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.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has spent the past month answering questions about the Upton brothers and his talented new outfield. He will catch his first glimpse of this outfield trio in game action on Friday afternoon when the Braves open their exhibition season against the Tigers at Disney’s Champion Stadium.
Tim Hudson is scheduled to pitch the first two innings against the Tigers, who will start Rick Porcello. Craig Kimbrel and Cory Gearrin are among the Atlanta relievers who are expected to pitch at least one inning.
Minus the designated hitter being utilized in the pitcher’s spot, Gonzalez’s lineup for Friday’s game looks a lot like the one he will likely use in the April 1 Opening Day game against the Phillies. Each of the starters are expected to remain in the game for at least two plate appearances.
Blake DeWitt will begin Friday’s game as the designated hitter. After a couple plate appearances, he will be replaced by Evan Gattis.
Like he did with Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons during their shortstop battle last year, Gonzalez plans to spend the early portion of the exhibition season utilizing Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson on an every other day basis at third base.
There is a chance Francisco and Johnson will begin the regular season platooning at third base. But the Braves are going to give both a chance to battled over the next couple weeks with an everyday role.
Andrelton Simmons SS
Jason Heyward RF
Justin Upton LF
Freddie Freeman 1B
B.J. Upton CF
Dan Uggla 2B
Juan Francisco 3B
Gerald Laird C
Blake DeWitt DH
The Braves will give fans another opportunity to celebrate Chipper Jones’ career when they retire his number and induct him into their Hall of Fame on June 28.
Jones will be inducted into the Hall of Fame during an afternoon ceremony at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. His No. 10 jersey will be retired during a pregame ceremony that will be staged before that evening’s game against the D-backs.
“Chipper was a Brave from the beginning to the end of his career and his legacy will forever live in our record books,” Braves president John Schuerholz said in a release. “There is no greater honor that we can bestow upon him than to induct him into our Hall of Fame and retire his iconic number 10.”
In fitting fashion, Jones’ number will be the 10th retired by the Braves. The others were Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), Dale Murphy (3), Phil Niekro (35), Warren Spahn (21), Greg Maddux (31), Tom Glavine (47), Bobby Cox (6) and John Smoltz (29).
Jones had the honor of playing his entire career with the Braves, who drafted him with the first overall selection in the 1990 First-Year Player Draft. The former National League MVP and eight-time All-Star retired at the end of last season as the leader in 11 statistical categories in Atlanta Braves history.
Tickets will be available for the June 28 game beginning on Feb. 25 on braves.com.
Individual tickets for the Hall of Fame luncheon are now available at braves.com/tickets. For tables of 10 or more please call 404-614-2310.
One day after The Hammer made an appearance, The Crime Dog arrived to get a taste of Spring Training. But as the Braves began their first full-squad workout on Friday afternoon, Chipper Jones was not present to begin his stint as a guest instructor.
“He’s late by the way,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez playfully said. “He’s going to have to go further back on the back fields to hit fungoes. Wait until he hears about his locker situation. He’s a rookie coach. He’s got to go by the bathroom and share a locker.”
While Fred McGriff started his stint as a guest instructor on Friday, Jones will wait until Saturday before he puts the Braves uniform back on for the first time since he retired at the end of last season. Jones’ agent B.B. Abbott said the former Braves third baseman will arrive in the Orlando area on Friday night.
“(McGriff) is ready to go,” Gonzalez said. “I asked him if he wanted to face Venters or Kimbrel and he said, ‘nah, I’m good.’”
Over the course of the next four days, Jones will interact with his former teammates and simply get another taste of Spring Training. Last week, he said that he decided to attend after being asked by Braves president John Schuerholz, general manger Frank Wren and Gonzalez.
“He might want to take a little batting practice, who knows? Hank Aaron said while visiting Braves camp on Friday “He was hitting pretty well when he left here. We might need him for a pinch hitter or something.”
This prompted reason to ask Aaron how he felt when he returned to Spring Training in 1977, the year after he retired.
“I went on the Minor League camp and took batting practice,” Aaron said. “I was still hitting them out. I don’t know if I could have done that in a game. But I was still hitting them. You miss it a little bit. I gradually got out of it. I’m sure Chipper will find a lot of things to do. He had a great career. The one thing about him is he finished his career in the same uniform. It’s just a matter of time before he gets put in the Hall of Fame.”
NOTES: Outfielder Jose Constanza and right-handed pitcher Wirfin Obispo were still in the Dominican Republic on Friday because of visa problems…Because of team physicals, the Braves will begin their workouts on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. ET…Brian McCann will get a better sense of where he is in the rehab process after he is evaluated during his physical. McCann will likely miss the season’s first two weeks as he recovers from right shoulder surgery.
With pitchers and catchers set to report to Spring Training on Monday, let’s look at specifics of some of the contracts signed by current and former Braves this winter.
B.J. UPTON -- 5 years/$75,499,794
Signing bonus — $3 million
2013 — $12.45 million
2014 — $13.45 million
2015 — $14.45 million
2016 — $15.45 million
2017 — $16.45 million
Potential bonuses: MVP ($50K); All-Star ($50K); Gold Glove ($25K); Silver Slugger ($25K); World Series MVP ($50K); LCS MVP ($25K)…Also receives a hotel suite when the Braves are on the road.
JASON HEYWARD – 1 year/$3.65 million (first arbitration-eligible season)
Potential bonuses: MVP ($50K); All-Star ($50K); Gold Glove ($25K); Silver Slugger ($25K); World Series MVP ($50K); LCS MVP ($25K)
ERIC O’FLAHERTY — 1 year/ $4.32 million (Final arbitration-eligible season)
Potential bonuses: All-Star ($50K); Cy Young ($50K); Rolaids Relief Award ($50K); Gold Glove ($25K); World Series MVP ($50K); LCS MVP
GERALD LAIRD — 2 years, $3 million ($1.5 million annual base)
Potential bonuses for 2013: 80 games ($50K); 90 games ($50K); 100 games ($50K); 110 games ($50K); 120 games ($50K)
Potential bonuses for 2014: 80 games ($100K); 90 games ($100K); 100 games ($100K); 110 games ($100K); 120 games ($100K)
Potential award bonuses: MVP ($50K); All-Star ($50K); World Series MVP ($50K); Gold Glove ($25K); Silver Slugger ($25K); LCS MVP ($25K)
REED JOHNSON – 1 year/$1,744,231 million with $1.6 million option for 2014 ($150K buyout)
Potential bonuses for 2013: 90 games ($50K); 110 games ($50K) 130 games ($50K)
These players avoided arbitration with straight one-year contracts without any potential bonuses:
KRIS MEDLEN ($2.6 million); CHRIS JOHNSON ($2,287,500 million); CRISTHIAN MARTINEZ ($749,750); JONNY VENTERS ($1.625 million)
TOMMY HANSON – 1 year, $3.725 million with the Angels
Potential bonuses: All-Star ($50K); Gold Glove ($75K); LCS MVP ($75K); WS MVP ($100K); Cy Young winner ($150K); Second or third in Cy Young Voting ($75K); Fourth or fifth in Cy voting ($50K)
MARTIN PRADO — 4 years, $40 million with the D-backs
2013 — $7 million
2014-16 – $11 million annually
Prado will receive $1 million each time he is traded during the life of this contract. He will also receive a hotel suite when the D-backs are on the road.
The Braves have reached a preliminary agreement to acquire Justin Upton from the D-backs in exchange for four players, including Martin Prado.
According to a Major League source, the Braves will get Upton and Chris Johnson in exchange for Prado, shortstop prospect Nick Ahmed and right-handed pitchers Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill. This deal is pending the completion of physicals.
With this trade, Braves general manager Frank Wren provide his club the game’s best outfield. He began this offseason by signing Justin Upton’s older brother, B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract. His projected outfield over the next three seasons will consist of Jason Heyward and the two Upton brothers.
To complete this trade, Wren had to part ways with Prado, who is one of the Braves’ most popular players among the fans and his teammates. But he was able to acquire Upton without giving up either of his top two pitching prospects, Julio Teheran or J.R. Graham.
The departure of the versatile Prado signals that the Braves will likely enter the season with Juan Francisco and Johnson sharing the third base duties.
Upton has hit .278 with 108 homers and a .832 OPS since making his Major League debut during the 2007 season. The 25-year-old outfielder was one of the game’s top outfielders as he hit .289 with 31 homers and a .898 OPS in 2011 with the D-backs. A thumb injury limited him this year as he hit .280 with 17 homers and a .785 OPS.
The Braves have shown great interest whenever it has become apparent that the D-backs would be willing to trade Justin Upton. Now with Spring Training less than three weeks away, they are hoping to land the talented young outfielder.
According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the D-backs have received a trade offer that is believed to be from the Braves. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman took it a step further by saying that the Braves have made a “strong offer” in exchange for Upton.
The D-backs are believed to be attempting to trade either Upton or Jason Kubel, who is believed to be drawing interest from the Orioles. Multiple sources have said that Arizona’s general manager Kevin Towers wants to get one of these deals done before Friday.
The Braves’ interest in this potential deal dates back to November when they signed Justin Upton’s older brother, B.J. Upton, to a five-year, $75.25 million contract. There is certainly an appeal to the prospect of having the two Uptons and Jason Heyward in the same outfield for at least the next three seasons.
When the Braves first showed interest in Justin Upton, the D-backs were interested in Atlanta’s dazzling young shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who has essentially been deemed untouchable.
Nearly two months later, the elements have changed. By trading their top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in December, the D-backs gained the top-flight shortstop — Didi Gregorious — that they had been seeking. Now they are looking for top young arms – a commodity the Braves can satisfy.
Any deal the Braves make for Upton would likely have to include Julio Teheran and at least one of their other top young pitching prospects, likely either Sean Gilmartin or Zeke Spruill. Nick Ahmed, a blue collar shortstop who has been compared to Jeff Blauser, could also draw interest from Arizona.
Upton used his partial no-trade rights to block a trade that would have sent him to the Mariners last week. That trade would have included three of Seattle’s top six prospects and Charlie Furbush, who posted a 2.72 ERA in 48 big league relief appearances last year.
The Braves are financially in position to acquire Upton, who would be owed $9.75 million in 2013, $14.25 million in ’14 and $14.5 million in ’15.
ATLANTA — The Braves entered Friday with the hope of reaching an agreement with each of their six unsigned arbitration-eligible players. As the early afternoon hours elapsed, they had moved closer to that goal by reaching one-year agreements with Jason Heyward, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Kris Medlen and Cristhian Martinez.
Martin Prado remained the Braves only unsigned arbitration-eligible player as of Friday afternoon. There is still a chance the Braves could reach an agreement with the versatile Prado before the end of the day.
Heyward’s first large raise comes in the form of a one-year, $3.65 million contract that includes awards bonuses. This is the first time that the 23-year-old outfielder has been eligible for arbitration. He combined to make just under $1.5 million during his previous three Major League seasons.
O’Flaherty’s one-year deal is worth $4.32 million and includes award bonuses. This will be the third and final arbitration-eligible season for the 27-year-old southpaw, who made $895,000 as a first-year arbitration-eligible player in 2011.
Like Heyward, the salaries gained by Venters and Medlen reflect the fact that they are entering their first arbitration-eligible seasons.
Medlen’s success as a starting pitcher during the season’s final two months earned him a salary of $2.6 million. The durability and success Venters has experienced during his first three big league seasons earned him a salary of $1.625 million for the upcoming season.
All Major League clubs and unsigned arbitration-eligible players were required to exchange salary figures by 1 p.m. ET on Friday. The Braves told agents that they planned to go through with an arbitration hearing if an agreement was not reached before figures were exchanged.
But if they were making progress with Prado’s deal, there is still a chance an agreement could occur on Friday.
Heyward began living up to tremendous expectations as he hit .269 with 27 home runs, 21 stolen bases and a .814 OPS this past season. The five-tool outfielder has the potential to join Ron Gant and Dale Murphy as the only players in Atlanta Braves history to hit 30 home runs and record 30 stolen bases in a season. He was presented with his first Gold Glove Award in November.
Medlen’s value soared as he posted a 0.97 ERA in the 12 starts that he made after making the transition from reliever to starter. His command and approach have led Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones to be among those who have compared him to Greg Maddux.
This has been an eventful stretch for Medlen, whose wife is scheduled to give birth to their first child on Feb. 5. Earlier this month, he learned that he would be part of Team USA’s starting rotation during this year’s World Baseball Classic.
O’Flaherty has established himself as one of the game’s top setup men. The left-handed reliever has compiled a 1.31 ERA in the 131 innings he has completed over the past two seasons. With the 0.98 ERA he posted in 2011, he became the first pitcher in Major League history to post a sub 1.00 ERA while making at least 70 appearances.
Venters experienced some early struggles and then posted a 1.71 ERA in the 26 appearances he made after this past season’s All-Star break. The left-handed reliever has compiled a 2.23 ERA while combining for 230 appearances over the past three seasons — the Majors’ second-highest total during this span.
Craig Kimbrel and Kris Medlen will replace their Braves’ jerseys with the Team USA jerseys that they hope to wear through most of March.
Kimbrel and Medlen will serve as the Braves’ only representatives on the United States team that will compete in this year’s World Baseball Classic. Both of these talented young pitchers will be making their first appearance in the Classic.
Arguably the game’s best closer, Kimbrel has been getting excited about this opportunity since the early days of December. Medlen tempered his excitement until he received a second phone call from Team USA manager Joe Torre approximately two weeks ago.
Medlen will serve as one of the four starting pitchers on Team USA’s roster. The remainder of the starting rotation includes Toronto’s R.A. Dickey, Texas’ Derek Holland and San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong.
Kimbrel undoubtedly stands as the top candidate to handle the closer duties during the Classic. Other candidates in the U.S. bullpen include Cleveland’s Chris Perez, Miami’s Steve Cishek and Arizona’s Heath Bell.
Medlen and Kimbrel will spend the first week of the Grapefruit League season with the Braves and then travel to Phoenix to prepare for First Round pool play, which will take place at Arizona’s Chase Field from March 8-10.
If it advances out of the first round, Team USA would participate in Second Round play at Marlins Park March 12-16. If the team advances, it would then be in position to participate in the Semifinals and Finals at San Francisco’s AT&T Park March 17-19.
The Braves will also have a strong presence on Torre’s coaching staff. Dale Murphy will serve as first base coach and Greg Maddux will be the club’s pitching coach.
Braves general manager Frank Wren has been evaluating his internal options in the event that he does not land another outfielder before the start of next season. But as we progress through this first week of December, this still has to be viewed as Plan B.
There is no doubt that it is good to have options such as keeping Martin Prado in left field and playing Juan Francisco at third base. But if I had to guess, I’d say that Wren will end up acquiring another outfielder at some point over the next few days or weeks.
As things currently stand, the Braves do not seem too interested in any of the outfielders remaining on the free-agent market. This could certainly change as contractual demands lessen over the course of the next few weeks.
But for now, the Braves are focusing their attention on trying to find attractive outfielders on the trade market. In a perfect world, they would have signed B.J. Upton and then signed Denard Span to play left field and serve as their leadoff hitter. But the Nationals beat them to the punch by trading for Span at the same time that Upton was signing his five-year, $75.25 million contract.
UPDATED GRAPH: One of the players on their wish list is Toronto’s Emilio Bonifacio, who would bring speed, versatility and the ability to hit potentially fill the leadoff spot. But the Blue Jays were quite high on Bonifacio when they landed him via the 12-man trade with the Marlins three weeks ago. So he’s certainly not going to come cheap.
Had the Braves landed Span, they would have simply had to find a player or two to fill out their bench. They are expected to continue evaluating the possibility of re-signing Reed Johnson to return as a backup outfielder. At the same time, they could make a bid for a veteran like Mark DeRosa with the hope to replace some of the clubhouse leadership that was lost with the departures of Chipper Jones, Eric Hinske and David Ross.
DeRosa lives in Atlanta and is one of Brian McCann’s closest friends. There is no doubt that he would like the chance to play for the Braves again.
JUST A PINCH: By now you’ve heard all about how much Upton appreciated the way the Braves treated him when he met with them at Turner Field on Nov. 15. At the time, Upton assumed he would end up with the Phillies. But his thoughts quickly turned once general manager Frank Wren, manager Fredi Gonzalez and former manager Bobby Cox made him feel quite relaxed during this meeting.
A key assist also has to be credit to hitting coach Greg Walker.
As the group sat at a table talking about various items, Walker pulled out his can of smokeless tobacco and offered Upton a dip. Upton gladly accepted and felt even more at home while sharing a dip with Walker and talking baseball with the rest of the Braves’ brass.
Adding to the significance of the gesture was the fact that Walker was using the same brand of dip that Upton has used over the years. But this proved to be simply coincidental.
“I did my homework, but not that in depth,” Walker said via text.
ODDS and ENDS: The Braves have signed catcher Matt Pagnozzi to a Minor League contract. Pagnozzi will be targeted to serve as Atlanta’s backup catcher while Brian McCann misses most of April while recovering from shoulder surgery. When McCann returns, Pagnozzi will be sent to Triple-A Gwinnett…Closer Craig Kimbrel is planning to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic this year. The rosters will be announced in January. Kimbrel got married in Atlanta this past weekend.