DARK STAR, Fla. – Today marks the end of Week 1 in the six-week adventure that is spring training, and we – we being me — have only consumed approximately 46 cups of coffee.
It’s never easy going from a 2-4 a.m. bedtime/8-9 a.m. wakeup for 10-1/2 months of the year to a schedule of 6:30 a.m. wakeup/midnight pass-out-on-rented-condo-sofa-or-dining-table-chair-while-blogging. But we do it for the peeps. The craft. And baseball.
Oh, yeah, and to pay the mortgage and motorcycle payments.
It’s been a week of injury-free Braves workouts in perfect weather (sunny, temps in 70s/80s every day so far) on the grounds of the Happiest Place On Earth.
(Disney World admission: $87.33 ages 10 & over; ESPN’s Wide World of Sports admission: $14.50 adults. No, no you don’t have to pay the Disney admission, but you gotta pay to get into the Worldwide Leader sports complex to see the Bravos work out.)
So let’s fill our coffee mug (again) and consider a few things gleaned during Week 1.
We learned that….
—The right side of the field might tilt beneath the enormity of pals and lineup mates Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. V-backed right fielder Heyward came in at a chiseled 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds (up 4 lbs from last year), while 6-4 rookie first baseman Freeman added 15 pounds and checked in at 242.
“I lifted four times a week,” said Freeman, who is getting his own place to live this year in Atlanta, after staying rent-free with Heyward last year when Freeman was making minor-league coin playing for Triple-A Gwinnett.
It was the first winter in a few years that Freeman was able to work out on a regular basis, after spending previous offseasons playing fall ball and/or recovering from injuries.
“I’ve always been hurt at the end of the year, so I’d be just sitting for a month-and-a-half until I could do anything,” Freeman said.
But not this winter. He had a thumb injury that ended his Arizona Fall League season after a few games in October. That healed quickly and he got on his workout program with his trainer back home in Southern California.
On his added weight and strength, he said, “I feel great. Worked hard. So we’ll see how it pays off….. The biggest thing is to see how the ball goes to left field, left-center, see if I can get more distance, more carry on it.”
Not that he’ll be swinging for the fences.
“Stick to my line drives,” he said. “If the balls go over the fence, they go over the fence.”
— Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor will compete for the last spot in the rotation, but won’t come to blows. At least they’d better not, since they will live together back in Atlanta this season, when one of them will likely be pitching for the Braves and the other for Triple-A Gwinnett.
“It’s exciting to see what’s going to happen,” Minor said. “But there’s nothing to be played up about me vs. Beachy, because me and Beachy are going to room together during the season. There’s no [tension]. It’s not like a big deal to us.
“We played together at [Double-A] Mississippi, and then both got moved up to Gwinnett. I played a couple of games with him there, then I got moved up [to the majors last summer].”
I asked him if they were looking at places to live more or less midway between the north Atlanta ‘burbs (Gwinnett County) and Turner Field downtown.
“Yeah, like the Buckhead area,” he said. “One of us will probably have to drive about 40 minutes to Gwinnett.”
Buckhead is closer to downtown than to the Gwinnett ballpark, but I told Minor that the drive might be longer than 40 minutes to Turner Field with Atlanta traffic. Don’t go near I-85 after about 3 p.m., kid.
So anyway, about that fifth-starter competition….
“It’s not like we’re going to be worried about how the other threw and want him to do badly,” Minor said. “I would say from how he acts, and I know how I act towards him, we both care about what each other is going to do, and if we really did well, we’ll congratulate the other and move on. It’s not a big deal.”
— Speaking of No. 5 starter, we learned it’s not just a two-way battle, according to Fredi Gonzalez. The new Braves manager said 35-year-old right-hander Rodrigo Lopez is also in the mix.
“I go in with no preconceived notions are anything,” Gonzalez said. “Just give them enough innings, those three guys, and see who makes the club. And I hope they all pitch extremely well. I hope the whole staff pitches extremely well, but I hope [the fifth spot] is one of those things where we’re here on cut day and we don’t make a decision until 5 in the morning trying to figure out what’s best for the team.”
Lopez signed a minor-league free agent contract after going 7-16 with a 5.00 ERA and 200 innings pitched in 33 starts for Arizona last season. He did not come to the Braves with Triple-A ambitions.
“I definitely want to make the team,” Lopez said. “I know I’ll get a chance to compete for the fifth spot. I would like to do as much as I can to help the team. If I can help the team as a fifth starter, or if there’s a spot open in the bullpen, whatever they decide. I just came here to help the team and do my best, regardless of what role I’m in.”
Not that he’d flat refuse to pitch for Gwinnett if he doesn’t get the fifth-starter job.
“Yeah, I mean….that’s not the goal,” he said. “But these guys have been honest with me. If I have to go to Triple-A, it’s definitely not what I want, but depending on the situation and everything, I probably would.”
He won 14 or more games three times in four seasons with Baltimore from 2002-2005, but has a 24-39 record with four teams since then, with ERAs of 5.00 or above in three of those four seasons.
Lopez missed part of the 2007 season and all of 2008 after Tommy John elbow surgery, and had shoulder inflammation in 2009.
— No. 1 Braves prospect Julio Teheran is the real thing. I have seen him throw, and he seriously stands out. That I can tell you. Seemingly effortless, loose-armed delivery, mid-90s fastball, great movement, hits the mitt.
But beyond his obvious physical gifts, we learned from catcher David Ross that the 20-year-old Colombian future ace seems to have things together upstairs. Teheran doesn’t act as if he’s got it all figured out, like the world is his and others are passing through.
“What impressed me the most, I guess, is he was a little wild out of the windup for about 10 pitches, then he just went to the stretch and started pitching,” Ross said. “He knew how to slow himself down and make the adjustment. Went to the stretch and just started painting his fastball in and out, and had better command of his changeup out of that.
“Another thing that impressed me a lot was, after he was done he came up to me and started asking questions, like ‘how was my stuff? I felt like I didn’t have as good a control with my breaking stuff, what did you see?’ For a young guy to ask me what I thought – that’s what you want.
“You want a guy with good stuff to come up and kind of use the knowledge that you’ve gained as veteran player over the years, to try to help guys out. If you can create that relationship with a pitcher, especially a young pitcher, it just helps out on down the line. When you feel like they have confidence in you and trust you and your knowledge, and then you’re using their stuff and their knowledge. They’re going to grow faster than other guys that just go out there and are kind of like, ‘I’m the best.’
Ross wasn’t finished discussing Teheran.
“Another thing he did, you see some of these guys come in here and they want to show off their off-speed stuff.” he said. “But until he threw a fastball for a strike, or two in a row, he wasn’t going to his off-speed stuff. He used his fastballs in and out. He wasn’t just going to throw a ball, then use his change-up, he was going to throw his fastball for a strike, then throw his off-speed pitch. It just showed me how advanced he is mentally.
“He’s real poised, too, when I talked to him afterward. He had a good feel for what he was working on.”
Teheran also speaks pretty good English, Ross said.
“I asked him how you doing, where are you from,” he said. “It’s always a plus for me – I’ve got some broken Spanish, but that’s about it. I was talking to him and joking with him on the walk over before. He told me how old he was, where he was from, how he liked this camp, how things were going.”
We also learned that we really like talking to David Ross. No, wait. We already knew that. (If the Braves had fallen short of Ross’ salary demands, I think most of us reporters would’ve collected a few bucks to try to bridge the gap.)
— Fredi Gonzalez has basically the same rules as Bobby Cox, including no music in the clubhouse. Players are free to listen to it on their headphones, just as they were with Cox. But stereos, radios, whatever, aren’t allowed. The reasoning is that others shouldn’t have to listen to your music if they don’t want to.
“I like all kinds of music,” Gonzalez said of the rule. “I’ll listen to everything from John Michael Montgomery and Kenny Chesney to Ludacris and 50 Cent, or the Eagles. I’m all over the board. But some guys might not like that.
“Bobby’s had the rule for what, 20-25 years? He might have been ahead of the curve. [Loud music] causes problems in the clubhouse, becomes a situation of, who’s turn is it to play my music? We’ve got more stuff to worry about than whose turn it is to play the music on the [clubhouse stereo]. Plus with Ipods, with MP3 players and all that….”
With all those individual listening devices, there’s no need for boomboxes in a clubhouse.
One rule that Gonzalez is adamant about is tardiness. Be on time, or call to let someone know you’ll be late.
“Nobody here has another job or a school they have to attend, right?” he said, smiling. “Or, “I don’t get out of Starbucks till 9, I’m going to be a little late.’ So those [rules] are givens, that you’re going to be on time and you’ve got to give effort. Those are rules, but that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Unless someone’s working on a doctor’s degree that I don’t know about.”
— The closer situation will be determined this spring. Yes, rookie strikeout machine Craig Kimbrel is a primary candidate, but Gonzalez might also use second-year lefty Jonny Venters in the role.
“I think we’re going to give both of those guys an opportunity,” he said. Two years ago [lefty Mike] Gonzalez and [Rafael] Soriano did it, whichever way that lineup came up [in the ninth inning]. Maybe we’ll do that, to see how it goes in the beginning.
“I hope that they both [Kimbrel and Venters] pitch so well that it’d be difficult [to choose]. I think that takes care of itself later on. I hope those two young men pitch lights-out, where you could go either way. They’re both capable of doing it….
“In a perfect world, yeah, you want it to be one guy. Because then you can set up the whole game to get to that one guy. In a perfect world.
“But you know, it’s not so perfect.”
— Jordan Schafer is healthy, and that means he has his swagger back. We didn’t see that much last spring, when the center fielder sounded like a beaten man as he tried to come back five months after hand surgery, but the soreness was still there and strength was not.
Now he’s swinging every day, hitting the ball as hard as he ever did. He’s excited, to say the least.
“I can’t even explain how much,” he said. “I’m probably more excited than anybody to be here right now, just because, I mean, the last year and a half of not being able to do anything. Now to feel this good and healthy and come in here and have this opportunity….”
I mentioned to him that he’s become somewhat polarizing among Braves fans. Many still hope and/or believe he’ll become the standout he was projected to be before the hand fracture, but others have tired of hearing about his health and his struggles and his comeback bid. There’s a segment of fans that wish the Braves hadn’t kept him.
Being labeled injury-prone irritates Schafer.
“I’ve been injured once in my life,” he said. “You can ask anybody that’s had a hand injury, whether it’s [Joe] Mather or [Jayson] Werth or anybody. As far as hitting, hand injuries take a little while to come back from.”
Then I asked him if he wanted to prove something to skeptical fans and others..
Schafer smiled and said, “I’m sure they’ll change their minds shortly.”
♣ OK let’s close this with a Dylan cover from mighty Mark Lanegan. This is one of the best cuts from the movie I’m Not There. Lot of great Zimmerman covers on that soundtrack, including Cat Power’s terrific “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”
Click on here for a video of Lanegan doing “The Man In Long Black Coat.”
“THE MAN IN THE LONG BLACK COAT” by Bob Dylan
Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high,
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry,
Windows wide open, African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze.
Not a word of goodbye, not even a note,
She’s gone with the man
In the long black coat.
Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town,
He looked into her eyes when she stopped to ask
If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask.
Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man
In the long black coat.
Preacher was a talkin’ there’s a sermon he gave,
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved,
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied.
It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat,
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat.
There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way.
But people don’t live or die, people just float.
She went with the man
In the long black coat.
There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June,
Tree trunks uprooted, ‘neath the high crescent moon
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating the dead horse.
She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote,
She’s gone with the man
In the long black coat.