• Exclusives

    Braves wrap-up spring training, head north

    Atlanta wrapped up exhibition play in the Grapefruit League Thursday with another pitching gem. Their 20-15 record is only the third time since the Braves moved to Atlanta that they have won 20 games in Spring Training, having done so previously in 1994 and 2009.

    The Braves had a successful spring due in part to the crushing offense of winter acquisition Justin Upton, rookie Evan Gattis, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons. Braves pitching continued to display the kind of dominance they are known for with the phenomenal spring performance of Julio Teheran, multiple scoreless innings pitched by Paul Maholm, continued consistency of Eric O’Flaherty and convincing big league relief work by Cory Gearrin. And if Grapefruit League action is any indication, the Braves will put impressive defense on display with each outing of the 2013 season, led by the dynamic shortstop Andrelton Simmons and rounded out by the speedy outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward.

    Before a recap of the big story lines of the week, here are the final exhibition game scores from the Grapefruit League (3/24-3/28):

    Opponent Score
    Nationals 9-3 (L)
    Mets 7-4 (L)
    Tigers 6-5 (W)
    Nationals (SS) 11-2 (L)
    Astros (SS) 2-0 (W)

    The biggest story of the week is that Evan Gattis has made the Opening Day roster as Atlanta’s second catcher alongside Gerald Laird. The 26-year-old hit .368 with 21 hits, 5 doubles, 6 homers and 16 RBI this spring. His defense was better than advertised, putting him way ahead of catching prospect Christian Bethancourt and defensive specialist Matt Pagnozzi. While he was thought to be competing for the temporary backup catcher job in Brian McCann’s absence, Manager Fredi Gonzalez has indicated that Gattis and Laird could wind up splitting time behind the plate for the time being.

    The Braves could get 20+ homeruns from 7 positions this season. The leadoff spot is supposed to be the one place in this Atlanta lineup where opposing pitchers can turn for shelter from all the thunder. But they might be safe there either.  Braves’ leadoff man, Andrelton Simmons, has shown pop this spring with 5 home runs in just 59 at-bats between his Grapefruit League and World Baseball Classic play. He finished the spring with a .288 average including 5 doubles to match his homers. Simmons thrived this spring on the world stage, returning to the Braves with an important experience under his belt and a hot bat.

    In pitching news, Jonny Venters left Tuesday’s game with what the Braves were categorizing as an elbow sprain. Venters said he didn’t hear a pop in his pitching elbow as he did prior to his “Tommy John” surgery in 2006, but the team is taking no chances with the very elbow that flared up often last season. Following the Easter holiday, Venters will see Dr. James Andrews. Venters will likely start the season on the DL, leaving open only 2 roster spots for relievers. Those spots should be given to Cristhian Martinez and Anthony Varvaro, both relievers out of options. Since the 2011 season, Venters has not been as consistent and durable. His 8.10 ERA in 6 2/3 innings this spring was worrisome before the elbow sprain. As others have noted, it would be more problematic for the Braves going into Opening Day if Eric O’Flaherty were injured.

    While Venters’ injury may have been the pitching story of the week, the pitching story of Spring Training was hands down the performance of Julio Teheran. In 6 games (26 innings pitched), the rookie Teheran recorded a ridiculous 1.04 ERA with 35 strikeouts. He has thrived this spring in the atmosphere of no competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. This is the Julio Teheran the Braves expected going into Spring Training in 2012, but this spring they weren’t confronted with disappointment. Without Randall Delgado in the queue before him, now is Teheran’s time to shine and if this spring is the model, he will be a potent back-of-the-rotation starter.

    Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson may have struggled early on in the Grapefruit League, but they ended exhibition play straightened out and ready for the regular season. Maholm’s last two starts were absolute gems. Maholm finished Spring Training with a 4-1 record and an impressive 1.53 ERA. His 20 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings pitched were much better than the Braves expected. Maholm’s zero home runs allowed this spring is one of the more amazing pitching stats of the entire team. Given how he struggled with the home run at times after joining the Braves last summer, this is a great sign going into the season. Maholm more than earned his number 2 spot in the rotation this spring.

    The schedule for Opening Week is as follows:

    Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
    March 30th
    @ Mississippi Braves
    3:05 p.m.
    Opening Day
    vs. Phillies
    7:10 p.m.
    April 3rd
    vs. Phillies
    7:10 p.m.
    April 4th
    vs. Phillies
    7:10 p.m.
    April 5th
    vs. Cubs
    7:30 p.m.
    April 6th
    vs. Cubs
    7:10 p.m.

    The biggest worries the Braves face as Opening Day approaches have less to do with injuries than the simple question of how players will perform. Will Justin Upton live up to the hype and his potential? Can Julio Teheran replicate what he has done this spring in the regular season? Can Mike Minor maintain the confidence he has displayed this spring? Will Craig Kimbrel and Kris Medlen be different pitchers once the regular season begins or will their spring struggles carry with them? What can the Braves expect from Dan Uggla? And who will be the Braves third baseman in the post-Chipper era?

    Surely the question surrounding Craig Kimbrel will be washed away as he finds himself amid the familiar pressure of closing a regular season game. However, you can’t blame Braves fans for worrying a bit when in his final Grapefruit League appearance against the Astros Thursday he walked 2 and hit another in the first 3 batters he saw in the 6th inning. In limited appearances due to his World Baseball Classic play, Kimbrel racked up a 5.63 ERA in 8 innings. With 7 strikeouts in those outings, there is likely far less to worry about than his outing against the Astros would have you believe. The most consistent closer in baseball since his Rookie of the Year season will be just fine.

    Like Kimbrel, Medlen will settle in as the season gets underway. Will Medlen repeat the torrid pace he set last season when he moved into the rotation? Highly unlikely, but no pitcher, no matter how good, can maintain that kind of pace. Medlen’s 7.23 ERA this spring will be wiped clean come Monday. That is, after all, the beauty of spring stats.

    The final two questions the Braves have are a bit more complicated. Who will replace Chipper at third base? Nobody can ever replace Chipper. His heir-apparent, Martin Prado, now gone to Arizona in the Justin Upton trade wouldn’t have even been able to truly replace Chipper. Going into the season, it is now apparent that Fredi Gonzalez will go with a platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson with Francisco having a slight edge over Johnson for the majority of the playing time. Francisco’s dominance against left-handed pitching will determine how the platoon balances out. However, there is no arguing against Chris Johnson’s skill set with his superior defense and .381 batting average this spring. While nobody can replace Chipper, the Braves are not leaving the base in incompetent hands.

    What the Braves can expect from Dan Uggla is anyone’s guess. The second baseman barely hit the Mendoza line, ending Spring Training with a .200 average. His 25 strikeouts in 75 at-bats are more than worrisome, even for the strikeout-prone Uggla. It is especially concerning that he had only 3 walks. His frequent walks often attempted to balance out his strikeouts and that just wasn’t the case this spring. After his career best .287 with the Marlins, the Braves took a huge chance on Uggla and he has underperformed since joining the team. The Braves really need him to improve on his .233 and .220 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

    The story of the 2013 season, as it was throughout Spring Training, will be how the key trades and pieces of the roster puzzle perform. There is no doubting that the Braves put together a quality club. The only question remaining is will they live up to all the potential.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.