Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – When Braves general manager Frank Wren went looking to bolster the lineup, bench and bullpen this winter, he had a few things in mind: versatility, right-handed hitting, and reputations for knowing how to win and be good teammates.
That last part was not incidental, either. A little more than a month into spring training, it’s apparent why it was stressed. Braves who’ve been on the team a while say it’s not just their most balanced team in recent years, but already perhaps the most cohesive.
“It’s a good chemistry, and that’s always a good thing,” said second baseman Martin Prado, who gives high marks to additions including outfielder Melky Cabrera, whom he said is a team-first guy all the way.
“For some reason people are always expecting good chemistry for everybody,” said Prado, who indicated it’s not as easy as people think.
Over the course of long seasons, teams can easily become cliquish or fragmented, particularly when results fall short of expectations.
Some teams might not have big arguments or fights, but coexist without truly being on the same page and sharing the same idea about how things should be done, or at least not the same desire to do them that way.
Even a team with a manager like the Braves’ Bobby Cox, renowned for running a unified a clubhouse, can have cracks develop over the course of eight months — especially when things don’t go as planned.
Winning has a way of concealing any sort of discontent, but it’s often there. It has bubbled beneath the surface occasionally in the Braves’ current stretch of four years without a playoff appearance.
At one point in the 2008 season, as Chipper Jones was on his way to winning his first batting title, the veteran third baseman confided that he was concerned about the direction the team seemed to have taken, specifically the attitude of some team members.
“That’s what happens when you have an influx of a bunch of different young guys,” Jones said this past weekend. “You’re going to have people going in different directions. I was pretty much the only holdover here, and yeah it was a little frustrating, because the game wasn’t being played the same way as it had been around here for a long time.”
From his familiar locker at the Braves’ spring-training headquarters, Jones looks around the clubhouse this spring and likes what he sees.
“That weeding-out process has taken place,” he said. “The young guys who have made it through are maturing and starting to learn how to play and learn how to win. You mix that in with a few more older guys from different organizations, guys who are good clubhouse guys, and lo and behold you’ve got a good mix.”
Wren’s offseason position-player additions included first baseman Troy Glaus for needed right-handed power; backup corner infielder Eric Hinske, who has played for three different teams in three consecutive World Series; and Cabrera, a switch-hitter who can play strong defense at all the outfield positions and contributed 28 doubles and 13 homers in 154 games for the World Series champion Yankees in 2009.
During spring training, Latin players often gather around Cabrera as he tells stories they say are both entertaining and inspiring.
“Definitely” a good addition, Prado said. “He’s one of those guys who’s going to put you on the spot — you have to play hard every time. He’s always concerned about what we can do as a team. Because coming from the Yankees, they play as a team. He talks to us about that.”
In the bullpen, the Braves added veterans Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito and Scott Proctor at the back end, and Jesse Chavez, who made 73 appearances as a Pittsburgh rookie last season. All were quickly embraced by returning relievers including Aussie sidearmer Peter Moylan, who said unity is exceptional on this Braves team and in the bullpen.
The Braves think their starting rotation, with Tim Hudson in place of traded 2009 ace Javier Vazquez, can again rank among the majors’ best.
The improved lineup has probably caused the most excitement during the Braves’ 11-6 start this spring, with the additions of Glaus, Cabrera and rookie right fielder Jason Heyward — a 20-year-old phenom that most Braves fully anticipate being their opening day right fielder.
The Braves led the majors with a .390 on-base percentage before Monday’s scheduled off day, and their 97 walks were 17 more than the next-most. Glaus ranks among league leaders in average (.444) and OBP (.559). Heyward has hit .444 with five extra-base hits and nine walks in 31 at-bats. Yunel Escobar has a .355 average with six doubles, and Brian McCann has hit .478 with two homers and nine RBIs in nine games.
“I think we’ve swung the bats extremely well down here, top to bottom,” said Jones, batting .391 with a .517 OBP. “We’ve put together a lot of hits, scored a lot of runs. Defense has been pretty good, at least from the standpoint of the guys we’re going to take north.
“It’s shaping up to be about what I expected.”