March 2013

Braves catchers face challenge in 2013

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Catcher Brian McCann has been the man calling the signs for the Atlanta Braves over the past eight seasons, but 2013 could mark the end of his tenure with the team.

Since 2005, the Atlanta Braves have enjoyed a brand of stability behind the plate that very few teams in baseball can boast. However, a shoulder injury will sideline McCann in the early going this season. That leaves the Braves in a somewhat unfamiliar place.

While Atlanta did exercise its team option on McCann over the winter, and remain in high hopes that he will return to action before April is out, there is some degree of uncertainty as to what to expect from the catcher’s position this season.

Capable backup David Ross departed via free agency, leaving Atlanta to search for viable reinforcements. Veteran Gerald Laird was signed to fit that bill, but that is not all the Braves have in camp this year. Top prospects and non-roster invitees will all be trying to make their mark during spring training as well.

With free agency looming and McCann at a pivotal juncture in his career, the future could be here sooner than later for Atlanta.

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Brian McCann has an irrepressible smile and passion for the game. That has been evident since he burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 21-year-old rookie in 2005.

Since then, McCann has earned the respect of the Atlanta pitching staff and his teammates. He has also built a reputation as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.

The average McCann season from 2006-2011 was .287/.359/.491 with 22 homers and 86 RBI in 137 games. Those numbers earned him six All-Star appearances and five Silver Slugger awards.

Then 2012 happened. It was a career-worst campaign that ended in a.230/.300/.399 slash line. He did connect for 20 home runs and drive home 67 runs in 121 games, but this was not the McCann of years past. There were not many if any encouraging ways to look at his splits.

The early struggles may well have been a slump that was bound to happen sooner or later, but eventually it became clear that McCann’s injured right shoulder was contributing to his substandard performance. It was affecting the slugger’s swing more so than his throwing.

Rather than end his season prematurely, McCann opted to have a pair of injections in hopes of alleviating the pain and playing through the injury.

Those cortisone shots may have kept McCann on the field, but his swing was clearly affected. Even this spring, McCann told Gabe Lacques of USA TODAY that playing through the pain is a decision he stands by.

“In the moment last year, I wanted to keep going, I wanted to be a part of that team that was having such a good season. I grinded through it. I wasn’t playing at my best. I knew I wasn’t at my best. It’s a decision I made.”

McCann batted just .202 with four extra-base hits and 11 RBI in the final two months of the season, and found himself benched in favor of Ross in Atlanta’s Wild Card game against St. Louis.

Despite coming off the worst season in his eight-year career, the Braves decided to exercise his $12 million team option for 2013. They have seen McCann at his best and believe he can get back there once fully healed.

The October surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder has McCann targeting a mid-April return to game action if his rehab goes according to schedule. The procedure has kept McCann out of Grapefruit League action thus far.

It has not been uncommon for McCann to battle through aches and pains over the years. He has proven to be quite durable, catching an average of 125 games in his six full seasons prior to 2012.

The word leadership has been a hot topic around spring training for Atlanta. It is a period of transition, but not the kind that involves rebuilding. The Braves have simply reloaded.

There is no one player in the Atlanta locker room who is more qualified to lead than McCann. He saw the Braves’ success as a rookie, then the struggles that followed. He watched his club be both a buyer and a seller at different stages before returning to the playoffs in 2010.

McCann is now 29 years old. He is truly a homegrown talent, an Georgia native who grew up in suburban Atlanta and was developed in the Braves’ farm system. McCann studied under the legendary Bobby Cox and played alongside Atlanta sports icon Chipper Jones for eight campaigns.

He has always seemed wise beyond his years, and has learned from the best the Braves had to offer.

As ESPN‘s Jerry Crasnick wrote just prior to spring training, Jones eyed McCann as his successor to lead the team after his retirement. That is, if McCann remains in Atlanta after 2013.

“I’d like to say it’s Brian McCann. He’s a great kid. He’s a great player, and he’s the kind of guy you want to build a ball club around. It would be sad to see him go somewhere else. Unfortunately, the business and economics of baseball may not allow it to happen.”

The winter was filled with a flurry of activity. Jones retired. B.J. Upton signed as a free agent, and Justin Upton was later acquired in a trade that sent Martin Prado to Arizona.

Once, left-hand heavy, Atlanta lineup is now much more balanced. With McCann back and in top form, the Braves batting order would get that much better.

Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images

Gerald Laird was exactly what Atlanta was looking for after losing trusty backup catcher David Ross to the Boston Red Sox over the winter.

Laird, 33,came in handy for the American League champion Detroit Tigers last year, capably filling in for the injured Alex Avila midway through the season. He will be asked to fill the void of another All-Star catcher to open 2013, as Brian McCann makes his way back from off-season shoulder surgery.

Perhaps Laird can also serve as a good luck charm of sorts for the Braves. After all, he has played in the last two World Series. First for the champion Cardinals in 2011, and then for the Tigers last season. Atlanta would have no problem if that trend continued.

Laird enjoyed a solid season for the Tigers, batting .282 in 63 games, his highest mark since 2008. Much to the Braves liking, Laird turned in a .293/.350/.390 line in his 51 starts in place of Avila last year.

While he may not provide as much power as Ross, he certainly fits the mold of veteran right-handed hitting option to spell McCann. Laird is also capable of handing the pitching staff for longer stretches of time if injury should strike.

This will actually make the third consecutive year that Laird has served as the backup to an All-Star catcher. He split from Detroit for a year in 2011 to play behind Yadier Molina in St. Louis.

Laird told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that is perfectly comfortable filling the reserve role.

“I know I’m a backup, but I think the asset I bring is that I can play every day, too, like last year when Alex [Avila] went down. I can play as a starter for a while and be productive. I know my role now, and that’s just to play when the guys need a day off. I just want to make sure I’m prepared when the guys get a day off to give the team a chance to win. I take pride in that.”

Atlanta will depend on Laird to be the starting catcher as the season opens, while using Grapefruit League games to determine who his backup will be.

Photo Credit: J. Meric/Getty Images

Photo Credit: J. Meric/Getty Images

Evan Gattis almost passed on baseball altogether. The Braves are certainly glad he reconsidered.

Last spring, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed Gattis’ odyssey.

Gattis, 26, may have gotten a late start but he has certainly done his best to make up for lost time. Since being taken by Atlanta in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft out of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, all he has done is post gaudy offensive totals.

Listed at six-foot-four, 230 pounds, Gattis is not short on power, yet has also shown an ability to hit for average thus far in his career as well. Gattis played primarily split much of 2012 season between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi, and put together a combined .305/.389/.607 slash line.

After a white-hot start at Lynchburg, Gattis quickly jumped to Mississippi, where he suffered a wrist injury that derailed his season for nearly two months. While his average came back down to earth in Double-A, Gattis belted 18 home runs among his 42 extra-base hits in just 272 at-bats overall in 2012.

Gattis has played exactly 162 games combined in his last two minor league seasons. The carnage inflicted on minor league hurlers has been immense. He batted .315/.387/.604 with 44 doubles, 40 home runs and 138 RBI in 691 plate appearances over that time.

As if his slugging exploits in the minor leagues were not enough of a resume builder to warrant a look in spring training. Gattis was hard at work with Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .303 with 16 homers 53 games.

Coming to camp this year, Gattis has a chance to earn a spot as the back-up catcher while McCann rehabs his shoulder. However, he has only 182 at-bats above the Class-A level.

Gattis has done well through the first two weeks of spring training, going 8-for-19 with a home run and three RBI. There is some question about his defense, both behind the plate and in left field, but he would truly be a reserve player were he to break camp with Atlanta.

O’Brien opined in the AJC that placing Gattis on the big-league roster without regular playing time is an interesting proposition. It was was one he discussed with Braves general manager Frank Wren.

If he had big-league experience, Gattis’ catcher-outfielder versatility and big bat would make him a natural for a bench job.

“No question,” Wren said. “That’s a tough role for a young hitter. But he’s making himself a better fit for a team because he can do a couple of things. He’s not locked into one position.”

The Braves must factor in what best serves the club, as well as what is best for the burgeoning slugger. More time in the minors would allow Gattis to continue his development as catcher, a spot where he could fit into the long term plans. Left field, meanwhile, is occupied.

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Christian Bethancourt has drawn rave reviews for his defense since signing with the Braves in 2008 as a non-drafted free agent. His bat, however, has yet to mature in his four seasons stateside.

Bethancourt, 21, represented Atlanta in the Futures Game during All-Star festivities last season. Injuries and inconsistency led to just a .243/.275/.291 in 71 games with Double-A Mississippi in 2012, so one can gain a pretty decent understanding of Bethancourt’s defensive prowess to have made the mid-season trip to Kansas City.

He has been ranked the best defensive catcher in the Braves organization three of the last four seasons by Baseball America, who also rated him the top receiver in the Southern League in 2012.

Atlanta added Bethancourt to the 40-man roster in November. His ability to throw out runners is well documented, 39 percent caught stealing with Mississippi last year and 34 percent since debuting with the GCL Braves in 2009.

Though his career .265 average is not bad, Bethancourt’s power numbers have simply not materialized. He has just 14 homers in 1,336 minor league at-bats. Walk totals are not exactly pumping his on-base percentage up either.

He will have a little extra work to do to round into form this spring, after a broken hand ended his 2012 season in August. Bethancourt was able to play 23 games of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but batted just .224 with three doubles in 58 at-bats for Licey.

With nearly six months to heal and build strength since the injury, Bethancourt will be looking to turn the corner offensively this season. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that he is already seeing some improvement with the bat this spring.

“That swing has gotten better. When you listen to the reports and hear the guys talk, they always talk about his swing and say he’s not ready yet. But just watching batting practice and the four at-bats I saw in winter ball, I think there is improvement there.”

As he continues to mature, Bethancourt is using his time in big league camp to his advantage. It is an all-around learning experience, as he told David O’Brien of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

“This is my third year (in major league spring training), and I learned a lot my first two. I learned from B-Mac and David Ross. I want to keep doing the same, just learning…. I go wherever they send me, just go play baseball. It doesn’t matter if it’s low-A, high-A, Double-A Triple-A, I’m just going to play.”

There is no question that his hitting requires some work before he has any chance to supplant McCann as Atlanta’s everyday catcher. For now, he will have a chance to impress Fredi Gonzalez and company in spring training before likely heading to Gwinnett to open the season.

Braves infield must step up this season

Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Following the retirement of third baseman and team icon Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves knew that things were going to be different on the infield in 2013.

Not only was Jones out of the picture, but Martin Prado was shipped to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a seven-player trade in January. It was a move left the Braves without their two most consistent hitters from a year ago, as well as devoid of an heir-apparent for Jones.

Unlike the new-look Atlanta outfield, there is a mix of young and old around the horn. Some of these men exemplify youth and potential, while one man in particular is trying to get his career back on track.

General manager Frank Wren has done well to balance the once lefty-heavy lineup, but there are definitely questions that will have to be answered if the Braves are to make a postseason run in 2013.

A productive infield could help Atlanta address some of those concerns.

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

FIRST BASE: Freddie Freeman

Considering what Freddie Freeman had to deal with last season, his final numbers were a testament to his competitive nature.

After finishing second to teammate Craig Kimbrel in the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year balloting, it appeared Freeman was on track to have an even better sophomore season. He was batting .302 on May 5, but then a pair of maladies sapped some of the slugger’s productivity.

Vision problems began plaguing Freeman in early May. That led to repeated changes of contact lenses during games and an eventual switch to prescription glasses in hopes of solving the problem. It was also a major reason why he hit just .249 over his final 121 games.

Freeman was also dealing with a left index finger injury suffered on June 6 against the Marlins, when he was struck in the left hand by a throw from Jose Reyes while sliding to break up a double play. The X-Rays were negative, but Freeman dealt with discomfort for the remainder of the season.

His final numbers were certainly indicative of his importance to the Atlanta line-up. He set career-highs in multiple categories, including a team-leading 94 RBI. Only Washington’s Adam LaRoche had more RBI among NL first basemen.

Freeman, 23, worked hard alongside teammate Dan Uggla to shed some excess weight over the winter. He told David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that both men are hoping that a better diet and some good old fashioned hard work pays dividends this season:

“It’s something I wanted to do, feel leaner. It was a lot of fun just changing things up. We worked out together, did everything together this offseason. It was a lot of work, and hopefully it pays off.”

There is not much keeping Freeman from being among the top first basemen in the game, but he will need to step up against left-handed pitchers. He turned in just a .237/.315/.399 line against southpaws last season.

Like many hitters in the Atlanta lineup, Freeman is also prone to the strikeout. He has fanned an average of once every 4.1 at-bats in his career. That is a rate he would no doubt like to bring down as he evolves as a hitter.

If he can improve those numbers, then he should take the next step in his progression toward becoming a premier first baseman.

Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

SECOND BASE: Dan Uggla

Dan Uggla was one of the better offensive second basemen in baseball with the Marlins, but has been nothing short of streaky since joining the Braves.

While his career-high 36 home runs and a 33-game hitting streak took the edge off his 2011 performance somewhat, there was no such luck last year.

Uggla, who turns 33 this month, has failed to meet the overall expectations after signing a five-year, $62 million extension immediately after being traded to Atlanta in November of 2010.

Looking over last season’s numbers, it bears pointing out that he led the NL in walks and was a notably better hitter with runners on base. It is also worth noting that the Braves did not acquire Uggla to draw walks while turning in a .384 slugging percentage.

Though Uggla’s 78 RBI were the fewest in any season of his seven-year career, that total still ranked third-best among all major league second basemen. Perhaps that is not the most subjective way to look at the statistics, but it does show that Uggla’s run production was at or above the level of his positional counterparts.

Defensively, Uggla has been adequate at best throughout his career. Combine that fact with his decline at the plate, and it leaves the Braves with an expensive liability on both sides of the ball.

Uggla has always racked up large strikeout totals, which included a team-leading 168 in 2012. In his seven-year career, he has averaged 155 K’s per season.

His offseason regimen helped Uggla come to camp slimmer this year, but the Braves are hoping to see his bat feasting on opposing pitchers once again.

Uggla discussed the depth of his struggles with Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“After a year like that, something I’m not used to having – if I didn’t see a problem there, there’d be something wrong with me. That would be a lack of caring, and that’s not me. I take a lot of pride in what I do, and that was a hit to my pride. And I will do anything and everything to get it right.”

Uggla has three years left on his contract with Atlanta, and will have to improve drastically from the man who batted .185 in his final 99 games last season.

With Jones gone, Uggla’s veteran status could require that he take on more of a leadership role in the clubhouse as well.

Photo Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

SHORTSTOP: Andrelton Simmons

Andrelton Simmons had played just 44 games above the Single-A level before the Braves turned to him to help solve their shortstop dilemma last season.

As it turned out, Atlanta may have found its shortstop of the future.

Simmons, 23, made quite an impression on the Braves last spring, but the club decided to send him down for more seasoning.

However, by the time June rolled around, Simmons found himself in the big leagues to stay. He batted .289 with three homers and 19 RBI while committing just three errors in 49 games.

A broken right hand slowed his roll in mid-July, keeping him out of the lineup until September. He was back in time for the final three weeks and the ill-fated Wild Card game against St. Louis.

The strong-armed native of Curacao provides excellent defense and possesses good plate discipline as well. Simmons has shown the ability to get on base regularly, turning in a .352 OBP in parts of three minor league seasons. He was hovering around that mark with Atlanta before going 1-for-10 to finish the regular season.

With Michael Bourn gone, the Braves are looking for a leadoff hitter. Early indications this spring are that manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to look to Simmons to fill that void.

According to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, Simmons is chomping at the bit for the opportunity to prove himself as a top of the order hitter.

“I always feel like I’m the guy people doubt. So it’s a good feeling to stand out, do what people don’t expect. It’s satisfying for myself. I always challenge myself to jump out of nowhere.”

Leading off is something Simmons is certainly equipped to do. Including his minor league work, he strikes out just once every 11.2 at-bats on average. His OBP has also improved in each one of his three professional seasons.

With a lack of other candidates to assume the table setting duties, it appears Simmons is poised to play a big part in Atlanta’s offensive success.

Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

THIRD BASE: Chris Johnson

It will not be easy to follow the Chipper Jones show, but there would be at least a little bit of irony if Atlanta’s next third baseman also has the initials C.J.

In fact, it might just be fitting for Chris Johnson to follow Jones at the hot corner.

He told Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he welcomes the opportunity:

“I’m excited to play third. I know the history over there. Got some shoes to fill, going to do the best I can and try to just make sure that I play Chris Johnson’s game and obviously not Chipper Jones’ game.”

A Florida resident like Jones, Johnson played his collegiate ball at Stetson University under the guidance of Pete Dunn, who is Jones’ godfather. As Rogers pointed out, that allowed Johnson, a Braves fan growing up, the opportunity to get to know the Jones family.

Johnson, 28, split his 2012 season between the Houston Astros and the Diamondbacks, and set career-bests in virtually every offensive category. Among those were 48 extra-base hits and 76 RBI while playing in 136 games.

As the less-heralded part of the trade with Arizona, which landed Justin Upton in Atlanta, Johnson brings a solid bat to a lineup that is sizing up to be one of the most powerful in the majors.

His run in Arizona was short, but that had more to do with the fact that the Braves were in need of a viable third base option after including Martin Prado in the deal for Upton.

There will not be many comparisons between Jones and Johnson besides the position they play and the home state the share. Johnson is more impatient at the plate, less likely to take walks and more prone to strikeouts than Jones.

Johnson ranks toward the bottom in most metrics defensively, as Mark Bowman of MLB.com pointed out:

The concerns about [Johnson] center around his defense. He had a -10.7 UZR/150 defensive rating last year. The only player with a lower mark was Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera with a -11.2.

However, he can drive in his fair share of runs and could also shift over to first base and give Freeman the occasional day off against a tough lefty pitcher.

The starting job was not handed to Johnson upon his arrival. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will give extended looks to both Johnson and Juan Francisco, who flashed some power in limited at-bats with Atlanta last year.

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

THIRD BASE: Juan Francisco

Acquired from Cincinnati in a trade just before the 2012 season got underway, stocky third baseman Juan Francisco displayed the power that moved him up the ladder in the Reds system.

Francisco, 25, belted nine home runs for the Braves in just 192 at-bats, and then followed it up with a strong showing in winter ball.

His .307/.368/.575 slash line was complemented by nine homers and 29 RBI in 32 games for Licey in the Dominican Republic.

Though he has a strong arm, Francisco’s range is far from tops in the league. His weight has also been a concern when it comes to his ability to serve as starting third baseman in the majors. Francisco is listed as 245 pounds and did not do much slimming down over the offseason.

Cracking the starting lineup typically leads to better results from Francisco, who batted just .122 with one home run while striking out 20 times in 41 at-bats as a pinch-hitter last season.

All nine of his homers in 2012 came off righty pitchers, further suggesting a platoon could be a distinct possibility.

The Braves will use the Grapefruit League season to determine who is the best everyday option at third base. If neither man impresses enough to gain the regular job, then a platoon to start the season would become a reality.

In closing…

All in all, the Braves infield offers a great deal of offensive firepower if all of these men play up to their potential. The continued emergence of Freeman, a bounce back campaign from Uggla, a strong first full season from Simmons and some kind of stability from third base are things that Atlanta is looking for.

The Nationals certainly are not going to make it easy to capture the NL East title.