LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jair Jurrjens arrived at the Braves' spring training complex just after 9 a.m. Thursday, wearing dark shades and sporting (we are told) a structurally sound right shoulder.
Jurrjens underwent an MRI on Wednesday, which was a Big Deal. General managers turn green when medical people utter the acronym of dread -- especially at this time of year.
Fortunately for the Braves, the exam reassured Jurrjens that all is well with his labrum and rotator cuff. Glad tidings were waiting for him when he returned to camp. As Jurrjens entered the stadium, he dropped by the batting cages to say hello to a group of teammates that included Brian McCann and Matt Diaz.
Amid the handshakes and backslaps, one player shouted, "DON'T TOUCH HIM!"
Jokes rarely beget team policy, but perhaps this should be an exception. That's how important the 24-year-old has become to his team -- and the National League East race.
If you're curious about the Braves' chances in 2010, simply keep track of the Jurrjens-related dispatches in the weeks ahead. As long as the right-hander can display his near-effortless velocity and movement by late March, Atlanta should have a genuine chance of ending its four-year postseason sabbatical.
Even then, it won't be an easy assignment. The Phillies have won three consecutive division titles. And the defending champs added a 2009 Cy Young candidate (Roy Halladay) around the same time that the Braves parted with theirs (Javier Vazquez).
Vazquez was the ace of an Atlanta rotation that posted the lowest ERA in the majors last year (3.52). He led the team in innings. He led the team in strikeouts. He sanded down his ERA to a career-best 2.87. But because the Braves couldn't find a taker for Derek Lowe, they had little choice but to trade Vazquez in order to fit Tim Hudson's contract into the payroll.
The Braves hope that full seasons from Hudson and Tommy Hanson -- who combined for less than 200 innings last year -- will offset the loss of Vazquez. And that's a reasonable notion. Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami should be better, too.
But Jurrjens is at the hub of it all. He had an even better ERA than Vazquez last year, while surpassing the 200-inning mark for the first time. He's a superb athlete who has steadily lowered his ERA since breaking into the majors with Detroit in 2007. He was a major contributor in Atlanta's surge up the NL wild-card standings late last season.
A native of Curacao, Jurrjens belongs in any discussion of the game's best young starting pitchers. He's a charismatic star in the making, fluent in four languages (English, Spanish, Dutch, Papiamento) and unafraid of speaking his mind. Baseball needs Jurrjens to stay on the mound, so fans can learn more about his engaging personality.
Without him, this would be a very different Atlanta pitching staff -- "different" in the sense that the Diamondbacks' rotation was "different" with Brandon Webb on the disabled list last year.
A reminder: That Arizona team finished in last place.
"We need him healthy," McCann said.
The Braves, in fact, are very optimistic that he will be. Jurrjens believes the tightness he felt while throwing last week originated from his failure to stretch enough while weight training during the offseason.
Jurrjens is confident that he can make up for the oversight by stretching more often during spring training. He hopes to resume throwing next week. Frank Wren, the Atlanta general manager, expressed similar optimism Thursday.
"We think it'll be resolved very quickly," Wren said in an interview. "We think it's a matter of getting treatment and continuing to stretch."
"I saw the MRI," Jurrjens said. "The doctor showed me that everything was intact. Everything looks good. He said it was a beautiful MRI. Everything was perfect. That made me calm down a lot."
And yet, fans of the Braves (and their NL competition) should remain mindful of the following facts:
• Jurrjens said Thursday that he heard his shoulder "pop" twice while doing fielding drills in Curacao.
• He felt a "pinch" in the shoulder when he tried to throw two days after the "pop."
• This isn't the first time Jurrjens has had shoulder trouble. He pulled a lat muscle in 2006 and was sidelined by tendinitis in 2007.
Jurrjens pointed out Thursday that the previous issues came about because his shoulder was too weak. Now, it's apparently too strong. I suppose there are worse problems to have at the start of a new season. But if the extra muscle makes the shoulder stiff, will his lively pitches go flat?
We will find out soon enough. As soon as Jurrjens heard that "pop," his shoulder entered this year's registry of Baseball Body Parts That Matter. Amid the oft-mundane flood of nervous spring news, this is one arm worth worrying about.