LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The National League East has become a beast, and many experts are picking the Braves to finish no better than third or fourth in the division in 2012.
But while acknowledging bold offseason moves by the up-and-coming Washington Nationals and stadium revenue-boosted Miami Marlins, Braves players say their own team is capable of holding off the upstarts and nouveau riche and making another run at the Philadephia Phillies.
“That’s what you play this sport for, to have competition, to have a challenge,” Braves left fielder Martin Prado said. “This is what we’re looking for. This is the kind of season where either you put all your money in, or you’re out. So I’m putting all in.”
After the Braves lost 20 of their final 30 games in 2011 and were eliminated from the wild-card race on the final day of the season, general manager Frank Wren rolled the dice by not making any major additions and putting faith in the Braves’ ability to play as they did before the collapse.
On August 25, the Braves had the fourth-best record in the majors (79-53) and a 9-1/2-game wild-card lead over San Francisco (St. Louis was third, 10-1/2 games back).
“Like I’ve said from the get-go, I think it’s been good that Frank didn’t make any moves,” Braves pitcher Kris Medlen said, “because I thought we had a top-five team in major league baseball last year. We had some injuries and whatever else, a slump with pitching and hitting. I know our offense gets blamed a lot but our ERA was like a 5-something [in September].
“It was a whole team thing, but I think injuries had a lot to do with it.”
While the Braves stood pat, the Nationals — after finishing 8-1/2 games behind second-place Atlanta — added pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to form a formidable rotation with returners Jordan Zimmerman and now-healthy Stephen Strasburg. They added Brad Lidge to a bullpen that already had some overpowering arms.
Meanwhile the Marlins, who finished 17 games behind the Braves, spent lavishly on shortstop/leadoff man Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell and durable veteran starter Mark Buehrle. They also traded for former Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, who slimmed down and has looked like a potential star again this spring.
“Everybody got better,” Braves veteran Eric Hinske said. “And everybody thinks the Mets aren’t going to be good, but I disagree. I think the Mets are going to be very competitive. We’re going to have our hands full everywhere we go in the division.”
Braves right fielder Jason Heyward: “Man, it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be tough for one team to pull ahead and be up so many games unless something happens, injuries or what have you. But I think it’s going to be a tight-knit division. When we play each other we’re going to beat each other up, then when we play other teams it’s going to set us up to have a lot better odds going against other divisions.”
The Phillies added closer Jonathan Papelbon but will be without first baseman Ryan Howard (Achilles surgery) for at least a month and second baseman Chase Utley (knee) for perhaps much longer. There’s no timetable for Utley’s return.
The five-time defending East champions still have a stalwart rotation led by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
“They’ll always be in it with that pitching they have – always,” Hinske said. “They’ve been winning for the last however many years. Until someone takes them down, they’re the ones to beat.”
Medlen agreed: “The last few years they’ve won by multiple games – it hasn’t really been close. Obviously they have strength on their team with some veteran guys. They’ve got Papelbon in the back that’s going to help their ‘pen. [Jim] Thome’s there…. They’re going to be strong again.”
But despite payroll constraints, the Braves believe they can compete with anyone in the division.
“Absolutely,” Braves pitcher Brandon Beachy said. “On paper they [Nationals and Marlins] both improved their lineups. But again, that’s on paper. You never know how it’s going to play out. None of that really affects what we’re doing here and we’re still just as confident in what we can do as we were before they made those moves.”
The Braves got off to a dreadful start in spring training, winning just one of their first 12 games before they began playing better. Not that players or coaches care about Grapefruit League records the way some fans do, but the Braves were encouraged by how things began clicking as they went 7-4 with two ties in their past 13 games.
They have a week left in Florida before breaking camp and heading north for an April 3 exhibition game at Gwinnett County against the organization’s top prospects. The Braves open the season on the road with six games against the Mets and Astros, teams picked to finish last in their divisions.
After that it’ll be home at Turner Field for six games against the Prince Fielder-less Milwaukee Brewers and Mets. The Braves know their first dozen games present an opportunity for a fast start.
Whatever happens — at the beginning of the season or the end — they think they’re better prepared to deal with adversity and make adjustments after experiencing their late-season meltdown.
“We need a little bit of luck and to go after it from the beginning of the season,” Prado said. “If we get in that situation like we were in last year, we’re going to act differently because we learned from it. But I’ll take my chances. I believe we have the team that we need to have right now. There’s a lot of talent in here and we believe in ourselves. That’s all that matters.”
They will be without ace Tim Hudson (back surgery) until at least the last week of April and without third baseman Chipper Jones for the first road trip and possibly longer, after Jones had arthroscopic knee surgery Monday. Prado moves to third to fill in for Jones and the Braves are looking into a trade or free-agent signing to improve outfield depth.
Their strength remains the pitching staff, and Jair Jurrjens’ drastically improved performance Sunday – six innings, one run, three hits — helped ease concerns after he’d posted a 10.13 ERA and .403 opponents’ average in his first four starts. He’s wearing a knee brace to protect the leg that’s been injured for each of the past two unsuccessful September playoff pushes.
“We like our chances,” Hinske said. “Guys are healthy except Huddy, and we know what we’re going to get him back pretty soon. [Hinske said this before Jones’ latest injury.] So if we stay healthy and we just stay consistent, we’ll be fine. Put the past behind us and go. Move forward.”
Jones got hurt again Thursday, just before the previously scheduled news conference where he announced he’ll retire after the 2012 season. The injury doesn’t change how the Braves feel about their team’s chances, since they already anticipated before this latest injury that the soon-to-be 40-year-old would miss plenty of games this season anyway.
With the addition of a second wild card in each league beginning this season, some think it possible that three playoff teams could come from the five-team NL East.
“I think so,” Medlen said. “But a lot also happens and the Phillies could come in last place. You never know. That’s why you play the games.”