Five Braves to watch at spring training

Spring is officially in the air.

After a busy offseason, Braves pitchers and catchers staged their first workout Tuesday at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, with position players set to report Thursday and the full team will hit the field for the first time Friday.

“I’m really excited about the team,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I’m more excited than I’ve ever been about a team going to spring training.”

The team’s oft-discussed additions, the Upton Bros. – B.J. and Justin – figure to be the main attraction, but we know what to expect from a pair of outfielders with 30/30 potential.

Here are five players with something to prove this spring, including the key faces at the team’s biggest position battles.

Andrelton Simmons, shortstop

It’s no secret the Braves are targeting Simmons to be the replacement for Michael Bourn at the top of the order. While he did flash potential last season with a .289/.335/.416 slash line (average/on-base percentage/slugging) and provided an above average strikeout rate (11.5 percent), questions remain.

It was a relatively small sample size last season as Simmons played in 46 games and he drew just 12 walks (a 6.6 rate), a below-average rate overall and one that would need to improve for a table-setter, and he has come nowhere close during his professional career to providing the kind of steals as Bourn (42 in ’12).

Simmons does have experience in this role, winning a batting title at Single-A Lynchburg, where he hit .311 in 570 plate appearances. It was also in that year in which he stole 26 bases, a career-high.

“I think he’s going to be in a good spot with all the veteran hitters behind him,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think he needs to do anything to compensate. He needs to get at-bats and see what he can do. I’m sure he’ll grow into that spot. Maybe take a strike early in the game or 2-0 count or 3-0 count, but other than that, I don’t think he needs to change a lot.”

Freddie Freeman, first base

He has job security at first and could be among the Braves’ top run-producers with Gonzalez discussing Freeman at the No. 4 spot in the order (though he could be as low as sixth or seventh when Brian McCann returns) but there is one lingering concern with Freeman after last season.

He says his eye – along with his knee and finger – is healthy but it remains something to watch as he opted not to have LASIK surgery in the offseason and will instead stick with contacts.

Freeman was batting .302 on May 5 when he had dirt scratch his eye and went into a slump that lasted for much of the season, finishing with a .259 average. It added to an alarming strikeout rate of 20.8 percent as he struck out 100 of his 129 times in 2012 after he suffered the injury.

If he can show this spring that his eye problems are over, it’s reasonable to expect Freeman could make a run at 100 RBI after posting 94 last season.

Julio Teheran, pitcher

While the Braves do have other options for a fifth starter — general manager Frank Wren has said he likes left-hander Daniel Rodriguez, who was signed form the Mexican League last summer and there’s prospects Sean Gilmartin and J.R. Graham – it’s a job that looks like it’s Teheran’s for the taking.

But will he seize it this time around?

A year ago he struggled in five Grapefruit League starts, posting a 9.37 ERA in five appearances, allowing nine home runs in 16 1/3 innings, including six in two innings against the Tigers. That gave way to a regular season in which he continued those troubles with a 7-9 record and 5.08 ERA in Triple-A Gwinnett.

Teheran, 22, looks to have regained his confidence in winter league play in the Dominican Republic, going 2-1 with a 3.23 ERA in seven starts for Licey and during his last four starts had a strikeout to walk ratio of 5.25.

Juan Francisco, third base

As you may have heard, third base figures to be the most crucial position battle of the spring as the Braves look to replace future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.

Gonzalez has spoken to both Chris Johnson and Francisco about the possibility of this being a platoon situation unless either player can claim the job at camp. But if we are handicapping this, Johnson would seem to be the favorite to start on Opening Day.

Acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Justin Upton deal, Johnson has more starts (315) at third than Francisco’s 71. He’s also a more steady presence at the plate with a .281 average last season, while Francisco hit .234 and has a .190 career average against lefties.

Francisco has more upside with four minor league seasons of at least 22 home runs and is a better defender, posting better UZRs (3.0 to minus-9.4) and DRS (1 to minus-11) than Johnson in 2012. But can he make the adjustments at the plate to, at the minimum keep this a time-share if not take the job for himself?

His weight at 6-foot-2, 243 pounds has been a concern but judging by Gonzalez’s comments and this photo snapped when the two were in the Dominican, Francisco is taking the steps to claim the job.

Evan Gattis catcher/outfielder

Power isn’t a problem.

Gattis picked up the Kenny Powers-esque nickname of “El Oso Blanco” (The White Bear) this winter in Venezuela, where he hit 16 home runs with 44 RBI, a .303 average and .595 slugging percentage while playing for Aguilas del Zulia.

But at 26 — an age when most players have cut their teeth in the majors — and having never played above Double A, what are the Braves going to do with him?

Initially a catcher, the Braves had him move to left field last season to help him reach the majors. That spot has been filled by Justin Upton and there is no shortage of bench players who can play the outfield in Jose Constanza, Reed Johnson and Jordan Schafer.

There’s also a log-jam at Gattis’ original position of catcher. While McCann may not be back until mid-April, Atlanta has Gerald Laird along with prospect Christian Bethancourt.

Gattis could be an option at third base or a potent bat off the bench. But is it going to be enough for him to make the 25-man roster?