Atlanta Braves pitcher David Hale (57) throws a pitch in the third inning of the spring training exhibition game against the New York Yankees at Champion Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports: Jonathan Dyer)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — All the news was good at the start of spring training, with Atlanta Braves locking up first baseman Freddie Freeman, closer Craig Kimbrel, right-hander Julio Teheran and shortstop Andrelton Simmons to long-term contracts.
The vibe quickly changed, though.
Right-handers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down in consecutive games, and each needed a second Tommy John surgery.
The Braves were suddenly forced into catch-up mode, and that appears to be their status in comparison to the Washington Nationals in the National League East.
Atlanta won 96 games last year and finished 10 games ahead of the Nationals, who had plenty of early issues. Now the tables appear to have turned.
The Braves acted quickly to sign free agent right-hander Ervin Santana to a one-year deal as a replacement for Medlen, but there was no easy fix to cover the absence of Beachy. There also is concern about left-hander Mike Minor’s ailing left shoulder.
At the start of the season, the Braves’ rotation will be Teheran, Alex Wood, recently signed Aaron Harang and either right-hander David Hale or right-hander Gus Schlosser. Santana won’t be up to speed until around April 12, when the team first needs a fifth starter.
Right-hander Gavin Floyd, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, could join the rotation in late April.
Still, general manager Frank Wren gave a positive spin.
“Slowly but surely, we’re getting Santana, Minor and Floyd,” he said. “Then we’re back to pretty good depth and pretty good strength. By getting Santana, we were able to make the most out of a tough situation.”
With all the questions about the rotation, there is more pressure on the bullpen. Kimbrel was the top closer in the game over his first two seasons, but can the Braves hand him enough leads?
“We’re going out to win. We still have a great team,” Kimbrel said. “It’s tough losing two top pitchers, but getting Santana was really big.”
The Braves should again hit a lot of home runs, but strikeouts remain a problem. Much will depend on center fielder B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla bouncing back from dismal years.
“Time will tell, but we like what we’ve seen so far,” Wren said.
For most of the past quarter century, the Braves were pitching-rich. This season, they may have to outslug teams.
“We don’t talk about it, but I think it’s in the back of our minds,” Freeman said.
Can the Braves beat out Washington again and win the NL East?
“They’re a good team, but so are we,” right fielder Jason Heyward said. “No one should count us out.”
Injuries can be overcome, as veteran catcher Gerald Laird keeps reminding the Braves. He was with St. Louis in 2011 when the Cardinals lost ace right-hander Adam Wainwright and still won the World Series.
The loss of RHPs Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to second Tommy John surgeries made for a dramatic spring, and the Braves apparently slid behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East. The signing of free agent RHP Ervin Santana, though, offered hope, and the Braves aren’t conceding anything. After all, Atlanta won the NL East by 10 games last year with 96 victories.