Eight days before the regular season, the Atlanta Braves placed five pitchers on the disabled list, including two starters who required season-ending elbow surgery (again).
But it’s not as if spring training was a total disaster. The team did manage to make it through camp without inadvertently wandering into a village of cannibals.
Most teams worry about having to limp to the finish line of a season. The Braves instead limped to the start. They opened with three games against the Brewers, followed by three in Washington against a Nationals team that most are picking to win the National League East Division.
Is it over for the Braves before it really begins during the first week?
No. Baseball’s long season allows for slow starts and stretches of mediocrity. History reminds us that when the Atlanta Braves won their only World Series in 1995, they had a record of only 24-20 in mid-June (nearly one-third into a strike-shortened, 144-game season). They were 66-34 the rest of the way to finish with the second-best record in the majors and went on to rare October success.
Similarly, fast starts ensure nothing. Some fans (and media) were preparing for a World Series coronation after last season’s 12-1 start. Eventually, the flaws always show.
The only thing we know for certain about the Braves is, after losing starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the season, and Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd for at least part of the opening month, they have left themselves little margin for error.
They need a lot of things to go right. Maybe everything.
Running down the list:
Upton/Uggla Effect: The Braves managed to win 96 games last season with B.J. Upton hitting .184 and Dan Uggla hitting .179. They can’t assume they’ll be able to overcome a similar lack of production by two of their highest paid regulars, particularly since neither are tradeable. The Braves can get by without Upton or Uggla hitting .275. They just need both to strike out less (Upton 151, Uggla 171) and hit better with runners in scoring position (Upton .108, Uggla .137) and runners on base (Upton .158, Uggla .169). Uggla was left off the postseason roster last season and has two years left on his contract. If he’s still struggling six to eight weeks into the season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was released and the Braves made the move to Ramiro Pena.
Pitching health: The Braves assume Minor (shoulder) and Floyd (still rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery) will be fine. But they didn’t exactly see Beachy and Medlen coming. They can’t afford another setback in the rotation, especially given the potential of how taxed the bullpen will be in the first several weeks. A young rotation also can’t afford too many growing pains, especially given that veteran Tim Hudson was allowed to walk in free agency.
Santana: His signing by general manager Frank Wren marked a rarity for owner Liberty Media, which hadn’t committed to many (any?) unplanned expenditures in team salary. If Santana can perform as he did a year ago — throw 200-plus innings with a 3.24 ERA and 161 strikeouts, despite the pedestrian 8-9 record with Kansas City — he would give the Braves a strong top three in the rotation with Teheran and Minor.
Heyward Factor: The Braves were desperate for a competent leadoff hitter last season. Jason Heyward saved their season, hitting .322 after he was moved to the top of the order, as well as giving them speed and power. His success causes an obvious ripple effect down the order. If Heyward struggles to replicate that leadoff success, there’s no great backup plan.
Gattis as a starter: He was everybody’s favorite movie of the week last season. But Gattis now must prove he can be an everyday catcher as he replaces the popular Brian McCann, who also was allowed to leave in free agency. His defensive skills and how he handles the pitching staff are at least as important as what he does on offense.
If all goes right, this is a team that can win it all. But this is a franchise with only one championship since coming to Atlanta. It hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. Many view the Nationals’ finish last season as an aberration, and believe the losses of Medlen and Beachy — as well as the free-agent losses of Hudson, McCann and reliever Eric O’Flaherty — too much. Bovada, one online odds site, has put the Braves’ over/under win total at 87.5 and listed them eighth among the favorites to win the World Series (16-1) and fifth among National League teams to win the pennant (behind Los Angeles, St. Louis, Washington and San Francisco).
If they overcome everything, they will be a great story. If they don’t, people will conclude they were doomed since the first MRI of spring training.
Just don’t be surprised if they’re a little slow coming out of the game this month.