Spring training questions: Atlanta Braves

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Will Jair Jurrjens be OK for the start of the season after showing up to camp with a bum shoulder?
Jurrjens, who finished third in the NL with a 2.60 ERA last season, reported soreness immediately after reporting to spring training. An MRI turned up no structural damage, and the Braves are currently cautiously optimistic that he’ll be ready on time. Whether the story ends there will be determined over the next several weeks. Jurrjens has a clean delivery, but he’s thrown a lot of pitches for someone who just turned 24 last month. With their lack of starting pitching depth, the Braves would be hard-pressed if they lost him for any length of time.
2. Is Jason Heyward ready to take over as the everyday right fielder?
The games haven’t even started, yet the hype machine is working overtime already. Some thought that Heyward, baseball’s best position prospect, should have been given a callup in the second half of last year. He ended up hitting .323/.408/.555 in a season spent mostly at Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Mississippi. The now 20-year-old Heyward bulked up over the winter and has reportedly been crushing the ball in batting practice. He’s advanced enough as a hitter that few doubt he’d be able to hold his own in the majors right away. Whether he’s really enough of an upgrade over Melky Cabrera to make it worth carrying him on Opening Day is another question, particularly once the financial ramifications are taking into account (by keeping him in the minors for another two months, the Braves could delay his arbitration and free agency eligibility by a year).
So, yeah, I think Heyward is probably ready to be an average or maybe an above average regular for the Braves. But given that Cabrera is a pretty average regular himself, the team may want to give Heyward the Tommy Hanson treatment anyway. Hanson was kept in the minors last year just long enough to ensure that he wouldn’t be super-two eligible after 2011.
3. Will the Braves have to go get themselves one more pitcher?
This really goes along with the first two questions. As is, the Braves rotation fallbacks are disappointing left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes and right-hander Kris Medlen, who should be a key cog in the bullpen. Unlike most seasons, there aren’t any quality prospects ready to step in, though I think Medlen would do just fine if needed. Also complicating the matter is that Reyes is out of options and might be picked up by another team unless the Braves opt to carry him as a reliever.
In a perfect world, the Braves would have one more rotation option behind Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Hanson and Kenshin Kawakami. And they have a seemingly ideal trade candidate in Cabrera if they opt to make Heyward their right fielder. Should the right situation arise next month, the Braves may well use Cabrera to improve their depth elsewhere. Or it’s something they could try to do in June, though Cabrera’s value would take a hit if he plays behind Heyward.

The Cubs are in desperate need of relief

Associated Press
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Tonight in Chicago Yu Darvish of the Dodgers will face off against Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs. If this were Game 1, we’d have a lot to say about the Dodgers’ trade deadline pickup and the Cubs’ budding ace. If this series continues on the way it’s been going, however, each of them will be footnotes because it has been all about the bullpens.

The Cubs, you may have heard, are having tremendous problems with relief pitching. Both their own and with the opposition’s. Cubs relievers have a 7.03 ERA this postseason, and have allowed six runs on eight hits and have walked six batters in seven innings of work. And no, the relief struggles aren’t just a matter of Joe Maddon pushing the wrong buttons (even though, yeah, he has pushed the wrong buttons).

Maddon pushed Wade Davis for 44 pitches in Game 5 of the NLDS, limiting his availability in Games 1 and 2. That pushing is a result of a lack of relief depth on the Cubs. Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. all have talent and all have had their moments, but none of them are the sort of relievers we have come to see in the past few postseasons. The guys who, when your starter tosses 80 pitches in four innings like Jon Lester did the other night, can be relied upon to shut down the opposition for three and a half more until your lights-out closer can get the four-out save.

In contrast, the Dodgers bullpen has been dominant, tossing eight scoreless innings. Indeed, Dodgers relievers have tossed eight almost perfect innings, allowing zero hits and zero walks while striking out nine Cubs batters. The only imperfection came when Kenley Jansen hit Anthony Rizzo in Game 2. That’s it. Compare this to the past couple of postseasons where the only truly reliable arm down there was Jansen, and in which Dodgers managers have had to rely on Clayton Kershaw to come on in relief. That has not been a temptation at all as the revamped L.A. pen, featuring newcomers Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson. Suffice it to say, Joe Blanton is not missed.

Which brings us back to Kyle Hendricks. He has pitched twice this postseason, pitching seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLDS but getting touched for four runs on nine hits while allowing a couple of dingers in Game 5. If the good Hendricks shows up, Maddon will be able to ride him until late in the game in which a now-rested Davis and maybe either Strop or Edwards can close things out in conventional fashion, returning this series to competitiveness. If the bad Hendricks does, he’ll have to do what he did in that NLDS Game 5, using multiple relievers and, perhaps, a repurposed starter in relief while grinding Davis into dust again. That was lucky to work there and doing it without Davis didn’t work in Game 2 on Sunday night.

So it all falls to Hendricks. The Dodgers have shown how soft the underbelly of the Cubs pen truly is. If they get to Hendricks early and get into that pen, you have to like L.A’s chances, not just in this game, but for the rest of the series, as bullpen wear-and-tear builds up quickly. It’s pretty simple: Hendricks has to give the Cubs some innings tonight. There is no other option available.

Just ask Joe Maddon. He’s tried.