Last season’s miserable finish by the Atlanta Braves seems to be providing some extra motivation for this year’s crop of hungrier, and, in some cases, leaner players.
Most of this season’s projected starting position players were already taking batting practice more than a week early at the Braves’ spring training complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. They were not required to report until this Friday.
General manager Frank Wren continues to face some criticism for his lack of off-season moves to improve a team that watched an eight-game wild card lead over St. Louis evanesce in a cloud of bitter disappointment. The skid ended with a devastating 13-inning loss to Philadelphia in the last game of the season.
Wren’s only moves were to fire hitting coach Larry Parrish and trade the ineffective Derek Lowe — and $5 million of his salary — to Cleveland. It was rumored all winter that he was shopping Martin Prado and Jair Jurrjens for a new bat in the outfield, but no trade materialized.
The Braves head into the 2012 season with virtually the same team that played as well as any other major league team for most of last season. That’s why Wren is optimistic about his team’s chances to make a successful run to the playoffs.
The optimism is based on an assumption that Jason Heyward and Prado will regain the form that made them all stars during the 2010 season. Both battled nagging injuries last year and finished with almost embarrassing numbers. If both play to their potential, Wren will breathe a huge sigh of relief come October.
Heyward, who was in Chattanooga recently as a part of the Braves Caravan, has been working with new hitting coach Greg Walker twice weekly since the first of the year. He hopes to regain the swing which led to a brilliant rookie season in 2010.
“Since the beginning of the off-season I have worked hard at getting healthy,” Heyward said. “When you have an injury, you get away from those things that have worked before and you develop bad habits. It takes time to correct those bad habits. In the off-season you can work on things and not have your mistakes bring consequences.
“Last season I went into spring training at 256 pounds. I spent a lot of time in the weight room. I have decided I don’t need to be that big. I’m down to 235 points and that seems perfect for me.”
Walker, who was also in town with the Caravan, is very happy with Heyward’s progress during the off-season. “A lot of credit goes to Jason for the work he has put in during the past six weeks,” he said. “Chipper (Jones) has worked with us, and he and the big league staff are pleased with Jason’s swing at this point. More importantly, Jason is pleased with his swing. In spring training, we’ll get out on the field, reassess the situation and see what we need to do from there.”
Wren is also taking a gamble that rookie Tyler Pastornicky, a 22-year-old shortstop, can successfully replace Alex Gonzalez, who left via free agency. Instead of signing an established veteran to a multiyear contract, Wren and his scouts believe that Pastornicky, who batted .314 between Mississippi (AA) and Gwinnett (AAA) last year, is ready for the major leagues. Veteran Jack Wilson was re-signed as his mentor and backup.
Spring training can certainly bring some roster surprises, but this is how it looks heading into March:
Starters - Heyward, Michael Bourn, Prado
Reserves - Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske
Hopefuls - Jose Constanza, Luis Durango.
Starters - Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Pastornicky, Jones
Reserves - Wilson, Hinske
Hopefuls - Brandon Hicks, Drew Sutton, Josh Wilson.
Starter - Brian McCann
Reserve - David Ross
Rotation - Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy
Battling for a spot - Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran. (Minor has an edge as a left-hander.)
Staff - Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Kris Medlen
Hopefuls - Arodys Vizcaino, Robert Fish, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro, Cory Gearrin.
The pristine fields of ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex will be the venue for some interesting battles as the Braves’ talented youngsters fight for a roster spot in the month ahead.
Opening Day is set for Thursday, April 8, at Citi Field against the New York Mets.