The Braves are about to play games that count, and somehow the whole thing seems a bit off. Opening Day isn’t on Monday but on Thursday, and it isn’t even in April. The Braves will play seven games elsewhere before they get around to playing a real game here. And that’s just the logistical stuff. Other oddities:
Somebody else is going to be managing this club. This isn’t breaking news. We had a year to prepare for Bobby Cox’s retirement and an offseason to get ready for Fredi Gonzalez. That said: When the Braves play Thursday in Washington, D.C., it will mark the first time they’ll work for someone other than No. 6 since June 23, 1990. Know how long ago that was? The No. 1 album was “Step by Step” by New Kids on the Block. The No. 1 download on iTunes was … well, nothing. iTunes didn’t exist.
The Braves will be under new management in more ways than one. Fredi G. won’t be as much like Bobby C. as you might think. He worked under him, yes, but he’s a different guy. He’s going to work his players harder than Cox did. And, for as much as Cox meant to the Braves, the changes in managerial attitude will not be entirely unwelcome.
In a stunning development, the Braves might actually have a first baseman. Remember Rico Brogna? Robert Fick? Scott Thorman? Each was handed first base; none lasted a full season. Since Andres Galarraga was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, the only real stability at first base was offered by Adam LaRoche, and here we use the word “stability” advisedly. (LaRoche is famous for blowing hot and cold.) When in doubt, which was often, the Braves would turn to Julio Franco, and he would become the last active big-leaguer born in the ’50s. The Braves now have Freddie Freeman, born in 1989. He could hold the position for the next decade.
Despite drafting a lefthander considered almost big-league-ready with their No. 1 pick in 2009, the Braves still don’t have a lefty in their rotation. The Braves were criticized, most notably by Keith Law of ESPN, for taking Mike Minor of Vanderbilt with the seventh overall pick. Law’s contention was that Minor wasn’t apt to get much better than he already was. Last year Minor was pressed into big-league service after Kris Medlen was injured. He won three games in August but was awful thereafter, prompting a puzzled Cox to ask reporters: “Does he tell you he’s tired?” This spring Minor was edged for the No. 5 slot by Brandon Beachy, who wasn’t drafted at all. (Although Jair Jurrjens’ injury could leave a spot for Minor.)
The Braves have a better batting order than the Phillies. Even without a real leadoff hitter, Fredi G. has reason to feel good about his team’s bats. This team is going to score runs. It will probably outscore the team that has won the National League East four seasons running. The Phillies were already missing Jayson Werth, who left for Washington as a free agent, and now Domonic Brown, Werth’s replacement, has a broken wrist and Placido Polanco has a sore elbow and Chase Utley will begin the season on the disabled list with a bad knee that mightn’t get better without surgery.
It should be also noted that, at least in the National League, batters have to play the field. It’s silly to get excited about any numbers, bad or good, compiled in spring training. But anyone concerned about the Braves’ round-up-the-bats-and-let-the-gloves-take-care-of-themselves approach cannot be cheered by this: They made 32 errors in their first 31 exhibition games.
Strangest of all: The Phillies have become the Braves. Long before they began winning the division, the Phillies dazzled you with everyday talent — first Jimmy Rollins and Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal, then Utley and Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard. Now most of Philadelphia’s healthy assets are in their starting rotation, and we around here know better than anyone that rotations rule the regular season. The good news is that the Braves again look capable of taking the wild card; the bad is that the Phillies have too many arms not to finish first over 162 games.
By Mark Bradley