Roster changed, but focus remains the same for Braves
ATLANTA — They were clearly joking, but en route to a Braves Caravan stop on Friday, Craig Kimbrel may have perfectly summed up the perception of the revamped team weeks before they report to spring training.
"We were actually just talking about that," said David Hale, who will compete to be the team’s fifth starter. "(Kimbrel) said we should get shirts with the name tag sticker on it and you can just write your name in there."
The early days of camp do figure to be full of introductions.
Of those who comprised the 40-man roster on Opening Day 2014, just 16 remain, including seven of the 22 pitches and just four relievers. The missing made up for 299 RBI, 74 home runs, 647 1/3 innings pitches and 38 wins and included a Gold Glove winner (Jason Heyward), another finalist (Justin Upton) and two starting pitchers (Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana) that teamed for 340 strikeouts.
"We have more guys on the team that are new than returning," Kimbrel said. "But that’s just what we’re working with this year."
Despite the turnover, and that the defending National League East champion Nationals got better, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez says the mission and the message will remain the same when the team convenes at Walt Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
"Our goal is still to get in the playoffs," Gonzalez said. "That always will be my goal."
It’s a sentiment echoed by Kimbrel, who in making his debut on May 7, 2010, is now the longest-tenured Brave.
"I think every team’s goal is to win the World Series every year and I think if you go into a season with that not being your goal, you’re going to have a bad season," he said. "You need to look to the top and just go with whatever happens after that."
Many will scoff at that after losing Heyward, Upton and Evan Gattis, who accounted for 62 of the Braves’ 123 home runs a year ago. But as Gonzalez sees it, that production didn’t stop them from having one of the majors’ least productive offenses, scoring just 3.5 runs per game.
"We were 29th in runs scored last year," he said. "We’re going to go out and do something different. I’m going to ask the guys to be more fundamentally sound defensively and offensively, and maybe be more aggressive on the base paths."
As positive as Gonzalez and Kimbrel are, there remain plenty of questions as to how the lineup is going to look when the Braves open the season April 6 against the Marlins.
Second base is up for grabs with a group that includes Alberto Callaspo, Phil Gosselin, Jose Peraza, Jace Peterson and the newly signed Kelly Johnson. The latter could also see time in left field, where another new acquisition, Jonny Gomes, will compete with Zoilo Almonte, Jose Constanza, Todd Cunningham and Joey Terdoslavich.
Then there’s the question as to who is going to hit fourth after two-time All-Star Freddie Freeman given all the changes. It seems almost a given that the first baseman will surpass Dale Murphy’s 1987 franchise record of 29 intentional walks and is almost certain to see the most since 2011 when Prince Fielder had 32 for the Brewers.
"Somebody asked me who was going to hit fourth now that Gattis and Justin are gone," Gonzalez said. "It could be anybody, any day. It depends on that (pitching) matchup of the day."
If anything, Gonzalez thinks the uncertainty will make for an intriguing spring.
"If Terdoslavich, Cunningham and Constanza are paying attention, they have to know they have a chance to make this club and make an impact," Gonzalez said. "I think spring training is going to be a fun time. It’s the first time in a while that the Braves will come to spring training with some openings."
That includes the fifth starter spot, which Hale — who the past two years has bounced between the bullpen and the rotation — will make a run at along with Mike Foltynewicz (acquired via the Padres in the Upton deal) and Manny Banuelos (part of the David Carpenter/Chasen Shreve trade) and veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Chien-Ming Wang.
"The whole dynamic of the team is going to be interesting with so many different players and new competition that I’ve never met before," said Hale, who is 3-1 with a 2.05 ERA as a starter and 2-4 with a 3.81 ERA out of the bullpen over two seasons. "I think it will push it all to be better."
With all the changes, rumors of more have started, but Kimbrel says he hasn’t paid it much attention.
The perception is that having the top closer in the game is a luxury for a team that isn’t predicted to figure into the playoff hunt, making Kimbrel a hot topic for trade talk.
"It’s not really anything I can do anything about," he said. "Atlanta is where I want to be and if it happened any other way there’s really nothing I can do about it. But I’m happy I’m still here and happy I still have an opportunity to help this team."
Still, it’s undeniable the outside expectations have changed.
A year ago, the Braves went to spring training having just won the division by 10 games. They led the NL in home runs and had the majors’ lowest overall ERA (3.18) and the best bullpen (2.46).
Now, they’ll regroup with new faces after a season in which the same formula that brought an East crown resulted in disappointment and are facing early predictions that have Atlanta finishing fourth in the division ahead of only the Phillies.
But as Hale says, that could be just what this team needs.
"A lot of people are down on us, but hopefully we can prove them wrong," he said. "I think that will be a good feeling for us."
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney