Ever notice how every player and manager always says he’s “excited” about spring training? Because every player and manager always is. Spring training is the fun part. But somebody has to function as a wet blanket, and here I stand. (Or drape, as the case may be.) Here are five reasons I’m concerned about the local nine as it readies for Lake Buena Vista.
1. The defense could be deadly. Dan Uggla will help the batting order, OK? We’re agreed there. But Uggla is a bad defender — 47 errors over the past three seasons, which is a bunch for a second baseman — and he’s the new Braves second baseman. Which means Martin Prado moves to left field, where he has played a total of three big-league games. Even if Chipper Jones is healthy, he’ll still turn 39 in April. And Alex Gonzalez, who turns 34 next month, was a major defensive disappointment.
Think about it: At how many positions do the Braves have a first-rate defender? Freddie Freeman should be fine at first base, but Brian McCann is only OK, and even Jason Heyward had some odd moments in right field last season. I worry that some fine pitchers will be undercut by the men stationed behind — or, in McCann’s case, in front of — them. But that’s what I do. I worry.
2. Nate McLouth is again projected as the center fielder. That’s a major position on any ballclub, and I haven’t seen anything from McLouth since he arrived in June 2009 that makes me think he’s even a minor asset. (From what I’ve seen, the Pirates got rid of him just as his career took the ol’ Matterhorn nosedive.)
It was noteworthy that Rick Ankiel was the Braves’ starting center fielder in the Division Series even though McLouth was on the active roster. The Braves thought so little of Ankiel they let him leave after the season, and now they plan to run McLouth out there again. Maybe this makes sense to you. It doesn’t to me.
3. Craig Kimbrel walks people. The Braves haven’t officially designated Kimbrel their closer, but they’re clearly leaning that way. And he has everything you’d want in a closer … except control.
Over 151 minor-league innings, Kimbrel walked 95 batters. (That’s an average of 5.7 walks per nine innings, which is terrible.) He walked 16 men in 20 2/3 big-league innings after his promotion. He walked Travis Ishikawa in the devastating ninth inning of Game 3 of the NLDS, and sure enough Ishikawa scored the tying run.
Speaking Wednesday at Turner Field, Kimbrel said: “From right now until the season, [working on control] becomes my focus. I want to improve it.”
It’s not an option. Either Kimbrel throws strikes or he doesn’t work the ninth inning. As Jeff Brantley, himself a closer, once said after watching John Rocker blow a save via bases on balls: “You can’t walk people if you want to close.”
4. There’s still no speed. The Braves ranked 14th in a 16-team league in stolen bases in 2010, and their new position players are Freeman, who’s no deer, and Uggla, who has 19 steals in five big-league seasons. The guess is that Fredi Gonzalez would like to play more Small Ball than his managerial predecessor, but he wouldn’t seem to have the tools.
5. Magic might not be transferable. Last season the Braves won 25 games in their final at-bat. Much went wrong along the way, but enough games went improbably right at the end for this team to slip into the playoffs on the final day. It was a wild ride and a good ride and, not incidentally, Bobby Cox’s last ride, but the doings of 2010 weren’t anyone’s concept of a blueprint.
The 2011 Braves have Uggla and Freeman and Kimbrel but will be missing Billy Wagner and Omar Infante and Troy Glaus — who in one month changed the course of 2010, let’s not forget — and Matt Diaz. This team will again pitch well, and it figures to hit better than it did last season while fielding worse. It took 91 wins to qualify for postseason in 2010, and that number would seem the ceiling for the 2011 Braves.
By Mark Bradley