Spring postcard: Braves believe they can compete for NL East crown
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Three observations from Braves camp.
Braves general manager Frank Wren was sitting in the dugout Monday morning discussing the state of starting pitching among National League East contenders when he said, "We feel like our top four can match up with anybody. Anybody. Including ..."
Wren went no further but there was no mistaking who he was talking about. While the four-time defending division champion Phillies have grabbed all the headlines this winter -- "If I were in the media, I'd be talking about them, too," said Braves righty Derek Lowe -- the Braves front four deserve some ink of their own. In what is likely to be the rough order when the season begins, the Braves' rotation will feature: Tim Hudson, coming off an All-Star season in which he finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting; Lowe, who won 16 games with a 4.00 ERA in 2010; Tommy Hanson, just 24, who posted a 3.33 ERA last season; and Jair Jurrjens, who is returning from an injury-filled campaign but is considered one of the game's most talented young pitchers.
That quartet was largely responsible for helping the Braves end a five-year playoff drought and win the wild card despite a slew of injuries to key position players such as Chipper Jones and Martin Prado. Braves starters finished sixth in the majors in ERA while the staff overall ranked third.
"There's a lot of talent one-through-four," said Lowe. "What makes the Phillies [rotation] unique is they have all the Cy Youngs and phenomenal individual stats. But even if you're not neck-and-neck with them you can still compete and everybody here is optimistic."
As the Braves came down the stretch last year battling for the wild card they eventually clinched on the season's final day, they were forced to give critical starts to rookies Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. Now those two are part of a group battling for the fifth and final spot in the rotation, having already been battle tested in a way even a spring competition can't match.
His waistline may be a little bigger than when he was the cocky, young third baseman for the perennial powerhouse Braves of the mid- and late-90s but otherwise, Chipper Jones looks very much like the slugging star of his youth even though he is less than two months from turning 39. The question is does he feel that way? Jones, who missed the final six weeks of last season and the Division Series loss to the Giants with a knee injury, said he felt fine after his spring debut in which he tested the knee out by sliding, but said he was achy a day later after a couple at-bats as the DH.
Obviously, that's a luxury Jones won't be afforded during the regular season, which means even if he's healthy it's doubtful he can be an everyday player again. On days Jones sits, the Braves will use Martin Prado, displaced from second base to left field by newly acquired Dan Uggla, in his stead. But when Jones is in the lineup he gives the Braves a dangerous, if declining, bat. In 2010, he hit 10 home runs and drove in 65 runs in his 95 games but even more impressive were his .381 on-base percentage and .426 slugging percentage.
"He's gonna be a big piece of what we do," said Braves catcher Brian McCann. "He puts a presence in our lineup."
In 2010, the Braves won 91 games despite an offense that ranked just 11th in the National League in home runs. Part of that was due to injuries and part was due to the fact that there were very few home run hitters in that lineup. Both problems may have been rectified. Jones, as mentioned, is healthy again and could be a 20-home run threat. Jason Heyward, last year's rookie phenom, hit 18 home runs despite dealing with the lingering pain of a thumb injury that kept him out of the All-Star Game and hampered his swing much of the year; he now says he as full range of motion and can grip the bat the way he wants.
The Braves also imported a noted slugger, swinging a trade with the Marlins in November to get All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla. In five full seasons, Uggla has averaged just under 31 home runs per season and he's hit at least 30 each of the past four years. Even if he matches that production it will be a huge boon to the Braves offense, which is now more fearsome than a year ago.
"I think we're a deeper lineup than we have been, which if it works out that way -- which it should -- means we've got a good balance," said Heyward.
Everyone has become familiar with first baseman Freddie Freeman, who, like his good friend Heyward a year ago, will be handed a starting job on Opening Day. But the young player turning heads is someone who actually won an Opening Day job in camp two years ago before his career got sidetracked.
No, Jordan Schafer's path has not exactly mirrored that of Heyward, who also won a job in camp and homered on Opening Day. Heyward went onto finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting, while Schafer was demoted during his rookie year, hasn't played a big league game since 2009 because of injuries to his left hand and wrist and no longer has a guaranteed job. But after working out six hours a day, six days a week in the offseason, he arrived at camp in terrific shape and his new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, took notice. Gonzalez is even giving Schafer a chance to win back his center field job from Nate McLouth, who was also demoted at one point last year and batted just .190.
The Braves imported a new second baseman in Uggla, will use a new closer to fill in for the retired Billy Wagner and the only new face anyone can talk about in Braves camp belongs to Gonzalez, who is replacing the legendary Bobby Cox as Braves manager. What has made this transition so seamless is the fact that Gonzalez, a former coach under Cox, was considered the heir apparent even before he was fired by the Marlins at midseason. Jones, for one, wasn't shy about telling Wren that he wanted Gonzalez to take over for the retiring Cox and when the hire became official, Jones called his new field boss and said, "I told you so."
Cox is still a daily presence in Braves camp and Gonzalez isn't shy about talking to his former mentor. But otherwise, this is clearly Gonzalez's team.
"We don't want someone who's just going to do things the same way," says Wren. "Fredi's his own man. We think we've hired the next great manager."
The Braves clubhouse is divided into two segments, one for established regulars, and the other, behind a wall, for the players whose time in camp is likely to be brief. Those players are extremely young, which may explain why they sat in clusters on the floor in small huddles with one another, looking like children at story time. ... Martin Prado on the biggest transition to playing left field: "Throwing." Indeed, Prado has gone from making some of the shortest throws on the field as a second baseman to some of the longest, and says he's still trying to adjust his mechanics. ... Lowe waited until his start Tuesday to throw his first breaking balls of the spring, in an effort to protect his 37-year-old arm as long as possible. Asked if the Braves young pitchers have been picking his brain for advice, Lowe said, "I'm probably the last guy who's brain you want to pick."