In dead of winter, baseball right around corner
On a frosty winter day, the Atlanta Braves started getting ready for the rites of spring - tossing around baseballs and jumping into the batting cage to take a few swings at Turner Field.
It may seem hard to believe, but spring training is just a few weeks away.
Among those turning out for the informal workouts Tuesday with temperatures in the low 40s: closer Craig Kimbrel, slugger Jason Heyward and recovering starter Brandon Beachy, who is coming off major elbow surgery but hopes to be ready by June.
As with most teams this time of year, there's plenty of optimism. The Braves will have to make do without longtime star Chipper Jones, who retired, but they're looking forward to adding free-agent signee B.J. Upton to the lineup.
''The sky's the limit for us,'' said Heyward, who seems poised to become the Braves' biggest star now that Jones is gone. ''We feel like it's set up pretty well for us.''
Of course, it was a bit strange to see that empty locker on the other side of the room, the spot where Jones held court in the later years of a nearly two-decade-long career.
''We've been preparing for this day as much as anyone could,'' Heyward said, glancing in that direction. ''But it will feel different. For me, being from Georgia, ever since I've been in Georgia, No. 10 has been on the field for the Braves. That's going to be a different feeling for me.''
But, he added, ''Good things do come to an end. I'm just glad he was able to go out on his own terms.''
Kimbrel had a hectic offseason, getting married the first of December and honeymooning in the Dominican Republic.
''We got back in time for Christmas and New Year's,'' he said, ''and now it's baseball season.''
The right-hander will try to follow up one of the most dominant seasons ever by a closer, becoming the first pitcher in baseball history to strike out more than half the batters he faced (116 out of 231).
Kimbrel also is getting ready to play for his country for the first time. He was selected, along with teammate Kris Medlen, to pitch for the U.S. at the World Baseball Classic in March.
''I'm very excited,'' Kimbrel said. ''It doesn't happen too often, and this is my chance to do it. I'm going to do my best and try to help Team USA win.''
Kimbrel and Medlen aren't the only Atlanta players who'll be suiting up in the WBC. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons will play for the Netherlands, while third baseman Martin Prado is part of the Venezuelan roster.
Those four will have to leave Atlanta's camp in the middle of spring training, but general manager Frank Wren said he would never discourage a player from representing his country unless there was some sort of injury concern. In fact, he thinks the experience might actually help someone such as Kimbrel, who wasn't as sharp as he wanted to be at the start of last season.
Heyward passed on a chance to play for the U.S. team, however, feeling it was better to stay with the Braves throughout the spring.
''He sees the long-range benefit of being in our camp,'' Wren said. ''He feels like working consistently with our guys will help him during the season.''
Heyward was a rookie star in 2010, homering in his first big league at-bat and drawing praise as the future of baseball from no less than Hank Aaron. After struggling through injuries and mechanical problems in his sophomore season, he bounced back nicely last year - 27 homers, 82 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.
He feels his career is back on track.
''The biggest thing that's different is I don't feel like I'm searching for anything,'' he said. ''Baseball is a feel game. You need to know what you're looking for. You need to have the right feel for how your swing is broken down: timing, tempo, just things as simple as your stance. I feel like all those things I have now.''
Beachy is taking a different approach this spring, since he's still in the middle of a yearlong recuperation from reconstructive surgery on his right elbow.
For him, the normal routine of spring training won't come until a couple of months into the season.
''I'm not too thrilled about that,'' said Beachy, who was the Braves' most effective starter before he went down. ''I want to feel part of the normal routine as soon as possible.''
For everyone else, it will get here soon enough.
Sure, the Super Bowl is still more than a week away. But the Braves' pitchers and catchers will be reporting to camp in Florida on Feb. 11.
Yep, it's almost time to play ball.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963