The slow march toward Opening Day continues. Here are five things to ponder as the Braves check off another week of spring training and move that much closer to April 1.
1. Have we seen enough to believe Andrelton Simmons is ready to bat lead off?
The easy answer is yes after seeing the shortstop thrive in the World Baseball Classic as he hit .333 with a 1.016 OPS and scored 10 runs in eight games for the Netherlands.
That hot streak continued with two home runs and a double Wednesday against the Pirates in his first game in a Braves uniform since Feb. 23 and then he went 1-for-3 on Thursday vs. the Nationals.
But if there’s one glaring issue that we haven’t seen improve in Simmons’ approach it’s his ability to deliver one of those tenets of batting first in the lineup: drawing walks.
While he posted a strong strikeout rate in his rookie season – only two regulars posted a better figure than Simmons’ 11.5 percent in Chipper Jones (11.4) and Martin Prado (11.0) – he was 13th on the team with a 6.6 walk rate. Plus, among players with at least 175 plate appearances, Simmons was second-to-last in the majors, seeing 3.26 pitcher per at-bat.
We didn’t see much improvement in Simmons’ ability to draw walks in the WBC – he had just two in 30 at-bats and in a lineup with Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton behind him, the Braves are going to need Simmons to be able to work a count and get on base.
Still, at this point we have to search for holes in Simmons’ game and the way he’s hitting it’s hard to argue with the fact that he looks game ready with the start of the season just a little over a week away.
2. Tim Hudson will start on Opening Day.
This is nothing new for the elder statesman on the roster, as the 38-year-old will start the opener against the Phillies on April 1. It will be the third time he’s opened things up for the Braves and the first time since 2008 – and this start comes as a bit of a surprise.
When manager Fredi Gonzalez unveiled his spring rotation, it looked as if the timing of things – going on a five-day’s rest schedule – would see Kris Medlen get the ball on Opening Day. After all, he went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 13 starts over the last two months of last season, with Atlanta winning 23 consecutive games he started.
It may not be an indication of how things stack up in the rotation. Hudson has the fourth-most starts in Braves history, trailing only Phil Niekro, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, and this may be a sign of respect for the veteran.
Hudson will be followed by Paul Maholm and Medlen in the three-game series, followed by Mike Minor against the Cubs on April 5 and then Julio Teheran.
3. The third base job still looks like a platoon – and that’s not a bad thing.
On a team with so few holes in its everyday lineup, this was the storyline that everyone was watching and it looks like we’re no closer to a resolution as Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco stay neck-and-neck in this race.
Johnson has a .368 average, three HRs and 11 RBI in 57 at-bats with a .923 OPS, while Francisco counters with a .352 average, five homers, 11 RBI and a 1.042 Ops in 54 at-bats.
Save for some moonshot homers from Francisco, there’s no discernible difference between the two, as they’ve both more than held their own on the defensive end as well.
That being said, look for Johnson to get the nod on Opening Day. The Phillies have announced left-hander Cole Hamels will be their starter and with Francisco sporting a career average of .189 against lefties, the smart money is on Johnson.
4. Is there any denying Evan Gattis a spot on this roster?
There are few comeback stories this spring better than that of Gattis, who was out of the game for four years and is making a very intriguing case as to why he should be on the 25-man roster.
The 26-year-old has made some serious noise with his bat, hitting .357 with two homers and 10 RBI in 42 at-bats. But he’s also, as Gonzalez has noted, shown himself to be an above-average catcher, which could cement his place on the roster as the backup behind the plate to Gerald Laird, as Brian McCann will miss at least the first two weeks of the season.
He could also stick around after McCann returns as a third catcher, fourth outfielder and a potential first baseman. That’s why it would seem so surprising if Gattis didn’t make the roster.
As we’ve discussed, there are few openings on this bench with spots going to one of the third basemen (Francisco or Johnson), outfielder Reed Johnson and utility infielder Ramiro Pena until Paul Janish returns. That leaves two spots and plenty of options like Gattis, Tyler Pastornicky and Jordan Schafer.
The Braves have some tough roster cuts ahead of them, though Gattis seems to have made things easy on Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren, all but seizing one of those spots with spring training reaching its final leg.
5. Sammy Sosa had better watch out.
Sosa holds the record for the longest home run in Turner Field history with a 471-foot blast on Sept. 1, 2001, and Barry Bonds is second (467 feet) and third (462 feet) on that list, but if Justin Upton’s spring exploits are any indication, he may soon find his way to the top of that list.
Upton’s mammoth home run Thursday against the Nationals at Champions Stadium – of which Gonzalez said “that ball was carrying, carrying and carrying” – sailed over the 60-foot tall scoreboard in left-center field.
This comes on the heel of a Feb. 25 HR against the Marlins where he hit one over the top of the left-field berm, which was estimated to have gone at least 450 feet.
For those wondering, the longest homers of Upton’s career during the regular season have been 474 feet (’11), 471 feet (’10) and 469 feet (’08).