Week of highs and lows for the rotation; more Braves thoughts
MAR 16, 2014 5:35p ET
Simply calling the past eight days for the Braves "eventful" may be an assault on the word.
Possible Tommy John surgeries that dealt serious blows to the rotation; a major free-agent signing that helped to somewhat alleviate those concerns; a surprise revelation that Evan Gattis had a bone chip removed from his knee; finger injuries to Freddie Freeman (left thumb contusion) and Ryan Domit (right middle finger contusion) -- oh, and PlayStation 4s were gifted.
It all left us with plenty to ponder as another week in the Grapefruit League comes to a close. Here are five things worth focusing on.
1. This won't be the rotation anyone pictured the Braves opening the season with
Monday, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are delivering the three scariest words in sports -- Dr. James Andrews -- as the pitchers will see the renowned surgeon to see if they'll need to undergo Tommy John surgery for a second time.
To recap: Medlen left last Sunday's game vs. the Mets with what was initially diagnosed as a right forearm strain. But an MRI showed "some involvement in the ligament," per general manager Frank Wren and Wednesday, Medlen told reporters he's "mentally preparing himself" for a follow up to his ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction in 2010.
Beachy, who last year came back from Tommy John only to be shutdown after five starts, and underwent a cleanup surgery in August, left his Monday start with tightness around his right elbow and biceps. an MRI and stress X-ray showed some damage around the UCL in his elbow.
Amid the uncertainty, the Braves made the necessary step of inking free-agent Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million deal -- a pursuit they actually started before Beachy's exit -- though he won't be able to join the rotation until the middle of April.
Coupled with Mike Minor out until the second or third week of the season -- he has dealt with shoulder discomfort while trying to make up for a month of inactivity after a urinary tract procedure -- and Gavin Floyd not available until May (after Tommy John surgery) it leaves Atlanta opening the year with a four-man rotation of Julio Teheran, Freddy Garcia, Alex Wood and David Hale. Wren told FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal that there are no plans to add another starter to the mix.
Teheran, with his 2.81 ERA, 158 strikeouts and 38 walks from April 23 on, and Wood (8.9 strikeouts per nine innings) are rising stars, but the pressure is going to be on the back end with 37-year-old Garcia and Hale, who has two career starts.
The good news for the Braves is that -- should the likely occur and Medlen and Beachy are out for the season, if not an extended period of time -- reinforcements are coming in the form of Minor, Santana and Floyd. But can that unlikely foursome do its part to keep the defending National League East champs from getting off to a slow start?
Atlanta scored three runs or less 78 times last season, which was 15th in the majors, but it was the second-most of any playoff team (only the Dodgers had more with 80) and they lost 53 of those games. Think those franchise-record 1,384 strikeouts didn't matter? The Braves also had 61 games of three runs or less and seven or more K's (seventh-most) and dropped 45 of them.
It was the pitching staff that provided so much stability with an NL-best 102 quality starts and if the offense picks up where it left off last season, it's going to need a similar output again -- likely sans Medlen and Beachy.
2. The Braves are raking
If it relieves any concerns about that Opening Day staff, Atlanta ended the week hitting a collective .269/.330/.387. That average is third-highest among all NL teams.
Freeman is living up to the largest and longest contract in franchise history (eight years, $135 million) at .343/.425/.486 with five RBI in 34 at-bats, Jason Heyward is hot (.350/.409/.600 with a team-high three home runs) and Chris Johnson is at .293/.310/.415.
The strikeouts are still there with 153, which trails only the Diamondbacks' 170 and B.J. Upton (33.9 percent K rate in 2013) and Dan Uggla (31.8) lead the way with 14 and 13 strikeouts each, but each are off to a solid starts overall, hitting .297 (Upton) and .226 (Uggla).
It may not be worth getting too worked up one way or the other -- the pessimists can find Gattis hitting .189 with 10 K's and Justin Upton at .143 with one extra-base hit -- but the Braves to have plenty of big names, and two in bad need of rebounds, that look to be trending in the right direction with the regular season quickly approaching.
3. The bullpen is taking shape
With a four-man rotation to start, Fredi Gonzalez told reporters Saturday that he'll be carrying eight in the bullpen, battles which should provide the biggest drama for the remainder of camp.
Five of the positions are virtual locks with Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro and Jordan Walden, with a number of options from both sides (righties Cory Gearrin, Juan Jaime, Luis Vasquez and Gus Schlosser; and lefties Ryan Buchter, Atahualpa Serevino and Ian Thomas).
A couple of names that seemed like options heading into the spring are out of the mix for now in Wirfin Obispo, who has already been optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett while J.R. Graham was re-assigned to minor league camp.
Heavy on righties -- Avilan is the only left-hander from the previously mentioned five guaranteed players -- Buchter (nine strikeouts in seven innings so far) and Thomas (11 K's in 6 1/3) would seem like the best bets if Gonzalez opts to load up on lefties. But Walden's effectiveness vs. lefties (.188 average compared to .247 vs. righties) creates some flexibility. Of the righties, Gearrin has the most major-league experience (31 innings over 37 games last year), but Schlosser (1.93 ERA and .176 average against in 9 1/3) and Jaime (1.80 ERA and four strikeouts in five innings) have been effective, while side-armer Vasquez had a bad debut (four unearned runs in 2/3 of an inning vs. the Mets) but has allowed one hit in 2 2/3 overall.
It's subject to change, but if we're handicapping this race, Buchter would seem a strong bet for one spot, with Gearrin or Schlosser taking the other.
4. Is Gattis' knee surgery a concern going forward?
The consensus was that Gattis, in his first year as the primary catcher with Brian McCann joining the Yankees, would get around 110 starts, with Gerald Laird getting the bulk of the other 50-ish games and Doumit filling in as needed. But so far this spring, Gattis has yet to start behind the plate in consecutive games, which Friday, it was revealed, is partly due to not wanting to put too much on his right knee after a procedure to remove a bone chip.
"The doctor did a really good job," Gattis told the 'Atlanta Journal-Constitution.' "I came back good. But I had a fragment floating around for, like, the last seven years. So I had that cleaned out, just smoothed it out."
Remember, in his nine years as a Brave, McCann never had a RPP (Passed Pitch Runs) of less than 2.1 and Gattis was at minus-0.9 with 17 wild pitches last year. As Rosenthal points out, the defense has been a concern of scouts watching Gattis, and any physical limitations are only going to amplify things.
Gonzalez said Gattis could get time at first base and in left field or could be used in a pinch-hit role to give him time off to prevent putting too much stress on the knee. But given his value at the plate (21 home runs and 81 RBI) and the void that McCann's departure creates at catcher and in the power department, it's a situation worth monitoring.
5. Heyward is a giver
When the Braves returned to the clubhouse after Friday's practice, they found a surprise in their lockers, courtesy of Heyward.
The outfielder left PlayStation 4s, each with a note that read "Congratulations on winning the 2013 NL East title. Thanks for all your hard work and dedication, Jason Heyward."
At $400 each, it's a pricey gift, even for a player who last month received a two-year extension for $13.3 million.