Johan Camargo’s left-handed swing will help dictate his future role
As a switch-hitter that Chipper Jones calls the most improved player in Atlanta’s system since his return to the organization, Johan Camargo was approximately three times as productive against left-handed pitching during his rookie season. The glove-first utility option hit 90 percent above league average against southpaws with a .403/.434/.694 slash line. He elevated the ball more (36.8 percent fly-ball percentage) and made harder contact from the right side.
The issue, as with any player who exclusively excels against left-handed pitching: The majority of his plate appearances as an everyday player will come against right-handed pitching. Major-league batters faced right-handers in nearly 75 percent of their plate appearances last season. And that’s where Camargo’s swing will need to improve in order to solidify his ascendance from minor-league “slap hitter” to MLB regular.
The 24-year-old’s slugging percentage dropped 345 points from the left side of the plate as a rookie. His average and on-base percentage were also cut nearly in half as he hit more soft grounders with more of a dead-pull swing. He’s advanced from a hitter who, in Chipper’s words, swung “a wet newspaper at the plate” from both sides, but there’s room for improvement. A .254/.287/.349 slash line isn’t scaring anyone.
Camargo’s two extra-base hits this spring are noteworthy for this very reason. On Feb. 27, he homered off right-hander Brett McKinney, a non-prospect in the Pirates system who pitched a Triple-A last year. Then, before Acuña Jr.’s swing broke the sound barrier, Camargo laced a double down the line against Masahiro Tanaka, a righty who has posted a 3.75 FIP in 668 career MLB innings. Tanaka was not sharp in his spring opener, but he’s a bona fide MLB starter … and Camargo passed the test.
For a player who tallied 13 extra-base hits in 169 at-bats as a rookie, it’s a start.
What happens if Luiz Gohara is not ready for Opening Day?
Luiz Gohara is inching closer to his 2018 Grapefruit League debut. After dealing with groin soreness early in camp, the 6-foot-3 left-hander is poised to throw live batting practice next week — the next step toward pitching a live game and re-joining the rotation battle. The 21-year-old is still the favorite to log the majority of innings as the “fifth starter” for Atlanta, but his behind-schedule spring leaves the door open for a Mike Foltynewicz circa 2016 timeline.
(It’s worth mentioning that Tom Verducci flagged Gohara as one of the young arms monitoring for injury risk this season, citing his 88 percent spike in innings pitched. General manager Alex Anthopoulos noticed the jump with Gohara, as well as the innings compiled by Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard, saying, “It’s not just black and white, this total innings bump. Where is he in terms of workload, arm action, stress innings?” Gohara’s workload increase should slow dramatically in 2018. A delayed start could be the means to reach that end.)
So what happens if Gohara is not in the Opening Day rotation, as even manager Brian Snitker hinted at back at baseball's Winter Meetings?
Two obvious solutions stand out for Atlanta. For starters, three off days break up the Braves’ first five series of the campaign, potentially buying time for Gohara to return in early April as the Braves utilize a four-man rotation that receives typical rest (and sometimes more). This would seem unlikely unless the Braves skipped Gohara’s turn just once through the rotation. If he needs more time, it seems more logical to fall back on one of the other arms in the system, whether it be veteran Scott Kazmir or a young arm like Max Fried, Matt Wisler or Aaron Blair.
Considering the team is paying Kazmir $17.6 million regardless in 2018, it might make the most sense to extract as much value as possible out of the left-handed former All-Star. This isn't the time-honored "Let Cheap Veteran Try To Establish Midseason Trade Value" route thanks to that contract; instead it's akin to getting something out of a player who simply balanced the financials in the Matt Kemp deal. Kazmir entered camp in good health and he’s made two starts this spring without giving up a run, though he hasn’t necessarily looked sharp (two hits and three walks in three innings).
A healthy Kazmir might be the favorite at this point.
Braves starting pitchers cruising early
Setting aside Gohara’s groin issue, it’s been an encouraging start to the Grapefruit League slate for Atlanta’s rotation options. Kazmir and fellow veteran Brandon McCarthy are healthy, Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran looked strong in their debuts and even Wisler, who made mechanical adjustments to help “get on top” of pitches like his slider this offseason, has pitched well.
In total, Atlanta starters have allowed just three total runs in 24 innings pitched this spring training. The rotation’s 0.75 ERA sits directly in front of the defending world champion Houston Astros for the top mark among all teams. And while it is spring training and hitters are behind pitchers during this ramped-up schedule, it’s a positive development for a franchise looking for production to start catching up to ceiling.
The only starter who has allowed a run is young left-hander Sean Newcomb, and even he enjoyed some glimpses of success by walking just one batter through three innings and sitting tied for team lead with four strikeouts. His numbers are upended by two home runs allowed.