ATLANTA — Travel from Turner Field to Dr. James Andrews’ orthopedic center in Pensacola, Fla., takes about five hours by car, one hour by plane, and Brandon Beachy doesn’t want to make the trip again for a long, long time. The unfortunate vendetta against the coastal city off the Gulf of Mexico has nothing to do with travel time and everything to do with Beachy’s right elbow, one which Andrews, the sports world-reknowned surgeron, performed Tommy John surgery on during the 2012 season and cleaned out back in September.
"It’s sad that I immediately have such a negative point of view towards that place," Beachy said.
There is positive news for the Braves’ right-hander who has missed significant portions of the past two seasons: he isn’t expected to schedule an appointment there any time soon. At the team’s early pitching program on Monday, Beachy said he’s right where he hoped he would be health-wise entering preseason workouts and that he can’t remember when his most recent visit to Andrews’ place occurred. After battling the setbacks and frustrations no pitcher ever wants to come up against — particularly one carrying an NL-best 2.00 ERA the last time he was fully healthy, cruising through his second full season in the majors — it sounds as if the Braves’ rotation will finally be getting a healthy Brandon Beachy back into the rotation.
"There’s always going to be a little something in the way back, the back part of the mind until I go out there in April and get a few starts under my belt. But every day I come out here and throw and don’t feel anything, it just eases that a little bit, a little bit. It’s progressing exactly as I would have hoped to," the 27-year-old said. "It’s gonna take me getting on the mound and throwing with a little more effort than I am right now to be able to say that for sure. The way it’s feeling now, it feels great. But it also felt pretty good coming back from Tommy John up until the 11 1/2 month mark.
"It feeling the same now as it did then, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, knowing that it’s cleaned up in there."
When spring training rolls around, Beachy expects to be on the same pitching schedule as everyone else when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13. And though the timeline is set and a clean bill of health is in his sights, he’s still taking a different approach in the weeks leading up to Lake Buena Vista: easing off the gas pedal, playing it safe.
"In year’s past, I’ve used Roger’s (McDowell) little camp here more aggressively, I guess. You know, taken full advantage of it," he said. "Without as much — I don’t know if effort’s the right word, but smarter."
Atlanta’s front office certainly will not have an issue with any self-imposed precautions its one-time projected No. 1 starter takes if he can return to form. He showed flashes of his old self in 2013, going 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 30 innings before being shutdown with soreness and inflammation. With such a young rotation, unknowns at the back end of the staff and what looks to be stiffer competition in the NL East this season, the Braves want Beachy on the mound for more than five starts. This much should be obvious.
The Braves featured one of the youngest rotations in baseball after veteran Tim Hudson went down with an ankle injury last season, and not much has changed. The projected average age of the Opening Day staff — Beachy, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood — is 25.4 years old. That would change with the addition of Gavin Floyd (also rehabbing from Tommy John) or Freddy Garcia enterin the mix, but still, there’s not much to claiming seniority here. This makes Beachy an elder statesman in the rotation’s age department, but his overall MLB experience leaves him closer to Teheran and Wood than Medlen and Minor: he’s only pitched in 46 games in his career.
Still, if the staff can stay healthy, the Braves have an opportunity to be a top-of-the-line group once more, even with Hudson moving on in free agency and uncertainty as to who the fifth starter will or should be.
Last season, the Braves’ rotation finished with a 3.51 ERA, the sixth-best mark in all of baseball, to go along with the ninth-best collective wins above replacement (13.0). When you factor in the injury bug — Beachy pitched just five outings, Hudson was ruled out by July — and the fact that the team juggled six different starters in the final two spots down the stretch, that standard seems attainable once more, given a bit more good fortune this time around. As of right now, that starts with Beachy.
"We’re a pretty good unit together," Beachy said of the young staff that will work a full MLB season without catcher Brian McCann for the first time. "I want to contribute to a staff that’s already positioning itself to be one of the best in the National League. I just wanna help with that."
All signs point to him getting the opportunity. And that’s the opposite direction of Pensacola.