Quick thoughts about each member of the Braves Opening Day roster
If former Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern was still around to cover the Braves the updated version of his famous poem about Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain might be recognized by these words: Teheran and Wood, then skip the next three days if we could.
A National League scout recently asked if a team has ever entered a season with three pitchers who haven’t thrown a pitch at the Major League level? My immediate response was, “I can guarantee you this year’s Braves bunch will be the first two do so after leading the Majors in ERA the year before.”
Unfortunately, relievers Ian Thomas, Ryan Buchter and Gus Schlosser do not stand as primary sources of concern as they prepare to introduce themselves to the big league scene within the next few days. The concern has more to do with the guys who are going to force Thomas, Buchter and Schlosser to be on high alert early and often as the Braves spend the early portion of this season dealing with the consequences of losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow injuries within a 24-hour span earlier this month.
The 1927 Yankees would not have felt good about entering a season with a four-man rotation that includes an aged veteran (Aaron Harang) that has been with six different organizations in the past calendar year and a rookie (David Hale) whose promise is a product of the two strong starts he made during a month (September) that scouts and talent evaluators have long recognized as one that can often produce faulty evaluations.
But instead of focusing on the obvious fact that the Braves are going to have problems with their rotation until Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd all make their expected season debuts at differing points over the past week, we’re going to attempt to keep things a little more upbeat by taking a quick look at what Spring Training told us about each member of Atlanta’s Opening Day roster:
B.J. Upton – If you’re still choosing to give Spring Training statistics some validity, remember that B.J. hit .347 in 75 Grapefruit League at-bats last year and then didn’t much of anything over the six months that mattered. With that being said, it should be noted that he struck out in 13 of the final 35 at-bats he recorded this exhibition season. But there were signs of improvement as the veteran center fielder got used to the more stable batting stance he attempted to regain this winter.
As B.J. begins this year positioned in front of Freddie Freeman in the lineup’s second spot, he might see a higher percentage of fastballs than he did last year. According to FanGraphs’ Pitch f/x data, he saw nearly the same percentage of fastballs the past two years. In 2012 he had a 12.4 wFB (Fastball wins above average). Last year that number dipped to -4.8. Thus maybe it is fitting that two of B.J.’s most encouraging at-bats over the past month ended with him hitting Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler’s fastball for singles – one that went right up the middle and the other to right-center field.
Dan Uggla – Like addicts on the road to recovery, Uggla seemed to take a big step when he admitted that he has been “homer-happy” the past couple of years. In an effort to rid himself of the bad habits that led his front side to fly open far too frequently, the veteran second baseman spent this winter focusing on keeping his left hip and left shoulder square. He struggled during the early portion of the Grapefruit League season, but he finished strong, recording seven hits and striking out just five times in his final 21 at-bats. Taking an old familiar line from Bobby Cox, “you can tell he feels good because he’s smiling again.”
Freddie Freeman – Other than dealing with an armpit rash caused by his Spring Training jersey, Freeman spent the past six weeks smiling. I think it’s one of those indelible ones that comes with receiving $135 million. As for that rash, it didn’t prevent him from going 9-for-15 in his last six exhibition games.
Andrelton Simmons – As he packed his bag after the final home game at Disney, Simmons said he was feeling great at the plate. When I asked if he had gotten comfortable with hitting coach Greg Walker was preaching in attempt to gain a more consistent swing plane, Simmons said, “about five of the 10 things he suggested work for me.” This isn’t the space to go into detail. But obviously given what he brings with his glove, nobody is going to complain if he hits around .250, pushes his on-base percentage above .300 and hits 10-15 home runs. Yeah, he hit 17 taters last year. But there’s no reason for him to aim to match that total at the expense of becoming a better-rounded product at the plate.
Chris Johnson – Very interesting to see that Fredi Gonzalez plans to bat Johnson in the cleanup spot. In order for this to work, Johnson has to stick with the “hit the ball to all fields” approach that helped him rank second in the NL with a .321 batting average last year. He batted .336 with runners in scoring position and .396 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Given the .394 BABIP he produced last year, we’ll likely see some regression with the batting average. But he’s certainly capable of flirting with the .300 mark again.
Jason Heyward – As I enter my 14th season on this beat, I still contend that J.D. Drew’s 2004 season was the most overall (offense, defense and base running) impressive one I have covered in Atlanta. If Heyward remains healthy and plays at least 150 games this year, there’s a chance I will no longer have to give Drew this status and then attempt to explain to those who forget how good a motivated J.D. Drew was. Heyward has to potential to be much greater. In fact if I had to pick the one Braves player most likely to win the National League MVP Award this year, it would be the 24-year-old right fielder.
Justin Upton – Upton put the Braves on his back during the two most influential stretches (April and late July-early August) last year. While every player is “streaky”, this 26-year-old right fielder seems to take “streakiness” to another level. Despite hitting at least 26 home runs three of the past five seasons, he has never had a 100-RBI campaign. He’ll have a chance to reach this mark this season. But he will have to be more productive than he was while hitting .243 with runners in scoring position last year.
Evan Gattis: I’ve never been a fan of using the catcher as in the cleanup spot because once every five days the middle of the lineup is jumbled. Manager Fredi Gonzalez didn’t seem bothered by this when asked during the early days of Spring Training. But after Gattis struggled during Spring Training, the Braves opted to move him from cleanup to the seventh spot in the lineup. Gattis will be looking to prove he can remain durable enough to remain offensively productive while serving as the starting catcher for 100-110 games this year.
Gerald Laird: With the recent departures of Tim Hudson, Peter Moylan, Eric Hinske and Brian McCann, the Braves have lost jovial characters who keep the clubhouse loose. Along with being able to provide this attribute, Laird will play a significant role this year as should get more playing time than the average backup catcher.
Jordan Schafer: There was a time last year when it appeared Schafer was going to start sharing time with B.J. Upton in center field. Unfortunately for Schafer, that time came right around when he suffered a stress fracture in his foot. While he has aspirations to play on an everyday basis again, this athletic outfielder must get back to where he was early last season, when he was putting the ball in play consistently and benefiting from his tremendous speed.
Ryan Doumit: While he might not get much playing time in the field, the switch-hitting Doumit will likely serve as the club’s primary pinch hitter throughout this season.
Ramiro Pena: While providing a number of clutch pinch hits and a reliable glove as he often served as a late-inning defensive replacement for Johnson, he was Atlanta’s most valuable bench player before he injured his shoulder last year. A strong offensive showing during Spring Training proved he is healthy.
Tyler Pastornicky: Two years removed from beginning a season as Atlanta’s starting shortstop, Pastornicky is now a utility man whose defensive skills are most valuable on the infield’s left side.
Julio Teheran: Ask his teammates about this 23-year-old hurler and in some way or another they’ll tell you he is fearless. We saw how stoic he was last year when he plunked Bryce Harper and then walked directly toward Harper as the Nationals outfielder was yelling at him in August. Yeah, that can sometimes be “false” bravado. But instead, of being overwhelmed by the emotions that night at Nationals Park, the young hurler completed his victorious six-inning effort without allowing another run. <p>
While Teheran has quickly gained a stronger feel for the English language, the language barrier is still somewhat evident when he says things like, “I think I’m the best.” He’s not the egotistical, boastful type. But as Gerald Laird said, “He’s got a good edge to him.”
Alex Wood: When the Braves were set to draft Wood in the second round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, legendary scout Paul Snyder told the club to stay away from the collegiate southpaw if they had any intention of messing with his funky delivery. Fortunately, nobody has messed with this funky delivery that helped Wood post a 0.90 ERA in five August starts last year. Along with having a deceptive delivery and effective curveball, Wood has a genuine level of confidence you might not expect from somebody who is less than two years removed from his career at the University of Georgia.
Aaron Harang: I’m still baffled as to why the Braves believe Harang was a better option than Freddy Garcia. When pitchers reach this point of their career, I’ll take craftiness over a velocity advantage. Regardless, Atlanta will be in trouble if Harang needs to make more than 10 starts this year. Yeah, the same would have been said in reference to Garcia.
David Hale: Hale is one of the few Major Leaguers who can claim that some of his college buddies are currently making more money than him. This Princeton grad produced two strong starts last September. But if the Braves really believed that he was capable of doing what he did, then why did Kameron Loe start that Sept. 4 series finale against the Mets?
Craig Kimbrel: Kimbrel went through Spring Training without having to accelerate his preparations like he did when he participated in the World Baseball Classic last year. Now that the regular season has arrived, he will once again begin displaying his high-octane fastball and ridiculous slider.
Luis Avilan: Stump your friends with this one: Who has the lowest ERA among all left-handed relievers who have made at least 80 appearances dating back to Aug. 1, 2012? Avilan is much more stable than Jordan Walden and will likely serve as Kimbrell’s primary setup man.
Jordan Walden: Walden was quite impressive until he strained both groin muscles and then was essentially worthless during last season’s final five weeks. Injuries have plagued the right-hander throughout his career. But if he can remain healthy, the Braves will once again rely on him to record outs in the seventh and eighth innings.
David Carpenter: Carpenter had a heck of journey last year as he began the season in the Minors and ended it by surrendering a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers. The 0.82 ERA he produced in 11 Grapefruit League appearances indicated that he is not battling any lingering effects.
Anthony Varvaro: Varvaro struggled during the early portion of this year’s exhibition season as he attempted to develop a slider he has since ditched. Minus the second inning of a multi-inning appearance he made against the Orioles on March 21, the veteran reliever at least showed some signs of improvement as the regular season approached.
Gus Schlosser: Schlosser is a better option in the rotation than both Harang and Hale. But the right-hander who produces an effective sinker with his side-arm delivery also stands as one of the best middle relief options in an Atlanta bullpen that also currently lacks depth. He might have to remain available to serve as a long reliever during the season’s early weeks. But he has the potential to see some time in high-leverage relief situations before this season is complete.
Ian Thomas: Schlosser would have been this year’s feel-good Spring Training story, had Thomas not made the rise from the independent leagues to the Majors in two years. The lanky left-hander’s unexpected rise has come with the benefit of a curveball he began refining as he prepared to begin the 2012 season with the Atlantic League’s York Revolution.
Ryan Bucther: There’s a lot to like about this left-handed reliever who has produced impressive strikeout totals the past few years. Unfortunately, he needs time to address the command issues that will likely send him back to the Minors when Ervin Santana’s return allows Atlanta to go to a five-man rotation next week.