LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — To ring in FOXSportsSouth.com’s first day of embedded Braves coverage at the Walt Disney World sports complex, here’s an all-encompassing postcard from Day 2 of full-squad workouts:
Four Workout Observations
1. The infield practice portion was an exercise in casual precision. At some point during drill work, the shortstops fielded five consecutive hard-ball grounders from first-base coach Terry Pendleton — on the ever-tricky short hop.
2. The JUGS machine that generates fly balls to the outfielders apparently has a “lost in the clouds” setting. I counted at least three balls that momentarily got lost in the blue-gray skies that hovered above Champion Stadium.
3. Catching prospect Christian Bethancourt crushed the first homer during batting practice, launching a ball over the center field wall (immediately to the right of the “400” sign).
The slick-fielding Bethancourt has made improvements in recent years, cutting down the high strikeout rates from 2010 and 2011 and boosting his rep as a decent threat for double-digit steals. But the 21-year-old catcher still needs to develop more consistency with plate discipline and power numbers while garnering more experience calling games from behind the plate — the same for any young backstop.
These progressions will likely occur at Double-A Mississippi or Triple-A Gwinnett from April to August. Baseball America currently has Bethancourt tabbed as the Braves’ No. 3 prospect.
4. B.J. Upton smashed one batting practice ball to the very top of the big hill beyond the left-field wall. On the very next pitch, he laced a ball off the wall in right field.
Within seconds of entering the main corridor of the Braves’ clubhouse, you notice that B.J. and Justin Upton conveniently share the same space, in the form of adjacent lockers (Down the right-hand side, the lockers for Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Gerald Laird and Andrelton Simmons can also be found).
There are stark physical differences between the Uptons: At 6-foot-3, B.J. has the athletic frame of a center fielder, of course. But he also could pass for a point guard in the NBA or soccer dynamo on some European futbol club. On the other hand, Justin, with his broad shoulders and filled-out frame, actually looks like the older sibling — even though B.J. carries that honor by three years and four days.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how Justin has the physical tools to belt 40 homers and 40 doubles in the same season — if not this year.
Which leads us to this …
With the Diamondbacks in 2009 and ’11, Justin Upton accounted for an average of 29.5 homers, 87 RBI, 95 runs, 20.5 steals and a stellar .294 batting average. Throw in strong marks with on-base percentage (.367) and slugging (.530) for those odd-numbered campaigns, and Upton could be primed for a bounce-back breakout in 2013.
As such, he’ll likely be a Round 3 or 4 pick in 12-team roto drafts next month — down from last year’s Round 1 or 2 price tag, making him an excellent value.
For NFL training camps, the majority of interviews take place outside, just a few feet from the practice field and just seconds after the morning session.
On one hand, the players are exhausted from the workout. On the other, by complying to media obligations outdoors, they won’t be subjected to the act of getting dressed in a sweat-filled room with credentialed, but essentially random people milling around the confined area. Basically, it’s a win-win for all parties.
For baseball though, especially in non-MLB facilities, players sometimes have to talk over — or through — a horde of reporters and cameras to spark conversations with fellow teammates. It can be awkward sometimes.
Not for catcher Brian McCann, though. As the Braves’ elder statesman among hitters (ninth year with the club), he happily ignited across-the-room convos with teammates, playfully teasing shortstop Andrelton Simmons for not smiling and then asking B.J. Upton if he got in a good stretch prior to the team workout.
With a big smile, Upton boomed “GREAT stretch” across the room.
A Simple Plan
The bespectacled Freeman may be trending toward 30 homers, 105 RBI and 100 runs someday; but for now, his personal goals go no further than Opening Day.
“Being healthy on April 1 (opening day vs. the Phillies), that’s the goal for me and everyone else,” said Freeman, who racked up 23 homers and 94 RBI last season despite being hindered by eye and hand ailments.
Former Braves outfielder Ron Gant stood among the media horde in the clubhouse, dressed to a T and holding a microphone while making the rounds with players. It was a weird sight, considering Gant is now one of the most prominent news anchors in Atlanta, hosting Good Day Live on FOX 5 every weekday from 4:30 to 10:30 a.m.
In the coming weeks, I’ll have a full-length feature on Gant’s triumphant career transformation from big-league star (he’s one of 38 members of Major League Baseball’s 30/30 Club) to TV sports analyst — formerly with FOX Sports South — to linchpin of a successful news show. In the meantime, it was cool to see Gant (321 homers, 1,008 RBI in 16 MLB seasons) passionately melding the two worlds of “sports” and “news.”
And one has to admire Gant’s penchant for working early weekday mornings in Atlanta … and long weekend afternoons in Florida.
Big League Shoe
Taking general stock of the lockers, each player seemingly had at least two pairs of clean sandals, which quickly evokes thoughts of the memorable scene in Bull Durham, when Kevin Costner’s character (Crash Davis) excoriates Tim Robbins (Nuke LaLoosh) for not having the proper footwear to play in the major leagues … in the form of clean sandals for the shower, protecting against athlete’s foot or whatever kind of algae invades poorly-protected shower shoes.
Costner’s famous rant: “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, be classy. If you win 20 in The Show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes — and the press will think you’re colorful! Until you win 20 in The Show, however, it means you’re a slob.”
A clunky-wheeled shopping cart holding an array of clean batting gloves, socks and jockstraps strangely rested in the middle of the clubhouse. Size-wise, it was a far cry from the big, mobile laundry carts that housed the players’ worn uniforms, under-shirts, socks, stirrups, etc.
Obviously, it makes sense for the shopping carts to bear a different look than the laundry crates — so players don’t mix “clean” stuff with “dirty” stuff. But one cannot help but wonder, Where did the Braves, or Walt Disney World personnel, get the shopping cart? Did they buy one from the local Publix down the street or custom-order one from a company that mass-produces carts for supermarket chains everywhere?