Fredi Gonzalez likes his Braves. He likes them so much he unfurled this evocative image: “We’re not a glamorous team. No, we didn’t go out and make a move for a big-time player, but maybe we’re more like hyenas.”
Hang on. The manager was just warming to his metaphor. “We’re not a pretty team to look at. There’s not [an Albert] Pujols in the group. But hyenas hunt in packs.”
Then, nodding to a visitor, Gonzalez said: “You writing this for tomorrow? I might need to run that one by the team first.”
The Braves, who made a hash of last September, broke training camp Monday and showed up at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville for a final exhibition Tuesday. They looked, as Gonzalez noted, essentially the same as they did in 2012. Some among you might regard continuity in the face of epic failure as the height of folly. Their general manager sees it rather differently.
“We went into the spring with a number of questions,” Frank Wren said, and here you — some of you, anyway — might be thinking: If there were so many questions, why didn’t the GM do more over the winter to address them?
Wren: “We felt this [standing mostly pat] was a wiser use of our resources and payroll. And a lot of those questions have been answered positively. The players have really responded.”
Asked to offer specifics, Wren cited several. “Our offense in general was more consistent, and we saw an infusion of power. … We’ve seen Jason Heyward have a great spring. We’ve seen Dan Uggla crush the ball all spring. We’ve seen Jair Jurrjens pitch outstanding in his last two starts. We’ve seen Tommy Hanson throw very well. And [Monday] we got the benefit of watching Tim Hudson pitch two very good innings.”
The Braves finished the Grapefruit League 10-18-5, good for 13th place among the 15 teams training in Florida. Those who fault Wren for making no major trade save the offloading of Derek Lowe seized on the losing spring — which featured a cringe-inducing 1-10-1 start — as evidence radical changes were warranted.
Wren: “We certainly felt better about the second half of the spring than we did the first. But so many things go into your spring-training record. At first, your regulars are in for three or four innings, and the other five or six innings tend to sway the decision. Later on, you keep your starters in longer. We think the second half was more reflective [of the real Braves] than the first half.”
The Braves began the spring by amassing one hit in the opener. Through 12 games, Brian McCann was hitting .200, Jason Heyward .143 and Freddie Freeman .136. Tyler Pastornicky, the shortstop designate, was at .100. Matters improved thereafter. (Then again, they had but one direction to go.) McCann finished at .275, Heyward at .227 with four homers and 12 RBIs, Freeman at .295 and Pastornicky at a lusty-by-way-of-comparison .221.
The Braves finished the spring hitting .243 as a team, which was what they hit — or, more precisely, didn’t hit — over 162 games in 2011. The difference: Last year’s hitting started and stayed bad, while the bats this spring trended upward. Not incidentally, there’s not just one new batting coach but two.
Speaking of Greg Walker and his assistant Scott Fletcher, Gonzalez said: “The first seven or eight or 10 games, they were kind of watching. When you’re new, you hate to jump in. Coaching is building relationships, building trust.”
It would be impossible for Walker/Fletcher to build less trust than did the unlamented Larry Parrish, who was signed for two seasons but cashiered after one. The Braves saw so many good hitters have a tepid 2011 — Uggla, Heyward, Martin Prado, even the great McCann — that any upgrade in instruction has to have some effect. (Well, doesn’t it?)
If the Braves hit just a bit better, they’ll be a playoff team. Stem to stern, their pitching is as a good as anybody’s. Gonzalez is right when he says this isn’t the baseball version of the Miami Heat, but baseball isn’t a superstar-driven sport. (How many World Series did Barry Bonds win?) And if an organization that has spent the winter being tweaked for inactivity winds up taking its division, Wren and Gonzalez and Co. might just laugh like …
By Mark Bradley