David Murphy: Questions galore in NL East

Posted: March 16, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Remember that famous optical illusion? The one that looks like an old woman or a young woman? Google it. Stare at it. Picture it in your mind. Got it?

Good. Now, do the same thing with the Braves' roster. Because with 3 weeks to go before Opening Day, it is impossible to form a definitive opinion on what to expect out of the Phillies' most recent National League East rivals.

Do you see a team that has entered the last two Septembers in position for a playoff berth? Or do you see a team that lost 20 of its last 30 games in 2011 to miss the postseason?

Do you see a team with one of the best bullpens in baseball? Or do you see a team with a rotation that is in flux?

Do you see Michael Bourn and Dan Uggla or do you see Chipper Jones and Tyler Pastornicky?

Do you see Jason Heyward from 2010 or Jason Heyward from 2011?

Yesterday, in the first Grapefruit League meeting between the Phillies and Braves, you saw a little bit of everything. You saw Craig Kimbrell, the 2011 National League Rookie of the Year, striking out one in a scoreless inning. You saw Bourn getting on base and driving in a run. You saw Uggla connecting for a home run.

But you also saw Jair Jurrjens, one of Atlanta's few known starting pitching commodities, allowing four runs in four innings. You saw Heyward, a rookie sensation in 2010, go 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, his Grapefruit League average falling to .176. You saw a rookie in Pastornicky who is expected to start at shortstop, and an aged veteran in Jones who is expected to start at third base.

And, of course, you saw the Phillies hand the Braves their 11th loss in 13 Grapefruit League games.

What, exactly, does all of it mean?

Every team in the division has questions this time of year. In Washington, they have a No. 1 starter who has yet to record his first complete big-league season. They have holes at shortstop, at first base, and in centerfield. In Florida, they have a No. 1 starter who is coming off an injury-shortened season. They have a bullpen that still has a lot to prove. They have a third baseman who wants to be a shortstop and who is coming off the worst season of his career.

We probably do not have to detail the issues facing the club from Philadelphia, from the health of the middle of the order to the unsettled leftfield situation.

As the National League East prepares for its fiercest competition in recent memory, the big question is whose questions are biggest?

Talk to the Phillies, and you get the answer that you'd expect. As far as Charlie Manuel is concerned, Atlanta is the biggest threat until somebody proves otherwise. While the Nationals are staging a 2-month-long pep rally and the Marlins are cashing the kind of checks that Fred Wilpon used to write, the Braves are humming along below baseball's fickle radar.

"Their younger players got a year of experience last season, and they have talent enough to hit better," Manuel said. "I think their bullpen is definitely one of the best bullpens in baseball."

Joe Blanton has been facing this Braves team since the middle of the 2008 season. He pointed to the two runs he allowed in the third inning as emblematic of the problems the Braves' lineup can present. First came an infield single by Pastornicky. Two batters later, Bourn hit a single to score a run. That was followed by a Martin Prado sacrifice bunt that set up an RBI groundout by Jones.

"They're solid," Blanton said. "They have some decent depth in their lineup. They have speed at the top and they have guys in the middle who can handle the bat. The inning where I gave up two runs, Prado laid down a bunt and Chipper was able to put a bat on a ball on a pretty good pitch and get the runner in. They are going to play like that. I think that's going to make them really good. They have some veteran guys there in the middle that know how to play baseball."

The counterargument is that those same players were in the lineup last year, when the Braves scored the second-fewest runs in the National League over their last 30 games and tumbled from a comfortable spot atop the wild-card standings.

Likewise with their rotation. Veteran No. 1 Tim Hudson is expected to miss the first month of the season after undergoing back surgery. Up-and-coming righthander Tommy Hanson missed the last 2 months of 2011 with an under-surface rotator-cuff tear and then saw his Grapefruit League debut delayed as he recovered from a concussion he suffered in an auto accident.

The counter to that?

"They have young pitchers who have big talent that they hardly even talk about," Manuel said, referring to talented prospects like Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. "I hear people talk about their rotation and how it can be hurting right now or limping, and I don't buy that, because I saw some kids who have big stuff."

Last year, those kids were unable to stop the Braves' epic September slide. With 12 games left, they had a 4 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the wild-card race. They won just three more games, none of which came in a season-ending home series against a Phillies team that had nothing to play for.

Can that disappointment carry over into a new season?

"It can," Manuel said. "Or it can help you."

When you look at the 2012 Braves, that's as definitive as you can get.

Contact David Murphy at murphyd@phillynews.com.

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