Three 24-year-olds will lead the rotation, with Julio Teheran back as the ace after two straight 14-win seasons. Teheran had a rough spring (ERA of 8.00 in five starts), but there is confidence Teheran is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Alex Wood will be the number two starter. The former Georgia Bulldog had 11 wins last season in his first full year in the rotation. Newcomer Shelby Miller showed in spring training why many believe he is ready to become an elite pitcher. The Braves hope Mike Minor will be back at some point in May or June, and until then two veterans will fill out the rotation. Lefty Eric Stults will be the fourth starter. Stults won the job over Wandy Rodriguez with a solid spring. The Braves acquired Trevor Cahill just last week from Arizona to round out the rotation.
The Braves have the best closer in the game in Craig Kimbrel. Any numbers you look at, both for his career and for last season, show how dominant Kimbrel has been on the mound. There is a debate on whether a team that might be retooling needs a pitcher like Kimbrel, but right now the Braves say they will not trade him this season. Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson, two former closers, are the new setup men. They both had excellent springs and are solid veterans in the clubhouse. The Braves have Luis Avilan, who could be the main lefty specialist. Andrew McKirahan was brought in late in spring training, and he will be another lefty reliever. Cody Martin and Juan Jaime will round out the bullpen, which could be a revolving door for a while until the dust settles.
The Braves believed Evan Gattis was more of a designated hitter, so they traded the catcher to the Astros for three minor leaguers. Christian Bethanourt takes over as the new starter behind the plate. He’s 23 years old, and from the time he signed seven years ago out of Panama Bethancourt has had a reputation of having an outstanding arm. He’s also improved at blocking balls and calling games, but those areas still need work. Offensively, Bethancourt has gotten better, hitting .283 last season in Triple-A and .270 in his minor league career. He got some playing time last season (31 games), which was good experience. The Braves have raved at how Bethancourt has matured with his solid spring training. Veteran A.J. Pierzynski was brought in to be a veteran leader, and he will get about one start a week.
A year ago, the Braves invested in Freddie Freeman. He’s signed through the 2021 season, so with Jason Heyward gone, this is Freeman’s team. With Justin Upton and Gattis traded, the Braves will count on Freeman to supply some power in the lineup. After hitting 23 home runs in each of the previous two seasons, Freeman’s home runs dropped to 18 last year. But with the Braves relying less on the home run this season, they may want Freeman to lead the league in doubles. The team has been impressed with how Freeman has accepted the many changes on the team and understands what the organization is trying to do for the future. They need him to be the leader of the Braves, even at 25 years old. Defensively, Freeman is one of the best in baseball at first base.
When the Braves got Jace Peterson from San Diego as one of four players in the Justin Upton trade, they never could have imagined he would come to spring training and win the second base job. Most believed this was just holding down the position until top prospect Jose Peraza is ready, but the Braves believe they may have something in Peterson. He wowed the coaches even before the Grapefruit League games started with his hustle, and then Peterson hit .324 in spring training to clinch the job. Peterson got his feet wet last year in San Diego, but you must look at his minor league numbers to wonder what the Braves have here. He hit .287 in four minor league seasons with a .381 on base percentage. Peterson can also steal bases, with 51 three years ago in High-A.
There is no debate about Andrelton Simmons. He is the best defensive shortstop in the game. In fact, stats show he’s the best player at any position in the game with the glove. It will be interesting to see how Simmons and Peterson form a double play duo early in the season. But the Braves need Simmons to do better offensively, as he hit just .244 last season. It is a concern that Simmons’ batting average has decreased in each of his first three seasons with the Braves. While he doesn’t strike out much, Simmons needs to be more patient at the plate and improve his on base percentage. Simmons’ defense is so good that it’s hard to complain about what he does at the plate, but with the Braves needing help offensively, Simmons will be counted on to improve.
This is a crucial player at a crucial position. Two years ago, Chris Johnson finished second in the National League with a .321 batting average. The Braves then extended his contract last spring through the 2017 season. But Johnson then saw his batting average dip 58 points to .263 and his on base percentage fell 66 points from the .358 mark he put up in 2013. The Braves don’t expect Johnson to hit for power; that’s just not who he is as a hitter. But they need him to get the batting average back up to a respectable level. Johnson will be counted on to give Freeman some support in the lineup. He still strikes out too much, but a higher batting average will make that less of an issue. Kelly Johnson could see time at third base, as well.
Knowing there would be significant changes, the Braves front office identified Jonny Gomes early in the free agent period as a potential addition. Gomes has already made a difference in the clubhouse, telling his new teammates he expects to win regardless of what the front office is trying to do for the future. But on the field the Braves need Gomes to be productive. He is a career .244 hitter, and the splits show the right-handed hitter is much better against left-handed pitchers (.277) than against right-handers (.222). So this could evolve into a platoon, as well. Kelly Johnson could play in left, too, but he’s had trouble as a left-handed hitter against right-handers the last few years. If Melvin Upton returns, Eric Young, Jr. might play in left at some point. Several players could play in left this season.
B.J. Upton is now called Melvin Upton, but it will be a while before we see if the name change helps him be a better player. Upton hit .198 in his first two seasons with the Braves, who desperately tried to trade him this winter but to no avail. Upton has three years and $46.35 million left on his contract, so the Braves need him to rebound once he returns from a foot injury in May. The hope is Upton’s work with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer pays off, and at the least Upton can get back to the player he was with Tampa Bay. For now, Eric Young, Jr., who hit .321 in spring training, will play center and lead off. He brings the element of speed to the lineup, which is needed with Atlanta less-reliant on home runs.
Some wondered why the Braves brought in 31-year-old veteran Nick Markakis when they are retooling the organization. But this is the veteran the Braves need in their everyday line, much like when they added Terry Pendleton to a young nucleus in 1991. Markakis is recovering from neck surgery, so it might take him a while to get going. The Braves expect a great defensive player, much like they had with Jason Heyward. Markakis won the American League Gold Glove award last season for right field. Offensively, Markakis is much more consistent than Heyward. He has hit left-handed pitchers almost as well (.288 career average) as he’s hit right-handed pitchers (.291). Markakis is a consistent player who rarely has down months, but don’t expect a lot of power. Markakis has averaged 13.6 home runs per season for the last six years.
Kelly Johnson could see a lot of playing time in left field and third base, but the Braves would love for him to also be a dangerous bat off the bench. He was solid in spring training, with a .309 batting average. Johnson can play five positions in the field. Alberto Callaspo is a versatile player that can play six positions. He’s a switch-hitter, and the Braves will use him off the bench quite a bit. Phil Gosselin did well at second base last season in Atlanta. He can also play shortstop, third base and in the outfield. The backup catcher is A.J. Pierzynski, who at 38 can still hit. He’ll be a veteran in the clubhouse and help the rookie starter Bethancourt. Expect the Braves to add another bat for the bench, perhaps even before first pitch on Monday.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Braves position-by-position preview
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