Every Major League team comes to Spring Training with a few unresolved issues. It’s fair to say that Atlanta has fewer than most, but they still have some things to resolve over the next month….
1- Who wins the 5th spot in the Starting Rotation? Though every indication points to Julio Teheran having the inside track on this, let’s take a look at what Teheran did last Spring Training with a spot in the rotation on the line… In 16.1 innings, Teheran surrendered 22 hits, 17 earned runs, equating to a 9.37 ERA and 1.84 ERA. He gave up 9 homers, more than one every two innings. He struck out 10 while walking 8, and allowed opponents to hit .319. If Julio repeats those numbers this March, can Fredi Gonzalez really put him in the Major League rotation? I know many Braves fans and other writers are quick to point out his spectacular finish in the Dominican Winter League, and perhaps he’s able to carry that momentum into this Spring. But I’ll remain skeptical until I see him have some degree of success against Major League lineups(Marlins will not qualify).
If not Teheran, who could jettison into the rotation? Sean Gilmartin is the only guy I see who could really threaten Julio. Admittedly, Gilmartin didn’t set the world on fire in his stops at Mississippi and Gwinnett last year. In a total of 157 IP, he posted a 3.84 ERA, striking out a modest 111, and only walking 39. Those numbers are still better than what Teheran did in AAA last year(131 IP, 5.08 ERA, 97 K, 43 BB). It still seems likely that Teheran pitches well enough to make the big league team out of camp, but it certainly isn’t out of the question that Gilmartin could outperform him in March.
2- Do the Braves go with Francisco, Johnson, or both at 3B? The only position battle in Braves camp this season is at a spot where there’s been no contest for 20 years: Third Base. When replacing a first-ballot Hall of Famer, it only makes sense you need four feet to fill two shoes. Though most talking heads on ESPN and MLB Network are projecting a platoon with the left-handed Juan Francisco and right-handed Chris Johnson, it makes very little sense when looking at their career numbers. Though Johnson has accrued almost 3 times as many at bats as Francisco, both players splits favor hitting against righty’s. Francisco- .190 vs lefties, .272 vs righty’s. Johnson- .255 vs lefties, .283 vs righty’s. Johnson’s splits are clearly not as dramatic, but it would be unfair for Francisco to get all the at bats against righties. Because of this, I doubt Atlanta goes with a strict platoon. It will truly be a competition through Spring to see who gets the majority of the playing time out of the gate. Stay tuned…
3- Can Andrelton Simmons handle the lead-off spot? Out of the five questions listed, the answer to this one will probably be most influential on the Braves success this year. Atlanta brass felt enough confidence in what Simmons did with 166 at bats last year, to deal the only other potential lead off candidate, Martin Prado, to Arizona this winter. Sure, he compiled a solid .289 average, but his modest .335 OBP will need to improve some for the new look Braves middle of the order to be effective. Simmons’ glove has always been of the highest caliber, but his stick was the number one concern among scouts when he was called up in 2012 to replace the struggling Tyler Pastornicky. In less than one calendar year, Simmons has went from a perceived offensive liability at the Major League level, to the lead-off hitter for one of the best lineups in the Senior Circuit. Braves Nation saw first-hand the direct impact Michael Bourn was atop the lineup. Atlanta amassed a 56-16 record, in games when Bourn crossed the plate. Can Simmons provide a similar spark in 2013? Projections for Simmons in 2013…
4- Who backs up Gerald Laird to begin the Season? On the surface this looks like a very inconsequential issue, considering whoever wins the job will likely be sent down a few weeks into the season when Brian McCann returns. But anytime I can find a reason to talk about Evan Gattis, I’ll take it. Though Christian Bethancourt has been a fixture on Braves top prospect lists for years now, Gattis would be the most intriguing back up catcher on a Major League roster to open the 2013 season. If you haven’t heard his story, do yourself a favor and Google it. In continuing his storybook run at a Major League gig, Gattis homered in his first Spring game this past Friday against the Yankees. Not only is Gattis adequate enough to play behind the plate, he was groomed much of last year to play left-field as well. In a year that has Interleague play sprinkled all throughout the schedule, Gattis would also serve as the most prototypical DH on the Braves roster. A case can be made for several others, Bethancourt chief among them. He’s long been considered probable heir to McCann in Atlanta. His off the charts defensive acumen has him on the fast track to the Majors, but much like Simmons, his bat has its share of skeptics. Last year, in AA Mississippi, he hit a pedestrian .243 with an anemic .293 slugging percentage…. Nevertheless, Atlanta has a few compelling options for their backup to the backup catcher.
5- The final spot on the bench goes to…? There are a few ways to splice this one, but for now, I believe it comes down to the Braves former number one prospect, Jordan Schafer, and everybody’s favorite Seinfeld pun, Jose (George) Constanza. Schafer has fallen out of favor with both Atlanta and the Houston Astros, due in no small part to several off the field issues. Hopefully he keeps his nose clean this Spring, and gives his natural ability a chance to do the talking. Constanza grew to prominence with Braves fans when he filled in admirably for Jason Heyward throughout his awful Sophomore Slump. Both Schafer and Constanza rely on speed, offensively and defensively. While Schafer has the capability to hit for some power, Constanza’s been the more consistent Major League player. I’m sure many fans would love to see the occasional “Georgie Constanza” sighting at Turner Field, I doubt any would be disappointed if Schafer looked poised to fulfill some of his lofty, top prospect, promise.
Feel free to answer these questions with your predictions in the comments section below! April 1st, is fast approaching….. Opening Day 2013!