The first day of the full squad workout is always interesting. It's the first chance to see the entire team on the field, with new players, young players, and the returning veterans. And on Wednesday, day one of spring training for the complete group went very well.
"This is the first day you realize your whole goal is to grow together as a team," said John Smoltz, who showed up at the end of the first day in his golf attire, waiting on Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francoeur, and John Thomson to join him in a round with PGA professional Lee Jansen.
For a team drastically different from the group that started out last year on Opening Day, there will still be a period of adjustment. The next five weeks will be important in creating some cohesiveness.
"Now that everyone's here, we're starting to get to know each other, starting to put faces to names around here," said second baseman Marcus Giles. "I think just building that chemistry on the field and in the clubhouse is what we're working on right here."
The morning started out with a 9:30 am meeting, as Manager Bobby Cox and his staff welcomed the fifty-five players to the official start of spring training. Everyone looks forward to the day pitchers and catchers report, but this is the day the real spring training started.
"It's pretty much the same general text every year," Chipper Jones said of Cox's speech, "with a few subtle changes with so many young guys in camp. He wanted to relay that everyone's got a chance for a job. It might not be right out of spring training, but with all the injuries we had last year, if that were to happen again, we'd have to dip down (into the farm system) again."
"Bobby tries to take the pressure off the young guys, but he still let them know that there were eighteen rookies that passed through the halls of our clubhouse last year," Jones continued. "The long arm of Atlanta can extend all the way down to Double-A, not just Triple-A. Prepare yourselves, be ready because there are going to be a lot of young guys down here that will get a long look from Bobby and the coaching staff for the simple fact that there are a lot of guys playing in the World Cup. So a lot of guys will get two or three weeks where they'll play a lot and get to make an impression, so they should try to make the most of it."
As Jones and Smoltz both grow older, spring training becomes more important. Jones is recovering from the flu that wiped out much of his offseason workouts, so he's very clear in his priorities for this spring.
"I want to gain some weight back, gain some strength back, and get my bat speed where I feel comfortable with, and to hit the ball to the off fields," Jones said. More and more just to pace myself to make it through spring training without any major nicks, so I can go into the first of April healthy and on a good note."
"Well I've had a different approach every year," Smoltz admitted. "This year I'm working on enjoying the whole process, enjoying coming to the park, listening to my body, doing what I need to do, and not forcing anything. If I don't feel like running some days, I'm not going to run. If I don't feel like throwing, I'm not going to throw. That hasn't always been the case because of the things you think you've got to do to get ready. I'm going to have the same thing in mind for the games. I'm going to try to work on things that I typically won't do, and the sequences of doing it are going to be different than if I were in a regular game, and find a way to last a little longer in the first game of this year."
For a team that has been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs in four straight years, the Braves know they must take that first step in advancing further this year. Smoltz says that process started Wednesday.
"We've got to find a way to get out of the first round," Smoltz said. "The first thing you've got to do is to get into the playoffs, and hopefully that last game (against Houston) sticks in the minds of a lot of players and we can do what is necessary to make the necessary adjustments."
Cox impressed with catchers
When asked early Wednesday about the impressive young catchers the organization has stockpiled, Manager Bobby Cox said, "Do we ever? A lot of good looking catchers are around. You know everyone's heard about (Jarrod) Saltalamacchia. He can really swing from both sides of the plate. Of course, (Brian) McCann, you know. The year he had for us was super. There are a lot of good catchers in camp. Todd Pratt's the new addition, great backup guy. He's been around for a while. He's caught on championship teams, so he fits right in also."
Cox had gushed earlier in the week about Saltalamacchia, a 20-year-old switch-hitter making his first appearance in big league camp. The Braves' skipper even compared Saltalamacchia's swing to that of Home Run Champion Hank Aaron. ‘Salty Dog' was overwhelmed by the compliment.
"The whole plan coming into spring training was to just catch his eye, so I could make that first impression in his head," Saltalamacchia said. "I think I did that. I feel good. I feel ready."
Slated to start the season in Double-A Mississippi, Saltalamacchia knows how important it is for young players to impress the future Hall-of-Fame manager. He did that with an eye-opening batting practice earlier in the week.
"The first day of BP (batting practice) I did pretty well," Saltalamacchia said. "I hit like three or four out in a row, and then from the right side I hit about four or five out in a row. I swung the bat real well. It felt good. I feel real ready this year."
Left-field job sounds like an open competition
The sole opening in the lineup is in left field, where Ryan Langerhans has the slight edge over Kelly Johnson and Brian Jordan. But Cox said the competition is up for grabs at this point.
"I don't know," Cox admitted. "Langerhans ended up there last year. Brian Jordan feels great this year. His knee's not bothering him a bit. Of course, Kelly Johnson played out there with a sore elbow. He had it operated on. He's swinging better now, and he's throwing better. So we'll see what happens. Whoever is out there is going to be very solid."
Johnson, Langerhans, and Jordan all participated with the starters in batting practice on Wednesday.
Devine ready for the bullpen battle
One of the impressive showings from a pitcher Wednesday was from reliever Joey Devine, who had several of the Braves' veterans walking out of the cage shaking their heads at his impressive stuff. Count Devine as one person not concerned with the quality of the competition for the bullpen spots.
"Every single guy out there is going to be a big help to the Atlanta Braves in one shape or form," Devine said. "That answer (of the closer) will take care of itself. I think everybody out here has the arm to be a very successful part of the Braves‘ bullpen."
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Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.