The first games of Grapefruit League play are in the books, and with them a quintet of things to ponder as the Braves inch that much closer to Opening Day.
It’s way too early to draw any conclusions about whether Dan Uggla is going to bounce back after a season in which he had the lowest qualifying batting average in the majors at .179. But the early results are cause for some optimism, especially when you consider the second baseman’s penchant for slow-starting springs.
A career .234 hitter in the preseason, just once in the last five did Uggla hit better than .206 — that was .277 in ’12, and it wasn’t exactly a precursor to a strong year as he had a .220/.348/.384 line in the games that mattered — but the positives here lie beyond his slash line of .429/.545/.429 after a week.
He’s generating walks (three in four games) and is cutting down on his strikeouts (two) and has four RBI. Uggla said he’s not going to try and hit home runs, instead focusing on being a more complete hitter, like when he was a Marlin and averaging 34 doubles with 30.8 home runs (those two-baggers had dropped to 20.3 per year with the Braves). The extra-base hits have yet to come in the Grapefruit League, but that Uggla is sticking with his gameplan thus far is as good a sign as anyone could have hoped for.
Still wearing the helmet with the attachment that covers the lower right side of his face, it’s paramount for Jason Heyward this spring that he shows his comfort against lefties.
It’s something he didn’t get a many opportunities to do when he returned Sept. 20 from a fractured jaw — one suffered by a 90-mph fastball from Mets lefty Jonathan Niese on Aug. 21 — going 3-for-14 with a home run, two doubles, two RBI and a walk. That included going 0-for in six at-bats against the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and three vs. the Phillies’ Cliff Lee.
He delivered a towering homer off a 2-2 fastball from the Tigers’ Duane Below, a game-tying solo shot in the third inning of Thursday’s 5-2 loss. He followed that by delivering a single off Brett Oberholtzer on Sunday.
Below isn’t exactly elite with a 4.27 ERA in 43 games over the past three seasons, but early and productive at-bats like that against lefties will go a long way to silencing any concerns about any lasting impact of the injury against Niese.
Freddy Garcia got off to a strong start, with the 37-year-old tossing two scoreless innings to open the exhibition season against the Tigers, while Alex Wood did the same, surrendering three hits and two strikeouts Sunday in a split-squad game and David Hale worked two innings with three K’s vs. the Astros.
It’s a stalemate, really, at this point, and while you’d expect one of these guys to step forward, the longer it stays like this the longer manager Fredi Gonzalez, general manager Frank Wren and the the Atlanta brain trust are going to have to come forward with a concrete plan for Wood.
Stellar in his 11 starts with a 3.54 ERA and 2.45 strikeout/walk ratio, he was even better out of the bullpen (2.08 ERA with 23 K’s to five walks), the talk is he’s looking at a 170-innings limit this season. But the question is, will he start out in the rotation or in the bullpen?
He would seem to be the favorite to claim that fifth spot, but delaying his joining the staff could allow the Braves to limit his innings and use him more as the season wears on. But unfortunately we’re no close to knowing what’s going to happen after one week — not that anyone expected one start to offer any clarity.
He started against Detroit in the second game and batted in the first inning, but Gerald Laird then left with a lower back strain, an injury that will keep the 34-year-old out for at least a few more days.
It’s, ultimately, a minor concern, though it does loom large from the end that we don’t know how Evan Gattis is going to handle being the primary catcher.
With the expectations that Gattis will start 105 games and Laird will see 50ish — a collection that is certain to see him with young pitchers Julio Teheran and Wood (should he open in the rotation) — it’s an important role. It only grows in importance considering utility man Ryan Doumit is likely to be the only player on the 25-man roster with major league catching experience, though per Fredi Gonzalez, Joey Terdoslavich will see some time behind the plate soon as an emergency option.
If Laird comes back with no issues, it’s a moot point, but it’s more than likely that the Braves will be playing it safe with the veteran — which should, as a byproduct, give us that much closer of a look Christian Bethancourt.
When Freddie Freeman inked his franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract, it made a casualty of fellow first baseman Ernesto Mejia.
For all intents and purposes, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Venezuelan — who, yes, bares a striking physical resemblance to Albert Pujols — isn’t gong to fit into the Braves’ plans barring an injury of surprise call-up as Freeman’s backup/bat off the bench/designated hitter for American League parks.
Likewise, second baseman Tommy La Stella has a roadblock of his own in the form of Uggla — with two years and $26 million left on his contract — and with bench pieces like Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena in front of him, it may be hard for the 25-year-old to break into the roster before rosters are expanded.
All that being said, Mejia and Stella are looking impressive so far, with La Stella hitting .467/.500/.600 with two doubles, a walk and an RBI in 14 at-bats, while Mejia is a .417/.417/.583 and has two double and an RBI in 12 at-bats.