Switching leagues shouldn't be too difficult for Esasky, 30, who was signed as a free agent for $5.6 million over three years after last year's banner season (30 homers, 108 RBIs) with the Boston Red Sox. He spent the previous six seasons trying to persuade the Cincinnati Reds that he could be a regular, and in that time he hit .375 with 14 homers in 112 at bats against the Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. For several years he has lived in Marietta, Ga. "To tell you the truth," says Esasky, "I don't feel any pressure. I'm coming home."
Presley, 28, had become a nonperson, or rather non-third baseman, with the Mariners, and was elated by the trade to Atlanta (the Braves sent pitcher Gary Eave and minor league third baseman Ken Pennington to Seattle in return). But he doesn't know quite what to expect from National League pitchers, and the Braves will see only four other NL teams during spring training.
As Presley approached the batting cage the other day, a fan yelled, "Hey, Jim, you're gonna love it here. They throw fastballs in the National League, not that American League junk."
"Who's that?" Presley asked.
"That's the Braves' advance scout," a writer told him, kidding. In a short spring, anything goes.
The spring may look shortest of all to Whitt, who has to find out what his young pitching staff can do and learn the strengths and weaknesses of NL hitters. At 37, Whitt has 11 years and 17 days of major league experience; Atlanta's top 10 pitchers have a total of 11 years and 97 days in the majors. (That's not counting Charlie Leibrandt, acquired from Kansas City but destined for the disabled list because of a rotator cuff injury.)
In his first few days in camp, Whitt tried to catch as many of the young pitchers as possible: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Pete Smith, Marty Clary, Derek Lilliquist, Joe Boever, Stanton. "Frankly, I had never heard of some of these guys," says Whitt. "But I am very impressed. Granted some guys look better when they're pitching batting practice behind a screen than they do in a game, but these are some of the best young arms I've ever seen."
The admiration is mutual. "I threw to him for the first time today," said Smoltz, "and already I know I'm going to be very comfortable with him behind the plate. You can just tell these things." Maybe so, but Smoltz, a starter, figures to work all of seven exhibition innings with Whitt before it starts to count.
Teams that begin the season with their infields essentially intact from last year will suffer little from the short spring. But when the Braves took infield practice last week, the choreography was all new. For instance, second baseman Treadway was learning how far first baseman Esasky can go to his right, so he'll know how far off second he has to play. Treadway was also getting accustomed to Presley's feed on the 5-4-3 double play, and to shortstop Blauser on the pivot. (In case you're wondering what happened to Andres Thomas, well, he's still with the Braves, although he is likely to be traded. Shortstops have hit .213 before, and shortstops have made 29 errors in a season before, but almost never has a shortstop done both in the same year, as Thomas did in '89.)
Do the Braves have any positions at which they are not looking to answer questions? Well, some observers might say Atlanta has identified its stopper. Stanton, a 22-year-old lefty, came up last August and saved seven games in eight opportunities, with batters hitting only .207 off him. Then again, 24 major league innings is not exactly conclusive. So Cox has been talking with the Red Sox about Lee Smith and with the Mariners about Mike Jackson. Cox is offering Lilliquist and Thomas, but both clubs want Kent Mercker, another of Atlanta's outstanding pitching prospects. A full spring training would have made Cox's decision much easier.