Atlanta Braves enduring tough spring
The perception is that not much has changed with the Braves' roster since they coughed up that 10-game lead last September. Especially since they've been offensively challenged in spring training games.
General manager Frank Wren saw no need to blow up the team because the collapse could be traced to injuries to right-handers Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder), and to catcher Brian McCann (oblique), and to the heavy use of the bullpen's back-end pitchers, left-hander Jonny Venters and right-hander Craig Kimbrel.
The assumption over the winter and into spring has been that everything the team needs to make the postseason this time around is already in-house.
And yet ...
The Braves are looking a little wobbly as the 2012 campaign approaches, particularly in the pitching department.
The staff ace, right-hander Tim Hudson, was at first projected to be ready for the season, following late November back surgery. But he was cleared to throw full out only in mid-March, meaning he can't be expected to join the rotation until May.
Right-hander Tommy Hanson is a week behind the rest of the rotation, thanks to sustaining a concussion when his car blew a tire as he was driving to camp the first day. He's also refining a new delivery, but seems to be happy with his progress.
And right-hander Jair Jurrjens, whose pitching schedule has him lined up to be the opening day starter, has not had command of his fastball.
That's three significant question marks beyond what were supposed to be the only two issues: would right fielder Jason Heyward regain his hitting stroke and would rookie Tyler Pastornicky pass muster at shortstop?
Heyward is looking good so far. He's healthy and responding well to new hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher.
Pastornicky, however, is looking tentative on defense, which was supposed to be his strong suit. Manager Fredi Gonzalez told him not to be concerned with his offense, but shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who was at Class A last season, has been hitting as well as being sharper in the field.
There is a precedent for a young shortstop to jump to the Braves directly from A-ball: Rafael Furcal. It seems likely that the Braves will give Pastornicky the first shot at the job. At least in April.
The Braves will also have a lineup shift caused by Chipper Jones' latest knee surgery. With Jones due to miss at least a week or two at the start of the season, Martin Prado will take over at third base, and Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz figure to split time in left field.