For the Braves, the Grapefruit League season commenced with them mustering one hit — an eighth-inning single by the legendary Jordan Parraz. By the next day, they’d worked their way up to three hits — two by Martin Prado and another by Parraz, the new Mr. March. Last week, via the joys of split-squad deployment, they managed to lose to both New York teams in the same day.
At the close of business Tuesday, the Braves had the worst exhibition record in either Florida or Arizona, and Tuesday was, by way of comparison, a pretty good day. They hadn’t lost. (Hadn’t won, either. They tied Miami 2-2.) This left them at 1-10-1, and Buster Olney of ESPN noted that an unnamed scout/executive had reached this early conclusion: “The Atlanta Braves don’t look much different from the team that collapsed last September.”
Pennant fever! Get your pennant fever right here!!!
Through Tuesday’s play, Brian McCann was hitting .200, Jason Heyward was hitting .143 (with 10 strikeouts against four hits), Freddie Freeman was hitting .136 and Tyler Pastornicky, who’s listed at 170 pounds, was barely hitting half that weight. (He was 3-for-30 with no extra-base hits.)
Oh, and more glad tidings. Pastornicky, who has been handed the shortstop spot, had made three errors.
Right about here, you’re saying: “See? I told you they needed to get a real shortstop/corner outfielder/big bat! I told you that they shouldn’t stand pat after an Epic Collapse! They’ll finish last!!!”
And here, on cue, is where I say: It’s early yet. It’s so early they’re still three weeks from a game that actually counts. (We should also note that the Braves beat Washington 6-5 Wednesday night. Heyward even hit a home run.)
Spring training, see, is just what it says on the label — it’s training. Results don’t matter. Stats barely register. (Quick, what did Heyward hit last spring? Why, .356. Surely a sign that a great season was coming, right? Uh, no. He wound up hitting .227.)
As long as no pitcher’s arm falls off in Florida, the Braves will come north with a real chance to make the playoffs (Especially given that, under Bud Selig’s new loopy system, a second wild card now qualifies for postseason — if only for a day.) It never changes: If you can pitch, you can win.
The Epic Collapse wasn’t so much a function of not hitting — those same Braves spent the summer not hitting, and they held the fourth-best record in baseball with a month to go — as it was the injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. The rotation splintered, which led to an even heavier load falling on the bullpen, and the great relievers wobbled just enough to miss the playoffs. It was awful to watch, but it shouldn’t happen again in our lifetimes.
No, it’s not particularly encouraging that Pastornicky hasn’t hit (or fielded), especially since Plan B — the journeyman Jack Wilson — has been shelved because of injury. But baseball, as we learned yet again over a season that unraveled in the 13th inning of the 162nd game, is the longest of hauls. Things can and will change. Troy Glaus (remember him?) might be the All-American Out in April; in May he could be the National League player of the month.
For all of you railing about the passivity of Frank Wren, know this: This general manager’s disposition isn’t to sit still. It took personal restraint for him not to start making trades hand over fist, but this was one offseason when reason trumped temperament. Wren looked at his roster and reached this conclusion:
If the guys who didn’t hit in 2011 do hit in 2012, the Braves will be fine. If not, one or two of these prized young pitchers can be used to pursue the needed shortstop/corner outfielder/big bat. But that wasn’t a search that needed to be undertaken just yet. Better to see how April — and not March, which doesn’t count — plays out.
Nothing the 2012 Braves have or haven’t done in spring training changes my belief that Wren was wise to wait. We can’t write off Pastornicky just yet, and nobody in his/her right mind would give up on Heyward or Freeman or McCann. But there is, I must report, one thing that gives me pause, and that’s the status of my favorite Brave ever.
Chipper Jones tried to pass off his tomorrow-might-be-my-last-day remarks as “tongue-in-cheek.” Not having been a witness, I don’t know if they were or weren’t. But the thought of this season turning into a daily medical briefing isn’t a pleasant notion. He has meant too much to this franchise to become, at 39-going-on-40, a sideshow. In my 50 years of watching baseball, the saddest image was of Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield as a Met. I’m hoping like crazy I’ll never have to watch Chipper stumble.
By Mark Bradley