With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training one week from Sunday, the Braves’ roster looks about the same as it did during the September swoon that kept them from the playoffs.
This disappoints those fans who wanted general manager Frank Wren to shake things up. But players who endured one of the worst late-season collapses in history seem pleased to have the same cast as they crank things up again.
“I’m happy,” said closer Craig Kimbrel, National League Rookie of the Year after leading major league relievers with 127 strikeouts and tying for the NL lead with 46 saves.
“We have a good team. All the pieces are here. It’s not like we had to go out and get anybody. The team’s talented. We’re going to be fine. We’ve got a really good clubhouse; that’s a big part of having a good team. I’m glad we didn’t break that up.”
The Braves’ pitching staff, one of baseball’s best in 2011, could be even better if the Braves can stay reasonably healthy. They return all key members of the NL’s top-rated bullpen, led by Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. Also back are their four best starters — Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy — and a group of young pitchers who will compete for the fifth rotation spot and one or two bullpen openings.
The Braves traded veteran pitcher Derek Lowe to Cleveland with a year left on his contract, agreeing to pay $10 million of his $15 million salary in order to turn the page after his second disappointing season and to open a rotation spot for a youngster from a group that includes Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado.
Hudson had back surgery in November and will be brought along cautiously. He might not be ready at the season’s outset, but the Braves think the worst-case scenario is a return by early May.
Braves players understand why fans wanted change, even if some wanted change for change’s sake. Others were disappointed the Braves didn’t add the big outfield bat that general manager Frank Wren said he was looking for after the 2011 season. Wren says they could still add a hitter or fill other needs in the coming weeks, but the Braves will evaluate some of their own players during spring training to gauge those needs.
“Any time you struggle the way we did down the stretch, it’s the last thing anybody remembers,” said Venters, arguably the majors’ best reliever until his late slump contributed to the Braves’ 10-20 skid to the finish.
“[But] we had the fourth-best record in the game going in the last month. Our team’s great. The clubhouse chemistry is better than any that I’ve been a part of. I’m excited about the team.
“I think we have everything we need to be successful. I don’t think we needed to make any moves, and I think Frank did a great job with the way he approached the offseason and let it play out. I mean, we had some unfortunate things happen last year — Tommy getting hurt, J.J. [Jurrjens] got hurt, Brian [McCann] got hurt, [Martin] Prado. And then you had J-Hey [Jason Heyward]. He’s not going to do what he did [in 2011]. He’s too good of an athlete to not make the adjustments and figure it out.”
Jurrjens (knee) and Hanson (shoulder) missed most of the second half, and both are healthy now and without restrictions. Through July 9, Jurrjens and Hanson were a combined 22-7 with a 2.14 ERA in 33 starts. After July 9, they went 2-6 with a 6.75 ERA in 12 starts.
“There’s no doubt that our rotation was the strength of the team,” Venters said. “That’s why we [relievers] pitched so much because our starters kept us in so many games. If those guys stay healthy, there’s no telling. … I expect to be in the thick of the division race anyways. But having those two guys, they’re horses. They’re No. 1 starters on most teams.”
Jurrjens and left fielder Prado were at the center of many offseason trade rumors, but Wren said all along he wouldn’t trade key players in any deal unless it made the Braves better. The Braves didn’t sign a major league free agent from outside the organization.
“I don’t think any of us really expected [significant moves],” third baseman Chipper Jones said. “Nobody was going to be a free agent; everybody was coming back. The bottom line is, for 4 1/2, 5 months we were pretty dang good. We had the third- or fourth-best record in baseball. We were right there. We just didn’t finish it out. I think that’s the sour taste that everybody still has in their mouth — [everybody] that’s not inside this clubhouse.
“We’re confident that we can go out and still play the same brand. I really didn’t expect us to do anything position-player wise, other than maybe a move or two off the bench. I expected most of the movement that we made to be done in the pitching staff, and you’ve seen it. With the exception of D-Lowe, there hasn’t been much, period. We’re OK with that.
“You sit back and you watch some of the other teams in your division make moves, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘They’re getting better by the day.’ But that’s the nature of the beast. It really doesn’t mean anything.
“On paper it looks good for those people. It might sell a couple of extra tickets. But if you make all the moves and you look up at the end of July and you’re still five games under .500, it doesn’t do you a lot of good. We don’t plan on being in that spot.”