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Braves camp report: After epic collapse, inaction brings optimism

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Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson is back on the field after suffering a concussion in a car accident. (AP)  
Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson is back on the field after suffering a concussion in a car accident. (AP)  


LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Red Sox collapsed in September. The Braves collapsed in September.

The Red Sox spent the winter changing everything, from the general manager to the manager to the beer policy in the clubhouse.

The Braves spent the winter changing ... basically nothing?

"I guess that's what happens when you play in a more laid-back media market," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said this week.

Instead of bold moves, the Braves front office decided on a winter of just as bold non-moves. They made one minor change in the lineup (rookie Tyler Pastornicky replaces Alex Gonzalez at shortstop), one minor change in the rotation (Derek Lowe was traded, opening up a spot for one of the talented kids), and one change on the coaching staff (Greg Walker replaced Larry Parrish as hitting coach).

That's it.

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The Braves talked to some teams about trading Martin Prado and/or Jair Jurrjens, but they came to camp having moved neither one. The Braves might have spent money chasing a free agent or two, but their budget wouldn't allow it.

Was there any team in baseball that had a quieter winter than the Braves? Can anyone remember a quieter Braves winter?

"If I'm perfectly honest, that's a little unsettling," general manager Frank Wren admitted.

He doesn't mean he's second-guessing what they did -- or, in this case, didn't do. He and his staff are convinced the plan of action (or inaction) was right, and that the team that fell apart last September won't do it again.

His players are convinced too.

"I'm happy that Frank didn't blow it up," Jones said.

"You look around this lineup, what would you have changed?" catcher Brian McCann asked. "You win 90 games, it's a good year. No need to blow anything up."

But the Braves didn't win 90. They won 89, and that one game was the difference. They lost 20 of their last 30 and six of their last seven, and they ushered the Cardinals into the playoffs.

"Should the Cardinals have even been in the playoffs? No," Jones said.

Fantasy Writer
Breakout ... Brandon Beachy, SP: Beachy went from being a nobody minor-leaguer midway through 2010 to a clear somebody as a rookie last year, leading all full-time starting pitchers with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But his shortcomings ultimately caused him to rank outside the top 60 starting pitchers in Head-to-Head leagues, which is why Fantasy owners still regard him as more of a curiosity than an emerging star. He already has the important stuff down --- the high strikeout rate, the low walk rate and the low hit rate. He already knows how to dominate. The parts of his game that need refinement are the ones that can only come through experience, such as learning how to extend himself both deeper into games and deeper into the season. If he follows the usual progression for young starting pitchers, he'll approach 180 innings this year, which would mean more wins and a significant surge up the rankings. As long as his peripherals don't suffer in the process, Beachy has the makings of a poor man's Zack Greinke.
Sleeper ... Mike Minor, SP: Minor's progression may seem slow to those who have been hearing him hyped in Fantasy for nearly two years now, but keep in mind he's made only 23 starts in the big leagues. He bounced between the majors and minors last year, his full-time arrival delayed by the discovery of Brandon Beachy (hard to argue with that one now, right?), and never got a chance to find his comfort zone. Still, his strikeout and walk rates showed he has the skills to become a top-of-the-rotation-type pitcher, and with Derek Lowe banished to Cleveland, he suddenly has a rotation spot to refine them. The Braves' decision to clear that spot for Minor this offseason should give the 24-year-old a renewed sense of purpose entering spring training. If his performance during his final nine starts last year, when he posted a 3.83 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning, was a sneak peak at what he can do with a defined role, he'll be a late-round find on Draft Day. -- Scott White
Depth Chart | Braves outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

And the Cardinals won the World Series.

The way the Braves see it, that could have been them. The way the Braves see it, maybe could be them this year, if they just give this group a chance.

That's what Wren heard when he met with his staff a few days after the season abruptly ended with that extra-inning loss to the Phillies. That's what Wren heard again when he met with Jones and other players a few weeks later.

"We couldn't get away from the fact that we had a good team," Wren said. "We couldn't get away from that."

Through Aug. 25, they had the fourth-best record in baseball, behind the Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees. They have a young team overall, and there is reason to believe a lot of these guys are getting better.

The Braves kept coming back to that.

What about September?

"A fluke," Jones insisted.

The offense that struggled all year and was almost non-existent in the final month (the Braves averaged 2.3 runs a game in their final 16 losses)?

Not indicative of what the Braves are.

"Is [Jason Heyward] going to hit .220 with 14 home runs again? Definitely not," Jones said. "Is Dan Uggla going to hit [.185] the entire first half? Not going to happen. Is Brian McCann going to hit .180 the last two months? Not going to happen. Is Martin Prado going to hit .260? Not going to happen."

If the offense is better, the Braves won't play as many close games, and manager Fredi Gonzalez might not tire out his bullpen (he probably shouldn't, anyway).

Wren praises Gonzalez for his work during September. Braves players express sympathy for how the collapse had to affect their manager, but they don't blame him for what happened.

Some of those players say they weren't really able to put 2011 behind them until they arrived at camp last week.

Gonzalez agreed, saying, "In baseball it's always, 'Go get 'em tomorrow.' Our tomorrow wasn't for four months."

Now that tomorrow is here, Gonzalez is telling his players to "stop looking in the rear-view mirror. It's time to look through the front windshield."

He says that, but I'm not sure that this team is hurt by looking back. When they do, they only seem to remind themselves how good they were, and not how bad the ending was.

"We were a 96-97 win team last year," Uggla said. "We just had some things happen."

So did the Red Sox. And then the Red Sox had plenty of things happen in October and November, too.

The Braves spent most of the winter with basically nothing happening.

"That's what I love about Frank," Uggla said. "He believes in the team he put together."

In this case, he believes in the team that fell apart. He believes in it enough to give this group another chance.

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