March 2013

Do Braves boast NL’s Best Outfield?

The Atlanta Braves have assembled a young and dynamic outfield in hopes of positioning the club to contend in the National League East for years to come.

Not many teams get the opportunity to bring together a trio of former first-round draft picks, all moving toward the prime years of their respective careers, all under team control for at least three seasons and all patrolling the same outfield together.

The Braves became more athletic, while adding young players with power, speed and defense. General manager Frank Wren worked diligently to bring in the best talent available. His revamped outfield gives Atlanta a new identity just one season after franchise icon Chipper Jones retired.

While they have yet to play a single regular-season game together, brothers B.J. and Justin Upton, along with Jason Heyward, all figure prominently into the future of the team. The 2013 season could be the start of great things in Atlanta.

Jason Heyward announced himself loud and clear to the baseball world with a three-run home run in his first major league plate appearance.

The fast start was tantalizing, but the dedication and hard work that Heyward exhibited to get his career back on track in 2012 has the Braves even more excited about what his future holds.

At the tender age of 20, Heyward finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, while earning All-Star honors in 2010. Unfortunately, a strained ligament in his left thumb slowed him down around mid-season and caused him to miss out on the All-Star experience.

Heyward launched his career with a strong rookie slash line of .277/.393/.456 with 18 home runs, 72 RBI and 83 runs scored in 142 games.

However, his second season followed a script that has been handed to many a rising star. It is known as the “sophomore slump.”

It was certainly not pretty, nor was it indicative of his talent level. Heyward ended 2011 with a batting line of .227/.319/.389 while connecting for just 14 home runs in 128 games.

Those numbers led to some obvious questions.

Can Heyward bounce back? Which Heyward will the Braves see in 2012?

With those questions in the air, Heyward discussed his struggles with Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last spring.

“All of us got here by doing what we know how to do, whether it’s mentally, physically, what have you,” Heyward said. “You want to stay as close to that as possible. Keep having fun, keep trying to get better. I’m 22 years old, and I didn’t get here this quickly by not making adjustments, by not learning on the fly, by not handling pressure situations, by not knowing how fans or media might take things. I’ve done a lot of things the right way, and that’s why I am who I am and part of the reason why I’ve been successful.”

He then responded on the field by putting together a fine junior campaign.

Working to correct bad habits caused by his thumb injury, Heyward set a number of career-highs in 2012. Those included 27 home runs, 82 RBI and 93 runs scored. The expectations were largely met, though the best is likely yet to come.

Scouts and executives have long raved over the well-rounded game that Heyward possesses. Now he roams the outfield with two other men who share similar talents. The glaring difference between the three players is that Heyward is built like a tank, standing 6’5″ and weighing 240 pounds.

Though expert projections may help fans determine the numbers that Heyward is capable of on a yearly basis, he is not going into the season trying to meet some requisite statistics.

In this week’s ESPN The Magazine, Heyward shared his outlook on turning ability into results with Eddie Matz.

“I’ve got a skill set that is rare,” Heyward says. “If I can get enough at-bats, the numbers will come.”

He is not the prototypical second-place hitter, but that appears to be where Heyward will be slotted in the batting order to open the season. He has put up solid numbers while batting second during his career, and Heyward should benefit from the power-packed heart of the order that follows him.

With a budding star already in right field, general manager Frank Wren found himself in search of the correct personnel to address the team’s remaining outfield needs this past winter.

Center fielder Michael Bourn was testing the waters of free agency, while left fielder and all-around everything-man Martin Prado was slated to take Chipper Jones’ place at third base.

At least initially, this left two open slots in the Atlanta outfield.

Given his choice of center fielders on the free agent market, Wren decided to go a different route from the speedy leadoff man. He opted to sign B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract.

While both men have been prone to strikeouts in their careers, Upton, 28, brought a more complete package to the Braves than Bourn, whose primary skills are speed and defense. Another consideration was age. Upton is almost two years younger than Bourn, and both were seeking long-term contracts.

Upton’s career numbers with Tampa Bay have seen a batting average that has trended down from .300 in 2007, fluctuating in the .240s over the past three seasons. At the same time, his home run totals have been rising steadily since 2008.

For comparison’s sake, Upton (.336) and Bourn (.339) have nearly the same career on-base percentages. Bourn strikes out roughly once every 4.5 at-bats, while Upton fans once every 3.5 at-bats. The trade-off for Wren came in the run production department, where Upton has a much higher ceiling than Bourn and can hit in different places in the lineup as well.

Wren believed that he got the most well-rounded center fielder on the market. He discussed the decision in the press conference to introduce Upton to the media last November.

“B.J. is an outstanding defensive player who also adds the power dimension to our offense from the center field position. We have been working to increase the speed and athleticism across our team, and B.J. gives us another young, dynamic player.”

The Grapefruit League schedule has been to Upton’s liking thus far. Through March 24, he was batting .369 and had collected 24 hits in his 21 games played.

Upton talked about his time with the Braves this spring with MLB.com‘s Richard Justice.

“Just putting this uniform [on] was a thrill,” Upton said. “This is a great group of guys, and they’ve made it easy to get acclimated. They keep it loose in here. I feel like I’ve been over here forever and am having a lot of fun.”

The close of the 2012 season was a sampling of the power that Upton can provide. He belted 12 home runs in his final 30 games, and finished just two homers away from joining the 30-30 club.

Though he may be somewhat of an elder statesman in Atlanta’s outfield, Upton is just entering into what should be the prime portion of his career. Wren and the Braves are hoping that the most expensive free-agent signing in franchise history helps the team cash in during the postseason.

The final piece of this proverbial puzzle was Justin Upton. Atlanta swung a seven-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks to unite the Upton brothers in the same outfield.

He will move from his customary right-field spot over to left, giving the Braves a trio that possesses the kind of range that is the envy of every team in baseball. Atlanta will also reap the benefits of its power and speed in the lineup.

Last season was a down year by Upton’s standards. He was coming off a fourth place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2011, batting .289/.368/.529 with 31 homers, 88 RBI, 105 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.

Unfortunately, he was unable to duplicate those numbers in 2012. Upton struggled while dealing with a lingering thumb injury, which may have been the reason why he collected 30 fewer extra-base hits in 2012 despite playing just nine fewer games than the previous season.

While he did score a career-high 107 runs last year, Upton had just 17 home runs and 67 RBI. His .280 average and .355 on-base percentage were right around his career norms, however.

Atlanta acquired a 25-year-old impact player who is under team control for three seasons. This was a move made specifically to address the absence of longtime No. 3 hitter Chipper Jones.

Wren pulled off the deal with the Diamondback to bring Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and a trio of prospects, knowing his team was starting a new chapter.

The Atlanta GM discussed his thought process with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Mark Bradley.

“You only had to look down in the stands and see the number of No. 10 jerseys to know whose team it was. We knew we were going to be transitioning, and we were looking for that player throughout the winter. And quite frankly, in free agency we didn’t find that young superstar player that you could wrap your arms around and say, ‘This is a key building block for the future.’ That’s what made this trade so intriguing for us, and that’s why we stayed on it for almost two months.”

Manager Fredi Gonzalez told Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated that he believes his club has found the player it needed to fill the void.

“He was the guy we were missing for Chipper Jones,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to miss that presence of the old No. 10 in the lineup, but now we have him.”

The January trade also provided Justin with the unique opportunity to play alongside his older brother.

“This is a special day for my family,” he said during his introductory press conference. “It’s a great opportunity. I’m excited to put this uniform on and play for this organization.”

Gonzalez realizes what his two new outfield additions are capable of, and shared his impressions of managing against the Upton brothers with Lemire.

“I remember those guys being involved in a lot of rallies,” Gonzalez said. “I saw B.J. either hit a double or hit a home run or make a great catch from the outfield to save a rally. With Justin Upton, you felt uncomfortable when he came up to the plate in certain situations.”

It’s worth noting that B.J. and Justin will become the fifth set of brothers to play for the Braves in the same season. Hank and Tommie Aaron did so for parts of seven seasons from 1962-1971. Knuckleballers Phil and Joe Niekro joined forces in 1973-1974. Rick and Mickey Mahler pitched together in 1979, while J.D. and Tim Drew teamed up back in 2004.

Reed Johnson was one half of Atlanta’s July trade deadline deal with the Chicago Cubs last season. His value as a backup outfielder who can play all three spots gives the team some flexibility when constructing the remainder of the reserves.

A 10-year big league veteran, Johnson owns a .311 lifetime batting average against left-handed pitchers. That helped him supplant Matt Diaz as the reserve outfielder who routinely wears out lefties when called upon.

Johnson, 36, batted .290 between the Cubs and Braves a season ago, while putting up excellent numbers as a pinch-hitter. He led the majors with 18 pinch-hits in 2012 and batted .419 off the bench.

Jose Constanza, 29, dealt with a work visa issue that kept him from reporting to camp until March 15. He has gotten into nine games, but has just 12 spring at-bats thus far. He did his offseason in the Dominican Republic for a stint in winter ball.

The lefty-swinging Constanza adds the valuable speed asset off the bench, and would likely serve as Atlanta’s primary pinch-runner. He spent six years in the Cleveland Indians’ system before seeing big league time with Atlanta the last two seasons.

Constanza has batted .313 with 37 steals in 174 games at Triple-A Gwinnett over the past two years, but figures to have earned the opportunity to contribute off the bench again this season.

It was not long ago that Jordan Schafer, 26, was ranked the Braves’ No. 1 prospect by Baseball America. Things could have come off the track completely in 2008, when he was suspended for 50 games due to suspected HGH use, but he bounced back in a big way the following year.

Schafer made the big club out of camp in 2009 and homered in his first big league plate appearance, but a wrist injury and other assorted issues have altered his career path. By the time his rookie season was over, he was batting just .204 and found himself in the minors the next year.

Atlanta eventually traded Schafer to the Houston Astros in 2011 as part of the package that landed Bourn. His time there was not without incident, however. Schafer was arrested last winter and charged with felony possession of marijuana in October of that same year.

Despite that, he was given the opportunity to hit at the top of the order and show the Astros what he could do last season. Schafer stole a career-high 27 bases, but hit just .211 in 106 games.

Atlanta claimed Schafer off waivers from Houston on November 1, 2012. It was an interesting move that brings him back to compete for a reserve role with the Braves.

Schafer has seen his ups and downs, and he discussed them with Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I could’ve handled some stuff better in Houston … I think I’ve grown as a person. I think sometimes I needed to be knocked down a little bit to get back and get my focus straight. This game is humbling. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that I was knocked down.”

This will likely be last call for Schafer in Atlanta, though he could see time in Triple-A as well. While he did benefit from extra playing time because of Constanza’s absence in camp this spring, he batted .228 in 24 games through March 24.

His speed and defense remain assets, and Schafer would have to be placed on waivers if he does not make the club. It’s likely that he will see big league time unless or until Constanza is ready.

2013 Spring Training Report for March 18

Braves win 17-10 slugfest over Phillies

What went down: It was a crazy day of baseball from the outset, with plenty of high-scoring innings to go around. Kris Medlen tossed a clean first frame, but both offenses came out swinging after that. The Braves plated six runs in the first inning, highlighted by Justin Upton’s towering two-run homer off Rodrigo Lopez. Atlanta’s offense pounded out 19 hits, including two home runs from Upton, and blasts by Freddie Freeman and Juan Francisco.

These two lineups  put up 27 combined runs, with Atlanta managing to make a winner of Medlen despite the fact he allowed nine runs in five innings of work. The bullpen had an easier time of it, allowing just one run in the final three innings.

Medlen (1-1) had some success with his changeup, but his curveball was hanging and his fastball stayed in the middle of the strike zone. Those factors led to the Phillies plating five runs in the top of the second. Philadelphia got to him again in the fifth inning, scoring four runs, including a two-run home run by Dominic Brown. Medlen was charged with nine runs – all earned – on 14 hits. He did not walk a batter while striking out four, throwing 62 of his 84 pitches for strikes.

What stood out: The power displayed by Justin Upton was definitely the featured attraction. He belted two home runs, and had 6 RBI, scored three more runs and drew a walk. That brings Upton’s average up to .292 this spring. He talked about how something has clicked for him at the plate after working to establish a daily routine in the cages. Older Brother B.J. Upton had a hit and scored a run as well. Freeman’s home run was an embarrassing moment for Phillies left fielder Darin Ruf. He actually got to the ball on the fly, but slapped it over the wall for a two-run shot.

Francisco continues to make his case to be the team’s starting third baseman. Three more hits, including a home run and three RBI on Monday strengthened his claim. Not to be outdone, Chris Johnson checked in to play some first base, had a hit and drove home a run as well. Francisco is hitting .354 with 5 homers and 11 RBI, while Johnson is batting .347 with 3 HR’s and 9 RBI.

News and notes: Closer Craig Kimbrel made his first appearance since returning from the World Baseball Classic on Saturday. He worked a perfect seventh and notched a strikeout… Righty reliever Jordan Walden threw pain-free batting practice on Monday and could appear in Wednesday’s game against the Pirates… Medlen contributed had two hits, including an RBI-single in Monday’s victory.

Up next:  The Braves are off on Tuesday. They welcome the Pirates to town on Wednesday, with Lefty Mike Minor making the start.

2013 Spring Training Report for March 17

Braves down Mets, 2-1 on St. Patrick’s Day

What went down: Each team used a solo home run to get on the board. The Mets struck first, as Jordany Valdespin hit Julio Teheran’s second pitch of the game over the right field wall. Chris Johnson tied the game in the top of the fourth, victimizing Jon Niese for his third homer of the spring.

Teheran (2-1) turned in another impressive outing. The lead-off home run was his only notable mistake of the day (6IP, 3H, 2BB, 7K). He threw 83 pitches, 56 of which were strikes. Teheran lowered his Grapefruit League ERA to a miniscule 1.35.

The bullpen followed with three scoreless innings.  Luis Avilan and Dusty Hughes bridged the gap to the ninth, where Anthony Varvaro closed things out for his second save of the Spring.

Atlanta’s offense was provided by the corner infielders. Johnson homered and Freddie Freeman roped an RBI-single in the sixth to plate the eventual winning run. Oddly enough, the Mets had Jordan Schafer picked off in that fateful sixth inning. He beat the throw to second, was then sacrificed to third by Gerald Laird and brought home on Freeman’s single.

What stood out: Teheran got hit hard by the first three batters, but began working his fastball down in the zone thereafter. His four-seam fastball was routinely in the 93 mph range, while he worked his two-seamer around 88 mph . Teheran mixed in his change-up and slider in as well to stay one step ahead of New York hitters. Laird drew the start behind the plate and praised Teheran’s work ethic this Spring as well as the focus and poise he displayed after giving up three hard hit balls to start the game.

Offensively, the third base battle is still a dead heat. Johnson collected three hits, including his third home run of the spring.  He also made some nice plays in the field, one coming in to field a short hop and another backhand scoop toward the line (both in the bottom of the seventh). Juan Francisco pinch hit for Teheran in the seventh and collected a single in his only at-bat of the game. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has yet to tip his hand on who the starting third baseman will be… Evan Gattis checked into the game to play left field in the bottom of the sixth inning. He was hitless in two at-bats and is now batting .378 for the Spring.

News and notes: The starting outfield trio did not make the trip to Port St. Lucie on Sunday. They got their work in at the Wide World of Sports Complex… Left fielder Jose Constanza got his first start of the spring after being delayed in the Dominican Republic because of work visa issues. He was 0-for-2 but did make a leaping catch against the wall in the first inning… Johnson’s three-hit game has his Spring average up to .333… Francisco is hot on his heels with a .326 mark in Grapefruit League play.

Up next:  The Braves return home on Monday to welcome the Phillies to Champion Stadium. Righty Kris Medlen makes the start for Atlanta. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m.

2013 Spring Training Report for March 16

Braves beat Yankees, 4-0 behind Maholm

What stood out: Why not begin with the starting pitching performance? Lefty Paul Maholm did a great job of mixing his pitches and keeping the Yankees bats off-balance.  He tossed six blank frames, allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out four batters. Given, this was nothing resembling the Yankees usual lineup. Still, Maholm (3-1) was incredibly efficient with his pitches, throwing 49 of 66 for strikes. He also ran his scoreless inning streak to 14 2/3 in the winning effort.

Juan Francisco homered for the second straight day, and there was no doubt about his two-run shot in Atlanta’s three-run, fifth inning rally. It bounced off the video board in right center field to put the exclamation point on the day offensively speaking. He had a pair of hits and received some praise from manager Fredi Gonzalez for some fine glove work at third base.

Justin Upton had two hits, drove in a run and scored another, while B.J. Upton had a rare hitless game and finished 0-for-4. It was a good for Jason Heyward, who had an RBI-single, a run scored and a pair of walks. Evan Gattis started behind the plate, but was also without a hit in three at-bats. He was also the recipient of praise from his manager for the way he called the game with Maholm.

News and notes: Closer Craig Kimbrel reported back to camp following Team USA’s loss to Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic in Miami on Friday. He spoke highly of the experience overall, and just wished the team could avoided elimination. Kimbrel made four appearances in the WBC, allowing two runs (both in the loss to the Dominican Republic) in 3 2/3 innings… Righty J.R. Graham threw two scoreless innings to close out Saturday’s win, but was reassigned to minor league camp following the game. Graham, 23, has tossed nine shut-out innings in five relief appearances for Atlanta, but will begin stretching out as a starter on the minor league side.

Up next:  The Braves will be on the road Sunday in Port St. Lucie to take on the Mets at 1:05 p.m.  Righty Julio Teheran will make the start against Mets lefty Jon Niese.

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.