Atlanta Braves: 5 Things We Learned in Spring Training
Their All-Star third baseman retired. Their All-Star catcher is sidelined to open the season. Their All-Star leadoff man departed in free agency. Their rotation was in need of a viable fifth starter.
While a winter filled with some big acquisitions helped reshape the roster, the Braves certainly wanted to find out how all the pieces will fit. This spring provided some much-needed clarity.
5. Brian McCann Will Miss Most of April
Brian McCann had shoulder surgery in October.
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Following the retirement of Chipper Jones, catcher Brian McCann became the longest-tenured position player on the Atlanta roster. However, rehabbing from October shoulder surgery is going to keep McCann out of the Braves' lineup until late April.
Over the weekend, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren revealed that McCann is not expected to begin a minor league rehab assignment until April 16. Wren told MLB.com's Mark Bowman that there is no exact timetable in place for McCann's return.
"He's progressing fine," Wren said. "I don't think he's behind or ahead [of schedule]. I just think it is progressing as you would expect. As you get closer and get the shoulder strengthened, the improvement can happen very quickly."
Though Wren does not directly state McCann will miss all of April, the time needed on a rehab assignment for McCann to get comfortable both at the plate and behind it would likely be a minimum of 10-14 days.
McCann, 29, is entering his ninth year in the big leagues, and what could be a make or break season in determining his future with the Braves. Prior to suffering the torn labrum in his right shoulder in 2012, he had been one of the most productive catchers in baseball.
During a six-year run from 2006-2011, McCann made six All-Star teams and earned five Silver Slugger awards. He averaged a .287/.359/.491 slash line with 22 homers and 86 RBI in 137 games per season. He was also durable, catching an average of 125 games during that stretch.
Atlanta signed veteran backup Gerald Laird to provide some experience at the position. While the lineup possesses serious run-producing ability, it would no doubt benefit from the return of a healthy McCann.
4. Andrelton Simmons Will Bat Leadoff
Andrelton Simmons will occupy the top spot in the batting order.
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Shortstop Andrelton Simmons has been a leadoff hitter throughout his time in the minor leagues, and further proved he was capable of filling the task during the World Baseball Classic.
Simmons told MLB.com's Mark Bowman that he is looking forward to moving out of the eighth spot and leading off for Atlanta this season.
"I think that is going to be better for me. In that eighth hole, you don't want the pitcher having to hit with two outs with a runner on second. I think it's going to be better. We have a lot of guys who can really hit behind me. So I think it will be good."
Simmons batted .333 with a pair of home runs and six RBI during the WBC, scoring 10 runs in his eight games played in the tournament. He also showed the ability to put the ball in play by striking out just twice in 30 at-bats.
In a lineup that will be susceptible to the strikeout, Simmons stands as the exception to the rule. He struck out just once every 13.5 plate appearances in the minor leagues while turning in a respectable .352 on-base percentage across three seasons.
His rookie season produced a solid .289/.335/.416 line in 49 games, but was interrupted for two months by a fractured finger.
Simmons should benefit from the opportunity to hit at the top of the powerful Atlanta lineup this season. While he may not steal bases at the rate Bourn did, Simmons swiped 54 in 237 career minor league contests.
3. There Will Be a Platoon at Third Base
Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson will see time at third.
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Third basemen Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson each went out this spring to win a starting job. The problem was that both men played so well that the Braves seem to be right back where they started.
Entering the final week of spring training, manager Fredi Gonzalez opted not to declare a winner in the only real positional battle in Atlanta's camp.
Instead, he told MLB.com's Mark Bowman that both men have performed so well that a platoon may be unavoidable.
"I think both of those guys are playing such great baseball," Gonzalez said. "Right now, I think it would be unfair to choose one as a starter."
Johnson, 28, was acquired in the January trade that brought Justin Upton to Atlanta. His spring numbers have been more than respectable. In 27 games, he hit .366 with three homers, 12 RBI and 11 runs scored.
Those totals are a decent indicator that Johnson is tuning his swing up nicely for 2013.
If only things were that simple.
Francisco, 25, has been in lockstep with Johnson this spring, batting .343 with six home runs, 14 RBI and 12 runs scored himself. The edge in the power department goes to Francisco, who clubbed 10 extra-base hits to Johnson's five during Grapefruit League play.
While two players performing extremely well at the same position is one of the better problems for a team to have, it poses a challenge for the manager when filling out the lineup card each night.
Unlike Francisco, Johnson has served as an everyday player in the big leagues. He split his 2012 season between the Astros and the Diamondbacks, batting .281 with 15 homers and 76 RBI while playing in 136 games.
Spelling Chipper Jones at times in 2012, Francisco hit .262 with nine home runs and 27 RBI in 42 games started. His Achilles heel is an inability to hit left-handers thus far in his big league career.
Until further notice, Gonzalez will play the one he feels gives the club the best chance to win on that given night.
2. Evan Gattis Will Be on the Opening Day Roster
Evan Gattis will open 2013 as Atlanta's backup catcher.
After an impressive run through the Grapefruit League, Evan Gattis was rewarded with a spot on Atlanta's Opening Day roster on Tuesday.
The 26-year-old slugged his way to the forefront this spring, batting .357 with six homers and 16 RBI in 57 at-bats. He will share time with veteran Gerald Laird as All-Star Brian McCann continues rehabbing his surgically-repaired right shoulder.
An impressive display of power allowed Gattis to earn his first taste of the big leagues, some seven years after nearly walking away from the sport forever.
Gattis has been putting up big numbers during his three-year stint in the Atlanta system. While missing some time due to injury, he combined to play exactly 162 games in his last two minor league campaigns. Gattis batted .315/.387/.604 with 44 doubles, 40 home runs and 138 RBI in 691 plate appearances during that time.
It appears that manager Fredi Gonzalez will keep an open mind when filling out his lineup card each night, according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
"I think we'll play it by ear," Gonzalez said. "We know what he can do offensively. I didn't tell him he was going to be the backup guy. He could split time with Laird right down the middle, or maybe he could get even more time."
His offensive credentials are established, but his ability to handle the pitching staff will also play a role in determining how much playing time Gattis could see. That said, the longer McCann is out, the more chances Gattis will get to showcase his skills.
1. Julio Teheran Is Ready for the Big Leagues
Julio Teheran earned the fifth starter's spot this spring.
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After routinely topping the prospect rankings in the Atlanta system, talented right-hander Julio Teheran seemingly put everything together this spring.
Based on talent, it came as no surprise that 2013 marked the third consecutive year that Teheran topped the publication's list of Braves prospects. Results, however, were a different story.
Teheran, 22, suffered through a disastrous 2012 season in Triple-A. His ERA nearly doubled from 2.55 in 2011 to 5.08 last year. Teheran's 15-3 record of 2011 fell to just 7-9 in his second stint in Gwinnett.
This spring, Teheran turned everything around with refined mechanics, a new two-seam fastball and good, old-fashioned confidence.
He punctuated his impressive spring by hurling six no-hit innings against the Astros on March 23, striking out 10 batters in the process.
Following that start, Teheran told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is capable of making adjustments and finding a way to get hitters out.
"If I don’t have my best fastball command, I just try to use my other pitches. I have confidence with my two-seamer and my slider, too. I feel like I can throw all my pitches in any count.”
Overall, the righty went 3-1 with a 1.04 ERA in six Grapefruit League starts, fanning 35 batters in 26 innings of work. It was a stark departure from last spring, when he allowed nine homers in just 16.1 IP.
This time around, Teheran surrendered just seven total hits and held opponents to an .082 average.
If Teheran is able to carry his spring success into the regular season, he could be the early favorite to take home NL Rookie of the Year honors.