one of the top free-agent pitchers from Japan available this offseason. He was 9-5 for the Chunichi Dragons last year, though he missed several weeks with a strained back.

The Braves were confident about his health after the 5-foot-10 right-hander passed a physical on Monday, and they spoke with numerous Japanese people in the community to make sure he would feel comfortable in his new home.

"One of the things we found at dinner last night was Kenshin speaks a little more English than we originally thought," Wren said.

Though many Atlanta fans were outraged over the loss of Smoltz, Wren and his staff moved quickly to shore up the beleaguered rotation.

The deals brightened what had been a disappointing offseason. The Braves failed to work out a trade for San Diego ace Jake Peavy and was rebuffed by free agents A.J. Burnett and Rafael Furcal. Injury plagued left-hander Mike Hampton also turned down a chance to return to the team, signing instead with Houston.

Then came the biggest blow of all: the loss of Smoltz, who had spent his entire big league career with the Braves but was coming off major shoulder surgery.

"There's a lot of teams involved, especially when it comes to the free agents," Cox said. "There's always six or seven teams going to be disappointed when they don't land the guy. That's what happened up with Burnett and Furcal."

With Kawakami and Lowe, the Braves have the makings of a solid rotation. They previously acquired Javier Vazquez to join holdover Jair Jurrjens, the team's top starter last season as a rookie with a 13-10 record and 3.68 ERA. Another rookie, Jorge Campillo, was 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA.

Vazquez was acquired from the Chicago White Sox for a package of minor leaguers after going 12-16 with a 4.67 ERA.

Kawakami is not overpowering, but he has good control, an effective cutter and a slow, sweeping curve that reminds the Braves of Roy Oswalt's signature pitch.

"It's not like my fastball is going to blow anybody away," he said, according to his translator. "It's makes it that much more important how I use my slow curve. It's a pitch I need courage to throw because if I make a mistake, they're going to take it out."


AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.



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