March 2013

Just one question remains regarding position players on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster

When Spring Training began, there was little reason to believe Tyler Pastornicky had any shot to make Atlanta’s Opening Day roster.  But when the Braves optioned him to Triple-A Gwinnett on Tuesday morning, there was reason to believe he could return to Atlanta this point as a versatile bench option.

The Braves optioned Pastornicky, outfielder Jose Constanza and right-handed pitcher David Carpenter to Gwinnett on Tuesday.  With Constanza now out of the picture, Jordan Schafer is essentially guaranteed the chance to begin this season as Atlanta’s fifth outfielder.

When camp began, it was assumed three of the five available bench spots would be given to Pena, outfielder Reed Johnson, and one of the members of the third base platoon (Chris Johnson and Juan Franisco).  Nothing has changed on that front.

Because he was out of options, Schafer came to camp as the slight favorite in his battle with Constanza to begin the season as Atlanta’s fifth outfielder.  When Constanza missed the first month of Spring Training because of visa issues, it became even more clear that the Braves would go with Schafer, whose most valuable assets are his glove and speed.

Now the only question is whether there truly is still a competition between Evan Gattis and Matt Pagnozzi to determine who will serve as the backup catcher until Brian McCann returns from shoulder surgery in late April.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez continues to say there is a competition despite the fact that Gattis appears to be the clear choice.

Gattis was unable to handle a couple of the sinkers Mike Minor was toying with during the first inning of Monday’s game against the Mets.  But his defense has not provided much reason for concern over the past month and there is no reason to debate his offensive ability against Pagnozzi’s.

Gonzalez spent some time with Pastornicky after telling him of the decision on Tuesday morning.  <p>

“(Pastornicky) is not going down and being forgotten,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve got a plan for him.  I told Tyler to trust that this organization is going to do the right thing for him.  This guy is a valuable piece for us.  He’s had an unbelievable Spring Training for us.  This guy is a big piece for us.  What we start with in April may be different in May or June.”

Pastornicky hit .375 (21-for-56) with four doubles and a home run in 26 Grapefruit League games.  There are few doubts about his ability to hit.  His defensive inconsistencies will likely prevent him from ever again regaining the starting shortstop role that he handled for the Braves through the first two months of last season.

The Braves believe Pastornicky’s athleticism will aid him in his attempt to establish himself as a versatile utility player.  But if Dan Uggla struggles through the first two months of this season, the Braves would at least have to think about benching him and giving the starting second base job to either Ramiro Pena or Pastornicky.

With Paul Janish set to miss the first couple weeks of the season while recovering from left shoulder surgery, Pastornicky will spend the early days of this upcoming season as Triple-A Gwinnett’s shortstop.  Once Janish returns, Pastornicky will see some time at second base, shortstop and in the outfield.

 

 

 

2B, OF, SS

Hudson named Opening Day starter

Kris Medlen might have already established himself as the rotation’s ace.  But as the Braves approach what has the potential to be a memorable season, they have decided to give their veteran Tim Hudson the honor of being their Opening Day starter.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez announced Thursday afternoon that Hudson will be on the mound when the Braves open the season against the Phillies on April 1 at Turner Field.  This will be Hudson’s sixth career Opening Day start and third with the Braves.

Though Medlen proved to be baseball’s top pitcher while posting a 0.97 ERA in 13 starts during the final two months of last season, it has been assumed this Opening Day honor would go to Hudson, who has been a key part of Atlanta’s rotation since joining the Braves in 2005.

While Medlen has made just 30 career starts, Hudson has made the fourth-most starts (222) in Atlanta history.  The only pitchers who have compiled more since the club moved from Milwaukee in 1966 are Phil Niekro, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux.

Both of Hudson’s previous two Opening Day starts for the Braves, in 2006 and 2008, occurred on the road.  This year he will have the opportunity to share the experience with his family and friends, who still reside approximately two hours south of Turner Field in and around his native town of Phenix City, Ala.

Hudson has gone 1-0 with a 3.41 ERA in his five previous Opening Day starts.  His first assignment for the Braves came in 2006, when he allowed five earned runs in just four innings amid cold and damp conditions at Dodger Stadium.  His most recent occurred in 2008, when he allowed two runs in seven innings during the first game ever played at Nationals Park.

Derek Lowe was Atlanta’s Opening Day starter from 2009-11 and Tommy Hanson was given the honor as Hudson was sidelined at that start of last year while recovering from back surgery.

After missing most of last year’s first month, Hudson went 16-7 with a 3.62 ERA   He posted a 3.99 ERA in five starts against the Phillies, despite allowing two earned runs or fewer in three of those outings.

Hudson has gone 105-65 with a 3.52 ERA in the 222 starts he has made since the Braves acquired him from the A’s in December 2004.  Jair Jurrjens is the only other Atlanta pitcher to record as many as 50 wins during this stretch.

When Hudson looks back on his career in Atlanta, he has trouble pinpointing what went wrong when he posted a career-high 4.86 ERA in 2006.  He has gone 78-44 with a 3.24 ERA during the six seasons that have followed.  Only Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee and Matt Cain have posted a better ERA while making at least 150 starts within this span.

Odds and ends: Simmons returns; Signs pointing toward Hudson for Opening Day

After spending the past month enjoying a great run through the World Baseball Classic with his Netherlands teammates, Andrelton Simmons returned to Braves camp in time to play shortstop and bat leadoff in Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Pirates at Champion Stadium.

The Netherlands Cinderella run through the Classic ended with Monday night’s semifinal loss to the Dominican Republic in San Francisco.  Simmons returned to the Orlando area on Tuesday and rejoined the Braves on Wednesday with a smile on his face.

“With people doubting the Netherlands so much, it was great to prove we have a pretty good team and we’re capable of competing with the higher-ranked teams,” Simmons said.  “I didn’t expect it to be that fun and I didn’t expect the team to be that good.  But I guess we worked well together.”

Simmons familiarized himself with the leadoff role while hitting .333 (10-for-30) with three doubles, two home runs and a .382 on-base percentage during the Classic.  His two walks during this span provided the reminder that he does not take the patient approach of a prototypical leadoff hitter.  <p>

“I feel comfortable in that spot,” Simmons said. “I pretty much did the same thing.  I might have taken a couple more pitches early in the game.  But once I got that strike, it’s play ball again.  I’ve got to hit.”  <p>

It’s no secret that the Braves have essentially given Simmons the leadoff role by default.  They want him to maintain his aggressive approach and put the ball in play as consistently as he did during last year’s rookie season.

Among the Braves who compiled at least 100 plate appearances last year, Martin Prado (10 percent) and Chipper Jones (11.4 percent) were the only players who struck out less frequently than Simmons (11.5 percent).

Opening Day starter: The Braves have not announced whether Tim Hudson or Kris Medlen will start the April 1 Opening Day game against the Phillies at Turner Field.  But it is starting to become more apparent that Hudson will get the nod.

Hudson will be scheduled to pitch seven innings on Thursday night and four or five  innings when he makes his final start of the exhibition season on Tuesday.  This would put him in position to make that Opening Day start with the one extra day of rest that Roger McDowell has given his starting pitchers leading into the past few seasons.

The Braves have not announced which pitchers will start the opposite ends of the split-squad games on Saturday.  Medlen could return on regular rest to start that game or start Sunday’s game.

If Medlen starts one of the split-squad games, he could make his final appearance of the exhibition season when the Braves conclude their Grapefruit League season next Thursday (April 28).  This would put him in line to enter the second game of the regular season on April 3 with one extra day of rest.

So while nothing is official, my best guess for the rotation leading into the season is Hudson (April 1 vs. Phillies) Medlen (April 3 vs. Phillies) Mike Minor (April 4 vs. Phillies) Julio Teheran (April 5 vs. Cubs) Paul Maholm (April 6 vs. Cubs).

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell could opt to break up their left-handers (Minor and Maholm) by starting one of them in the second game of the season.  But based on the current setup of the rotation, it appears Minor will go in the series finale against and Maholm will face his former Cubs teammates in his first start of the season.

Kimbrel amazed at Maddux’s ability to predict outcomes

Growing up a Braves fan, Craig Kimbrel heard about how Greg Maddux used to prove prophetic after telling former Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone that he was going to throw a certain pitch to an opposing batter and then get him to hit a ball to a specific part of the field.

While pitching the ninth inning of Team USA’s 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico on Friday night at Miami’s Marlins Park, Kimbrel gained first-hand confirmations of Maddux’s ability to accurately predict outcomes.

With a man on second base and Yadier Molina on deck, Kimbrel told Maddux he had no desire to intentionally walk Carlos Beltran.  Maddux, who was serving as Team USA’s pitching coach, responded by saying “Let’s throw two fastballs up and see if we can get him to pop it up.”

Beltran did his part to add to Maddux’s legend by popping Kimbrel’s first-pitch fastball to shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

“I was like you are a genius,” Kimbrel said of his reaction to Maddux after he returned to the dugout.  “How did you do that?  Like you knew that was going to happen.  I was like you want to come out here every time and tell me where to throw it.”

Unfortunately Kimbrel’s ability to keep Puerto Rico’s ninth-inning lead to one run was not enough for Team USA to gain the victory it needed to advance to the Championship Round of the World Baseball Classic.

With his first Classic experience complete, Kimbrel returned to Braves camp in time to stretch and play catch with his teammates before Saturday night’s game against the Yankees.  Because he pitched on Thursday and Friday, he likely will not return to Grapefruit League action before Monday.

“It was a great experience,” Kimbrel said. “It was cool to see how much (Team USA manager) Joe Torre really appreciated it and how much fun he had.  It leaves a bad taste in your mouth how we went out.  But it was still a pretty awesome experience.”

Check braves.com later today for more information about Kimbrel’s experience.

Constanza arrives in Braves camp

Jose Constanza’s speed has allowed him to spend portions on the past two seasons at the big league level.  Thus it is somewhat ironic that his attempt to obtain a visa proved to be one of the slowest involving a Braves player in recent memory.

Constanza finally received his visa and was permitted to exit his native Dominican Republic this week.  He arrived at Braves camp on Friday, exactly one month after the team staged its first full squad workout.

“I was the last on the list,” Constanza said. “I had to wait for my name to come up.”

Constanza was certainly not the only Dominican player affected by the stricter policies that were put in place for them to obtain their visas.  This delay might have cost him his attempt to win his battle with Jordan Schafer to win one of the last available roster spots on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster.

Schafer has hit .250 (11-for-44) with three doubles and a .318 on-base percentage through his first 16 games of the Grapefruit League season.  After getting off to a promising start, he has hit .200 (6-for-30) with 10 strikeouts during the month of March.

After playing in the Dominican Winter League and the Caribbean World Series, which concluded in early February, Constanza spent the past month working with a personal trainer and personal coach in Santo Domingo, D.R.

The fact that Constanza played throughout the winter might help him as he jumps back into action with Opening Day a little more than two weeks away.  But Schafer’s bid to win an Opening Day roster spot is strengthened by the fact that he is out of options and Constanza is not.

In other words, the Braves can send Constanza to Triple-A Gwinnett without having to pass him through waivers.  Schafer would have to pass through waivers.  Despite the fact that he is coming off a miserable and ugly season with the Astros, he would almost assuredly be claimed by an outfield-starved club like the Mets.

Atlanta’s final two roster spots for position players will likely go to Evan Gattis and either Schafer or Constanza.  As expected, Gattis has had his way with pitchers during the exhibition season, hitting .438 (14-for-32) with five doubles, two home runs and a 1.238 OPS.  But the fact that he is now a likely inclusion on the Opening Day roster is a product of his ability to prove that he would prove serviceable as a catcher.

As mentioned in earlier posts, the Braves could carry Gattis as the backup catcher until Brian McCann makes his expected return during the final two weeks of April.

To maximize Gattis’ value on the bench, manager Fredi Gonzalez could put him in the lineup more frequently than the average backup catcher.  In other words, Gerald Laird could serve as the catcher for three out of every five games and Gattis could assume the role in the other two games.

In other news, Jordan Walden’s back has been relatively pain free since he received an epidural injection in Atlanta last week.  Walden will throw a live batting practice session on Saturday.  If all goes well, the right-handed setup man could pitch in an exhibition game within the next four or five days.

Walden’s only appearance in an exhibition game came on Feb. 23, when he allowed four runs —  one earned  — and three hits in one inning against the Yankees.  If he returns to action early next week, there is a chance he could make five or six appearances before Opening Day.

This might be enough for the Braves to deem Walden ready to begin the season in their bullpen.  If he needs additional time, the last bullpen spot will likely go to Anthony Varvaro, who is out of options.   Varvaro, has allowed one hit and worked four scoreless innings since allowing the Tigers five runs and seven hits in one inning on March 10.

Gattis and Schafer could both be on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster

Before the first Grapefruit League opener, I predicted Jordan Schafer would win the final available spot for a position player on the Braves Opening Day roster. Now, I am starting to think there might be room for both Schafer and Evan Gattis.

Over the course of the two weeks that have followed, you have continued to read many great things about Gattis. Really the only thing you have heard about Gattis is that he is a modern science marvel created from the DNA of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Stay tuned. We’re still looking for confirmation.

When the exhibition season started, the belief was that the final roster spot for a position player would go to a third catcher (Gattis) or a fifth outfielder, either Schafer or Jose Constanza, who still has not been able to exit the Dominican Republic because of visa issues.

Now that Gattis has had a chance to lessen concerns about his defense while being behind the plate a few times over the past couple of weeks, there seems to be a possibility that he will begin the season as the primary backup to veteran catcher Gerald Laird. If this proves to be true, the Braves must determine would it be better to still carry a third catcher (Matt Pagnozzi) or a fifth outfielder, which would likely be Schafer?

Given that Pagnozzi would serve as nothing more than insurance, I think the nod would go to Schafer, who could at least provide some value with his speed and glove.

As he makes progress recovering from right shoulder surgery, Brian McCann has grown more confident that he could begin his duties as Atlanta’s starting catcher during the third week of April.  If we use, the April 16 game against the Royals as a projected return date for McCann, the Braves would play 12 games before he would be available to be in their lineup.

Again simply using this date as a projected return, the Braves could approach this stretch with the intention of having Laird and Gattis share the position.  This option has become more likely as the Braves have become more enamored with Gattis’ offensive potential and less concerned about his defensive ability behind the plate.

If this option is utilized through say the first 12 games, Laird could be in the starting lineup seven times and Gattis in the other five games played during this stretch.  This of course is all hypothetical and simply included to provide some reasoning behind carrying Gattis as one of two catchers on the roster.

Obviously, Gattis’ offensive potential is the driving force behind the fact that he has positioned himself to make the leap to the Major League level at the start of the regular season.  Contrary to what you might envision if you have only read about his size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) or impressive batting practice exploits, he is not a swing-and-miss power threat.

In 301 combined plate appearances with Class  A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi last year, Gattis has hit .296 with 18 home runs, 30 walks and 41 strikeouts.  While the sound of his bat his loud, his short powerful swing consistently produces line drives that occasionally travel a long way.

So if Gattis is indeed on Atlanta’s roster, would this create the need to carry a third catcher? In other words, when he is not in the lineup would his availability as a pinch hitter be negatively influenced by the fact that he would be the only available catcher on the bench? Since it bothered so many of you over the past couple of years, we’ll refer to this as the David Ross Dilemma.

When McCann returns, the question will be whether it would be better to carry Gattis or a fifth outfielder?  If Gattis continues to show his potential at the plate and at provides confidence he could play the outfield or first base when necessary, this would not be a tough decision.

It would likely mean Schafer would be claimed off waivers by the Mets or another outfield-starved team.  As long as Constanza eventually gets out of the D.R., this would not be considered a huge loss.  While Schafer is superior defensively, Constanza would likely provide more value with his bat and speed off the bench.

Looking at the big picture, the Braves also have to at least evaluate whether it would make more sense to have Gattis catching for Triple-A Gwinnett on a daily basis.  If this possibility develops, we will gain a better sense about the club’s confidence in Christian Bethancourt’s ability to hit enough to serve as Atlanta’s starting catcher in 2014.

Food for thought:   Depending on how the Braves utilize their remaining offdays and align their starting pitchers for the last two split-squad games, Tim Hudson or Kris Medlen could fall in line for the Opening Day start.  But why should there be any question.  Both are going to pitch in the opening series and this lines both up to also pitch in the first series of the year against the Nationals.  So why would you even think about giving this honor to a guy with 30 career starts (Medlen) instead of your veteran leader who has been a valuable part of your rotation since 2005?

It has been a lot of fun to watch highly-regarded prospect J.R. Graham pitch and display his intensity over the past couple of weeks.  My favorite Spring Training story so far was the one he told about being nine years-old and getting a ball that Hudson tossed to him after Hudson completed his bullpen work before a start for the A’s in Oakland. Graham and his high-powered fastball will likely begin the year in Double-A Mississippi’s rotation.  But if the Braves need a starter some time after  the start of June, you have to wonder if Graham will be their top choice.  He has made just nine starts above the Class A level and needs just  a little more seasoning.

O’Flaherty’s back is fine but Walden’s is still sore

Braves setup man Eric O’Flaherty says his back has never felt better and he hopes to pitch in an exhibition game some time next week.  But right-handed reliever Jordan Walden is battling back discomfort that could sideline him for at least another week.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez said Tuesday that O’Flaherty had not experienced any recent back discomfort.  But he said the left-handed reliever’s previous history with back problems influenced the team’s decision to delay his first appearance until at least the second week of the exhibition season, which is one week longer this year because of the World Baseball Classic.

As he sat at his locker on Friday afternoon, O’Flaherty wanted to make it clear that his back has not provided him any problems this year.  He said the fact that he has not pitched in a game is a result of a slight left groin strain that he suffered during the first week of camp.

O’Flaherty said the groin has steadily improved to the point where he could be cleared to throw in a game next week.

“I did a lot of work in the offseason and my back has never felt better than it does now,” O’Flaherty said.  “It has not been an issue at all.”

Unfortunately Walden is not able to say the same.  The right-handed reliever has been dealing with what he describes as “tightness in his back.”  The issue prevented him from making his scheduled appearance against the Nationals on Tuesday.

“That day was bad,” Walden said. “It was tight.  I went out there and I was trying to be easy on it and it wasn’t working.”

Walden has realized some improvement as he has spent the past few days taking anti-inflammatory medication and completing rehab exercises.

“A couple more days on this medicine and then I can be re-evaluated,” Walden said. “This is the first time it has really bugged me really bad. I’m trying to take care of it now so I can be ready for the season.  It’s getting better.  That’s all I can say.”

Walden allowed three hits and four runs  — one earned —  in one inning against the Yankees on Saturday.  That is the only exhibition appearance made so far this year by the 25-year-old reliever, who was acquired from the Angels in exchange for Tommy Hanson on Nov. 30.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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