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Notes: Braves believe in Escobar02/20/2008 6:13 PM ET
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When the Braves traded Edgar Renteria in October, they said it was tough to lose somebody with such respected character. Fortunately, they're replacing him with a shortstop who has spent the past two years with Renteria as his mentor.
While spending the past two winters in Miami, Yunel Escobar worked out regularly with Renteria. When he reported to Spring Training at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex on Wednesday, the Braves' new starting shortstop was sporting the added bulk of an offseason that obviously included a dedicated workout program.
"Renteria taught him a lot," said Braves backup catcher Brayan Pena, who has been Escobar's best friend dating back to their childhood days in Cuba. "Renteria is like a father to him. They worked out all the time together. Escobar says that a lot of what he knows, he owes to Renteria."
When the Braves traded Renteria to the Tigers in October, they did so with the confidence that Escobar provided while hitting .326 with a .385 on-base percentage and .451 slugging percentage in 94 games last year. His consistent offensive and reliable glove gave them the feeling that he was ready to serve as their starting shortstop.
"For me, [Escobar] could make the All-Star team," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He has tremendous hands, range and a tremendous arm. He's not going to steal a lot of bases, maybe, but he can run. He can hit for average and, if he wants to, he can hit for power."
On the flight back to Atlanta after the Sept. 30 season finale in Houston, Escobar told Pena he was going to get stronger. Over the course of the next four months, he lifted regularly with Renteria and now has the shoulders to prove it.
"Renteria told him the key to having a great year in the big leagues is to be in great shape [for Spring Training] and try to maintain that shape the whole season," Pena said.
James starts process: Chuck James threw off a mound on Wednesday for the first time since Sept. 25. While throwing at just half strength, he wasn't fully testing whether he's recovered from the torn left rotator cuff that an MRI revealed in October. But he at least was encouraged that he didn't feel discomfort.
"As far as making 15 throws at 50 percent, it felt awesome," James said. "My location and everything was there. If I could throw 100 throws the same as I threw those 15, I'd be ready for the season to get started."
James won't be ready for the start of the Grapefruit League season, and Braves general manager Frank Wren is acknowledging that the left-hander might not have enough time to be ready for the start of the regular season.
"It's probably too early to speculate on that," Wren said. "We'll see how the next couple of weeks go and see if he can get on track, innings-wise."
While James might not be ready to start the season, Mike Hampton might be prepping to prove a lot of people wrong. The 35-year-old hurler, who has missed the past two seasons recovering from separate left elbow surgeries, impressed again during Wednesday's workout.
"He looks awesome," Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "I stepped in to face him today and he didn't miss his spots. He had good sink and his curveball was great. He stood out to me."
Frenchy power: When Jeff Francoeur arrived in camp last week, he had noticeably added about 15 pounds of muscle. He showed off some of his added power with a couple of rocket shots off bench coach Chino Cadahia in Wednesday's batting practice. The most impressive shot banged halfway up the scoreboard in left-center field.
"I didn't even feel like I had to put a charge in it," Francoeur said. "I just put a good swing on it, and it carried and it felt good. ... I feel a lot more fluid. I just feel a lot stronger."
At just 24 years old, Francoeur is still in the very early stages of his career. He opened eyes with a 29-homer season in 2006 and then proved he could be consistent with the .293 batting average that he compiled with 19 homers last year.
As he enters his third full big league season, Francoeur is hoping to prove he can regain some of the power that he sacrificed last year and also still prove to be consistent. He's planning to swing a little heavier bat this year.
"I'm trying to take that next step into being a grown man," said Francoeur, who turned 24 in January.
Braves bits: McCann celebrated his 24th birthday on Wednesday. ... Workouts on Saturday and Sunday will be held in the afternoon to allow the team's personnel to undergo annual physicals.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.