February 6, 2013 at 3:29 pm by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
I hate Spring Training. Yeah, yeah, there’s baseball when there hasn’t been for months, but it’s wrought with dangers. The immediate concern is injury. Avoiding injury is essentially why Spring Training exists – in order to build up strength, stamina, etc. – but all I do during ST games is worry they’ll get hurt in an ultimately meaningless game. The other concern is the small sample size and using those stats to determine anything. For instance, Michael Bourn led the team with 79 AB (84 PA) last ST, which is like 1/8 of a season, and some of those PA are against pitchers getting their work in, messing with new pitches, and going back to the minors in another week. The sample size just isn’t large enough to indicate whether something is actually happening or not. And finally, the games just don’t count. Right or wrong, I always worry that the players “use up” some of their good moments, though that doesn’t really make sense.
But Spring Training is a necessary evil. It does allow for players to work into “game shape” and for pitchers to build innings and arm strength. And whether the sample sizes allow it or not, there are positions that are won and lost in Spring Training, and Spring Training is all we have to decide in some cases. These are the ones Braves officials have to decide in the coming weeks.
Starting Third Baseman
The Favorites: Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson are the two vying for the spot, and I’d say that neither has much of a leg up on the other. Francisco is the younger, higher upside player that has significant collapse risk while Johnson is what he is, which is probably a second-division regular (for those curious as to what “second-division regular” means, it means a player worth 1-2 wins a season, which is between an average regular and a good bench bat; usually only bad, or “second-division”, teams will employ them as starters). Johnson is also making quite a bit more money, but I don’t expect that will play much into the decision as it’s a sunk cost and not a big one at that. Look for them to switch starting/backing up early on with Francisco even getting some time against lefties to see if he’s improved. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if either won or if a platoon was installed.
The Dark Horse: Joe Leonard will likely open the season in AAA Gwinnett, but he might be better defensively than Johnson or Francisco. The problem, of course, is that Leonard isn’t a particularly good hitter, hitting .257/.324/.393 for his career in the minors, and he’s not likely to get a whole lot better by April, though I suppose there’s some untapped power there. Something drastic would have to happen for Leonard to win the spot.
Fifth Spot in the Rotation
The Favorite: After all the off-season talk and the lack of a signed veteran to act as competition, Julio Teheran is the man unless he falls on his face again.
The Contenders: Sean Gilmartin and JR Graham are likely next up on the prospect stage, and it would make sense for them to start the season in AAA. A strong Spring performance by either along with a collapse by Teheran could see one of these prospects turn into rookies. Gilmartin would be the most likely considering he’s a little ahead on the development curve, and Graham really should spend some time working on his change-up in AAA.
The Dark Horse: Daniel Rodriguez was signed late last season out of the Mexican League. With a sinker/slider combo from the left side, Rodriguez could finagle himself into a rotation spot, but it would probably take an emergency situation – Teheran collapse, neither prospect pitching well, and an injury to an existing member of the rotation – for him to get there.
The Contenders: Only three catchers have a place on the 40-man roster spot – Christian Bethancourt, Gerald Laird, and Brian McCann. McCann could be back by Opening Day (in theory) to push Laird into this spot, but injuries rarely heal faster than anticipated with no setbacks. Shoulders are no fun, so I’d expect McCann back no earlier than a few weeks, if not a month, into the season (closer to the original diagnosis). That leaves Bethancourt as the only 40-man guy, but that was more of a Rule 5 protection maneuver than “he’s ready for The Show”. The other possibilities are Matt Pagnozzi, Matt Kennelly, Shawn McGill, and Evan Gattis. All of them have their peccadilloes, though – the first three probably won’t hit much and Gattis probably can’t catch enough. With only 37 players on the 40-man, the Braves can move one of these guys on. Pagnozzi is probably the favorite because he’s done it before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the others made it. They can fake it back there for a few weeks.
Last Spot on the Bench
The Contenders: With four spots taken on the bench by whoever wins the catcher competition, whoever loses the third base competition, Paul Janish, and Reed Johnson, there remains one spot on the bench. The most likely guys for the spot are Ernesto Mejia, Ramiro Pena, and Tyler Pastornicky. Mejia’s strength is lefty mashing, but while that’s helpful off the bench, his ability to only play first isn’t. Pena is a worse version of Paul Janish (if you can believe it), and there’s not really anything unique that he brings to the table. Pastronicky is a little bit better of a hitter and has some potential to be better than what he’s shown (he just turned 23 in December), and he has some defensive versatility. I’ll knock Pena out of the running unless he somehow hits, which leaves us with Mejia and Pastornicky. If the Braves want pop off the bench, Mejia’s your guy, but if they want a little defensive versatility, Pastornicky could be it. Mejia seems to give them something they don’t already have (power) while Pastornicky would be overlapping a few things the Braves already have with his defensive versatility.
(Author’s note: Someone in the comments mentioned Blake DeWitt. I did, indeed, forget about him. He adds some defensive versatility, but his bat isn’t very good, though better than the other utility infielders. DeWitt has a reverse platoon split (though only 200 PA against lefties) and isn’t very good against RHP, and he would also have to be added to the 40-man, which wouldn’t be that difficult. With the last spot on the bench, I’m still guessing that the Braves go with a hitter as the defensive replacements are already in place. Janish, however, did have shoulder surgery early in the off-season, so if he’s not ready by Opening Day, Pena likely moves in with his ability to play SS and the other positions and still leaves the open bench spot.)
The Dark Horses: Jose Constanza and Jordan Schafer lurk as other potential candidates. While they could both be weapons off the bench as pinch-runners, Reed Johnson takes away the need for their defensive contributions. I don’t really see what either would offer that the Braves really need other than a lefty bat off the bench, but neither of them are particularly adept (or at all adept) at hitting.
Last Spot in the Bullpen
The Favorite: Six spots are likely taken in the bullpen by Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty, Jordan Walden, Jonny Venters, Cristhian Martinez, and Luis Avilan, which means there’s one left. I can’t find the information to be sure, but I believe Anthony Varvaro is out of options. Considering he’s a decent reliever that would be claimed on waivers, it makes sense to keep him.
The Contenders: We are talking about the last spot in the bullpen, however, so if one pitcher demonstrates that he’s the best option, it’s not really a big deal to let Varvaro go. The other serious options are Cory Gearrin and David Carpenter. Carpenter was superficially great in 2011 (2.93 ERA), but his peripherals and fly ball rate reveal a pitcher who isn’t as talented, though not as bad as 2012 (8.07 ERA) suggested. Gearrin has much better peripherals than either Carpenter or Varvaro (who are pretty similar as far as production) as he gets some swings-and-misses as well as a lot of ground balls, but he’s basically useless against lefties. With the lefties already in the bullpen able to get both sides of the plate out and Martinez and Avilan able to pitch multiple innings, the Braves have room for a specialty reliever (ROOGY and ground balls). I’m just not sure it’s worth ditching Varvaro.
The Dark Horses: Also on the 40-man are Juan Jaime, David Hale, and Cory Rasmus. Hale could certainly be an interesting addition with a higher ceiling than the people we’ve mentioned, but again, I’m not sure that’s worth ditching Varvaro unless Hale blows people away. Rasmus throws hard and will probably be in AAA to start the season, but his walk rate in the minors is over 4 and has gone up over the past few seasons as he’s progressed up the ladder. Jaime is another interesting name, but he hasn’t pitched in AA yet, needs to improve his control, and find a breaking ball.