• Exclusives

    Springtime surprises for revamped Braves

    When the Atlanta Braves arrived at Champion Stadium this spring, nobody in baseball knew what to expect of the revamped, ragtag group of players assembled by the team’s front office in the offseason. In fact, many of the players themselves didn’t know what to expect, but were excited about the talent and youth coming together. The team looked so different that Craig Kimbrel had shirts printed for all of the players with the humorous ‘My Name Is ______’ tag. Humorous as it may have been, it turns out there are many players that not only broke camp with the club that no casual follower of the club has heard of or knew was with the team but many of those players look to be on the opening day roster.

    Coming into camp, the common wisdom was that there would be one roster spot up for grabs. This changed when Mike Minor began his throwing program and reported shoulder discomfort and tightness. Minor is no stranger to this ailment, but the timing of it made for an unexpected battle for not one but two rotation slots. The news now is that Minor has begun a throwing program after a series of exercises prescribed by Dr. Andrews improved his range of motion. The hope is that what plagued Minor throughout 2014 will no longer bother the lefty. But even with his progress, Minor is expected to miss at least a month of the season. This has opened the door for none other than veteran Wandy Rodriguez.wandy2

    You’ll remember that Wandy Rodriguez was cut loose by the Phillies’ front office after failing a physical as spring training was getting underway. The Braves signed Wandy to a minor league contract with an invite to camp. If he makes the 40-man roster on opening day, he will received $2 million for his services in 2015. This, of course, is no longer an if. Barring any catastrophic outing between now and opening day, Wandy has secured the 4th rotation spot after a fantastic spring with his new club. Rodriguez holds a 91-94 record with a 4.06 ERA in his career. Additionally, he posted 6 consecutive seasons with an ERA under 4.00 while playing for the Astros and Pirates.

    With 2 rotation spots, the battle for the 5th roster spot continues. Another surprise this spring is the promise of Mike Foltynewicz. When the Braves made their trade with the Houston Astros sending away Evan Gattis, it wasn’t expected that any of the prospects coming back would be big league ready. Despite a tough outing Tuesday when he was lit up by the Phillies, Folty remains in the mix for a rotation spot. Also fighting for the spot is former Padre Eric Stults, veteran starter Chien-Ming Wang and former Yankee Manny Banuelos.

    ATLANTA’S ROSTER COMING TOGETHER ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL…

    Coming into camp, the Braves expected big stories from some of their newest acquisitions. What nobody expected was for Andrelton Simmons to walk into camp with his offense and defense firing on all cylinders. In 10 games and 30 ABs, Simba is hitting .467 with a club-leading 12 RBIs.

    Joining the hot bat of Simmons are the two guys battling for the spot as his double-play partner. The Braves signed Alberto Callaspo in the offseason with the assumption that he would be their opening day second baseman, but his presence in camp has not yet materialized in much positive. Instead, Jace Peterson and Pedro Ciriaco have stepped up in big ways. Showing adequate defense for their age and lack of experience, the true test was whether either player had progressed at the plate. In 41 ABs over 16 games, Peterson has 14 hits and 8 walks with a .341 average. However, with those astonishing numbers come 11 strikeouts. Ciriaco has a comparable 41 ABs in 17 games. Over that span he has put together 15 hits, 9 RBIs and a .366 average. The major difference between the two 2B candidates is OBP. Jace at .449 and Pedro at .372.

    The biggest acquisition for the offense over the winter was veteran outfielder Nick Markakis. It came as both a surprise and a blow immediately following his signing when he underwent cervical spinal fusion surgery. For much of the winter it was unclear when Markakis would be able to return to full baseball activity. That he wouldn’t be ready for opening day seemed a foregone conclusion until he made his spring debut this week and put all doubts to rest. In his first 2 games and 6 ABs, Markakis has 2 runs, 2 hits and a .333 average. His progress on the field seems to indicate that he will be ready for the April 6th first game against the Marlins.

    A regular that came into camp with something to prove that has remained unproven is third baseman Chris Johnson. Johnson had a major fall off after his first remarkable year with the club, but the Braves remain hopeful that last season was the anomaly and not his successful batting title-contending year. However, Joey Terdoslavich has been given some time at the hot corner to determine whether he can pick it. With Terdoslavich in the mix as well as veteran Callaspo, Johnson’s starting job looks not to be as solid as previously thought. As we saw more and more at the end of 2014 with B.J. (now Melvin) Upton and former (and still on the payroll) Brave Dan Uggla, the team will not allow for one player to bring down the lineup day in and day out.

    Still in contention for bench spots are the aforementioned Terdoslavich, the rejuvenated Kelly Johnson and Almonte. Much of what happens with the bench will come down to who wins the 2B starting position, whether Eric Young, Jr. is the starting center fielder and how much the Braves think they can rely on Alberto Callaspo and Johnson.

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