Roster and position battles will now begin for the Braves
Welcome back to Disney where the Braves will open the exhibition season against the Tigers this afternoon at 1:05 p.m. ET. Tim Hudson will pitch the first two innings and each member of Atlanta’s projected Opening Day lineup is expected to record at least two plate appearances. The designated hitter will be used. But all other standard National League rules, including the infield fly rule, will be enforced.
Over the course of the past two weeks, the Braves have taken care of all of the necessary preparations leading into the Grapefruit League season. The Upton brothers have gotten used to their new environment and young pitchers like J.R. Graham have had a chance to make a good impression on some of the coaches and players who had only previous known of them through print or word of mouth.
The countless batting practice swings, bullpen sessions and fielding drills that were completed over the past couple of weeks really only prepared them for the exhibition season that will unfold over the next five weeks. In other words, now is the time that we gain a true sense about the battle for the final available bullpen spot and the battle to potentially win the everyday job at third base.
The Braves have said they would be comfortable with Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco platooning at third base. But as Spring Training has progressed it has become obvious that they would like one of these two players to win the everyday role.
The right-handed Johnson combined to hit .281 with 15 home runs and a .777 OPS in 136 games with the Astros and D-backs last year. The concerns about him center around his defense. He had a -10.7 UZR/150 defensive rating last year. The only player with a lower mark was Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera with a -11.2.
Francisco batted .234 with nine homers and a .710 OPS in the 93 games he played for Atlanta last year. One of the knocks against him as an everyday player comes from the fact that he has hit .190 while totaling just 67 of his 386 career plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. There are also some concerns about his durability. The Braves were hoping that he would have arrived at Spring Training having lost a few more pounds than he did during the winter.
In a true traditional platoon, Johnson would get all of the starts against left-handed pitchers. But this might not be a wise strategical decision. He has batted .283 with a .775 OPS against right-handers and .255 with a .677 OPS against left-handers in his career.
If the Braves end up going with a platoon at third base, I think it would be appropriate to liken this to that old saying, “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.”
With March Madness awaiting us in a few weeks, I will get into the prediction business today by predicting this year’s Opening Day roster:
Rotation (5): Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran
Bullpen (7): Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, Cristhian Martinez and Cory Gearrin
Catchers (2): Gerald Laird, Matt Pagnozzi
Infielders (6) : Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson, Juan Francisco, Ramiro Pena
Outfielders (5): B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Reed Johnson, Jordan Schafer
The most interesting decision will be whether the Braves choose Schafer, Jose Constanza or Evan Gattis to fill that final roster spot. Because he is out of options, Schafer might be deemed the favorite to win the spot. But would there really be a lot of concern about potentially losing a player who hit .211 with a .591 OPS in 106 games with the Astros last year.
Still as much as Schafer’s value has plummeted over the past few years, his defense might make him more valuable than Constanza, whose arrival to camp has been delayed by visa issues. Concerns about Constanza’s tardiness are softened by the fact he played in the Dominican Winter League and the recently-completed Caribbean World Series.
Constanza’s absence will provide more opportunities for Schafer to impress during the exhibition season. If Schafer continues to show the work ethic he has during the early portion of camp, I think he will give the Braves reason to keep him. But if they gain any hint of concern about his attitude or dedication over the course of the entire season, I don’t think they will be afraid of the possibility of losing him via the waiver wire.
There was certainly some temptation to say Gattis would win that final roster spot. His right-handed bat could certainly prove beneficial off the bench. In fact, it would be easy to argue that his bat would provide more value than the speed and defense Schafer and Constanza could provide while backing up three outfielders who will be in the lineup on a regular basis. And when the Upton brothers or Jason Heyward need a break, Reed Johnson will be available to play any of the three spots.
So as much as I am tempted to target Gattis for that final spot, I’ll stick with Schafer. I think the Braves might be more comfortable carrying Gattis on the bench after he gets a chance to spend a month or two playing left field for Triple-A Gwinnett.