Three Cuts: Simmons enjoys career night in Cincinnati

For the first game of their 10-game road trip, the Braves traveled to Cincinnati and notched an impressive 7-4 win over the defending NL Central champs. Here are three observations from the game:

1. Andrelton Simmons reverted back to World Baseball Classic form

Atlanta’s young shortstop was the talk of the international baseball world this offseason following his blistering WBC performance — 19 total bases in 25 at-bats, including two home runs — and many projected him to take a giant leap forward in Year Two (count me among them). But April was not particularly kind to Simmons, at least not at the plate, where he bounced from leadoff to the bottom of the lineup and back as manager Fredi Gonzalez searched for the spot Simmons would be most effective.

In the No. 8 hole Monday night, where he has struggled in small doses this season (.150/.227/.150 in 22 previous plate appearances), he submitted the best game of his young career.

Simmons torched Cincinnati’s pitching, going 3-for-4 with two home runs and four RBI. He hit a solo shot in the second inning to give Atlanta (19-12) a 2-0 lead; he later homered in Dan Uggla to provide a little insurance for what was another uncharacteristically shaky bullpen outing.

Simmons set or tied personal single-game highs for hits, home runs, RBI and total bases.

“I asked (the rest of the lineup) what they saw, and they said he’s throwing a lot of sliders, he’s throwing a lot of slow pitches trying to get ahead,” Simmons said of his first home run, which sailed over the left field wall off Cincinnati starter Bronson Arroyo. “I went up there knowing what he had. Fortunately, he threw one over the plate where I wanted it.”

He later tagged reliever Logan Ondrusek on a fastball thrown, presumably, right where he wanted it, too.

For his efforts, the 23-year-old has already surpassed last year’s home run total (3) in 20 fewer games. Only Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies), Brandon Crawford (Giants) and J.J. Hardy (Orioles) have hit more than four round-trippers among major league shortstops.

And through 29 games played, Simmons remains far better with the glove, perhaps the best in baseball.

Among qualified shortstops entering Monday’s games, only Rangers’ shortstop Elvis Andrus, the former Braves prospect, had a better ultimate zone rating (5.9 to Simmons’ 4.8); however, Simmons was tied for the major league lead with 10 defensive runs saved. No other shortstop had more than seven.

After watching more of his defensive exploits, including a between-the-legs tag to catch a runner attempting to steal second, it’s clear he’s become one of the preeminent must-see young players around. As two-time MVP and former Braves standout Dale Murphy put it, he’s “one of the most athletic and instinctual players you’ll ever see.”

Tagging a runner between your own legs on a bang-bang play? Yeah, instinctual about cuts it.

“I mean, he’s pretty acrobatic. He really is,” Gonzalez said. “I remember somebody asked me during spring training, ‘What is the best play he’s made?’ And I said, ‘The next one.'”

The moral of the story? Simmons is already one of the best all-around shortstops in baseball, and he’s still coming into his own as a hitter. He may not have a definitive role in the lineup — his bat often warrants more opportunities than the 8-hole receives, as we saw against the Reds, but his career on-base percentage in the Nos. 1 and 2 spots is rather underwhelming up to this point — but he’s certainly valuable.

He ranked ninth in wins above replacement (WAR) for shortstops when heading up to Cincinnati.

Expect that to change by Tuesday morning.

2. The ‘Return of the Mac’ was not as memorable as the song, but it was enough to suffice

Brian McCann’s return from shoulder rehab following offseason surgery was not one to write home about, but, from a viewer’s perspective, the six-time All-Star looked ready for the challenge. It’s been a long road back.

McCann kicked off his 2013 season at the plate with a first-inning walk to load the bases (Uggla would later strikeout, eliminating the early chance to grab a commanding lead). But McCann, who hit sixth in the order behind Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis, was unable to make quality contact from there.

He finished the night 0-for-4.

His manager saw no problems with his performance, though.

“If I didn’t know that it was his first game back, he was fine. Old McCann. He had a couple nice hacks on some of the pitches. That was nice to see,” Gonzalez said. “He’ll catch tomorrow and obviously with a 12:30 (p.m.) game on a Wednesday we’ll give him a day off there and then progress that way.”

McCann’s return adds yet another quality bat to a lineup that has proven potent, if not consistent, through the first month of the season. While Gattis and backup Gerald Laird performed well in the veteran’s absence, there’s a clear sense around the organization that McCann’s presence will only help — as opposed to hindering the team by limiting the opportunities of his aforementioned teammates — moving forward.

“Today couldn’t have gone any better,” McCann said.

As a result, Gonzalez gave Gattis his first major league start in left field Monday night. He drove in a run (1-for-4) and committed an error. After the momentous start to his rookie campaign, it’s clear the Braves want to keep his bat somewhere in the lineup, testing him out wherever they can, whenever they can.

But the team has some decisions to make when starting right fielder Jason Heyward comes off the DL, as a roster spot will need to be vacated. As it stands, Atlanta is carrying three catchers, one being of the utility variety (Gattis). These are good problems to have, but still create tough decisions in the short-term for the team’s front office and coaching staff.

There are only so many spots to go around.

3. B.J. Upton may need an extended break from the leadoff spot

The team’s big-time offseason free agent has all the tools to be a No. 1 hitter on a World Series contender, but it just is not clicking. At least not yet.

I’m not willing to count out Upton from getting more opportunities at leadoff after he overcomes his slow start, but a golden sombrero is not a desirable fashion statement at the top.

The Braves’ $75 million center fielder struck out four consecutive times, letting out an audible bit of frustration following the final whiff. He finished 0-for-4 with a walk. He’s now hitting .212/.298/.385 in 58 leadoff plate appearances this season.

While the Braves’ strikeouts have been a bit overblown early on — yes, they even earned Cincinnati fans free pizza for their 15 strikeouts Monday night — it’s dangerous territory to run up one of baseball’s most frequent three-strike victims that early in the order. Upton is now fanning nearly 33 percent of the time this season. Entering the Reds game, only six other players league-wide were worse.

Atlanta is in a well-documented bind in its search for Michael Bourn’s top-of-the-lineup replacement — Simmons, Jordan Schafer and Ramiro Pena have not fared much better — but Upton needs to be better if he’s going to fill that role. He knows that; the Braves know that.

It’s fairly safe to assume Upton will not hit 100 points below his career average the entire season. However, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg-type scenario: should Gonzalez remain patient and let Upton break out of his slump while hitting No. 1 or let him work out his swing at the bottom then move him up?

It’s an interesting predicament.