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David O'Brien

Braves are ready to play, and so are most of you

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DARK STAR, Fla. – What’s it been, 4-1/2 months since we watched the Braves play a game? Freddy Garcia started that one, and damned if Garcia, aka The Chief, aka Mr. “I just make pitch,” isn’t back on the mound to start today’s Grapefruit League opener against the Tigers. We like this. More on why in a  moment.

Are you ready back in chilly Atlanta? And around Braves Country? And Braves fans around the nation and everywhere else? You ready for some ‘ball?

Freddy Garcia started Braves' Game 4 in playoffs, and starts Grapefruit League opener.

Freddy Garcia started Braves’ Game 4 in playoffs, and starts Grapefruit League opener.

I get a sense that most of you are, and that the Braves’ February spending spree to lock up young players – five players, $280.7 million guaranteed in multi-year extensions – did a lot to pump energy and plenty of optimism into a fan base that was understandably a bit concerned previously, concerned about the immediate future (at least some were) and about the long-term future (many more were). Understandably so.

When it looked like the Braves might fritter away the opportunity to secure the talents of homegrown standouts such as Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Andrelton Simmons for the long term, because they hadn’t signed a young stud to a long extension before or early in arbitration since Brian McCann seven years ago and showed no real inclination to do so now, I can certainly see why some folks out there were banging their heads against the wall wondering what the Braves might look like by the time they moved into their new ballpark in 2017.

Well, all of those concerns were quashed with the spree. The above-mentioned three are here for a long time – Kimbrel for four years plus an option, Freeman for eight years and Simmons for seven – and potential top-of-the-rotation starter Julio Teheran is signed for six years with a seventh-year option. And GM Frank Wren has vowed there are more contract extensions to come. And they still are slightly below the $100 million payroll level this year due to most of the deals they handed out being seriously backloaded.

The Braves still have payroll flexibility to make moves this season, Wren said. And after spending like they have, you can bet they’ll be willing to add a significant piece or two during the season if they believe it could be a difference-maker this year. The Braves wont to build momentum, or rather, continue the momentum they’ve started.

As for who might be next on the long-term extension train: I’d bet on Mike Minor being next. But how about Kris Medlen? I know he’s older than the other 25-and-under extension guys, and doesn’t have a mid-90s fastball, but 28 is hardly old, and this guy has proven himself again and again, showing the proverbial moxie that teams say they want but then seem reluctant to commit to. C’mon. A guy that’s won three of the eight NL Pitcher of the Month awards handed out since he moved into the starting rotation deserves more than kudos for being a good guy and more than one-year contracts while so many around him are being showered with huge deals that give them long-term security….

OK, I’m coming down from my soapbox now.

The Braves have only had six days’ worth of formal, full-squad workouts, but most of them got to camp early and already in shape, and to a man they said they were eager to get started and play someone. First up, the Tigers in the post-Leyland era, with Brad Ausmus having replaced Jim in the manager’s seat after the wonderfully crusty Leyland retired.

Here’s how a few Bravos felt about the final full-squad workouts and getting the Grapefruit League schedule started:

Jason Heyward: “I wish (the games) started a week ago. That’s what’s left to do, to get playing some baseball. That’s part of the process, come down and practice and whatnot. Pitchers have to get their work in. Now let’s go have some fun….

“Honestly I’m just happy to wake up and come do baseball every day, versus going to ride in rush-hour every morning to the gym and that routine. Gym, cage, run and hit, the 9-to-5 of the offseason. Now it’s, let’s get to the field and let’s get the most out of our day, have some fun with it, go home and get some rest and do it again the next day.”

“Facing those guys (Braves pitchers in early, live BP), they’re throwing, getting their work in. I’m doing my best to get timing down and comfortable again. It’s just part of it. I kind of appreciate it now more, personally, than I would have then. I’m not worried about, do I have enough at-bats to take out there, and when am I going to get my next shipment in, and that kind of thing. So, again, I’m just really appreciative of the opportunity to play, and go have some fun.”

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Dan Uggla: “Always excited to get here. Then the second day (of full-squad workouts) you’re going, let’s get the games going. We’re all excited. Everybody’s excited to see where they’re at. It’s the first day, so…. I’ve been working really hard. It’s always fun to gauge where you’re at and how your offseason workouts paid off and all that kind of stuff.”

How’d Uggla feel so far in batting practice, withe weight he put on in the offseason and working to improve his “foundation” — his legs — in his swing?

“Real good. I felt crappy like I have pretty much my whole career in live BP until yesterday. I was like, wow, I had probably the best day (of live BP) I’ve ever had. It was really cool. (Against) Woody (Alex Wood) I hit a change-up line drive the other way, hit a fastball line drive in the gap kind of. Obviously you know what pitch is coming, but it’s almost harder in that setting because you know there’s nothing to benefit, really. You’re just hoping to not get hit.

“But it was cool for me to hit some balls hard. Live BP, you’re either really good at it or you’re not. I’ve never been one that’s really good at it.”

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Kris Medlen (who starts Thursday vs. Tigers in Game 2): “Once you get the PFPs (pitchers’ fielding practice) out of the way and all that, the monotonous (stuff), it’s all good. Last year was my first time doing this whole rotation thing (for a full season). I’m just looking forward to building up and seeing how I feel. For the most part I feel great, arm-wise and body-wise. I mean, I haven’t gotten on any anti-inflammatories yet, so I feel awesome.

“I’m just ready to start building my pitches up and facing hitters and not telling them what’s coming, so I can see what’s actually working. (Batters are told what pitches are coming during live batting practice at spring training.) Because I’m telling dudes, ‘My change-up’s coming,’ my best pitch, and, like J-Hey’s taken it down the left-field line. No one really does that (to Medlen in games) So I don’t know how I’m necessarily feeling. Because it may feel a certain way coming out, but be harder than usual or something.

“So this will be a good chance to see how everything’s working.”

• J. Upton scratched: I wrote about Justin Upton getting scratched from the lineup Wednesday with sore right side. Here’s the  link to the story.

 

• Garcia’s bid for a job: The Chief. Competing for the fifth spot. If you don’t want to see Freddy Garcia on your team, then you haven’t met Freddy Garcia or talked to teammates about him. Because he’s got something this team and any team can benefit a lot from. But especially this team, with Tim Hudson gone and no grizzled veteran on the pitching staff.

Yeah, yeah — I see you rolling your eyes, that certain segment of our readership that doesn’t believe in grizzled veterans and their inherent value. Many of the same folks who don’t believe in the human factor in general when it comes to sports. But that’s another subject for another day. All the pitchers listen to Garcia and all of them watched him handle the Game 4 pressure at Dodger Stadium, when he got the ball with the Braves facing elimination and went pitch-for-pitch with The Game’s Best Pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. Garcia was in position to get a win until Juan “Freakin’” Uribe’s two-run homer off reliever David Carpenter.

Teammates saw Garcia that day, saw him relaxed in the hotel lobby, and in the clubhouse before the game, and on the mound and in the dugout during the game. This is invaluable stuff, folks. Even the guys you think have this stuff down, who’ve got a few years in the bigs and have had some success and therefore must not need Veteran Presence anymore, they’ll tell you they still get plenty out of having a guy like Garcia in the clubhouse.

Tim Hudson was a really good, reliable pitcher for the Braves, but his contributions to the team went far beyond what he did on the mound every fifth game. He was The Guy that the young pitchers took their cues from. If Huddy did it this way, and if Huddy did his work this way and dealt with the media after a loss this way, and showed a fire and us-against-them attitude, always fighting for his team and standing by his guys whether they were right or wrong, well, then, so would they.

That’s bigger than almost anyone outside the organization probably understands.

Hey, Garcia might not have enough in the tank to last even a half-season in the rotation. We won’t know unless and until we see him try. But I just know how well he pitched in September and that one night in October for the Braves, when they needed someone to fill in when Brandon Beachy went back on the DL. The big Venezuelan stepped up and did his thing with aplomb.

Now, whether he’s got three good starts or three months or an entire season left in him, the Braves need to use what Garcia has left. Yes, I realize it means Alex Wood probably starts the year in the bullpen, but that’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it makes the most sense.

We all like Wood, and I believe he’s going to be a really fine starter (I’m not concerned about his funky delivery and whether that might make him more inclined to injury as a starter than as a reliever, as at least one baseball website suggested). But Wood is really young, and has only pitched about 150 innings in a season, and so the Braves are going to monitor his innings as they do all their young pitchers. So figure on roughly 175 innings max this year.

If that’s the case, would you rather them have Wood in the rotation from Day 1 and then have to shut him down in the throes of a playoff race, like the Nats (in)famously did with Strasburg a couple years ago? Or would it make more sense to start him out in the bullpen, where the Braves could use another lefty anyway to go with Luis Avilan until Jonny Venters gets back in May or June after rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery?

If all goes as planned and Venters can recapture his old form, or something close to it, the Braves will have two high-quality lefties in Avilan and Venters, and Wood could either stay in the ‘pen or go back to Triple-A for two or three weeks, to get stretched out as a starter, if the Braves need one at that point. But if Beachy is healthy and Gavin Floyd returns from his TJ surgery rehab in May, as tentatively planned, the Braves might already have six starters for five spots if Garcia is still in the rotation and pitching well.

Then again, how many times have we said these things usually take care of themselves, and one or more guys struggles or gets hurt or whatever?

I just know that Garcia has an opt-out clause in his contract that allows him to become a free agent if he’s not added to the major league roster by the last week of March. And he told me what he’s told the Braves, that he’s not going to go back to Triple-A at age 37, after spending much of last season with the Orioles’ Triple-A team and squeezing his big ol’ body into cramped bus seats for long rides between minor league outposts.

And if he shows this spring that he’s able to pitch well, it makes too much sense for the very affordable Chief to be in the rotation, at least to begin the season.

Anyway, for today to get spring training started — my 20th spring training, by the way — we turn to the Chief, with Evan Gattis behind home plate in place of McCann. Let’s sit back and watch the first Braves game of 2014, and see if the Braves can play more than 200 more, which would mean they finally won another playoff series and got past the first round.

I picked the Braves to win 95-97 games last year, and they won 96 and the NL East. I’ll stick with that same prediction this season – 95-97 wins, and the NL East title, in a lot closer race than a year ago. A two-team race with the Nationals that won’t be settled until the final week of the season. Book it.

Let’s do this.

Oh, and it’s good to see you again. Here’s one from the great Neil Young.

“GOOD TO SEE YOU” by Neil Young

Good to see you

Neil Young

Neil Young

Good to see you again
Good to see your face again
Good to see you

I’m the suitcase in your hallway
I’m the footsteps on your floor
When I’m looking down on you
I feel like
I know what my life is for

Good to see you
Good to see you again
Good to see your face again
Good to see you

I’ve been down the endless highway
I’ve passed on the solid line
Now at last I’m home to you
I feel like making up for lost time

Good to see you
Good to see you again
Good to see your face again
It’s good to see you  

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