LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Three days from the first full-squad workout, all but a few projected members of the Braves’ 25-man roster were not only present and accounted for, but already in camp and working out.
That’s a good sign for any manager, and certainly for first-year Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. He’s liked all he’s seen during the past two days of workouts for pitchers, catchers, players rehabbing from injuries and – unofficially – anyone else who wants to be here early.
A lot of guys wanted to be here early.
During this morning’s workout spread across four fields, a couple of us ran through the list and realized that the only projected major-league roster members not already in camp were right fielder Jason Heyward, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, utility man Eric Hinske and utility-infield candidate Diory Hernandez.
And word was that Heyward is in the greater Orlandisnopolis and would be in camp Thursday.
Another thing: They’re fit. Won’t bore you with the annual spring-training tales and he’s-in-the-best-shape-of-his-life quotes, but I’ll just say that Brian McCann, Martin Prado, Jair Jurrjens and Peter Moylan all had double-digit weight loss during the winter.
Prado dropped weight and stayed strong during the most rigorous conditioning program he ever followed over the winter, while rehabbing from a painful season-ending hip point and torn oblique muscle.
He hit line drives to all fields when position players took batting practice this morning against Braves coaches. And being the perfectionist that he is, Prado cursed himself every time he failed to hit any ball squarely. On. Feb. 16, people. He does not mess around.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys on the team, by far,” said general manager Frank Wren, who added that it was Prado who decided to ramp up his offseason conditioning even further than before. “The impetus was him.”
An hour after today’s team workout ended, I was walking from the clubhouse to the pressbox elevator, when I glanced down a hallway and saw Prado, alone, doing pull-ups on a contraption with two ropes hanging down. He had one rope in each hand, and was going at it with gusto. (Check out my amateur, poorly lit photo to the right of this.)
“They don’t get much better than Prado, on and off the field,” McCann said. “We’ve been teammates basically since we were 18 years old, the whole way up. He does it the right way. … You want 25 guys like that.”
Prado was told after the Dan Uggla trade in November that he [Prado] would be moved to left field to accommodate Uggla. If anyone could make the position change, the Braves knew it was Prado. And they knew he would do it without complaint.
“He knows getting Uggla in the middle of the order is going to make us a much better ballclub,” McCann said, “and if he has to move to left field, then he’s going to do that. He can play anywhere on the field and be an All-Star. He’s just such a good athlete that it’s the move they made.”
“He’s got a chance to be an All-Star in left. He’s going to be going for batting title after batting title. That’s how I feel about it. He’s as good as it gets.”
A reporter asked Prado two days ago whether he was ticked off when the All-Star second baseman was told he’d be shifted to left field after the Uggla trade. Prado wouldn’t bite.
“That’s something I cannot control,” he said. “I guess that it’s a challenge in my career. I’ve gotta hope that in the future I can go back in the infield, but that’s what I’ve got right now. And that’s my team.”
♣ McCann reduction: McCann has dropped 15 pounds, down to 220, and his midsection is noticeably slimmer. Frankly, he looks like he did a few years ago – except for the thinning hair, now cut close to the scalp — and not much like a guy whose nickname is “Heap” (that nickname referred to his notoriously sloppy locker and living quarters in the past).
The five-time All-Star catcher hopes the trimmer physique helps him stay fresher and stronger over the course of the long season and hot summer in Atlanta.
“I feel good,” he said. “I just cleaned up my diet. I always put the work in, but just didn’t watch my diet. That’s the only thing that changed. I just cleaned up my diet.”
McCann has emerged as a team leader the past couple of seasons, and he’s another of the Braves who believes their improved team chemistry last year helped them get back to the postseason for the first time in five years.
Players were thrilled when veterans Hinske and David Ross – two other clubhouse mainstays — were re-signed, and that the bullpen was re-fortified with a couple of veterans, Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill, known as high-character guys.
“I think chemistry is a huge part of the game,” McCann said. “If you can get a good clubhouse and make it fun for 162 games, and love competing with the guys next to you, it makes the season fly by and it makes for a good year.”
Uggla swings hard, even on Feb. 16: I watched Dan Uggla take batting practice today, and quickly realized he swings as hard in the cage before the first full-squad workiout as he does in games during the season. The fireplug 2B does NOT get cheated at the plate.
“I keep telling you, he’s going to grow on you,” said Gonzalez, who had Uggla on the Marlins teams Gonzalez managed. “He only knows how to play the game one way. Even the first day of BP out here, that’s the way he swings. And he’ll run the bases just one way, and field ground balls – sometimes you wish he wouldn’t try to field some of the ground balls he tries for.”
“For example, Jimmy Rollins hits a four-hopper up the middle,” Gonzalez said, “and Danny’s trying to dive for it. I say, Danny, if you do catch that, what are you going to do with the ball? You going to throw out Jimmy at first? No. So I’d rather you not beat up your body, let it go.”
Gonzalez smiles as he recalls Uggla’s response:“ ‘I don’t know if I can do that, Skip.’”
♣ Observations: Watching some of the early arriving position players take cuts in the batting cage today, a few things stood out (in addition to Uggla’s fearsome swing).
Neither Joe Mather nor Jordan Schafer show any lingering signs of soreness or stiffness in his surgically repaired wrist. This is good news, as one of them could end up being the backup center fielder (Since the Braves have Mather penciled in for backup duties at the infield and outfield corners, Schafer’s return to form could be especially important.)
Mather missed much of two seasons with a wrist/hand problem that required surgery, but has felt strong and pain-free since last summer.
Schafer missed most of the 2009-2010 seasons with a wrist/hand problem that required surgery, but he said he’s (finally) been pain-free since early winter and felt better hitting the past two days than he has in two years. “I’m 100 percent. I’m ready,” he said. “That’s about all there is to say.”
In other words, he’s learned not to say too much about his condition, and would rather just let his actions speak for themselves when it comes to competing for a spot. Schafer doesn’t know what the Braves’ plans are for him, whether they might want him to go play at least for a month or two in the minors before bringing him up to the big club.
He just knows that he plans to bust his arse this spring trying to win a job or at least remind everyone what he can do when healthy.
As for Mather, the 6-foot-4 former Cardinals prospect reminds a lot of people (including me) of Jayson Werth physically. Mather is a big guy, rangy and wiry strong, and he crushed some balls during BP today, showing the pop that put him on the cusp of a regular job with the Cardinals before injury woes.
Mather totaled 31 homers and an .879 OPS in Double-A/Triple-A in 2007, and hit eight homers in 133 at-bats for the Cardinals in 2008 before hurting his hand.
“All healed up,” said Mather, 28. “Wrist, hand — I was healthy last year. The strength is probably a little better this year, that’s about it.”
“The last four years when we shared spring training [site] in Jupiter with the Cardinals, we saw him a lot,” said Gonzalez, whose Marlins trained in Jupiter. “And you saw Tony use him in lot of positions and a lot of situations. We were always impressed with his athleticism.”
Mather is excited about starting fresh after a decade in the Cardinals organization.
“It feels good,” he said. “It’s not the same feeling going into camp – I went to the same camp 10 years in a row. It’s nice to try something new.”
♣ Chipper goes old-school: The third baseman, Chipper Jones, said he’d go back to the high-socks look this year, and he broke it out Wednesday in batting practice after a proper pair of higher-legged pants arrived. The soon-to-be-39-year-old sported the blue socks and low-top shoes he’ll wear this season (he’s scrapped high-tops after wearing them both times he blew out his knee).
He was breathing heavy after his longest round of batting practice Wednesday, and Jones had a self-deprecating comment about his age/conditioning that we won’t print here.
He also commented to an autograph-seeking fan earlier that he (Chipper) has a son who’s going to be a teen-ager in about one month. “I’m getting old,” he said, smiling.
One more thing: Chipper was impressive in the batting cage. Really. Hitting from both sides, but especially from the right. He pulled a line-drive homer just inside the left-field foul pole that had some serious spin and velocity on it.
♣ Put a lid on it: Alright, let’s close with a classic cut from the outstanding, undervalued band Guided By Voices. Check out this video for the song, “My Kind of Soldier.”
“MY KIND OF SOLDIER” by Guided by Voices
Paralyze the chains
Soft the shelled remains
Stun the strike brigade
They are played
Out with cheek and hair
Take the right to bare
Teeth to bite them down
In the ground
My kind of soldier
You can ride on my shoulders
When you’ve won
Fight for the moment of control
When it opens then its gone
Introduce your pride
To the other side
Vaporize the trial
My kind of soldier
You can ride on my shoulders
When you’ve won
Fight for the moment of control
When it opens then it’s gone.
– by David O’Brien, Braves blog