Braves won't let injuries be excuse in 2014
Atlanta enters season with five starting pitchers out; offense hopes to carry load
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As the Braves approach this upcoming season, they can only hope to be every bit as resilient as they were last year, when they easily won the National League East title despite the fact that it seemed adversity was staring them in the face on a daily basis.
Jason Heyward endured two separate month-long stints on the disabled list, and the club's top two projected setup men -- Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters -- underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery days apart in May. All the while, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla were hitting below the Mendoza Line and experiencing the worst season of their respective careers.
W: Gallardo L: Teheran SV: Rodriguez
Still, it wasn't until Tim Hudson suffered a season-ending ankle injury on July 24 that the Braves got a taste of the enhanced level of adversity that awaits them this year, as they attempt to defend their division crown with two of their top starting pitchers -- Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy -- recovering from Tommy John surgery.
"Each year, you're going to face something," Heyward said. "You've just got to put it in the back of your mind and just play baseball. Nobody makes excuses for you. Injuries are going to happen. But nobody is ever going to give you a pass for them."
While cognizant of the challenge that awaits them, the Braves are well aware of the fact that they notched Major League Baseball's best record and produced the game's third-best starting pitching ERA after Hudson was lost last year. But this group also realizes that Medlen played a key role in the surge, as he went 8-2 with a 2.00 ERA in 10 starts he made during the regular season's final two months.
One year after going through nearly four full months of the regular season without placing one of the original five members of their starting rotation on the disabled list, the Braves will enter this season with five starting pitchers -- Medlen, Beachy, Mike Minor, Gavin Floyd and Ervin Santana -- unavailable.
Santana, who gained a one-year, $14.1 million contract after Medlen and Beachy incurred their season-ending injuries, is expected to join Atlanta's rotation during the regular season's second week. Floyd, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, and Minor, who was slowed because of a Dec. 31 urinary tract procedure, are aiming to debut during April's fourth week.
"I think what helps us is what happened last year," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "It seemed like every single month we had someone on the disabled list. We were able to win 96 games and win the division. Our pitching staff carried us when we struggled as an offense last year. It's the offense's turn this year. Hopefully we can do what the pitching did for us last year."
Given what has happened to their rotation over the past few weeks, the Braves are likely longing for those days when it seemed this year's biggest concern was whether Uggla and Upton would bounce back from last year's horror.
Fortunately, these two veterans have created some reason for optimism as they have progressed through the exhibition season. After spending this winter focusing on regaining a quieter, more stable stance, Upton has been hitting the ball to all fields and making solid contact on fastballs that he seemingly would have had no chance to touch last year.
Instead of being discouraged by the embarrassment of being left off of last year's National League Division Series roster, Uggla spent the offseason attempting to rid himself of the homer-happy bad habits that led him to allow his front side to fly open too frequently. His performance during the exhibition season has drawn praise from manager Fredi Gonzalez and hitting coach Greg Walker.
If Uggla and Upton carry their recent success into the regular season, they will fortify a talented lineup that will once again feature Heyward, Freeman, Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, who finished second in last year's National League batting title chase.
"Name-wise and with their production, it's a tough lineup to navigate," Gonzalez said. "From what I've seen in Spring Training, you feel that way."
While Andrelton Simmons aided last year's offense as he surprisingly totaled 17 home runs, his value obviously comes courtesy of his rocket arm and range -- a pair of attributes that have enabled him to become widely recognized as the game's premier defensive shortstop.
Simmons' defensive contributions certainly helped the Braves lead the Majors in ERA last year. But this achievement was also aided by the resiliency of a bullpen that posted a franchise-best 2.46 ERA despite the extended absences of O'Flaherty and Venters.
Closer Craig Kimbrel and his top setup men -- Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter -- are all back together again for this upcoming season. But in order for their potential value to be realized, the Braves are going to have to hope that their rotation is able to overcome adversity much like the bullpen and offense did last year.
Braves players took notice when team chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk responded to the Santana signing by saying, "We're not in a rebuilding mode, we're in a winning mode."
Now they simply have to go out and do their part.
"It seems whenever you're winning and you're having fun, guys get closer, and we did that last year," Kimbrel said. "We've got a lot of guys back this year, and we're all relatively younger and around the same age. We all have the same mentality and that is just to win. That is not just a part of this team, it's this organization, which is about winning. That's what we're here to do."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.