Can Braves overcome sluggish start?

Atlanta Braves contending with slow spring start, Chipper Jones questions, specter of last season's collapse

This can’t be good for Fredi Gonzalez.

A week from now, if the Atlanta Braves win a few games, their 1-10 start in the Grapefruit League likely will be forgotten.

But at the moment, they’re reprising the final weeks of last season, when they blew a 9 1/2-game lead with 30 to play.

Gonzalez, unlike the Boston Red Sox’s Terry Francona, survived his team’s collapse, in large part because the Braves value stability.

A poor start, though, could alter the equation. Rival executives believe that Gonzalez, entering the second year of a three-year contract, already is on probation.

General manager Frank Wren made very few changes in the offseason, a tacit statement that he thought the 2011 Braves were good enough.

If Wren maintains that belief and the team stumbles in April, then he might view a change in managers as the logical solution.

The Braves blew the wild card when they had a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs on Aug. 25, according to Baseball Prospectus. Gonzalez drew criticism for overusing his top relievers, though other managers might have done the same.

Few will want to hear that rationale if lefty Jonny Venters, righty Craig Kimbrel and lefty Eric O’Flaherty regress after making 85, 79 and 78 appearances, respectively.

Then again, if Wren was going to dump Gonzalez, he probably should have done it after last season. At the time, he said, “When you look at everything, going into September, we had one of the five best records in baseball. We didn’t get it done, but at the same time, it’s hard to lay blame in any one area.”

The Braves replaced hitting coach Larry Parrish with Greg Walker, but that was it. Finding a replacement for Gonzalez after the start of the season would be more problematic.

Wren bypassed first base coach Terry Pendleton for Gonzalez when Bobby Cox retired. Special assistant Jim Fregosi, perhaps the leading internal possibility, hasn’t managed since 2000.

In any case, the Braves’ problems right now extend beyond the manager.

• Third baseman Chipper Jones told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi on Monday that he was not sure he could make it through the season.

• Right-hander Tim Hudson, coming off back surgery, likely is out until at least May 1. Two other righties, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, remain physical questions, and another, Brandon Beachy, has pitched poorly this spring.

• Right fielder Jason Heyward is 4-for-24, renewing concerns that his 2011 season might have been a greater reflection of his ability than 2010.

• Rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky is 3-for-26, raising the possibility that the Braves could turn to defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons, who has yet to play above Single A.

Still, it’s only spring training, and in the view of at least one rival executive, the Braves’ poor record should not be taken all that seriously.

“I don’t think it’s reflective of anything one way or the other,” the exec said.

Check back in a week. Or in April.

At some point, the Braves need to get going.

 

RED SOX NOT WITHOUT CONCERNS

 

Scouts following the Red Sox are curious not only about how their rotation and bullpen will evolve, but also what their offense will look like early in the season.

Much depends on the health of third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who is coming off sports hernia surgery and a variety of other ailments, and left fielder Carl Crawford, who likely will open on the DL after undergoing surgery on his left wrist.

One scout says he also is worried about right-field candidate Ryan Sweeney, explaining, “He has power, but it’s not game-usable. His swing is long. He gets tied up inside and chases away.”

Under such circumstances, the possibility of shortstop Jose Iglesias making the team is even more far-fetched than it was at the start of spring training, especially now that he is out until at least Thursday with a stiff groin.

Perhaps the Red Sox could endure Iglesias’ below-average offense if they knew that Youkilis and Crawford would be healthy and productive. But for at least the first month, they likely will need Mike Aviles’ bat at short.

Iglesias, 22, would benefit from additional time in the minors — he had only a .554 OPS in 387 plate appearances at Triple A last season. But once the Sox’s offense is fully functional, the team probably would be best with Iglesias at short and Aviles in a super-utility role.

Iglesias, an elite defender, would be particularly valuable on the left side if Youkilis shows diminished range at third.

 

JAYS’ POSSIBILITIES GROWING

 

The Toronto Blue Jays, who continue to look for rotation help, have more than just young pitching to offer. In fact, the Jays could face critical decisions at two up-the-middle positions by next offseason, if not sooner.

Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, enjoying a big spring, soon could press Yunel Escobar, who is under club control at $5 million per season through 2013 and potentially '15.

Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, meanwhile, eventually could surpass J.P. Arencibia, who hit 23 homers and had a .720 OPS as a rookie last season.

The Diamondbacks, facing the possible loss of catcher Miguel Montero in free agency, would be among the teams interested in Arencibia. Perhaps the Jays would view the D-Backs’ Gerardo Parra as a potential solution in left field, though Arencibia likely would command a greater return.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves: D’Arnaud probably is a half-season away. He is more athletic than Arencibia, makes greater contact and boasts a better arm. But who’s to say the Jays couldn’t keep both catchers?

Arencibia, who has endeared himself to the Jays with his enthusiasm and toughness, could become the team’s version of Mike Napoli, serving not just at catcher, but also at first base and DH.

 

MARKET BRIMMING WITH STARTERS

 

Teams in the market for starting pitchers — the Jays, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and others — do not lack for options this spring.

Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Joe Blanton, Washington Nationals lefty John Lannan and Chicago White Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd are among the starters in play, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers could deal from surplus.

Lannan, in particular, bears watching.

The Nationals, lacking an opening in their rotation, want to clear Lannan’s $5 million salary. One source mentioned the Tigers as a possibility; the team currently is leaning toward lefty Andy Oliver as its fifth starter.

The Rays, barring an injury or knockout trade proposal, figure to put one of their right-handed starters, Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann, in the bullpen. The Rangers could put two righty starters in the 'pen, Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman.

The insurance probably would serve the Rangers well — righty Neftali Feliz is beginning his first season as a starter, Japanese import Yu Darvish might need extra rest on occasion, and lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison are coming off their first full seasons in the rotation.

One surplus, though, will lead to another. Closer Joe Nathan and setup man Mike Adams are set in the bullpen. The Rangers have yet to trade Koji Uehara and Mark Lowe recently hit 99 mph.

Ogando and Feldman would provide a fifth and sixth right-handed option. The Rangers lack a lefty, but Uehara, Adams and Feldman all are effective against left-handed hitters.

 

AS THE PADRES TURN

 

Those monitoring the San Diego Padres’ ownership saga might ask: If some owners oppose Jeff Moorad taking control, why did baseball approve Moorad in the first place?

The answer is simple: Moorad joined the Padres as a minority owner, and minority owners usually require approval only from the commissioner’s office.

For Moorad to gain the majority stake he now seeks, he would need approval from 22 of the other 29 owners, or 75 percent.

Meanwhile, majority owner John Moores might be growing less eager to sell to Moorad, considering how dramatically the Padres’ financial outlook is improving.

Moorad, according to his agreement with Moores, has two more years to close the deal. But at this point, Moores might want to run out the clock and sell later.

A 20-year deal with FOX Sports San Diego will guarantee the team $75 million a year, according to USA Today. Team president Tom Garfinkel has said that he “wishes” the figure was that high; the annual fee could be closer to $50 million, according to insidethepadres.com.

Whatever the number, the deal will enhance the franchise’s value, and the sale of the Dodgers might, too.

Forbes reported Monday night that a group led by Magic Johnson and former baseball executive Stan Kasten has made the high bid for the Dodgers — $1.6 billion.

Los Angeles is a much larger market than San Diego, and the losing bidders for the Dodgers wouldn’t necessarily want the Padres. Still, a sale of such magnitude would help the franchise values of all clubs.

 

THE BEST KIND OF OVERNIGHT DELIVERY

 

On the morning of Dec. 8, Los Angeles Angels right-hander Jered Weaver said he woke up to 12 to 15 new text messages and four or five new phone messages.

Weaver immediately grew concerned: The last time he received that many messages overnight was after the death of his friend and teammate, right-hander Nick Adenhart.

The news this time evoked much different emotions.

The Angels had signed Albert Pujols.

“I proceeded to jump out of my bed in my underwear and run around my house screaming,” Weaver said.

“My wife thought there was something wrong. I picked her up, gave her a hug and said, ‘We got Pujols!’”

 

AROUND THE HORN

 

• The White Sox are forever difficult to read, and their positive vibe this spring under new manager Robin Ventura ultimately might discourage them from trading Floyd.

Still, a rival executive makes a good point about the AL Central: The White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins must plot their futures by determining whether they can beat Detroit now or Kansas City in a few years.

White Sox GM Ken Williams said in December, “We’re in between right now. I don’t particularly care to be in between.” Yet, the Sox essentially remain in that position after trading closer Sergio Santos and signing lefty John Danks to a five-year, $65 million extension.

• As first reported by MLB.com, free-agent left-hander Mike Gonzalez turned down a minor league offer from the Rangers. The Oakland Athletics no longer are interested in Gonzalez and the White Sox are not currently pursuing a left-handed reliever, major league sources say.

Gonzalez, coming off arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, is throwing off a mound and “about ready to go following his rehab,” a source said.

• Right-hander Dylan Bundy, the No. 4 pick in last year’s draft, made quite an impression with the Orioles before getting reassigned to minor league camp.

One rival executive says that Bundy, 19, is “Matt Cain with better stuff.” Manager Buck Showalter, trying to exercise restraint, says, “His progression has a chance to be a little different than a normal high-school kid’s.”

• The Nationals remain high on shortstop Ian Desmond, but some in the industry view him as a potential weak link for a team that considers itself a contender.

Desmond’s erratic defense remains a concern, and manager Davey Johnson recently told The Washington Post that he is not enamored of Desmond’s new batting stance.

Those in the anti-Desmond camp believe the Nats would be better moving Danny Espinosa to short and playing Steve Lombardozzi at second.

• The Diamondbacks, fearful that catcher Miguel Montero might get hurt, have told him to back away from right-hander Trevor Bauer’s first warmup pitch of each inning.

Bauer throws the pitch 100-mph plus after taking a crow-hop onto the mound, and one club official noted that he nearly “tore Montero’s thumb off” in his last start.

Montero looked visibly displeased, and club officials advised him to simply avoid the pitch and “let it go.” Bauer has said that he is fine with his catchers doing just that.

• And finally, the Loyola (Md.) Greyhounds have one prominent supporter in baseball as they prepare to face Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is good friends with Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos, and texts him regularly.

Cashman and Patsos first met at age 11 at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp and reconnected years later as students at Catholic University in Washington, DC.

“I tried to get him on our baseball team to be a dual-sport guy — he could really hit,” Cashman says. “But I couldn’t convince him to come over.”

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