Braves wipe slate clean with start of camp
Veterans, newcomers optimistic they can redeem 2011 letdown
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Braves pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training on Sunday morning, Jair Jurrjens said he has no restrictions and Tim Hudson seemed at ease with the fact that he will likely miss at least the first month of the season.
A healthy Jurrjens only enhances the impressive starting pitching depth that the Braves will utilize while Hudson recovers from the surgical procedure performed on his back on November 28. The veteran pitcher's absence will likely open a rotation spot for either Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado, a pair of highly regarded prospects who gained valuable big league experience last year.
"I don't have any pressure to get back early or back on time," Hudson said. "One thing that makes it a lot easier for me is that we have guys who can fill in and be just fine."
There is no doubt the Braves would rather begin the season with Hudson anchoring a rotation that will be filled with young talent. But with Tommy Hanson feeling good about his shoulder and Jurrjens confident that his right knee will no longer be a problem, the team is in position to exercise patience as the veteran pitcher recovers from a surgical procedure that fused the L5/S1 disk in his back.
"If we all stay healthy, we're going to keep the team in the race," said the 26-year-old Jurrjens, who is slated to begin this season as the oldest member of Atlanta's starting rotation.
There is a sense of excitement and hunger as the Braves get ready to stage their first workout for pitchers and catchers on Monday. Position players are not scheduled to report until Friday and the first full-squad workout is scheduled for Saturday.
But as of Sunday, shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and center fielder Michael Bourn were the only projected starting position players who had not yet arrived to camp. The abundance of early arrivals seems to be a product of the motivation created last year, when the Braves blew an 8 1/2-game Wild Card lead in September.
"We're ready to get back after it," Braves right fielder Jason Heyward said. "I don't need to go gut check anybody else. But from my standpoint, I felt I had a disappointing year in a lot of ways. Some of it was out of my control. But I wanted to make sure I took care of everything I can control."
The Braves might not have gone 9-18 in September had Hanson and Jurrjens remained healthy. Both entered the All-Star break with one of the National League's top four ERAs. After the break, both proved to be liabilities in the rotation.
Rest and an altered delivery have given Hanson hope that his right shoulder will no longer be a problem. Jurrjens' optimism about his right knee has greatly increased since he learned approximately two months ago that some of his discomfort could have been a product of a joint in his big toe.
Because the joint is smaller than normal, it has led Jurrjens to push off the rubber with most of his weight on the second toe of his right foot. This placed more stress on his knee and produced some of the pain that sidelined him down the stretch both of the past two seasons.
Jurrjens has not experienced any more knee discomfort since he began wearing orthotics in both shoes two months ago.
"If you would have asked me two months ago, I would have been nervous [about my knee]," Jurrjens said. "But since I put those in [my shoes], I started squatting and running a little bit."
Jurrjens has already completed eight bullpen sessions over the past month and seemingly has the same kind of confidence that Hanson has been expressing while discussing his altered delivery. He also said he is not bothered by the fact that his name was linked to trade rumors throughout the winter.
"When the rumors started, trying to take a nap was difficult because any time the phone rang, you think it could be somebody calling you to tell you, you've been traded," Jurrjens said. "But it's part of the business. Everybody is trying to improve their team somehow."
As long as Jurrjens and Hanson remain healthy, they will likely lead a rotation that will also include Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor. The final spot in the rotation could be filled by Teheran, Delgado or the versatile Kris Medlen, who has had success as a starting pitcher in the past.
But it seems more likely that Medlen will begin the season as a reliever and have a chance to serve as another reliable option who could lessen the stress placed on closer Craig Kimbrel and setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.
If Medlen is targeted to serve as a reliever, the Braves would have three available spots in their bullpen. Arodys Vizcaino, Anthony Varvaro, Cristhian Martinez and Rule 5 Draft selection Robert Fish are the top candidates for these three spots. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez also made things interesting a couple of weeks ago when he said there was a chance either Teheran or Delgado could begin the year as a reliever.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.