KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Looking around Atlanta’s spring training clubhouse, Jason Heyward sees most of the same faces that were there last September, when the Braves blew a seemingly comfortable lead in the playoff race.
Now, Heyward and his teammates are eager to prove that was the right call.
As pitchers and catchers get set for their first official workout today, the Braves have decided to stick with largely the same group that played so well most of the season – then frittered away a commanding NL wild-card lead over the last month. The collapse was even harder to take when St. Louis claimed an improbable World Series championship after passing Atlanta on the final day.
“Everyone took it personally,” Heyward said, sitting at his locker Sunday.
Unless there’s an unexpected trade during spring training, the only significant changes will be rookie Tyler Pastornicky taking over at shortstop for Alex Gonzalez and someone – anyone – moving into the rotation to replace 17-game loser Derek Lowe, who was dumped on Cleveland even though the Braves will continue to pay most of his $15 million salary.
“I’m not surprised,” reliever Jonny Venters said. “I thought we had a great team last year. I know it didn’t pan out at the end of the year the way wanted it to, but we played good baseball most of the year.”
With the 25-man roster largely set, the major decisions of spring training will be on the fringes of the pitching staff. Who will be the fifth starter? Who will take the last one or two spots in the bullpen?
There’s certainly a plethora of talented young pitching, a reminder of the team’s golden era in the 1990s. Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy are locks for the rotation, while Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen are in the mix. No one in that group is older than 26. Then consider the bullpen, anchored by NL Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel and two more 20-somethings, Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
“What would you change?” O’Flaherty asked. “If you look at every position, we’ve got somebody fully capable. We just got cold at the wrong time last season. A lot of people want to analyze it and look deeper than that, but we just got into a slump. That can happen to any team.”
Still, no one has forgotten what it was like watching the Cardinals celebrate a World Series title.
“It could have been us,” O’Flaherty said. “Trust me, no one is happy about it.”