“Come fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring, the Winter garment of repentance fling!”
Edward Fitzgerald probably wasn’t thinking about baseball when he penned that line in The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam. Much less the 2012 Atlanta Braves.
Even more doubtful: that any of the Braves pondered those lines during the long winter of their discontent. Yet they’ve done nothing this spring but pay those lines homage.
To a man, they’ve said all the right things about last season’s hideous finish.
The pitchers prepped for spring training with their annual early camp. Most, that is, except for Jair Jurrjens, one of the question marks heading into this season.
But Jurrjens has been throwing, and successfully testing that knee that proved so testy last summer. Apparently an orthotic shoe insert has provided great comfort. Wonder why no one thought to call Dr. Scholl last August?
The position players arrived early. Most, that is, except for Tyler Pastornicky, another one of the question marks heading into this season. The Braves newly anointed shortstop was working out in California with his back-up, Jack Wilson. It seems Wilson has a batting cage and regulation infield in his yard. Cool!
It also seems that Wilson managed to strain his calf last Tuesday, effectively leaving a couple of non-roster players to back up the rookie shortstop who has only played 27 games at the triple-A level. Let alone any in the big time.
They say the kid can swing the bat, but have you heard anything about his glove? That would seem to be of vital importance. Here we have a team that has returned to its winning formula from the ’90s: good, young pitching and plenty of it. And nothing destroys good, young pitching like porous defense.
Who doesn’t love all of the Braves’ young arms? But after watching a double play grounder wind up in left field, they all resemble Tony Brizzolara. Need we be reminded that John Schuerholz’ first and finest act as Braves GM was building a solid infield?
The Braves no longer have the luxury of being able to purchase the missing pieces they need through free agency. Their margin for error is small. Giving such an important defensive position to a rookie is rolling the dice. For these Braves to achieve success, they’d better roll boxcars.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez loves the “positive vibe” he’s feeling from his players this spring. They’ve all stepped up to take part of the blame for September’s Perfect Storm Collapse.
They’ve turned every question mark into a positive prediction for 2012.
Jason Heyward will bounce back. Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, and Jurrjens will all be healthy, keeping the bullpen fresh. Chipper Jones will play in 140 games. So will Martin Prado. Michael Bourn will hit like he did before Larry Parrish worked with him, as will everyone else. Dan Uggla will show up before July.
Everything’s seashells and balloons.
What if the Braves September Swoon wasn’t really a collapse at all, but just a good team finding its proper level? What if the 2011 Braves spent five months playing above their heads?
Baseball seasons run six months for a reason. It takes that long for teams’ strengths and weaknesses to be exposed. If they gave out pennants on the Fourth of July, the Red Sox would have as many as the Yankees.
Of all sports, baseball draws the finest line between winning and losing, between good teams and bad. Check the records. The 2011 Braves (89-73) won only two fewer games than the 2010 Braves (91-71.) Yet the 2010 Braves came within a Brooks Conrad imitation of Steve Sax from beating the champion Giants in the Division Series.
Those 2010 Braves enjoyed a 20-8 May, but finished 14-16 in September and October. They clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the season. The 2011 Braves went 9-18 in September, and lost a playoff spot on the final day of the season.
So, maybe the Braves are just a nice, 90-win team. And that isn’t so bad. Ask any Pirates fan.
Were they right, then, to stand pat in the offseason, believing they were better than their final record? If you believe in adding by subtracting, deleting Derek Lowe from the rotation will have positive results, from innings one through five every fifth day right through to the end of the bullpen.
Likewise, jettisoning their alleged hitting coach shall prove a boon.
But letting a proven, sure-fielding shortstop leave, even if Alex Gonzalez led the majors in deciding to swing at pitches before they were thrown, may be a big loss.
It’s great that everyone in Lake Buena Vista has such a positive outlook. That and 90 wins will certainly keep them in the playoff race.