March 2009

Francoeur catches a big one

Unable to take batting practice because of a potential rainstorm that never arrived, the Braves spent the past couple of hours rehearsing for the inevitable long rain delays that await them this year. 

Jeff Francoeur grabbed a fishing pole and threw his line into a pond that is located just outside the visitor’s clubhouse here at Osceola County Stadium and came away with 6-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass, that was slightly bigger than Kris Medlen.

Speaking of Medlen, he’s going to pitch tonight and attempt to once again put himself in position to grab one of the final bullpen spots.   His candidacy was tarnished on Friday when he allowed the Blue Jays three runs  —  two earned — and three hits in 1 1/3 innings. 

Medlen’s odds of beginning the season in Atlanta might have already been diminished earlier today, when Rafael Soriano enjoyed a pain-free bullpen session at Disney.  The right-handed reliever will pitch here at Francoeur’s Fishing Preserve on Thursday, when the Braves conclude their Grapefruit League season against the Triple-A Astros.

Chipper Jones ended tonight’s top of the first by looking at a called third strike thrown by Russ Ortiz.  Unfortunately, the Astros found it difficult to swing and miss anything that Derek Lowe threw them during the bottom of the first inning. 

When Lowe exits tonight, Peter Moylan and Mike Gonzalez are scheduled to pitch.  There no longer seems to be reason to wonder whether Moylan will be in the bullpen when the season starts on Sunday night.

“I’m sick of reading the Braves remain hopeful that Moylan will be ready,” Moylan said. “I’m going to be ready.”

Garret Anderson is getting his first opportunity to test his right calf as an outfielder tonight.  Thanks to the fact that Lowe’s sinker didn’s sink too much during the first inning, the veteran outfielder has already had to do some running.

When Brian McCann returns to the lineup on Wednesday, he might be wearing a suit of armor.  A foul tip bruised the All-Star catcher’s right ring finer on Saturday and then when he returned to action on Monday, a foul ball left a nasty bruise just above his right knee.

 
francoeur.jpg 

Chipper sets self up for fond farewell

While concluding the 2007 season in Houston, the Braves had the opportunity to watch Astros fans shower Craig Biggio with appreciation as he ended his career-long association with one organization. 

The farewell ceremonies definitely had an emotional effect on Chipper Jones, who left Houston with an even greater desire to enjoy the rare opportunity to spend his entire career with one organization. 

I can’t find the exact quote, but I remember Chipper saying something like, “If my hometown fans ever provide me even a fraction of the farewell that Biggio received, I’ll consider myself to be a lucky man.”

Some time late in the 2012 or 2013 season, Jones might indeed have the opportunity to be showered with appreciation from the Atlanta fans who have followed him since the Braves took him with the first overall selection in the 1990 Draft. 

He was an 18-year-old kid named Chipper then and he’s now a 36-year-old iconic figure who still fittingly goes by the youthful name.   While his stoic demeanor might suggest otherwise, the veteran third baseman loves the game of baseball and has undeniable passion for the Braves organization. 

In many ways Jones is a lot like many of you who felt the ups and downs of the rollercoaster that Braves general manager Frank Wren experienced during this past offseason.  The inability to land Jake Peavy or A.J. Burnett upset him and as you know the fact that John Smoltz went elsewhere initially infuriated him. 

Some of you might believe he should have handled the Smoltz situation in a different manner.  But that was Chipper being Chipper.  In the process, he provided fans a chance that he does indeed live and die by the daily events that shape the only organization that he has ever known.

It was nice to be around for Biggio’s farewell weekend.  But from a personal standpoint, the emotions created  that weekend will pale in comparisons to the ones that will be felt in 2012 or 2013, when the Atlanta fans will be given a chance to show their appreciation for the kid that they’ve never known as anything other than Chipper.   

Smoltz returns to Braves camp

One day shy of the four-year anniversary of the trade that sent him to the Rays in exchange for Jorge Sosa, Nick Green has returned to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.   The likeable infielder will start at short for the Red Sox this afternoon and it appears that he’ll begin the season on Boston’s 25-man roster. 

Of course Green’s return to Disnsy was upstaged by some guy named Smoltz, who popped into the Braves clubhouse around 8 a.m. this morning to shoot the breeze with Bobby Cox and some of his former teammates and coaches.   This afternoon, he’s going to play a round of golf with his friend that everyone simply knows as Tiger. 

When Smoltz entered the Braves dugout this morning, he was wearing a pair of Red Sox shorts.  Things will really start to seem odd in June when he’s standing on a mound and pitching in games that matter for the Red Sox. 

Once he proves that his surgically-repaired shoulder is sound, Smoltz will join Boston’s rotation and I will guarantee that he’ll positioned to ensure he’ll start one of the games the Red Sox play at Turner Field  (June 26-June 28). 

When he called last night to make sure that I was well aware of the fact that his Michigan State Spartans had advanced to the Final Four, Smoltz asked a number of questions about the Braves.    Obviously, when you’ve spent the previous 21 seasons in an organziation, it’s difficult to break the attachment.  

While he might physically be part of a different orgnaization, Smoltz will forever be a Brave.  Even while he spent those five seasons with the Mets, I couldn’t help but view Tom Glavine as anything other than a Brave. 

More than 20 years since they were first introduced to each other during Spring Training with the Braves, Smoltz and Glavine crossed paths again on Monday morning. 

“I walked in, saw him on the trainer’s table and said, “OK, you’re right where you need to be,” Smoltz said. 

Braves manager Bobby Cox is still evaluating how his lineup will look at the beginning of the season.  But with Garret Anderson, Chipper Jones and Brian McCann in the same lineup for the first time today, I think we can gather that he’s leaning toward batting Kelly Johnson in the leadoff spot putting McCann in the cleanup spot to protect Chipper. 

Today’s lineup:
Kelly Johnson 2B
Yunel Escobar SS
Chipper Jones 3B
Brian McCann C
Garret Anderson DH
Jeff Francoeur RF
Casey Kotchman 1B
Matt Diaz LF
Jordan Schafer CF

 

Lowe to start two openers

When the Braves gave Derek Lowe a four-year, $60 million contract in January, it was all but assumed that they’d also give him their Opening Day start.  Courtesy of the schedule, they’ve provided him a bonus by also scheduling him to start their home opener on April 10 at Turner Field. 

Lowe will start next Sunday’s game in Philadelphia amid some fans who might still be hungover from World Series parties.  Fortunately for their health, these same fans weren’t subjected to do any more celebrating in early February.  From what I understand only one Pennsylvania team celebrates Super Bowl victories. 

And we return to Lowe, who will make two starts before Kenshin Kawakami makes his season debut on April 11 at Turner Field.    With two scheduled offdays during the first week, the Braves have the opportunity to start their ace in two of their first four games. 

Of course Lowe has looked more like an ace in October than he has during the season’s first week.  He’s 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in his three career Opening Day starts.    But the veteran sinkerballer is also 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in the three career starts he’s made at the homer haven known as Citizens Bank Park. 

Jair Jurrjens is scheduled to pitch the second game agaisnt the Phillies and Javier Vazquez will pitch the April 8 series finale.  The order of these two right-handers primarily had to do with where Vazquez fit in the exhibition-season rotation after he returned from the World Baseball Classic. 

Kotchman and Anderson present:  There won’t be any Angels in the outfield today or tomorrow.  But if the rain cooperates, the Braves will have two former ones in their lineup this afternoon against the Tigers.

Garret Anderson, who has been sidelined since March 6 with a strained right calf, will serve as the designated hitter today and again during Monday’s game against the Red Sox.  The Braves may try to get him some time in left field on Tuesday.

Anderson is obviously way behind schedule and he may make up for lost time by participating in a Minor League game, where he could get as many at-bats as he’d like. 

Casey Kotchman is back in the lineup today for the first time since March 18.  The first baseman battled the flu and then possibly got a case of food poisoning when he started feeling better on Thursday.

Today’s Lineup:
Kelly Johnson 2B
Yunel Escobar SS
Garret Anderson DH
Jeff Francoeur RF
Casey Kotchman 1B
Omar Infante 3B
Jordan Schafer LF
David Ross C
Josh Anderson CF 

Hanson scheduled to pitch exhibition season finale in Atlanta

Tommy Hanson is coming to Atlanta.  Well sort of.  Hanson and Kenshin Kawakami are scheduled to pitch next Saturday’s exhibition game against the Tigers at Turner Field. 

With the Braves opening the season in Philadelphia the next night, manager Bobby Cox won’t want to use any of his projected relievers.  Thus  Kawakami will pitch the first four or five innings and Hanson will likely handle the next four innings.  

This will put Hanson in line to be the Opening Day starter for the Triple-A Gwinnett team that will begin its season on April 9 at Charlotte.   The relocated team will play its first game in Gwinnett on April 17.   If the schedule holds true Hanson’s first home start would occur on April 20.

Cox plans to announce his rotation on Sunday.  Kawakami’s season debut could come during April 10 home opener at Turner Field.  Or the Braves could keep projected Opening Day starter Derek Lowe on schedule and allow him to pitch that game.  This would mean Kawakami’s season debut might actually occur on April 11 against the Nats. 

While pitching in next Saturday’s exhibition game against the Tigers, Kawakami will have a chance to acquaint himself with the Turner Field mound. 

Kawakami will make his final Grapefruit League start on Monday afternoon when he faces Daisuke Matsuzaka.  The Braves hurler has only previously opposed Dice-K came during Spring Training games in Japan. 

When asked how many media members will likely cover Monday’s game, Kawakami smiled and said “It is Japan.”    Or at least that’s what his interpreter told me that he said. 

Today’s games:   Jair Jurrjens is going to face a Yankees lineup that includes Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira.   Peter Moylan is scheduled to complete one inning during a Minor League game this afternoon.   Moylan will make two more appearances within the next six days and if everything goes well, he’ll begin the season in Atlanta’s bullpen. 

After Jurrjens exits this afternoon’s game, Boone Logan and Mike Gonzalez are scheduled to pitch.  Logan has had two consecutive rough outings and Gonzalez is coming off an appearance during which he surrendered three earned runs and then raved about the increased velocity that he’d displayed.

We’ll be watching the radar readings when Gonzalez takes the mound to pitch in front of a sold-out crowd.  Fans have already covered most of the grass on the left field berm.

Left-handed relievers:  The Braves released left-handed reliever Jeff Ridgway this morning.  Ridgway battled elbow inflammation most of this month and really never figured into the Braves plans after they acquired Logan and Eric O’Flaherty during the offseason. 

O’Flaherty enjoyed a impressive rebound effort on Friday, when he recorded two strikeouts in a scoreless inning against the Tigers.  He had surrendered nine runs and nine hits in his previous outing. 

Braves general manager Frank Wren has provided no indication that he’s felt the need to explore ways to find veteran left-handed reliever to add to his bullpen mix.  O’Flaherty has had just the one bad outing and Logan will have a chance to end his recent struggles this afternoon.

There’s still a chance that both of these left-handed relievers will begin the year in Atlanta’s bullpen.

Former Angels: 
First baseman Casey Kotchman, who has been sick and sidelined since April 18, took batting practice on Saturday and might return to the lineup on Monday.   His former Angels teammate Garret Anderson is expected to return to action on Sunday.  Anderson has been sidelined since March 6 with a strained right calf. 

Today’s Lineup:
Jordan Schafer CF
Yunel Escobar SS
Chipper Jones 3B
Brian McCann C
Greg Norton 1B
Matt Diaz RF
Brandon Jones LF
Martin Prado 2B
Jair Jurrjens P 

 

Soriano willingly speaks

Santonio Holmes meet#CF3FA7.jpgWhen Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes toe-tapped his way toward Super Bowl MVP honors and then proclaimed he was going to Disney World, he wasn’t lying.  In fact, he and his magical right foot are still here.

Holmes has been training here at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex and he took time on Friday morning to come over to the baseball stadium and enjoy a photo opportunity with a former childhood favorite Chipper Jones, who happens to be a big Steelers fan. 

With Jones wearing Holmes’  Steelers jersey and Holmes sporting Jones’  Braves jersey, the two athletes, who both wear No. 10, posed for a few pictures with Mickey Mouse. 

Jones walked away with a signed football and Holmes gained a baseball signed by Jones. 

Growing up in Florida, Holmes adopted the Braves as his favorite team and chose Jones as his favorite player, primarily because of the fact that he was a switch hitter.

“One of the main reasons I liked him was the ability to switch sides,” Holmes said. “That’s amazing for somebody to be able to do that and have the great hand-eye coordination with his swing lefty and righty and have the ability to hit home runs.  That’s amazing.” 

Yeah, but could Jones go into the corner of the endzone and possess the grace of a ballerina dancer while hauling in the game-winning catch with 35 seconds left in the Super Bowl? 

Speaking of amazing, something must have happened to Rafael Soriano overnight.  After completing a phone conversation on Friday morning, he actually called me and Dave O’Brien over to his locker to discuss the discomfort that he’s been feeling in his left side. 

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were hovering over him in an otherwise empty locker room.  But the conversation was actually cordial and it seems like he believes he might start throwing again within the next few days.   I’ll believe it when I see it.  But it appears he might indeed be in the bullpen to begin the season. 

Who is standing in center field on Opening Night in Philadelphia remains a mystery.  Jordan Schafer has done everything he can to prove that he’s ready to compete at the Major League level.  The five-tool outfielder is a difference maker who will be a fan favorite in Atlanta for many years to come. 

But there’s still reason to believe the Braves might choose to send him to Triple-A Gwinnett to begin the season.  I started to buy into this possibility after a scout reminded me Thursday night that it’s much easier to bring a player up than it is to send him down. 

If Schafer were to begin the season and struggle to the point that the Braves felt the need to send him back to the Minors, there’s a chance the decision could produce psychological damage that would be felt beyond this year. 

While understanding this theory, I don’t think it applies to the ever-confident Schafer.  First of all, I don’t think he’d encounter enormous struggles at the Major League level and if he did, I don’t think it would damage him.

It was obviously a shame that he was forced to pay for his youthful transgressions with the humiliating 50-game suspension that he was handed last year.  But the episode improved his mental strength and allowed him to mature more over the course of a year than I could have ever imagined. 

Gregor Blanco is starting today’s game against the Tigers in center and I’m now at least buying into the possibility that he might be manning that position at the beginning of the season. 

The Braves are exploring the option of trading Josh Anderson, who is out of options, and if they’re able to strike a deal with a team that’s looking for a speedy outfielder, Blanco might be the most sensical option from a business standpoint.

The White Sox are among the teams looking for an outfielder like Anderson.  But manager Ozzie Guillen has said he doesn’t expect the team to looking outside the organization for a center fielder.  We’ll see if this proves to be true.
 
Blanco spent the entire 2008 season in the Majors and people are still buzzing about the way he played during the World Baseball Classic.  If the Braves were to send him to the Minors to begin the season, his trade value would plummet and more importantly, he’s somebody who certainly could be psychologically damaged by such a move. 

OK. Tom Glavine is about to take the mound for his second Grapefruit League start. 

You can view today’s game on MLB.TV or SportSouth, for those of you who still watch baseball on television.

A couple more notes:

Bobby Cox says that Garret Anderson probably won’t return to the lineup until Sunday.  Earlier this week, the Braves said he’d come back on Saturday. 

Because he was feeling ill again on Friday, the Braves sent Casey Kotchman to be examined by a doctor.  Kotchman has battled the flu most of the past week.  He said he felt good on Wednesday and then started feeling sick again on Thursday.

Today’s Lineup:

Gregor Blanco CF
Kelly Johnson 2B
Chipper Jones 3B
Brian McCann C
Jeff Francoeur RF
Omar Infante SS
Martin Prado 1B
Josh Anderson LF
Tom Glavine P

Hanson, Heyward and Freeman among latest cuts

If you’re in Myrtle Beach within the next couple of months, make sure you take advantage of the opportunity to view the Heyward and Freeman show.  Of course, if you don’t catch them there, they’ll likely be performing in Pearl, Miss. before the summer is complete. 

We’ve had the pleasure of watching this act in Disney over the past six weeks and I’d have to say they’re the best teenage duo in the country right now.  I’m sorry if I’ve offended any Jonas Brothers fans.  But I’d have to say the odds of  Heyward carrying a tune seem much greater than those of Nick Jonas routinely hitting 400-foot homers. 

OK. Now that I’ve referred to the Jonas Brothers without ever knowingly ever hearing anything they’ve ever recorded, we’ll return to Braves camp, which got a little roomier on Thursday morning, when Tommy Hanson, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman learned they were being sent to Minor League camp. 

Hanson lived up to his tremendous expectations and now will spend a month or two with Triple-A Gwinnett before getting the opportunity to bring his act to Atlanta.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, Hanson could certainly be the best member of the Atlanta rotation by the time this season is complete.  But it makes sense for him to get some more Minor League seasoning.  If he started the season as Atlanta’s big league starter, he’d be scheduled to make just two starts in April. 

In other words, barring injuries suffered by another starter, we knew that Hanson was going to eventually be cut.  We just didn’t know when.

With Hanson in Minor League camp, manager Bobbby Cox will now have the opportunity to ensure each of his projected starters and relievers can get their necessary work during the remainder of the exhibition season.  

As for Heyward and Freeman, they exceeded every expectation that I had.  Just two years ago they were facing high school opponents.  But that didn’t stop them from spendng the past six weeks making fans wonder if they might actually get a call to Atlanta this year.

Like I’ve said in the past, now that I’ve had the chance to see these two kids play,  I’ll never say never about that possibility.  But at the same time, I think it would be more appropriate to debate whether they’re Major Leauge-ready at this time next year.

While playing for Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach and  likely Double-A Mississippi this year, Heyward and Freeman will experience a natural maturation process.  They need to test themselves against they caliber and frequency of offspeed pitches that weren’t present when they dominated the South Atlantic League last year. 

From an offensive and defensive standpoint, Heyward and Freeman handled themselves admirably among the Major Leaguers.  Also it was refreshing to see the humility that they displayed throughout camp.  They were true professionals and I’m looking forward to watching them continue to make their trek toward Atlanta. 

In this business, you pull for good people and those two kids certainly fit that category.

TV Game:  Chip Caray and Brian Jordan will serve as the broadcasters for today’s game which will be on MLB.TV and CSS, for those of you who are still watching baseball on television.

Kotchman sick again:  Casey Kotchman said he felt great yesterday and planned to return to today’s lineup.  But the first baseman, who had battled the flu most of last week, started to feel sick again this morning.  He’s fearful that he might have eaten something and acquired food poisoning.

Today’s Lineup:

Kelly Johnson 2B
Yunel Escobar SS
Chipper Jones 3B
Brian McCann C
Jeff Francoeur  RF
Greg Norton  1B
Brandon Jones LF
Jordan Schafer CF
Derek Lowe P 

What to do with Hanson and Schafer?

In a little more than a week, the Braves will announce where Jordan Schafer and Tommy Hanson will begin the season.  Despite the fact that he has the potential to end the season as the most talented member of their starting rotation, Hanson will likely begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett. 

Hesitance to start Hanson’s arbitration clock serves as only one the reasons the Braves will likely send him to the Minors to begin the year.  The 22-year-old right-hander stands as one the key factors to the organization’s bright future, which extends far beyond the first two months of this season. 

If Hanson were to begin the season as Atlanta’s fifth starter, he would be scheduled to make two starts in April and four more in May.  While with Gwinnett, he’d have the opportunity to make five April starts and then further his maturation process with six May starts.

By the time June arrives, the temptation to bring him to Atlanta will be too great and his days in the Minors will come to a close. 

While providing this regular schedule, the Braves would also be able to limit Hanson’s innings without worrying about how early exits might affect the team’s record.  Hanson has never thrown more than 138 innings during a professional season and just 18 of his starts have occurred above the Class A level.

With five starters in place in Atlanta and Jo-Jo Reyes seemingly capable to provide assistance in Atlanta if needed during the season’s first two months, it makes sense to protect Hanson during the early months and hope that this decision provides dividends when he could make his greatest contributions during the final months and weeks of this season. 

This appears to be the approach the Rays are taking with David Price, who is the only pitcher rated as a greater prospect by Baseball America.  The Rays had enough faith in Price to use him in clutch situations during last year’s American League Championship Series and World Series. 

But they also recognize the value of allowing him to encounter a natural maturation process and thus it looks like the prized left-hander will also begin this season in the International League.  

With Schafer, the Braves have reason to possess a different mindset. The 22-year-old outfielder has provided every indication that he’s the best option to begin this season as the every day center fielder.

In addition, he’s given reason to believe that he’s the best option to use as a leadoff hitter.  In comparison to Josh Anderson, he will provide a greater on-base percentage, much beter pop and comparable baserunning skills. 

From both an offensive and defensive standpoint, Schafer appears to be much more valuable than Anderson or Gregor Blanco. And the fact that he could provide daily contributions provides the reason why the Braves should be much less reluctant to start his arbitration clock ahead of schedule. 

While Hanson might only make 10 starts during the season’s first two months, Schafer could impact games on a much more frequent basis.  The five-tool outfielder has the ability to be a difference maker and the decision to  keep him in the Minors for the season’s first two months could prove to be the difference if the Braves were to come up just a few games short in a postseason race. 

With this being said, I won’t be surprised if the Braves start the season with Anderson in center.  He’s out of options and there are some in the organization who believe Schafer could benefit from a few more months of Minor League seasoning. 

The Braves could ultimately decide to begin the season with Anderson and Matt Diaz serving as their backup outfielders.  But to do this, they’d likely have to send Martin Prado to the Minors and I don’t think they’re in a position where it would make sense to start the year with Omar Infante as the only backup infielder.

Nor do I think they should even contemplate parting ways with Greg Norton.  Over the course of an entire season, his pinch-hitting skills would prove more valuable than whatever Josh Anderson might provide until Schafer is deemed ready. 

If Garret Anderson isn’t ready to begin the season, the Braves could begin the year with Josh Anderson, Matt Diaz, Schafer and Jeff Francoeur as their outfielders.

Or they could prevent having to send Josh Anderson through waivers by opting to begin the season with a roster that includes an 11-man pitching staff and five outfielders (G. Anderson, J. Anderson, Schafer, Francoeur and Diaz)  That would likely mean that Tom Glavine (who isn’t scheduled to start until April 18) and Peter Moylan would begin the season on the disabled list.

There are a number of options to evaulate.  But to me the most logical ones put Hanson in Gwinnett and Schafer in Atlanta to begin the year.  Whatever the case, by the end of the season they’ll likely be together in Atlanta.  

Patience paying off for Francoeur

Welcome back Brian McCann.  When you return to Braves camp today, you’ll be glad to see that your good buddy Jeff Francoeur is once again sporting a genuine smile.  No longer does he have to strain his jaw muscles in an attempt to show his pearly whites. 

The .350 batting average that Francoeur has compiled isn’t nearly as impressive as the manner in which he’s achieved this total and a .417 on-base percentage.  Through 40 at-bats, he’s struck out once and drawn six walks.   Oh yeah, and he has 12 hits in his past 22 at-bats. 

Francoeur’s only hitless performance since March 8 came against the Mets on Sunday, which is when he might have also provided his most telling plate appearance of the season.  Drawing a first-inning walk off Johan Santana only further proved that the 25-year-old right fielder truly has gained more confidence and patience at the plate. 

When pyschologists began labeling personalities as Type A and Type B, they forgot to create a category for high-energy individuals like Francoeur.  Youthful impatience led him to strike out 3.74 more times than he walked during his first 3 1/2 Major League seasons. 

It also led him to alter his batting stance as frequently as Charles Barkley has attempted to change his golf swing over the past few years.  Consequently, there were times last year when Francoeur’s baseball swing looked as helpless as that motion Barkley makes with a golf club in his hand.

Ok. Francoeur never looked that bad.  But he undoubtedly needed to make a chance and more importantly, he needed to gain the patience to stick with his altered approach for an extended period.

In previous years, he likely would have been making alterations after recording just two hits in his first 18 Grapefruit League at-bats.  But this year proved to be different.  While sticking with his altered approach through thick and thin, Francoeur should be able to avoid some of the extended ugly slumps that haunted him last year.

The gang’s all here:  With Javier Vazquez on the mound to face the Pirates tonight, McCann will be behind the plate. He just provided confirmation via the anti-social interview technique provided by text messaging.   

In an attempt to better familarize himself with the new-look starting rotation, the All-Star catcher is going to try to play as much as possible during the remainder of the exhibition season. 

McCann could also benefit from the opportunity to get some regular at-bats.  He recorded just four at-bats before leaving to joinTeam USA on April 1.    Over the course of the 22 days that have followed, he’s registered a total of 23 plate appearances —  includes exhibition games leading up to the Classic.   He’s actually had just 16 plate appearances since March 5.

Gregor Blanco will also return to Braves camp today after spending the past few weeks hitting .400 (6-for-15) for Venezuela.  His performance in the Classic allowed him to at least remain a candidate to serve as Atlanta’s starting center fielder. 

Based purely on performance and upside, Jordan Schafer has seemingly emerged as the favorite to win this position battle.   He’s hit .385 with a 1.093 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in 11 Grapefruit League games. 

The fact that he’s totalled 42 plate appearances during this span further proves that the Braves are genuinely interested in the possibility of having him start the year in Atlanta.  They’ve also had him participate in two of the intra-squad games that have been played over the past two weeks.

Because he’s out of options, Josh Anderson should still be considered a top candidate in this position battle.  But the .306 on-base percentage that he’s compiled in a team-high 48 at-bats certainly hasn’t helped the speedy outfielder’s cause. 

Anderson appeared to be the club’s best option to place in the leadoff role.  But the fact that he’s drawn just one walk creates cause for concern.  These next two weeks are very important to him and he will at least enter Tuesday with seven hits in his last 16 at-bats.

I’ll post tonight’s lineup when I get it later today.  But it will be nice to see one that includes both McCann and Chipper Jones, who is expected to return to action tonight.  He hasn’t played since feeling a twinge in his right oblique while taking batting practice for Team USA  on March 15. 

By the end of this week, if Garret Anderson’s right calf continues to cooperate, the Braves might actually be able to form a lineup that looks very similar to the one manager Bobby Cox will create for the April 5 opener in Philadelphia. 

We’ve got 10 more days before this show returns to Atlanta and 12 more days before these games begin to count.  But who’s counting? 
        

Glavine set to face former team

When Tom Glavine steps on the mound this afternoon to make his Grapefruit League season debut, he’ll be facing a group of guys wearing the same Mets uniform that he donned from 2003-2007.  But he won’t exactly be seeing too many familiar faces. 

Coming back from the WBC, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran have been given a chance to rest for a few more days.  Thus, the only familiar face Glavine will see today belongs to Jose Valentin. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how Glavine performs.   While completing a two-inning simulated game on Monday, it was obvious that he’s still lacking the arm strength that he’ll need to find success this year.  His velocity rivaled that of a knuckleballer’s. 

But his location was still pinpoint and he seemed to be encouraged.  Maybe not as much as the ever-positive Bobby Cox.  But still enough so that I got the sense that he still feels he’ll be able to pitch this year without having to endure embarrassment.   

Over the next few weeks we’ll gain better indication about whether Glavine will truly be ready to make his first scheduled regular season start on April 18.  The veteran southpaw, who had his left shoulder and left elbow surgically repaired in August, will turn 43 on Wednesday.

Today will also be an important one for Peter Moylan, who will be making his fourth Grapefruit League appearance.  The Australian reliever, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery, still believes he’ll be in the Atlanta bullpen on Opening Day.

Garret Anderson ran a little harder today than he had yesterday, when he first tested his strained right calf.  Chipper Jones also took batting practice this morning.  Both of these guys should be able to return to action within the next four-to-five days.   

When I awoke this morning, I was in sole possession of an NCAA tourney pool that includes nearly 700 entries.  My incorrect first-round selections were Clemson, Florida State and Wake Forest.  Thanks ACC. 

But given the choice between winning this pool or having my alma mater (Dayton) beat Dave O’Brien’s alma mater (Kansas) in the second round, I’ll glady choose the opportunity to make O’Brien feel as miserable as somebody being interrogated by Jack Bauer.

Today’s Lineup

Jordan Schafer CF
Yunel Escobar SS
Kelly Johnson 2B
Brandon Jones LF
Jeff Francoeur RF
Freddie Freeman 1B
Omar Infante 3B
Dave Ross C
Tom Glavine P 

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