Pitchers and catchers are in camp and the Braves’ spring workouts have commenced.
This year in particular, players were itching to get to camp to erase the dubious end to their now infamous and tragic 2011 meltdown. What’s encouraging to note is that a majority of position players have arrived early to camp and have begun their workouts, poised and more determined than ever to start fresh in 2012.
Unlike the Boston Red Sox, who also suffered a monumental collapse to their season in 2011, the Braves chose to not play the blame game — for that, they should be applauded.
Whether you agree with General Manager Frank Wren’s decision to keep his roster almost entirely intact, you have to respect that a knee-jerk reaction did not take place in Atlanta.
Sure, the Braves embarrassed themselves to a lowly 8-18 record after September 1 and squandered a seemingly insurmountable 10 1/2 game lead in the NL Wild Card to the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
What’s unfair to the Braves is that they are being judged and evaluated solely on how they finished their season in shame. While it’s without question, inexcusable — they’ve been punished enough.
Let’s not forget that this same team that Frank Wren is returning in 2012 had the fourth-best record in the majors through the first week in September.
The Braves suffered the loss of two of their best starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson for most of the second half. Jason Heyward’s sophomore season was a colossal disappointment and Dan Uggla didn’t find his stroke until after the All-Star break.
They watched two of their perennially clutch performers, Brian McCann and Martin Prado, rush back from injuries in the late summer months but never quite hit their stride down the stretch.
Most alarming of all, the Braves’ greatest strength — O’Ventbrel — the triple threat of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel at the back end of the bullpen, faltered mightily down the stretch. The threesome posted a remarkable 60-3 record when leading after 7 innings from April-August before going 7-5 in September. They also saw their ERA rise from a collective 3.34 to an inflated 4.17 in the season’s final month, according to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez received a lot of criticism for the overuse of his bullpen after the Braves narrowly missed the playoffs on baseball’s final day. Jonny “Everyday” Venters earned his nickname, being called upon a Major League-high 85 times in 2011. Kimbrel’s 79 appearances were more than any other closer in baseball.
While the second-guessing is surely warranted, the Braves did partake in 55 one-run games, which was tied with the San Francisco Giants for most by any National League team with a winning record, Stark reported. They also played in 26 extra-inning games, which took an even greater toll on their relief corps.
It’s almost incredulous to reflect upon the Braves’ final month of the season — and how everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
This team didn’t have the character issues or the dissention in the locker room that the Red Sox had. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Braves possess one of the most harmonious clubhouses in baseball. They are a tight-knit group that never pointed fingers and placed blame on each other. They took their lumps as one collective group and exuded tremendous class and dignity in defeat.
I don’t doubt Frank Wren wanted to improve his club, if the right deal came along. But I also think he was right not to panic because he has given his troops an invaluable gift — confidence.
It’s early but players have seemingly come into camp with a positive outlook and a renewed sense of hope and optimism. They also have something to prove to themselves and the rest of the league — that last year was an aberration and that they’ve learned from it.
Jason Heyward is reportedly in fantastic shape, having shed over 20 pounds this winter. He’s worked tirelessly with new hitting coach Greg Walker this offseason in an effort to revamp his swing. The early results have been lauded by his teammates, who claim Heyward has begun to regain his old form and power.
Jair Jurrjens was fitted for orthotics after a troublesome toe contributed to his knee discomfort. Now Jurrjens claims to feel better physically than he has in months and doesn’t appear to have any limitations this spring.
Tim Hudson underwent back surgery this offseason and his recovery is going smoothly. Hudson won’t be rushed back to the rotation and his projected timetable for return is May. The Braves will turn to one of their many talented young arms to pick up the slack in Hudson’s absence.
Tommy Hanson suffered a minor concussion after blowing his tires on the way to the Braves’ Spring Training facility. He shouldn’t fall behind the other pitchers, even taking a few days offs, since he began his throwing program early this offseason.
Hanson altered his delivery in an effort to take pressure off his balky shoulder and back and also to limit the number of stolen bases against him in 2012. Hanson allowed a major-league leading 30 steals in 22 starts before being shut down for the season.
The Braves attribute a lot of last season’s late struggles to an injury-depleted rotation, an overworked bullpen and atypical performances from their biggest sluggers. If their arms stay healthy, their bullpen rested and they see a resurgence from some players who had poor years, they’ll be able to contend with the rest of the very competitive National League East.
There are a lot of questions and ‘what if’s’ surrounding the Atlanta Braves this season, but there is no shortage of talent and potential. They may be receiving criticism for not being proactive, but sometimes the answers really do lie within one’s own roster.
It’ll become apparent quite early if Wren’s decision to give this group another go together was best in the long-run. I believe the Braves deserve the chance to right their wrongs in 2012, and hopefully write a storybook ending in the process.
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