It’s far too early to panic, but Atlanta Braves fans can’t be overly excited when they look at stories and box scores from spring training.
Through 16 preseason games, the Braves are just 2-13-1. Sure, those standings go out the window on opening day and spring records have never correlated to regular season success, but with each passing exhibition, it seems as though Atlanta is finding more questions than answers.
Brian McCann has yet to hit a home run. Freddie Freeman is well below the Mendoza line. Though quick to assure the press that last year’s struggles were all about injuries, Jayson Heyward — who says he is totally healthy — is batting just .176.
Then there is the aging face of the franchise. Injuries have long plagued Chipper Jones, with the last few years seeing more of Chipper in a jacket on the bench than in the middle of the lineup. Jones stated that reports last week indicating he is close to retiring are false, but his numbers seem to indicate that the end is near.
Jones has picked up all of one hit and one RBI this spring while sitting out more than half of Atlanta’s games with sore legs.
As a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, I was concerned about the Braves a couple of years ago. Atlanta seemed to have found an all-star in Martin Prado, had solid veterans in Chipper and McCann, and had a slew of young talent like Heyward, Freeman, Jordan Schaefer and Nate McLouth on the rise to match a young group of pitchers that every scout agreed was the best in the game.
For a fan of an aging team like Philadelphia, it seemed as though the writing was on the wall and that a change in power was coming sooner rather than later.
But then things turned south for the Braves.
Just as the Braves were making a run at the division title in 2010, Jones’ knee — and with it, the Braves’ offense — blew out.
Last season, the team parted ways with both McLouth and Schaefer after neither panned out. Heyward never regained the form of his first couple of months in the big leagues, and he was in and out of the lineup over the final month of the 2011 season. Half of the starting pitching was forced to the bench with injuries and the bullpen — nearly untouchable for the first 90 percent of the season — was the main culprit in the Braves’ epic collapse that left them out of the playoff picture.
This spring was supposed to be about bouncing back from disappointment and rounding the corner, but is instead looking like an extended hangover.
Only two starters are batting over .300, rookies and sophomores alike are struggling and Julio Teheran — the crown jewel of that prized young core of pitchers — has surrendered just one fewer home run (eight in nine innings of work) — than the entire Atlanta offense has managed so far. With the free-agent spending sprees that Washington and Miami launched this past offseason, the Braves have gone from heir to the N.L. East throne to potential also-ran in just more than 18 months.
Of course, all of this might be forgotten in a few weeks. The Braves still have plenty of talent all over the field and showed last season that they are capable of winning at a blistering pace. A team can’t win or lose anything in the month of March, but this month has definitely shown the potential worst-case scenario for Atlanta this season.
But that’s the beauty of baseball. A month of failures and heartbreak can be overcome by a few timely hits or big pitching performances.
In a few more weeks, we’ll see whether the Braves can get back to winning like the team they’re built to be, or if the ghosts of the last two seasons continue to linger.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.