Braves' pitchers, catchers raring to go as camp begins
Hurlers, backstops reported Thursday; full-squad workouts get underway Wednesday
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- A little more than four months have passed since the Braves blew an eighth-inning lead against the Dodgers in the decisive Game 4 of the National League Division Series. While time has erased the initial frustration, it appears a lingering sting could provide some motivation this season.
"Playing L.A. was a good experience for everyone," backup catcher Gerald Laird said. "Obviously, we came up short. But it gives you that itch to get back there, go farther and experience that. I think guys got a taste of it last year. I think it left a bitter taste how we lost Game 4. I think guys are going to grow from that, and that experience is going to help them a lot this year."
The Braves are eagerly approaching the dawn of a new season with a sense of confidence that is fortified by the fact that this year's roster looks much like the same one they used on the way to notching 96 victories and the NL East crown last year.
"I don't think there is any reason why we wouldn't have had most of our guys back," right-handed pitcher Kris Medlen said. "Ninety-six wins is a pretty big accomplishment for us. You're just looking to repeat. You just have to forget about the last one, no matter how good it was. You've got to learn from it and just move on."
A sense of optimism and excitement filled the air as Atlanta's pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training on Thursday and began preparing for their first workout on Friday.
Though the club's first full-squad workout will not be held until Wednesday, a handful of position players, including Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla, have already spent the past couple of days working at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex, which has served as the club's Spring Training home since 1998.
"I've been excited all week," left-hander Mike Minor said. "I got here Monday. I was excited to get down, get away from the weather and get some good weather. You start smelling the same smells of coming in here and being around the guys and just having that feeling again."
The early days of camp could produce a bit of an odd feeling that comes courtesy of the offseason departures of the club's two previously longest-tenured players -- Tim Hudson and Brian McCann. While these two veterans will be missed in the clubhouse, the Braves spent last season's final two months providing some indication that they can win without them.
Atlanta produced a Major League-best 39-21 record after July 24, the day that Hudson suffered his season-ending ankle injury. During this 60-game span, McCann hit just .217 with seven home runs and a .661 OPS.
As Hudson extends his career with the Giants and McCann experiences a new life with the Yankees, the Braves believe they are still capable of staying ahead of a talented Nationals club that finished 10 games back in last year's division race.
"We're getting [Brandon] Beachy back, who was probably one of the best pitchers in the game before he got hurt [in 2012]," Laird said. "We lost Mac, who is one of the best catchers in the game. But we've got [Evan] Gattis, who can probably step in and be one of the elite catchers in the game. It's not like we're scrambling to fill these roles. We have guys who can step in and do a great job."
Minus Hudson and left-handed reliever Eric O'Flaherty, who missed last season's final four months, the Braves' pitching staff will essentially be the same one that led the Majors with a 3.18 ERA last year. This rotation, which is anchored by Medlen and Minor, could prove to be even stronger if Beachy is healthy and Julio Teheran takes another step forward, coming off his impressive rookie season.
Beachy's frustrating attempt to return from Tommy John surgery was limited to the five starts he made before having to undergo a cleanup surgery in September. The veteran right-hander arrived in camp earlier this week without any restrictions. Now, Beachy will attempt to regain the successful form he had when he produced a Major League-best 2.00 ERA in the 13 starts he made before blowing out his elbow in June 2012.
In an effort to provide depth and insurance to their rotation, Atlanta provided a one-year deal to Gavin Floyd, who will be sidelined until at least May while recovering from elbow reconstruction surgery. With uncertainty surrounding Floyd, the club made a seemingly wise decision to also re-sign Freddy Garcia, the ageless veteran who nearly beat Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 4 of last year's NLDS.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to be in the rotation again and just kind of get things going, especially with the way we ended last year with the National League East championship," Medlen said. "We've got a few teams in our division who got better. So, it should be fun."
With Craig Kimbrel set to extend his days as a dominant closer, the Braves' bullpen could once again be one of the game's best. Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden and David Carpenter are also set to return to this relief corps that set a franchise record with a 2.46 bullpen ERA last year.
When the Braves open their Grapefruit League schedule with a Feb. 26 home game against the Tigers, they will be evaluating a number of pitchers who could fill what appears to be two available spots in the bullpen. Left-hander Ryan Buchter and righty Luis Vasquez seemingly have the potential to draw a lot of buzz as they compete for a spot.
"You see the Nationals go out and get better by adding [Doug] Fister," Laird said. "But I just think we have such good pitchers here, and [pitching coach Roger McDowell] does a good job of preparing guys. I think we're going to be fine. We're going to battle and see what happens."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.