April 2012

Braves ready to compete in an interesting NL East race

The Braves officially announced their Opening Day roster via a release this afternoon.  I guess this means there  is not an expectation of any more aging pitchers to be released by another club before tomorrow afternoon’s game against the Mets.

If you were already aware that Nationals castoff Chad Durbin was signed yesterday because the Braves view him as a better option than Yohan Flande, then you are up to date on all necessary roster news.

But if you are wondering why Tim Hudson is beginning the season on the disabled list, then I say welcome back and offer you a belated Happy Thanksgiving.  While you were gone, the Marlins and Nationals became widely regarded as the two teams most likely to end the Phillies’ dominance at the top of the National League East standings.

Some of you have asked for my reaction to predictions that the Braves will finish fourth in the division this year.  I’d say it is virtually the same reaction I had to predictions the club would reach the World Series last year.

That lofty World Series prediction seemed realistic until the arrival of Hurricane Irene spun last season out of control.  Likewise a fourth-place finish is certainly not out of the question for any of the NL East members this year. After spending hours arguing about where the Phillies, Nationals, Marlins and Braves will finish, the only thing we might agree on is the belief that the Mets will not win the division.

I am also not buying into the possibility that the Nationals are ready to win the division this year.  Henry Rodriguez will stabilize a talented bullpen until Drew Storen returns and the lineup has plenty of potential.  But the thought of Stephen Strasburg being on an innings limit (approx. 160 innings) keeps me from thinking this is year the NL East crown ends up in Washington D.C.

When starting this blog entry, I was leaning toward choosing the Phillies to win the division again. My thinking was that in a division filled with uncertainty, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels provide the greatest certainty. We’ll likely never see the MVP-caliber Chase Utley again and we don’t know what to expect from Ryan Howard (torn left Achilles) once he is cleared to return.  But Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence will keep the lineup respectable.

That line of thinking seemed reasonable until I took another look at the Marlins and deemed them to be the better pick.  There are concerns about Josh Johnson’s shoulder and Hanley Ramirez’s ability to remain happy in a clubhouse that now has more potential distractions than lockers.  Plus, I’m not crazy about this bullpen beyond the closer, Heath Bell.  But if Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Reyes and Ramirez all live up to expectations, this lineup could take of most pitching-related concerns.

But as good as the Marlins lineup could be, the Braves actually have the potential to have the division’s best lineup.  Yesterday’s blog entry gave you a sense of what I think Jason Heyward has in store this year.  When you look at his first two seasons on a game-by-game basis, you see that he has had three sensational months (April 5 -May 30, 2010 and Aug. 21-Sept. 17, 2010) and nine others that have been injury-riddled or  mediocre at best.

Instead of saying that Heyward will hit .285 with 25 homers and a .925 OPS, it seems more reasonable to predict this will be the year that you start to see his tremendous talents on a more consistent basis.

While Heyward is obviously a very important component of this lineup, the Braves have plenty of other weapons. Dan Uggla is exiting the finest exhibition season of his career filled with confidence and Freddie Freeman spent the past couple weeks showing some of that opposite-field power that creates reason to wonder how many 40-homer seasons could be in this 22-year-old’s future.

The Braves are excited about having Michael Bourn’s speed over the course of a season and Martin Prado is excited about the fact that he will likely not have to attempt to act like a leadoff hitter at any point this season.   Coming off the worst season of his career, Prado eased some concerns as he hit .356 in 73 Grapefruit League at-bats.

When asked last week if he was happy to see what Prado did during Spring Training, Brian McCann said, “Anybody who had concerns about Martin Prado does not know anything about baseball.”

Those who know a thing or two about baseball certainly understand that the Braves should once again have a great bullpen.  Some might be concerned about how closer Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty bounce back from last year’s workload.  But the presence of Kris Medlen should at least ease the burden placed on these three relievers.

If Medlen is not used to occasionally spell Venters and O’Flaherty in some setup opportunities, then it is a waste to have him in the bullpen.  But given what transpired last year, I think manager Fredi Gonzalez understands the tremendous value Medlen can bring.

The rotation gained a big boost when Tommy Hanson finished the exhibition season strong and Hudson (offseason back surgery if you were still wondering) provided more reason to believe he will return by the end of this month. Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor both seem to be heading toward bright futures.

As for Jair Jurrjens, the two strong outings he enjoyed against split-squad Astros teams to conclude the exhibition season were not as telling as what he said following the outings.  He was genuine when he admitted he had been scared to test his right knee while pushing off the rubber in his first four exhibition starts.  The fact that he has seemingly overcome this fear before the start of the season is encouraging.

Encouraging can also be used to describe the early portion of the Braves schedule. Nine of the first 12 games will be played against either the Mets or the Astros.  A four-game series against the D-backs stands as the most formidable series during an opening month that concludes with seven games against the Dodgers and Mets.

So upon further review,  maybe this is indeed will be the year the Braves prove their doubters wrong and finally unseat the Phillies as division champs.

We’re going to end this now.  I’m getting hungry and I’m afraid that if I keep writing I might try to convince you why the Mets should be considered the favorites in this division.

Heyward alters the tide with an impressive Spring Training

As the Braves prepare to conclude the exhibition season against Bobby Cox’s Future Stars at Triple-A Gwinnett’s Coolray Field tonight, it seems time to reminisce about what transpired over the past six weeks in Florida.

There was something very odd about this year’s Spring Training that went beyond Tommy Hanson’s one-car accident or the fact that Chipper Jones injured his left knee while jogging in the outfield less than two hours before he announced this will be the final season of his career.

The oddity of this year’s Spring Training was rooted in the tension that existed during the early days of camp and then grew as the club began the Grapefruit League season with just one win in its first 11 games.  Sensing the same, one veteran player said, “If we don’t start winning some games, some people around here are going to going to get even tighter.”

As much as the Braves were attempting to separate themselves from last year’s conclusion, it was as if they were treating the early days of March like an extension of the most recent September.

The presence of seasoned veterans and an even-keeled Fredi Gonzalez prevented this tension from reaching a debilitating level.

But the re-emergence of Jason Heyward might have been the primary reason the final two weeks of the Grapefruit League season felt much different than the first two.  Yes Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman provided encouragement and Mike Minor produced reason to be more confident about what he could offer this year.

But the most important development in Braves camp this year centered around the significant improvements Heyward displayed after working with the club’s new hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher.

When Heyward hit Stephen Strasburg’s 96-mph fastball over the right-center field wall and then doubled down the right field line on March 14, Walker gained the sense that the 22-year-old outfielder was starting to feel comfortable with the many adjustments that had been made.

“The kid is working,” Walker said the following morning. “He’s doing everything it takes to be good. We’ve got a long way to go and a long season. But what he did last night works for me. It looked like him. It was obvious he was getting to a better spot last night.”

When Heyward struck out twice in three at-bats that next day, he provided the reminder that he was still a work-in-progress.  But when he drilled a first-inning grand slam the following night, he once again provided indication that he was progressing in the right direction.

After Heyward drilled Edwin Jackson’s fastball over the 35-foot center field wall at Space Coast Stadium and scaled Disney’s right field wall to rob Raul Ibanez of a homer last week, there was not any reason to look at his statistics (.227 batting average and four homers for those that care about Spring Training stats).

Those stats completely contradicted the young outfielder’s body language.  With his shoulder healthy, he is once again having fun on the field.  And quite honestly, it has once again been fun to watch him play.

When Heyward first revealed  in November that he had lost 20 pounds, many fans wondered if he had really needed to do so.  The simple answer remains, “no.”  But courtesy of his strict diet and stringent conditioning program, he showed his dedication and gained a leaner frame that has allowed him to show his athleticism.

As Heyward displayed his impressive power in games and gracefully patrolled center field when asked to man that position over the past couple weeks, he rekindled those thoughts about his potential to enjoy a truly special career.

Count me among those who approached this year with some doubts about Heyward’s ability to match the expectations he created two years ago.  But after watching him over the past couple weeks, I’d be a fool to  doubt his capabilities.

OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD:

Some fans have understandably questioned whether Heyward could play center field if this is Michael Bourn’s last year in Atlanta.  While there’s no doubt he could play the position, I think it would be in his body’s best interest to remain in right field.

The Braves enhanced their depth with Sunday’s acquisition of third baseman Juan Francisco, who is obviously much more talented than Drew Sutton or any of their other backup infielder options.   Via this trade with the Reds, they also might have found Chipper Jones’ successor in the event that Joey Terdoslavich is not ready next year. But to gain a long-term future with the Braves, Francisco will have to lose the “lazy” and “unmotivated” tags he earned while playing for the Reds.

Once the decision was made, it was easy to understand why the Braves allowed Terdoslavich to skip the Double-A level and jump to Triple-A Gwinnett.  There are few questions about his offensive potential.  As for his task to prove he can handle the third base position, it will not prove any more difficult at the Triple-A level than it would have at the Double-A level.

But I do not see why the Braves would allow Andrelton Simmons the chance to also skip the Double-A level.  Yes, there was a chance he was going to make the leap to the Majors.  But much of that had to do with concerns about Tyler Pastornicky’s range at short.  Now that the Braves have made the decision to start the season with Pastornicky,  Simmons should be allowed to make a natural progression by first testing himself against Double-A pitching.

There is a good chance Simmons will be displaying his tremendous defensive skills as Atlanta’s shortstop at some point this year.  But before he makes that leap, he should first spend a month or two against Double-A pitching.  Two years ago when he was considered the best defensive shortstop available in the First-Year Player Draft, the Braves thought enough of his offensive skills to draft him as a pitcher.

 

 

 

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