February 2012

Braves hopes depend on the health of Hanson and Jurrjens

Jason Heyward and Martin Prado will draw plenty of attention during the early days of Spring Training.   As some wonder how these two outfielders will rebound others will continue to ask Chipper Jones about the possibility of playing beyond this year.

Chipper will tire of that question real quick.  But by the time this month concludes, he will find himself much more willing to discuss his future than the club’s recent past.

Having had a little more than four months to distance themselves from the pain and frustration, the Braves will not come to camp eager to discuss last September’s collapse.  But the veterans certainly know that they will be asked time and again  about what happened and whether the experience will haunt or motivate them.

As I talked to Braves general manager Frank Wren earlier this week, he once again said, “We were a good team that had a bad month.”   Bad might be underselling it.  But that is a pretty accurate description.

Everything seemed to be in order when the Braves exited Wrigley Field on the afternoon of Aug. 25.  Brian McCann had homered twice in a win over the Cubs and the team had a 9 1/2-game lead in the Wild Card standings.  Yeah Hurricane Irene was making its way up the East Coast.  But there did not seem to be any real worry as the club made its way toward New York City.

Things started to change the following day when reports began surfacing the subway and other transit options in NYC would be shut down.  Saturday’s game time changed more often than Luis Valdez’s name before we finally learned Saturday and Sunday’s games were cancelled.

When told of this development Friday afternoon, some Braves players and coaches had to go back to Manhattan, pack and bring their luggage back to Citi Field.  As Chris Capuano recorded 13 strikeouts and tossed a two-hit shutout for the Mets a few hours later, you had to wonder if the Braves actually paid a few bellhops to wear their uniform and play that night.

If they did, the Dodgers did not seem to notice.   Hey now!

Anyhow as I exited the press box that evening I remember thinking it was one of the more lifeless efforts I had seen.  At the time, it seemed like a fitting ending to a weird day.  A month later, it was apparent the day was actually a sign of things to come.

This blog’s entry on Sept. 7 was headlined “Braves have slumbered since Hurricane break”.  Five days later, it read, “Things can’t get much worse for Braves”.   Oh yes they could.

The Sept. 13 entry read “McCann and Prado enhance concerns surrounding Braves.”  One week later the headline read, “Legit playoff teams would not panic in this situation.”  One week later the season was over the Braves were not a playoff team.

Little has changed with the Braves from a personnel standpoint  in the 4 1/2 months that have since passed.  The most significant offseason additions came in the form of new hitting coach Greg Walker and his assistant Scott Fletcher.  Both have already received some complimentary reviews from the players.  As most of you know, I could not say the same about Larry Parrish last year.  I Still vividly remember being in San Francisco last April when one of the players said, “this is not going to work” while talking about Parrish.

The Braves explored the possibility of trading Martin Prado or Jair Jurrjens this winter.  Over the next few months, I think they’ll be happy that they kept both.   Tim Hudson is pleased with the progress he has made since undergoing back surgery in November.  But it appears he will likely be sidelined until at least early May.

With Hudson out, the Braves will benefit from having a healthy Jurrjens’ experience in what will be a young rotation to start the season.    The rotation will likely include Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy,  Mike Minor and Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado.  Any combination of Beachy, Minor and Teheran/Delgado has combined for no more than 58 starts.

This is why I believe the most important angle entering Spring Training centers around the health of Hanson and Jurrjens.  Yes it will be interesting to follow Heyward’s progress and provide updates as Tyler Pastornicky attempts to get comfortable with his role as Major Leaguer and starting shortstop.

The Braves need Heyward to turn things around and they need Pastornicky to consistently produce quality plate appearances as he adapts to life in the big leagues.  They also need to know Craig Kimbrel will not be scarred by last year’s conclusion and that Jones’ knees are indeed going to cooperate as he enjoys the opportunity to play at 40.

But more than anything the Braves need to enter this season knowing that they will not have to worry about Hanson’s right shoulder or Jurrjens’ right knee.  Hanson’s altered delivery has aided his shoulder like a knee brace has provided Jurrjens’ knee some stability as he has been throwing the past couple of weeks.

For many of you, it has likely been encouraging to hear and read about the progress Hanson and Jurrjens have made over the past few months.  But it’s time to see that progress and fortunately that time is now.

Braves pitchers and catchers report Sunday.

 

 

 

Minor among the many getting antsy for the start of camp

As the clubhouse staff moved boxes Thursday morning at Turner Field and players debated whether to travel to Florida next Thursday or Friday, it really started to feel like it is time to put an end to the offseason and welcome the start of Spring Training.

Braves pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex by Feb. 19.  After playing catch this morning, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor decided they will likely start driving to the Orlando area next Tuesday or Wednesday.   Yep, the single dudes can do whatever they want whenever they want without much plan.

“I’m much more excited to get down there than I was the past two years,” Minor said. “Last year at this time I was still relaxing, playing Xbox and that kind of stuff.  This year, I’m really excited to get going.”

Minor seems so much more comfortable and confident than he was a year ago.   The 24-year-old left-handed pitcher seemed a little  hesitant when he arrived at Spring Training last year to compete with Beachy for the fifth spot in the rotation.  He did not impress during the Grapefruit League season and looked like a deer in headlights when he made a spot start for Jair Jurrjens on April 6 in Milwaukee.

At the time it was not ridiculous to wonder if he would need an entire year at the Minor League level to build his confidence and give him time to find at least a hint of consistency with his breaking ball.

Looking back at where he was last year, Minor admits he came to Spring Training comfortable with the prospect of having to spend some more time in the Minors.   He had totaled just 29 professional starts at that point and four of those were made as he was rebuilding his arm strength in 2009, after the Braves took him with the seventh overall selection in the First-Year Player Draft.

To his credit Minor quickly took advantage of the opportunity to develop a little longer in the Minors.  He worked with talented Triple-A pitching coach Marty Reed and started to show promise when he returned to the Majors for a couple starts in late May.   He proved even more impressive as he posted a 3.83 ERA in the nine starts made for Atlanta in August and September.

Minor made tremendous strides last year and Braves fans should be encouraged to learn that he has found comfort with the feel of his breaking ball over the past few weeks.  He said Beachy has been providing him encouraging feedback while the two have been playing catch.

“It feels like it did at the end of last season,” Minor said. “Hopefully I don’t eat my words and struggle with it in Spring Training.  But it’s really been feeling good out of my hand.”

It will be interesting to see exactly who is in the Braves rotation at the beginning of this season.   I’ve been projecting Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Beachy and Minor.  But it’s starting to sound like Hudson knew what he was talking about back in early December when he was telling close friends that he did not think  he would be ready for the start of Spring Training.

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said last week that he would be prepared if Hudson needs some additional time to recover from the surgical procedure performed on his back (herniated disc) in late November.

“We’ll progress as the doctors say he can progress,” McDowell said. “Whether it’s the middle of April or first of May, we’ll probably be a little more cautious so that we can have him at the end. There’s no reason to rush things and then have a setback.”

Fortified with the depth Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado provide, the Braves will not be concerned if Hudson is limited to 25-30 starts this year.  It is more important to allow him to fully recover and be ready to stay healthy once he returns to action.

Had the Braves traded Jurrjens, Hudson might have felt greater pressure during his rehab.  But he can now go through the recovery process with the comfort of knowing Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are both confident they will be at full strength at the start of the regular season.

Jurrjens’ troublesome right knee should benefit from a knee brace and Hanson has attempted to take stress off his shoulder by strengthening his back and refining his delivery.

Chipper Jones has produced the most interesting nugget over the past couple weeks.  Shocker, right?  Anyhow, I’ m referring to the comments he made about Jason Heyward last week.

“When the ball jumped off his bat [in 2010], there was a sound unlike you had ever heard,” Jones said. “I didn’t see that at all last year. It’s due to some of things he was doing mechanically. The ball is jumping off his bat now close to the way it was in 2010.”

It was obvious Heyward was committed to turning things around in November when he discussed the workout schedule and diet he had been sticking to since the end of the season.  Yes, he lost 20 pounds and gained a leaner frame.  But more important this commitment allowed him to stay focused and regain some of the confidence he lost last year.

As an avid North Carolina fan, Braves head trainer Jeff Porter has long had a great appreciation for Roy Williams.  That appreciation now extends beyond the basketball court.

Porter was touched a few weeks ago when Williams sent him a letter to express his condolences regarding the tragic passing of Porter’s wife, Kathy, who was killed in an auto accident on  Dec. 31.

Williams is just one of the many who have reached out to help Porter in some way.  But one individual who really deserves to be recognized is Dr. Joe Chandler, who stayed with Porter and his 19-year-old son, David, the night of the accident and remained by their side for much of the next week.

Chandler will  always be recognized as the man who helped keep Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and so many other Braves on the field as they battled aches and pains.  But the man has proven to be so much more over the past year while selflessly providing support to Porter and Luis Salazar as they dealt with traumatic experiences.

Starting next week this blog will once again be updated with multiple entries on a weekly basis.  I figured it was time to produce a new entry when within a span of 12 hours, my mother and Chipper Jones both pointed out that I had been slacking.

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