Where Does Brian McCann Fit in the Braves' Ideal Lineup?
The Atlanta Braves welcomed catcher Brian McCann back from the disabled list this week but have still yet to put their projected starting nine on the field for a game this season.
Despite that fact, their 20-13 record is good for second-best in the National League and they lead the Washington Nationals by two games in the NL East standings.
Lineups are fluid. They can change daily for a number of reasons. One cannot be myopic enough to think that matchups and split statistics are the only factors in determining who bats where.
Injuries and inconsistency will occur. The overwhelming idea is to regularly put together a lineup that best utilizes the strengths of each hitter. How to do so is often the topic of much debate.
This slideshow presents the ideal Braves lineup when all the pieces are available.
Some assembly required.
Leadoff Hitter: Andrelton Simmons
Andrelton Simmons has spent the majority of his young career hitting eighth for Atlanta, but the burgeoning star's ability to hit for contact makes him the candidate best suited to fill the leadoff role.
He captured the Carolina League batting title in 2011 by hitting .311 with Lynchburg. Simmons accomplished that while going down on strikes just 43 times in 570 plate appearances.
In fact, his career strikeout rate is incredibly low. That trait alone is at a premium in this lineup. Simmons has fanned just 111 times in 1,351 plate appearances between the big leagues and the minors.
Simmons has yet to showcase his base-stealing ability, swiping just two in three attempts in 80 big league games. However, he nabbed 54 in 237 minor league games.
If Fredi Gonzalez wants to incorporate Simmons' speed into the game plan on a more regular basis, it would be one more tool for the talented shortstop to put on display.
He may be better suited to bat second down the line but Simmons is the most qualified man to hit at the top of the order for Atlanta in 2013.
No. 2 Hitter: Jason Heyward
Is Jason Heyward going to spend his career hitting second in the order? That is doubtful. However, for where he is right now and what he has to offer, this is not a bad place for him.
Heyward runs extremely well and poses a threat with his power. Coming off a 27-homer, 21-steal campaign in 2012, he showed the all-around strength of his game. His ability to go deep should lead pitchers to deal more directly with Simmons.
Meanwhile, finding his way back to the selective hitter who drew 91 walks in 142 games as a rookie in 2010 would create potential RBI opportunities for the heart of the order.
This has been far from the kind of start that Heyward envisioned for 2013. He was batting just .121 in 17 games before going on the disabled list after an emergency appendectomy on April 23. In fact, Atlanta's second place hitters have combined to hit just .156 with 16 runs scored and 12 RBI.
That lack of production has been one of the reasons why the Braves rank seventh in the National League in runs scored despite leading all of baseball with 47 home runs. A healthy Heyward and a return to form would go a long way toward setting the table for the run-producers who follow.
No. 3 Hitter: Justin Upton
Speaking of the heart of the order, no man has done more with less this year when inflicting damage despite a lack of runners on base than Justin Upton.
Upton belted 12 home runs in his first 33 games with Atlanta. Five of those homers provided the club with a lead. He was acquired to make an impact and that is exactly what he has done. The opportunities to drive in runs have not been as plentiful. Upton has gotten just 29 plate appearances with runners on base in 2013.
Making the big leagues in 2007 at the age of 19, Upton has seen time at various spots in the batting order during his career. Nowhere has he been more successful than the three-hole, where he is a .285 hitter with 84 of his 107 career home runs.
While his ridiculous home run pace will not last, Upton is on the brink of a breakout season at age 25. He is the most talented hitter in the Braves lineup. That is exactly what a No. 3 hitter should be.
Cleanup Hitter: Freddie Freeman
While Upton may be the most talented hitter in the order, Freddie Freeman has a chance to challenge him when it comes to run production.
There was a time when All-Star catcher Brian McCann may have been slotted into the cleanup role. However, even at a young age, Freeman has proven he can drive in runs. He adds stability to the middle of the order because he pays a less demanding position and can be penciled in everyday.
Freeman, 23, drove home a career-high 94 runs in 2012, though the majority of his starts came hitting either third or fifth in the lineup. Regardless, he has not had a problem upping his game in the cleanup spot.
A trip to the 15-day DL with a strained right oblique just one week into the season is the only thing that has slowed Freeman’s onslaught in 2013. The slick-fielding first baseman is hitting .316 with 18 RBI and 12 runs scored in 20 games. All but one of his starts have come batting fourth.
Freeman's numbers with runners in scoring position have been eye-popping thus far. He's batting .500 with 14 RBI in 22 plate appearances with RISP. There may be open auditions on different levels about numerous slots in the batting order. Cleanup hitter certainly is not among them.
No. 5 Hitter: Dan Uggla
Dan Uggla came to Atlanta in 2011 with a reputation for plenty of power and plenty of strikeouts. When the former of those totals regressed last season, there was some cause for concern.
Why put a question mark like Uggla mark in the middle of the lineup? The fact that the Braves have a handful of question marks would be one reason. Additionally, the need for a right-handed power-hitter to protect Freddie Freeman is more to the point.
Uggla's average season from 2006-2011 was .258/.343/.482 with 32 homers, 91 RBI and 98 runs scored. It also included 153 strikeouts, a number that a team could live with if all of that run production was there.
The 2012 season was easily the worst of Uggla's seven-year career to that point. Hitting just .220 with only 19 home runs and 78 RBI, with all of those numbers representing career lows.
Can Uggla return to his slugging ways? The early returns are mixed. If he can, Uggla would provide a valuable buffer between Freeman and Brian McCann. That would force opposing managers to rethink their strategy when it comes to utilizing bullpen arms late in the game.
Atlanta was extremely susceptible to late inning lefties last season, when and if Heyward, Freeman and McCann were all lined up in the middle. A productive Dan Uggla, teamed with the Upton brothers would go a long way toward insuring that the Braves do not get caught in that kind of unfavorable position.
Make no mistake, batting Uggla fifth would be based on his ability to produce. Given a choice between the slugging second baseman and scuffling center fielder B.J. Upton, it makes more sense to place Uggla in spot he would both and provide and receive protection.
In other words, put him in a spot that his strengths help those around him and their strengths help him.
Uggla's career splits show that batting second or fourth have been his most productive spot in the lineup. While he has produced well in both of those slots, the Braves have capable bats there.
The best use of Uggla's power remains in the middle of the lineup. With McCann back and batting behind him, Uggla could be poised to regain his stroke and find a comfort zone in a spot that could really benefit the team.
It is an ideal scenario. Time will tell if it is a realistic solution.
No. 6 Hitter: Brian McCann
When the Braves started the season without All-Star catcher Brian McCann, one thing became clear: his professional hitting was sorely missed. McCann has a higher contact rate than all of the other Atlanta sluggers. He has never struck out 100 or more times in a single season.
Like Andrelton Simmons at the top of the order, having a hitter who can routinely put the ball in play is at a premium. Placing a contact hitter who poses a threat in the middle of the order is also vital.
Trotting out a different lineup on a nightly basis has become the norm for the Braves, who have won games despite the constant fluctuation. That should change with McCann back in the fray.
Before suffering a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, which he played through for much of 2012, McCann had established himself as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.
As I pointed out in positional preview series, McCann's average season from 2006-2011 was .287/.359/.491 with 22 homers and 86 RBI's in 137 games. He was also catching an average of 125 games per season during that time
Though he may be the recipient of a few extra days off as he gets back in the swing of things this season, McCann would provide and a nice left-handed buffer between the righty bats of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.
Even if Uggla and Upton switch places in the lineup, McCann's presence in the six-spot would still serve the same purpose.
The other, more precarious, effect of McCann's return is what it does to the playing time of rookie catcher Evan Gattis. He filled in admirably over the first five weeks of the season, but is now a man without a regular position.
It is doubtful that Gattis will be going anywhere anytime soon. That storyline will develop further once Heyward returns from his minor league rehab assignment.
No. 7 Hitter: B.J. Upton
It is safe to say that the first five weeks of B.J. Upton's time in Atlanta did not go exactly the way he nor the team had drawn them up.
After signing the richest free-agent contract in franchise history, Upton has yet to find any consistency at the plate. The strikeout totals have been somewhat alarming—42 in 111 at-bats—and his .153 average through 30 games definitely qualifies as a dismal start.
He entered the season as a .278 career hitter in the opening month but batted just .143 this April. It was Upton's first month on a new team in a new league. Not the first impression he was hoping for.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what has changed so drastically. Looking over his career and yearly splits confirms what the Braves were already well aware of upon signing him over the winter. He is a talented but somewhat streaky hitter with a propensity to strikeout.
Over the course of his career, Upton has never batted below .200 in a single month more than one time in a season. However, his .143 average in April is the lowest single mark in any month of his career. One can only hope that is an indicator that the worst is behind him.
As far as slotting Upton into a regular spot in the lineup, it would seem that a less pressure-filled spot would be the best thing until he finds his swing. Then again, a slump provides pressure even in lower leverage situations.
Extended time on the bench is highly unlikely, given the fact that the club is nowhere close to giving up on high-dollar talent just five weeks into a five-year contract.
Do not misunderstand either: That decision is not based solely on the financial investment.
When Upton is right, he has the ability to hit for power, drive in runs and impact the game with his base-running prowess. Those things, along with his defense, make him too valuable to keep on the bench, regardless of how well a reserve may be playing at the time.
For the time being, hitting Upton in the seventh slot would still allow for run-producing opportunities. He could also find himself starting off a few innings, stealing some bases and helping energize the lower third of the order.
If he happens to get hot, Upton could always be bumped up in the order. That could provide a nice boost, especially if Upton goes on a 12-homer tear like he did in September of last season.
Perhaps Upton will end up batting second when Jason Heyward presumably slides down in the order over the next few years.
If all the pieces are in place this season, that question can wait.
No. 8 Hitter: Chris Johnson/Juan Francisco
The Braves have gotten very solid production from the third-base platoon of Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco this season. In fact, there is a good chance that neither of these men would bat eighth in some other lineups around the league.
Johnson and Francisco have combined to hit .273/.307/.463 with six homers, 19 RBI and 19 runs scored in their starts at third base so far in 2013. If those numbers look a little off, keep in mind that Johnson was red hot at the plate while filling in at first base for the injured Freddie Freeman.
Though both men could make a case to be starting third basemen on other squads, manager Fredi Gonzalez has done his best to get both men as many at-bats as possible. Freeman's injury allowed for more playing time but that is obviously not part of the grand plan.
With a multitude of talented hitters throughout the first seven spots of the order, there really is no other place to put Johnson or Francisco on a regular basis.
Having a little extra pop at the bottom of the lineup certainly is not bad thing.
No. 9 Hitter: Pitcher's Spot
The ninth spot in order has been a nice bonus on more than a few occasions this season, but is not a place that is typically known to produce at a high rate in the National League.
Oddly enough, Atlanta pitchers are batting .188/.224/.281 while the second spot in the order has turned in a slash line of .156/.262/.266 this season.
That trend will not continue but it speaks to both the struggles at the top of the order and the nice work done by Braves hurlers. Yes, nice is a relative term when speaking about the hitting exploits of pitchers.
Tim Hudson is batting .375 with a homer and three RBI, while Julio Teheran has gone 4-for-9 over his first five starts. While those two have pleasantly surprised, the trio of Paul Maholm, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen have gone 2-for-39. It should be noted Maholm holds both of those hits.
Helping their own cause every once in a while is just about all you can expect from a pitcher. That and sacrifice bunts, of which the Braves staff has supplied eight this season.
If the offense can supply the the necessary run support, Atlanta's pitchers have shown they can do their job. Through 33 games, the pitching staff has allowed the fewest runs (110) of any team in baseball.
Put those two together and the Braves may be on the verge of finally clicking on all eight cylinders.