Braves Baseball: 5 Things We Learned About Atlanta in Spring Training
With spring training winding down and the first pitch of regular-season baseball on this continent on the horizon, it is as good a time as any to take stock in what we have learned this March.
Necessary spring training caveat: Statistics and records from spring training are often misleading and worthless. There is little to be learned from the fact that Freddie Freeman is batting .368 this spring. Everyone knows he is a good hitter already. Likewise, if a star player isn't collecting hits or is getting pounded on the mound, there is little to be worried about. Perhaps they haven't hit game shape yet or are working on something new.
However, where spring training is useful is in determining the rest of a team's roster, everyone outside of star status. The oft-used thought about the NFL combine is analogous: It isn't news when a fast player runs fast or a slow player runs slow. It is only worthwhile to know if the opposite happens in either situation.
It isn't news in spring training if a bad player is playing poorly, but it may be something to keep an eye on if a struggling player seems to have put things together. With that in mind, here are five things we've learned during the Atlanta Braves' spring training.
Not All Injuries Are Created Equal
When Braves' starting pitcher Kris Medlen went down with an injury on March 9 and the diagnosis was yet to be determined, it was cause for concern but not panic. After all, Atlanta had some depth in its starting rotation.
Just three days later, the Braves signed free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana. Although not as good as Medlen, Santana has proven himself a reliable starter during his career, with fits of excellence thrown in.
Of course, Medlen was not to be alone on the Braves disabled list, and his injury was perhaps more severe than anyone might have originally anticipated.
On March 23, the proverbial boom was lowered: Medlen to the 15-day disabled list (later moved to 60-day DL) to recover from Tommy John surgery, Mike Minor to the 15-day DL with left shoulder tendinitis, Brandon Beachy to the 15-day DL to recover from Tommy John surgery, Gavin Floyd to the 15-day DL recovering from surgery last May.
There it was. Four of the Braves' possible starting pitchers were all incapacitated together, with Medlen and Beachy out for the entire season after Tommy John surgery.
It is very common for starters to go down with injuries during spring training. Building up arm, shoulder and leg strength is a process that takes weeks and sometimes months. Any one starter going down for a team to start the season is often not a big deal. It is easy to work around one starter missing 15 days early in the year.
However, missing two or three starters for any length of time is a huge wrench to throw into a team's plan. When four starting pitchers all get put on the DL, and two are out for the entire season, there is very little a team can do to overcome such a loss. The Braves are starting 2014 way behind the eight-ball.
Julio Teheran Is the Braves' Ace
Atlanta announced that Julio Teheran will be its starter on Opening Day. This is relatively unimportant news in the grand scheme of things. After the first week, it is rare for teams' pitchers to even match up ace against ace, second-starter against second-starter and so on in a series.
However, the distinction of Opening Day starter is usually delegated to a team's best pitcher, and that is just what Teheran is...even if it's by default.
While Mike Minor or Kris Medlen may have gotten the ball Opening Day if either were healthy, there is much in defense of Teheran possibly being the best of the bunch anyways.
He was tremendous last season, his first full year in the majors. Even with a weak September, in 185.2 innings, Teheran won 14 games, struck out 170 batters and finished in the top five of the Rookie of the Year balloting.
And he has continued his hot pitching this spring. Teheran has given up just five earned runs in six starts but, more importantly, has struck out 26 while walking just four men. While wins and even runs allowed are less important spring stats, notching a strikeout/walk rate of 6.5 in 25 innings is valuable no matter the time of year.
Evan Gattis May Not Be Fit for Prime Time
Last year, Evan Gattis touched the hearts of Braves fans all over by clubbing 21 home runs and 42 extra-base hits in just 354 at-bats.
As a part-time catcher, outfielder, first baseman and even DH, Gattis was thrown into the lineup wherever manager Fredi Gonzalez could squeeze him. However, even with the monster power numbers, Gattis' success was a bit overblown.
In those 354 at-bats, Gattis struck out 81 times and managed just 21 walks. His .243 batting average would have been bearable if he was getting on base, but with a .291 on-base percentage, Gattis ended up generating just 1.4 offensive WAR, according to baseball-reference.
Added together with him being bounced around the field on defense, and his poor defensive abilities no matter where he landed, Gattis ended 2013 as just a 0.5 win player. It is an alarming stat for anyone who was caught up in the Gattis glory.
Even worse for Gattis was the fact that he scuffled the second half of the season. His on-base numbers, which were hovering around .330 in June, steadily declined through the summer and into September.
With a full-time job at catcher available for Gattis, it would have been nice to see an effective spring bring hope back that he could indeed play everyday and succeed. Instead, Gattis has continued his wayward splits, knocking six extra-base hits but striking out 13 times and not having drawn even a single walk.
The Braves certainly need to see more before they should feel comfortable putting Gattis' name in the starting lineup everyday this season.
Dan Uggla Is Worthy of a Roster Spot
Dan Uggla may have had one of the worst seasons in Atlanta Braves history last year. The veteran second baseman went to the plate 537 times and struck out 171 times. He finished the year with a .179 batting average and was rightfully left off of Atlanta's postseason roster.
However, with 77 walks and 22 home runs, there were still inklings of skills that translate to being an effective major league player. Of course, at $13 million, Uggla was hardly worth it. He was actually worse than replacement level, according to baseball-reference's WAR stat.
This year though, Uggla has not been released nor relegated to a permanent bench role. There is still a chance he could be the Braves' starting second baseman, and the spring has done him well.
Having received 52 at-bats, the most of any 2B on the roster, Uggla is still striking out too much, but he is also walking a lot and actually putting the bat on the ball. His .403 OBP trails only Freddie Freeman of Braves players with at least 30 at-bats this spring.
If Uggla's regular-season numbers approach anything close to a .400 OBP and .500 SLG, there are no amount of strikeouts that would take him out of the lineup.
The Upton Brothers Are Still Confusing
In 2013, B.J. Upton was atrociously bad. The only reason it wasn't bigger news outside of Atlanta was because the weight of his ineptitude was balanced out by Dan Uggla's. The two, oddly enough, helped take the heat off of each other.
On the other hand, Justin Upton was pretty good, even if he fell short of benchmarks fans placed upon him. He didn't run much, stealing just eight bases all season. However, his overall effectiveness was right in line with his final season in Arizona.
The expectations for both players are much higher than what they have generated in Atlanta up to this point. The storyline of each, though, is pretty clear: B.J. is garbage and Justin is all right.
Interestingly enough, this spring, the two appear to have switched places. B.J. is having a fine spring, albeit nothing special. He's stolen the most bases on the team, grabbed a few extra-base hits and is apparently back to being the player he was in Tampa.
On the other hand, Justin is batting just .218 with a .726 OPS, a far cry from his .830 career OPS average. This would normally be a situation where spring training stats are thrown out the window. After all, Justin Upton is a proven major league star. But in actuality, his name precedes him.
Justin only has one year where he finished with more than four wins above replacement, and that came in 2011. It may be time to stop giving him the benefit of the doubt, in which case, it would be nice to see some production in spring training. He now needs another April like he had last season to put some of the naysayers to rest.