Cockcroft: Atlanta Braves preview

In 2006, hell froze over.

That's right, after years of prognosticators claiming they'd "never pick against the Atlanta Braves" in the National League East race, the team's string of 14 consecutive division titles finally came to an end last season. Now, with the Braves no longer an automatic for the postseason, suddenly the baseball world is looking at the team differently entering 2007.

Sure, the team's "franchise" players -- Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz -- are still around, but these Braves are younger, more inexpensive and feature a good share of bit parts Bobby Cox will mix and match exploiting matchups. Looking at the lineup, first base, second base and left field could each be filled by platoons, while youngsters like Brian McCann (catcher) and Jeff Francoeur (right field) will occupy two of the three spots in the middle of the order. And while that might seem like the makings of a shaky, inconsistent offense, leave it to Cox and his staff to coax respectable years out of the least likely players.

Heck, in 2006, Cox extracted a 29-homer, 103-RBI season out of Francoeur, a free-swinging, 22-year-old sophomore, a .323-19-48 second half out of Adam LaRoche, since traded to the Pirates, 24 homers and 93 RBI out of second-year catcher McCann, and a .327 batting average out of journeyman Matt Diaz. You might not look at many of these Braves hitters as fantasy standouts, but even coming off their down year, the team does have a lot of intriguing under-the-radar types, ones you should closely track during spring training.