Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren’s complacency during the off-season may come under scrutiny as his team begins to notice a few dark clouds of doubt being cast over its 2012 season.
Wren’s only significant decisions during the winter were to peddle the ineffective Derek Lowe to Cleveland and to allow shortstop Alex Gonzalez to depart via free agency, thereby handing the shortstop job to a rookie with no major league experience. Otherwise, Wren stayed pat with his team.
It was thought that one or more of Atlanta’s talented young pitchers might be traded for an outfielder with proven offensive punch, but Wren steadfastly refused to part with any of them. Such a move would have provided some substantial insurance should Martin Prado need to cover for the oft-injured Chipper Jones at third base.
Wren bet the bank that outfielders Prado and Jason Heyward would return to their all-star form of 2010, and that Jones, the face of the franchise at 40 years old, would give the team an ample number of games at third base.
Only an hour before holding a news conference last week to announce his retirement from baseball after this season, Jones tore the meniscus in his left knee while running in the outfield and was scheduled for surgery Monday in Atlanta. He will miss the first week of the season at least, according to Wren.
“Based on his history with his six knee surgeries, Chipper has needed 16 to 18 days to come back,” Wren told MLB Radio. “So we are looking at right about our home opener (April 13) when he should be ready to come back. That’s the best-case scenario, and hopefully we can expect him back then.”
The Braves had better hope that the “best-case scenario” comes to fruition. The team opens the season on the road against the Mets and Astros. Fans would like to see them sweep both series in order to put the memories of last September’s collapse behind them and begin the 2012 campaign with a refreshing air of confidence.
With Jones out that first week, Prado will move to third base, leaving journeymen Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske to platoon in left field. That might work for a week, but there is no certainty that Jones will be ready for the home opener, despite Wren’s optimism. If not, it’s possible that the Braves may look to speedster Jose Constanza or Jordan Parraz, who has hit .387 in 21 games this spring.
There is also some concern about the readiness of the starting rotation as the team heads into the final week of spring training. Tim Hudson, the anchor of the staff, won’t be ready to pitch until the end of April as he recovers from back surgery. Tommy Hanson is still a week behind because of a concussion he suffered in February. Jair Jurrjens pitched poorly in his first four starts this spring but bounced back with an impressive outing on Sunday.
Both Hanson and Jurrjens are working to recover from late-season injuries in 2011. Hanson has slightly altered his delivery and thrown without pain. Likewise, Jurrjens has felt no pain in his knee and was encouraged by Sunday’s performance.
Brandon Beachy has struggled a bit with his command and knows he needs to go deeper into games this season. Lefty Mike Minor has pitched well this spring and apparently nailed down the fourth spot in the rotation.
Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are battling for the fifth starting spot. Until he was roughed up last Saturday, Delgado appeared to have the edge. The decision will probably come down to the final spring training starts for both.
The contest for the starting shortstop assignment has been intense. Wren all but awarded the job to Tyler Pastornicky during the off-season, but rookie Andrelton Simmons has attracted considerable attention during the spring with his outstanding defensive ability.
“This will be a tough decision,” Wren said. “We came into spring training with a plan to give Pastornicky every opportunity to win the position. He struggled the first two weeks, but he has come on strong at the plate and has looked better defensively. It’s going to be an interesting discussion this week whether we go with Pastornicky with a little better offense or Simmons with a little more defense.”
My money is on Pastornicky. It is going to be very tough for the Braves to have led him to believe the job was his all winter and then snatch it from his grasp at the last minute.
My prediction for the starting lineup for Braves-Mets on April 5:
1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Martin Prado, 3B
3. Brian McCann, C
4. Dan Uggla, 2B
5. Freddie Freeman, 1B
6. Jason Heyward, RF
7. Matt Diaz, LF
8. Tyler Pastornicky, SS
9. Jair Jurrjens, P
Let the season begin …