Braves veteran Chipper Jones is one of several returning players for Atlanta, which began workouts Monday.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Looking around Atlanta’s spring training clubhouse, Jason Heyward sees most of the same faces that were there last September, when the Braves blew a seemingly comfortable lead in the playoff race.
Now, Heyward and his teammates are eager to prove that was the right call.
As pitchers and catchers reported for their first official workout Monday, the Braves have decided to stick with largely the same group that played so well most of the season — then frittered away a commanding NL wild-card lead over the last month. The collapse was even harder to take when St. Louis claimed an improbable World Series championship after passing Atlanta on the final day.
“Everyone took it personally,” Heyward said, sitting at his locker Sunday.
Some teams might have opted for a major shakeup, or at least done some fairly significant tinkering. But the Braves, a franchise that always preferred a steady path over headline-grabbing moves, barely touched the roster over the winter.
Unless there’s an unexpected trade during spring training, the only significant changes will be rookie Tyler Pastornicky taking over at shortstop for Alex Gonzalez and someone — anyone — moving into the rotation to replace 17-game loser Derek Lowe, who was dumped on Cleveland even though the Braves will continue to pay most of his $15 million salary.
“I’m not surprised,” reliever Jonny Venters said. “I thought we had a great team last year. I know it didn’t pan out at the end of the year the way wanted it to, but we played good baseball most of the year.”
Rather than shaking up the roster, the Braves are counting on several of the players they already have to put up much better numbers in 2012.
At the top of that list is Heyward, a rookie sensation two years ago and perhaps the most disappointing player in baseball last season. Bothered by an ailing shoulder early on in spring training, the right fielder got all out of whack with his mechanics, then had a meltdown of confidence that resulted in a hideous .227 average with just 14 homers and 42 RBI.
Things got so bad that Heyward wasn’t even a full-time starter coming down the stretch, sharing the duties with trade-deadline acquisition Matt Diaz and career minor leaguer Jose Constanza.
“This game is hard enough anyway. You’re going to have those spells where you get away from something, where you have those bad habits,” Heyward said. “But not being able to correct it because you’re hurt, well, that’s definitely not a fun game to play. Sometimes you need to push through those things. That’s living and learning. At the same time, I’m fortunate to go through it at a young age.”
Indeed, Heyward is only 22 years old — hardly washed up after one poor season. If he gets back on track, or at least puts up stats more in line with his rookie year (.277, 18 homers, 72 RBIs), the lineup will look much more imposing than a year ago, when the Braves were able to score in spurts but never found any sort of consistency — especially in September.
From the looks of his chiseled frame, Heyward has gotten himself in the best physical shape of his young career. Now, if he can just rediscover his hitting stroke, which was his main focus during the offseason.
“I told myself that I needed to start over,” he said. “Go back to your base and really be fundamentally sound. I’m paying a lot more attention to that right now, while trying to regain the feel that I had. I’m trying to go back to something that I already had, which is a good thing. I already had it. I’ve got it. I know what I need to do and how I need to do it. I’ve just got to get back to it.”
With the 25-man roster largely set, the major decisions of spring training will be on the fringes of the pitching staff. Who will be the fifth starter? Who will take the last one or two spots in the bullpen?
There’s certainly a plethora of talented young pitching, a reminder of the team’s golden era in the 1990s. Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy are locks for the rotation, while Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen are in the mix. No one in that group is older than 26. Then consider the bullpen, anchored by NL Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel and two more 20-somethings, Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
“What would you change?” O’Flaherty asked. “If you look at every position, we’ve got somebody fully capable. We just got cold at the wrong time last season. A lot of people want to analyze it and look deeper than that, but we just got into a slump. That can happen to any team.”
Still, no one has forgotten what it was like watching the Cardinals celebrate a World Series title.
Everyone wants to wipe away that bitter taste, which explains why most of the team is already at the Braves’ Disney World complex even though the first full-squad workout is nearly a week away.
“It could have been us,” O’Flaherty said. “Trust me, no one is happy about it.”